Seventy-Six Percent by Meghan Morgan

If you live in Chicago it’s impossible not to be aware of the escalating violence plaguing our city. We’ve become used to hearing it on the evening news, with Monday morning reports stating the number of shootings that occurred over the weekend. We listen with sadness, sympathizing with the families and victims dealing with the fallout.

But for many of us, that’s where it ends. People we know personally aren’t being touched by violence. The young kids caught in the crossfire aren’t our children and the teenagers caught up in this world aren’t our family. So we go on with our day, perhaps lamenting to co-workers about the sad state of our beloved city.

So for me, it was a bit of a wake-up call when I was reviewing some evaluation results from our teen programs last year and saw a statistic that 76 percent of our teen participants reported having personally experienced violence. That means that either they, or somebody close to them has been attacked or seriously hurt in the past, or they personally have witnessed a violent attack. Seventy-six percent. That really hit home.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I know the data. I know that most of the girls in our programs come from communities facing steep challenges-high poverty rates and high rates of crime. One of the things we’re really proud of at Girls in the Game is that we inspire girls to see themselves as advocates for change in their own communities. We try to empower them to become leaders who can make a difference. They’re part of the solution, not the problem. So I’m still not sure why this particular statistic affected me so much.

Maybe it’s because it’s hard for me to reconcile this statistic with what I see in the teens. Sure, they’re teenagers, so they’re always on their phones and they don’t always take everything seriously. But they’re happy and confident and they smile often. They’re individuals, each with their own dreams and plans and interests, and they don’t fit neatly into any one box.

You wouldn’t look at them and think of them as victims. Nor should you. They are so much more than that. Sure, these girls come from tougher situations than most people but they don’t let that define them.

Those same evaluation results also showed some really great numbers. After involvement in our teen programs, 82 percent of the participants had a higher self-worth and 71 percent demonstrated a lower support for using aggression.

These numbers remind me that what we’re doing is working and these statistics fit more with the teens I see in our programs. The teens who are excited about their futures, who are learning to speak up, and who see themselves as role models for others. These teens don’t let their circumstances define them and they won’t let us do that either.

I’m not going to let the 76 percent number influence the way I think about our teens, but I will let it affect the way I think about our programs. It’s a good reminder to me, and to all of us, that Girls in the Game matters to these teens. That we provide the safe space teens need to discover their voices and their strength and to see themselves as leaders. This way, they’ll be ready to lead their communities in a different direction and we’ll all be there watching.

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