As Kristan Justice sees it, young women of color bear the brunt of struggles that come with adolescence. As an African-American teen growing up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood, Ms. Justice was battling an identity crisis. “I barely learned about who I was in school, but I happen to come from a generation of graduates from historically black colleges, so I ultimately chose to attend an HBCU that gave me the direction I needed to find myself and learn my history.”
Realizing the specific and significant role HBCU pageants played in her personal and academic development, Ms. Justice decided to use her teaching career to support the Bronx Prep High girls she saw grappling with unhealthy relationships and low self-esteem. “The issue might stem from most women of color missing out on the cultural pass down or guidance on how we should view ourselves. So one of my pageant platforms was to get rid of the negative stereotypes that weigh on black and brown girls, that cause them to underestimate their potential. I strongly believe that how we view ourselves determines whether we break out of a cycle of disenfranchisement.”
Ms. Justice runs the Womanhood group with her Bronx Prep co-teacher, Starr Levy, and in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education Office of Safety and Youth Development. Both Ms. Justice and Ms. Levy sit on the board of the office’s Rose Conference, which organizes talks and mentorship programs to build camaraderie between at-risk young women across the city. Through this program, students had the opportunity to see Ms. Justice perform rallying spoken word poetry, and participate in a Q & A session with playwrights like Dorothy Marcic (creator of the off-Broadway musical “Sistas”).
“We’ve seen so many young girls grow through experiences like these – when we have dinner as a group, the discussions get very raw and very real. Girls who once were uncomfortable being vulnerable around other girls now know they have a group of fellow queens they can lean on,” Ms. Justice added.
Her plans for the Womanhood sorority include forums led with Columbia University, a prom dress collection drive, and more opportunities to dine with one another through Sisterhood Tea Parties. “We’re countering what the Bronx has historically offered our young people, and we see the results. Girls are exhibiting feminism with wisdom, being released from the undue pressures of high school, and building a better understanding of self-love.”