For over a decade, I have been privileged to be in community with youth and adult members of a unique and transformative organization called The Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP). I served as a board member, adviser (when called upon), supporter, cheerleader, booster, funder, and just an unabashed fan.
Yesterday evening, I gathered with dozens of YWEP members and supporters to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments and contributions. We were also together to mark an end to YWEP as an organization. The work of YWEP will obviously live on in new and different ways but the organization will soon officially close its doors. There are myriad reasons for YWEP’s decision to end its operations. Someday in the future, I’ll have some comments about these.
I was interviewed yesterday and asked to reflect on the organization’s history and work. It gave me a chance to discuss the ways that I’ve been influenced by YWEP as a youth worker and person. Quite simply, YWEP taught me about love, humanity, and struggle.
The young people who joined YWEP over the years are among the most marginalized youth in Chicago. There are black & brown girls (for the most part), trans* youth, poor kids, youth who trade sex for money and survival needs, people in the street economy, and substance using & sometimes abusing teenagers. And here’s the thing: at YWEP none of these identities or behaviors are defining. YWEP youth are treated simply as HUMAN and they are offered unconditional love and support.
They are considered leaders and experts in their own lives. I saw first hand how previously insecure young people slowly gained confidence and voice. I marveled at the metamorphosis of youth (who were previously seen as talentless) into brilliant artists (poets, visual artists, musicians). No one is disposable at YWEP. Every single one of us is “priceless.”
It is primarily through YWEP’s work that I learned the importance of centering healing in youth organizing. I learned from watching them how to put Audre Lorde’s words (not just the pithily cited ones) into PRACTICE.
YWEP is the embodiment of radical love and self-determination. Those two things made the organization a threat and a constant target of those who cannot abide people of color and the marginalized loving ourselves and each other, especially in public. I remember the consistent death threats and the persistent danger in doing the work. Yet those who moved the work forward have kept their integrity, compassion, and most importantly humor throughout.
Years ago, I read an essay by June Jordan titled “Where is the love?” It was transformative for me.
And it is here — in the extreme coincidence of my status as someone twice stigmatized, my status as someone twice kin to the despised majority — it is here, in this extremity, that I stand in a struggle against demoralization and suicide and toward self-love and self-determination. And it is here, in this extremity, that as a Black feminist I ask myself and anyone who would call me sister, Where is the love?
And it seems to me that the strength that should come from Black feminism means that I can, without fear, love and respect all men who are willing and able, without fear, to love and respect me… this means that as a Black feminist I cannot be expected to respect what somebody else calls self-love if that concept of self-love requires my self-destruction.
I can say that the love for YWEP was manifest at last night’s celebration and so too was YWEP’s love for all of us. It IS truly radical as oppressed people to love ourselves in spite of all of the ways that this is precluded. YWEP is a space where our humanity was consistently affirmed and where we were reminded of where love resides (in ourselves and between each other). It made it possible for so many of us to stay in the struggle. I am forever grateful.
Today is the last day to make a donation to support YWEP as it moves to close its doors. I hope that you’ll consider making a contribution as a way to say thank you to the amazing people who have been involved in YWEP’s work over all of these years.