Tanisha Douglas and Caitlin Gibb met while working at an alternative-to-incarceration program for youth in Brooklyn called the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA). Both women are creatives (Tanisha’s a dancer and jewelry-maker, with training in the Sadie Nash sisterhood model, Caitlin a yoga instructor and theater buff) and had a strong desire to empower at-risk young women. They’d both loved working with the CCA community: young people who’d been arrested, and had been identified by youth advocacy professionals as good candidates for this alternative to detention.
There are many fewer girls than boys at the CCA, though, and Tanisha and Caitlin felt that the girls needed more specialized attention than they were getting. “We noticed the needs of the young women being different,” says Caitlin. “They really craved a space of their own.”
An ongoing discussion unfurled between Tanisha and Caitlin; they talked a lot about how they might best bridge this gap they saw in social services. Fast forward to 2014, when Tanisha and Caitlin were awarded an artists residency with Space on Ryder Farm, for creatives working toward social justice. In the four days they spent on that farm, S.O.U.L. Sisters (Sister Organizing for Understanding and Leadership) was born. The organization would adopt a 4-year model, they decided, with each class of fourteen “sisters” (7 in the NYC area, and 7 in Miami) coming in for training their first two years, and then serving as “peer leaders” in their last two.
Band of Sisters: The first cohort
They decided, also, that the inaugural class of sisters would be a little different from the (hopefully) many to follow. This first cohort would serve as the organization’s Youth Leaders Board, and be selected by application; these would be girls who were already active in social justice work. They would, essentially, inform and shape the young organization at every stage of development in its first year. To seek out candidates for all following classes, S.O.U.L Sisters would work with local schools to identify young women of color who came from low-income backgrounds and had been having trouble showing up for school (or struggling with truancy, in justice-system speak): two strong predictors of future involvement in the justice system.
S.O.U.L. Sisters would be a leadership model that would aim to interrupt cycles of poverty and violence by empowering young, at-risk women of color, and it would be founded on four pillars: social justice, healing, leadership, and the arts. And that last is not least! “We really want the arts to be infused in everything that we’re doing,” says Caitlin. “We know that the arts are a really powerful way of engaging with people. It facilitates expression and healing, and really gets out of the intellectual body and can also resonate for people in their emotional body.”
Well, S.O.U.L. Sisters isn’t even a year old yet – it’s only a couple of months since the Youth Leaders Board members answered such questions as “why do you think we’ve never had a female president?” during their application interviews – but we get the impression that about a decade’s worth of bonding has already taken place, leaving these founding sisters gelled for life. “Our plan was to meet with them monthly,” says Caitlin, “but we meet much more frequently, because they’re very excited. They’ve created the logo. We’re going on a retreat in July. During that time they’ll be doing a bunch of leadership development activities and planning how they want the structure to look for Soul Sisters. It was really important to us that the tenets that Soul Sisters is built on was informed by the young women who will be involved, so that it’s really relevant, and so that they really have ownership over it.”
What makes a S.O.U.L. Sister?
Here’s how Caitlin puts it: “The young women in this first class are aware of issues of oppression and racism and sexism in their personal lives and in society at large, and they’re active around that. And they want to be involved in something where they feel like they’re working to undo harm. And they’re willing to experience difficult emotions and engage in the process of healing. They’re really inspired to uplift their communities. They all identify as leaders. They all have different stories, and they’ve all certainly had struggles. They’re very powerful young women.”
True listening, true sisterhood
We called up one of the “founding sisters,” Miami-based Logan Meza, to ask what S.O.U.L. Sisters has meant, and were blown away by how committed, articulate, eloquent, and empowered Meza is on issues around race, gender, and social justice.
“When I was a junior in high school,” said Meza, “my mom passed of breast cancer. The relationship that I was in was abusive, and I was dealing with depression, so there were a lot of bad things happening in my life all at once. And I had two options, basically: either do something in honor of my mom, or go down a really bad road. So I decided to do something in honor of my mom. That’s how I got started in activism.” Meza’s since been invited to speak on healthcare with a panel at the University of Miami, and even spoken (televised!) before commissioners on transgender issues.
When Meza thinks about becoming a part of S.O.U.L. Sisters, the memory that comes to mind first is of a simple car ride, a simple sharing of ideas. It was during a retreat they’d taken to a conference titled “Black Girls Matter.” Meza and the other Miami sisters had just gone to see two of their own perform as part of the Freedom Riders Poetry Group. “They were amazing,” says Meza. “And in the van going back to where we were staying, we ended up getting into cultural appropriation, we were getting into racism. We were going in depth into society’s standards. A lot of the time when people talk about those issues, they get really heated, and there’s a lot of clashing. But everyone was extremely receptive. I thought: wow, I really made a good decision signing up to be a part of S.O.U.L. Sisters. It was people educating people, being receptive, asking questions.”
We’ll tip our hats to any organization that promotes that kind of open conversation, and we’re proud to have served as their crowdfunding platform. We watched them not only meet but exceed their goal, last month, of $10,000 for future retreats, stipends for board members, snacks and supplies, and honoraria for the volunteer teaching artists who’ll be coming in to visit with these awesome sisters. Click here to check out a fantastic short introduction to the organization, and keep an eye out for these young ladies. They’re going to be shaking things up.
If this grassroots effort inspires you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Scared about the bee die-off? You don’t have to just sit there and take it. Learn how to create a pollinator sanctuary.