“The barriers of culture from city to city or state to…world, would be completely different for everyone. If you were to ask one of my friends what their culture is, they would give you a long list of culture in their family. If you were to ask a child (depending on where they are) they would tell you something different as well. Everyone is different, so am I. So what is your culture?”
The above words are excerpted from This Is Ours: Martin Girls Academy. As participants in the This Is Ours Book Series, 20 girls from the Martin Girls Academy in Stuart, FL, poured their unique identities into the creation of a book representing their environment, entertainment, obstacles, grace and culture. The project showcases the girls’ stories through their lens, and is a beautifully powerful collection of their life experiences and the ways in which they have shaped them. On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the culture and identities of these girls, and girls and women across the world.
The Martin Girls Academy is a high-security juvenile corrections facility. In the book, the girls share intimate glimpses into the lives they lived before being locked behind razor wire. Their words underscore the shared experiences they hold and the one-of-a-kind cultures that are woven throughout their narratives. Throughout the pages, girls speak of the Haitian culture heralded by their grandparents, their Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations and their feelings of the lasting African American cultural imprint left by Martin Luther King Jr.
The This Is Ours program facilitates global connection by engaging girls in collaborative storytelling. Each book is written by girls for girls, and is shared around the world to celebrate the cultures and realities that tie them together. Currently, stories are being exchanged from North America to as far as South America and Africa.
The unique culture of Martin Girls Academy not only demonstrates the perspectives of incarcerated girls, but the common life experiences they share. In Breaking New Ground on the First Coast, we examine girls’ pathways into the juvenile justice system and learned that 91% of incarcerated girls reported substance abuse, 53% had lost a friend or primary caregiver in the last 12 months, 28% were involved in the foster care system and 25% considered themselves homeless. Half of the girls had also been locked up for a non-law technical violation of probation, including 44% who had run away from home.
What do these girls’ stories tell us about the culture of juvenile incarceration? By sharing the relational and social challenges they have overcome, the girls of Martin Girls Academy show hope for the future. Despite system failures, they are resilient and positive. Girls have goals they want to achieve and plans for how they are going to reach them. Girls dream big in the face of adversity. Girls are compassionate and full of grace. Girls are strong, and they want to change the world.
“There’s beauty and pain everywhere you go. There’s so many unheard stories where I’m from, but I’m going to change that.”
Girls are the experts of their own lives, and by guiding our actions through the words of girls, we can utilize their narratives to advance their rights. When we lean in and listen, we gain remarkable pieces of wisdom to place at the forefront of our work:
“It takes one light bulb to light up a dark room, and if I don’t believe in change, change won’t believe in me.”
“Just because you come from different places doesn’t mean you’re different.”
“In this world everybody that’s living has a life to live and a story behind it. It’s your choice of how you want to live. One day you’re here, and one day you’re gone. And when people seek, they shall find.”
“Our compassion, love, and the piece that can shine through our eyes when we feel these things, that’s what gives us grace.”
The theme for International Women’s Day 2018 is Press for Progress. Despite being behind razor wire, the girls of Martin Girls Academy are pressing forward for the future. This Is Ours: Martin Girls Academy features their original artwork and ideas and honors their lived experiences and hopes for change. See the strength and power of their words. We invite you to See the Girl. Click here.