Last month, 23 teen girls graduated from the Sister Circles program, marking the transformation of a program as we expand our model through the Concentric model. Transitions offer us opportunities for reflection, as we take time to consider again why we have focused our programming on teen girls in New American communities. Our community came up with a long list of reasons that leadership development opportunities for New American teen girls are necessary, all settling into three main areas of focus: identity formation, opportunity, and capacity-building.
Identity formation is not an experience unique to New American youth - teens of all backgrounds go through the difficult process of finding their identity, particularly in relation to their peers and to their families. However, New American teenagers face additional challenges in defining their identities as they navigate multiple cultures simultaneously. In workshops at Treetops we have heard teens share their discomfort with the ways their American classmates talk back to their teachers, or concerns their parents express about them forming close friendships with American students who have different cultural values. This struggle resonates with all of us who have experienced encountering a new culture - we start to question things that we took for granted as normal and the strengths and weaknesses of the different cultures become more apparent in contrast. For New American teens, school and home can become isolating places where it feels like no one understands the complexities of the world they are navigating. While teenagers from all different backgrounds are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, New American teens must navigate additional challenges on this journey and deserve to have empathetic and knowledgeable support as they ask these crucial questions.
According to the UNHCR, 54% of the females resettled as refugees in the U.S. since 2019 were under the age of 18. Treetops Collective exists to build cross-cultural communities of belonging, and clearly the high proportion of youth among immigrant and resettled populations has to be taken into account as we consider what is needed to ensure our newest neighbors find belonging.
Teenagers in New American families - especially teen girls - often hold quite a bit more responsibility in their family than their peers. They may watch their American friends live lives quite different from their own, going to shopping malls or joining sports teams after school when they need to get home to care for younger siblings and help out with cooking and cleaning while their parents work second or third shift jobs to provide for their families. Many teen girls who have immigrated to the U.S. have to grow up much more quickly than their American peers, and often carry with them trauma stemming from the pain of displacement and disconnection from the places and people they have called home. If their families are continuing to live on the economic and social margins after moving to the U.S., New American teens may not have opportunities to be in spaces that validate their youth and invite them to dream about their futures without overlooking the many challenges they navigate. New American teens need opportunities to lay down the burden of the responsibilities they hold for themselves and their families, and deserve to have places where they can simply be teenagers, free to explore who they are becoming.
New American teens also deserve opportunities that invite them into self-investment. Teen girls in particular may have very narrow ideas of their future, which can be grounded in cultural traditions or simply a lack of knowledge about how to achieve their goals in the U.S. When given space to explore and imagine their lives with abundant hopefulness, paired with concrete steps forward, we have seen teen’s self-confidence blossom. New American teen girls are the future leaders, employees, mothers, and women of our communities. We know that investing in them today matters for the present as well as the future. Teen girls that see themselves as the leads in their own stories, as young women who are capable and strong and creative, inspire confidence in their peers and change narratives about who immigrants and refugees are.
The logical next question for Treetops is, if these are the needs that exist in our communities, what should we be doing to respond?
In January 2021, Treetops Collective launched the Concentric leadership multiplier program to celebrate the expertise of New American leaders and expand our model of partnership and capacity building to more women in West Michigan. We see the Concentric program model as a way to address the complex issues New American teen girls face and cultivating cross-cultural connections, while building the capacity of young women leaders.
Our plan is to launch the Teen Concentric Program this summer. In many ways this program will function like the women’s program, but with four Concentric young adult leaders who will each lead cohorts of 7-10 teen girls. Concentric leaders will start their training in August and begin leading their cohorts in October of each year, meeting weekly with cohort members and hosting two cohort-specific workshops along with three cross-cultural gatherings amongst other cohorts over the course of nine months.
We intentionally designed this program to operate on a smaller scale than the women’s program in recognition of the specific opportunities we see in working with New American teen girls. Young adult New American leaders can draw on their cross-cultural experiences as they walk with the members of their cohorts and speak directly to the experience of forming a multicultural identity that both honors their family’s values and recognizes the new environment in which they now live. Cohort workshops are places in which teen girls learn tools to navigate U.S. systems and also develop greater confidence in speaking up, all through a special time dedicated just to them and highlighting their interests and voices. Through the social enterprise internship program, girls are exposed to creative work as a potential career path and take first steps to employment that aligns with their interests and skills. Through a cross-cultural partnership, New American teens develop friendships with local women who can help them meet goals and explore their city.
You can join us today by investing in young New American leaders by helping us launch the Teen Concentric Program this summer. Our goal is to raise $30,000 to cover the start-up costs of the program by June 4. Visit our crowdfunding page to see what your gifts can do, and please give what you can! Once you’ve made your contribution, don’t forget to share this opportunity with your networks so this program can truly be community-funded.