Interview with Benita Miller: Attorney and Executive Director at The Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective

Interviewed by Cherie

No matter what country you live in, if you are a young mother being pushed out of school, call Benita Miller and you can trust that she will respond. Believing that an education is the only way for an individual to rise out of poverty and thrive, Benita left her career as an attorney and founded The Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective which helps disadvantaged young mothers become educated, find work and develop self-sufficiency.  A single mother herself Benita discusses the pressures of not being taken seriously by others who view motherhood as an “obstacle” and the challenges the young mothers she works with face in a society that views young black motherhood exclusively as a social welfare problem. For Benita, the focus should be on lifting these young women out of poverty so that they can properly take care of themselves and their children, instead of focusing on curbing reproduction and preventing abuse, which is what is currently being done.

Can you describe the work you do at The Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective and how you provide support to young mothers?

I launched BYMC in 2004 to ensure that disadvantaged young mothers have access to school. Our main objective is to positively connect these young women to school so that they are able to thrive in post-secondary education and have work opportunities.

What are some of the challenges facing young, under-privileged mothers today?

The primary challenge is that their motherhood becomes an obsession of the public instead of ensuring that these young women are positively connected to education and work opportunities. We focus solely on preventing secondary births and making sure that children are not neglected. By working in this very narrow way, we miss the chance to help young mothers thrive and build a better future for themselves and their children.

What made you decide to leave your career as an attorney to become the Executive Director at The Brooklyn Young Mother’s Collective?

I didn’t actually set out to leave. I started by providing lunch time workshops about family court to young women attending an education program for pregnant students. I then started to see how this program didn’t go very far in helping these young women excel academically and worked with young women attending the program to push to have it closed. Our next fight is to make sure that high school graduation among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children actually catapults them to a future beyond low-wage work.

How does your training as a lawyer inform and help your work at BYMC?

I am a poverty lawyer – I set out to leverage my legal training to fight poverty. I believe that by drilling down beyond civil rights and talking about poverty we actually approach a human rights frame. My job as a lawyer is to fight laws and policy that keep people poor.

As an African American woman in law, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

I was a single mother when I landed on Syracuse University campus for law school and I’m forever grateful to the many classmates, faculty members, Syracuse residents that took me and my son in with the sole desire to see me “make it.” However, the biggest obstacle I faced was also a blessing – motherhood. It’s true that law is a jealous mistress so my legal training and early legal career had to fit around my important role as mother. Often, my legal peers didn’t always take me seriously because I was young, from Detroit, black and parenting. This has shifted quite a bit over time and frankly some parts of the legal community never appealed to me in the first place.

In an interview with Brooklyn Rail you talked about your childhood where kinship networks were strong and neighbors looked out for one another, helping in whatever ways they could. Do you feel that this is no longer a reality today?  Why not?

From my own childhood and experience as a mother I think that for middle class women these networks are more visible. These networks still exist among poor communities but the dominant culture tries to dismantle the network not only through child welfare intervention, but also by promoting a culture of distrust among poor women. I make sure to emphasize to my staff and the young women that I serve that their families and community add value to our human experience. By doing this we resist the way these families have been marginalized.

How were you able to fund BYMC? How does the recession affect your fundraising efforts?

I write grants and the staff does some smaller scale fundraising. I’m from Detroit, the daughter of a factory worker, so I always plan for bad times! As a result, BYMC has actually been able to weather the recession. We didn’t grow our staff capacity, but we remain stable and steady.

You have built relationships with and received support from companies like JP Morgan Chase and others, how difficult was it to get this kind of support?

Believe it or not, these funders have been particularly supportive of our efforts to help young mothers help themselves. We talk about self-determination and building stronger communities – this seems to be particularly appealing to such funders. I think our biggest funding roadblock has been among foundations that fund advocacy and organizing work – we are not completely to the “left” and often I’m a large part of the organizing work with youth so it looks like I’m the “leader” instead of the facilitator. I reject this frame because the young women especially see me as their partner and elder – I can’t believe I’m that old – in the work that we do.

How can schools help young teenage mothers you work with avoid pregnancies?

