By Azra Halilovic
On November 12, the Jane Addams College of Social Work and the Center for Social Policy and Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) collaborated with Traffick Free, the Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO), the Girls Like Me Project, and Acclivus to host a dialogue with local advocates on high-risk young women in Chicago. The discussion, “Fostering Community-Based Opportunities for High Risk Young Women in Chicago,” gathered local advocates and service providers to explore the factors that put young women at risk and what community-based venues exist or need further development to divert them from potential or ongoing involvement with the criminal justice system.
Traffick Free Executive Director Laura Ng moderated the discussion, the goal of which was two-fold: to identify gaps in services as well as best practices, and what social and policy changes needed to be implemented to optimize high-risk young women’s safety, health, and productivity in their communities.
Following opening remarks from the Creasie Finney Hairston, the college’s dean, UIC professor of social work Dr. Patricia O’Brien provided a brief lecture on the adverse experiences and systemic barriers that encompass the term “high-risk”: poverty, violence, medical conditions, homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and complex trauma.
The presentation was followed by an animated discussion, during which attendees exchanged stories highlighting successes and obstacles they face with their respective organizations, and the institutional barriers they seek to help young women overcome.
Among the concerns many held was the state’s extensive budget impasse and its direct impact on individuals and families. A common theme was the need to think creatively about how to protect the already-thin layer of social services that are available.
Other barriers that received significant input from attendees included:
- Media representation and socialization of both young and adult females
- Role models (or lack thereof)
- Policy changes that limit programs and services; criminalization of young women’s behavior, particularly of women of color
- Patriarchal institutions
- Sexual education and body image
- Lack of safe spaces
- (Fear of) stigma from family or community members for deviation from cultural norms, such as sexual orientation, or acknowledging trauma, such as sexual exploitation.
- Need to engage more with groups and leadership of all demographics to acquire diverse set of allies
While the first half of the dialogue focused on the barriers, the latter portion honed in on what is working well and how we can expand upon those practices.
Attendees identified the following strategies and models as successful and with potential to optimize opportunities for high-risk young women:
- Restorative justice
- Evidence-based practices
- Relationships with community and religious organizations
- Human and community capital
- Collaboration with each other, whether for overlapping work or meeting specific needs of people in their communities
- Training and mentoring next generation of advocates
As attendees continued to mingle after the dialogue concluded, the room buzzed with remarks of gratitude for gathering the advocates to learn about each others’ work and opening the doors for opportunities to collaborate.
The event served as a prelude to an upcoming spring forum, which will expand upon the themes discussed at the dialogue. For more information on this and other upcoming events at which Traffick Free will take part, sign up for our newsletter or email us at [email protected].
Traffick Free is a faith-motivated organization that seeks to provide the greater metropolitan area of Chicago with tools and sustainable programs to combat human trafficking and transform the lives of victims and communities.