Fewer than 2% of teen mothers earn a college degree before age 30, and more than half of all parenting college students leave school without a degree. At a recent WAVe event, Venable counsel AJ Lynn spoke to Nicole Lynn Lewis, the founder of Generation Hope, an organization committed to changing the prospects of teen parents and student parents "one family and one system at a time." As a board member, vice president, and president of the board of Generation Hope, AJ worked closely with Nicole from 2014 to 2020.
Their conversation covered Nicole's new book, Pregnant Girl, which chronicles her experiences as a young black mother and college student. Nicole also addressed some questions about how she created a thriving nonprofit from the ground up, the essential work Generation Hope is doing for families today, and why we all need to reassess how we think about poverty.
AJ: Why did you choose to write a book about your personal experiences, and what can readers expect to learn?
NICOLE: Pregnant Girl is a story about my life, but it's also a call to action. Although I was a rock star student who had been accepted into many different colleges, I got pregnant in my senior year of high school. So, suddenly, I was faced with this dilemma of how to go to college as a young mother. That was something that I didn't see in my network, or in my community. Girls in that situation often just disappeared. If you did see them, they were often working in retail or food service jobs, but not going to college. So the book is about the challenges I faced putting myself through William & Mary as a teen mother, where every day was an exercise in survival for me and my daughter. It felt important to share the experiences of being one of very few Black students at an incredibly prestigious college and the only student who was raising a child on campus. But the book also looks at the broader issues that factor into teen pregnancy that prevent young parents from achieving the economic mobility they deserve. And it lays out a call to action for people to really think about the role they can play in bringing about necessary change.
AJ: Throughout the book, you make the point that change can't happen unless we challenge our assumptions and understand more fully the why of the status quo, including why people get stuck in poverty. How do you address this issue at Generation Hope?
NICOLE: When we hire people onto our staff at Generation Hope, one of the questions that we ask to really determine whether a candidate is a good fit for our organization is, "Why do you believe people are poor?" We really need our staff to understand the systemic structures that are in place, structures that have been perpetuated and fortified over the years, that continue to keep resources and opportunities out of the hands of so many people, particularly people of color. Ninety percent of our students at Generation Hope are students of color, and so it's essential that anyone working for our organization understand the structural barriers that are in place and can help our students navigate them. They must understand that individual choices are not the only factors at play.
AJ: What do you think fuels the assumptions many of us still have about what makes a person successful, and why do you think it's important to challenge these assumptions?
NICOLE: Political rhetoric really does influence the way that we think about these things. For example, around the time I got pregnant, there was a whole campaign coming from the highest levels of government that teen pregnancy was the biggest threat facing our country, not mass incarceration, not high crime rates, not the drug epidemic. And the ironic thing about that was that teen pregnancy rates had been on the decline since the 1950s and were continuing to decline around the time that I got pregnant. But the general perception was that teen pregnancy rates were skyrocketing — not because of the actual numbers but because of the political rhetoric. And I think what's important for us to realize is that this rhetoric is intended to drive policies that keep resources out of certain communities, particularly communities of color. So we really have to step back and think about the messaging that we're hearing before we make assumptions.
AJ: Besides reassessing assumptions, what can individuals or organizations do to help ensure a fairer allocation of resources?
NICOLE: The reality is that we are all gatekeepers to some extent when it comes to the allocation of resources. And big organizations are made up of individuals who are gatekeepers of resources. Even at Generation Hope, our frontline staff have a level of gatekeeping that they manage every day when trying to connect our students with housing or other supports. So it's important that everybody working within an organization recognize their position of privilege at some level. And although ours is an organization started by a Black woman and committed to helping communities of color, we have a race equity blueprint to hold us accountable and ensure the resources we have access to are distributed fairly. But when you think about companies and organizations that don't have that kind of sensitivity, it's inevitable that exclusionary practices that prevent qualified diverse candidates from being considered for promotions and so on are going to happen. So it's really essential to step back and evaluate the elements of an organization's recruiting or promotional practices that are unintentionally creating barriers, and then dismantle them. But doing so requires a lot of reflection, and probing, and listening to the communities you might be excluding. That's really the only way we can move forward.
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Arrangements for the appearance of Nicole Lynn Lewis were made through RedBrick Agency, New York, NY.