They can make sure that they have the best academic experience possible so that these young women build prosperous futures. I do not believe that school plays an important role in preventing pregnancies because many young women who become pregnant are often disconnected from school before drifting into motherhood. Schools have to do a better job of making girls feel like school is a place for them to excel as leaders. Too often schools makes girls – especially poor girls of color – feel like heroes or villains if they excel or fail or there is too much attention paid to the absence of boys without celebrating the presence of girls.

What do you think employers need to do in order to better support working mothers?

Employers need to get that mothers are happier and far more loyal when they do not have to worry about time off to care for children. At BYMC when we say care for children, we mean being ok to say I’m running late because my daughter needs a little extra “mommy time,” not just staying home to wipe noses. I want the moms in my office to know that motherhood, parenthood, womanhood and work are all threaded together and help women feel full and valued in our world. We also make sure that our “non-mothers” who do so much mothering get the time that they need to care for themselves.

Given the fact that healthy babies are born to healthy mothers, why aren’t there more programs that focus on supporting mothers directly?

We have framed poor motherhood as a social welfare issue – so we try to curb reproduction or prevent abuse. I contend that as a mother and woman I am more in control of these two things when I feel productive and valued. BYMC elevates young mothers and focuses on their future and as a result we have less than a 2% repeat birth rate and 90% of the young women in our program are positively connected to an education or work program.

As a country, we have a dismal record among our peers when it comes to maternal and infant mortality; why do we seem to neglect this problem? Do you think that media coverage of the issue is adequate? Why not?

We are not committed to alleviating poverty by providing more than low-wage work and a cadre of social workers to poor families. We will never build stronger, healthier communities unless we are committed to elevating these families out of poverty. I now avoid the language of “break the cycle of generational poverty” because it somehow suggests that if we were to shift behavior instead of providing meaningful opportunities then these families might become middle class.

What are some of the more common rights young mothers don’t realize they have?

Young mothers have a right to a free public education in our country. Schools cannot “push them out” or make it hard for them to be part of the school community. If this does happen, they should call me no matter where they live in the country and I will help them.

What are your thoughts on Bristol Palin lecturing and working with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Candie’s Foundation to inform young people about the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy? Do you feel this will be effective with young teens?

We have to talk about pregnancy and parenting as two different issues. Lots of young women become pregnant and many opt to terminate – the message of Candie’s and the National Campaign never reaches the poor, isolated girls of color that drift into motherhood because unlike Bristol Palin their babies do not benefit from an extended network of support. Bristol’s baby will be fine. Instead, these two groups should tell the absolute truth and admit that these campaigns have no impact on teen birth rates and more importantly research shows that delaying pregnancy among poor girls does not significantly impact their life opportunities.  Also, having children does not significantly impair the life opportunities of poor girls.

In 1961, 80 percent of black children were born to two-parent households. In 2009, 80 percent of black children are born to one-parent households. What are some of the causes for this change?

We keep underestimating the economic impact in the black community of the loss of manufacturing jobs. Instead, we keep creating a causal link between values and behavior to explain low marriage rates. People in general are not getting married so this isn’t peculiar to solely black families, but the difference is that more black children are growing up in deep rooted poverty – marriage without economic stability does little to improve the outcome for these children. My own kids are better off because I can provide them with a stable, loving and safe home. I am divorced like many of my middle class counterparts and no one spotlights our children – the key difference is that I can afford a range of experiences for my children unlike poor women.

What do you think of the various attacks recently on women’s reproductive rights in this country? How can that make things worse?

I think that the response to these attacks is more telling than the attacks themselves because oftentimes the needs of black and poor women are not considered. I live for the day when young women who drift into motherhood are not the enemy of positive youth development programs or the “thing” or outcome my peers doing “self-esteem” programs fight to avoid. There’s nothing wrong with the young women I serve other than a lack of support and the fact that they are framed as the bad guys.

Do you think that the absence of positive male role models affect boys more than girls? What advice do you give a mother who is raising a boy on her own and in the absence of such a role model?

No. I think children benefit from growing up in nurturing, economically prosperous communities. We have to stop working from a gender-specific frame when dealing with children of color otherwise we will keep approaching this problem from a behavior instead of economic frame.

What are your goals for the future and how would you like to see your program expand?

My hope is to continue building on my work in Brooklyn and sharing what I’ve learned with others interested in building brighter futures for young mothers.

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