"The girls, a dozen of them 15 to 18 years old, file into a conference room in a downtown Brooklyn office building, taking seats in chairs carefully arranged in a circle. On the floor in front of them is a makeshift altar of comforting objects: A string of Christmas lights, plastic toys and dolls, oils and crystals, a glitter-filled wand.
They arrive at the end of a school day in their usual hoodies and jeans, their smiles and easy banter masking the painful experiences that bring them together: This group is called 'Sisters in Strength,' and its members are survivors of sexual violence, or their allies and supporters.
There’s a high school senior who describes being raped at 14, by a family friend she considered a big brother. She endured years of anger and isolation before seeking help. Writing poems is part of her healing process. Soon after the assault, she scrawled in a notebook: 'Did you not hear my screams? The screams I vocalized at the top of my lungs, burying my voice ten feet under.'
Another young woman, now 18, seeks peace through daily meditation. She too was assaulted by someone she knew, just days after her 18th birthday, but says she never reported it because she feared she wouldn’t be believed. 'Most people will say, ‘What were you wearing or what were you doing? Why were you out so late?’ And all those things,' says this survivor. She found refuge in two trusted teachers, who sent her to 'Sisters in Strength,' run by a nonprofit called Girls for Gender Equity.
'I’m still in my way of healing,' she says, 'and I think it’s better for me to focus on myself and move on.'
The arrest of R&B singer R. Kelly on charges of sexually abusing girls as young as 13 has focused the lens of the #MeToo movement on underage victims like these, especially girls of color. The charges, which Kelly denies, follow a string of sexual misconduct accusations against Hollywood power brokers, media titans and Donald Trump during his run for president. But in those instances, as with the Harvey Weinstein scandal that launched the #MeToo era in October 2017, the accusers have been older, mostly white women.
'What happened with the media explosion of ‘MeToo’ is that it left out (a) population of people,' says Michelle Grier, director of social work at Girls for Gender Equity, where Tarana Burke, who originated the phrase 'me too' with her own work more than a decade ago, is a senior director. Part of the group’s work, says Grier, is to empower girls to recognize: 'Oh, this movement is about ME, too.'”