Space for Young Black Women: An Interview with Candice Valenzuela

By Jody Sokolower

Illustrator: Cathy Cade

Photo by Cathy Cade

A few years ago, Candice Valenzuela created and facilitated a group for young Black women at Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. She grounded her work in womanist, Black feminist, and critical pedagogy, as well as her own lived experience as a Black multiethnic woman of working-class origins and a history of trauma. Valenzuela currently coaches early career teachers in culturally relevant teaching, critically conscious pedagogy, holistic wellness, and earth-based spiritual healing.

Jody Sokolower: How did you end up running a group for African American girls?

Candice Valenzuela: I was teaching English at Castlemont High School. The school was transitioning to a focus on social justice, equity, and social change, and it was our pilot year. We noticed certain populations were struggling. And the group that stood out most was African American girls—they were the ones most out of class, the ones their teachers found to be the most challenging, and the ones who had the most complaints about school. We decided to form a class to support them specifically. At the time I was in grad school, so it wasn’t my first choice to be running such an intense group, but the principal convinced me to take it on.

JS: There is so much focus on the crisis among African American boys. Very few people—and most of those seem to be African American women—are talking about African American girls. It’s interesting that at Castlemont, Black girls were identified as the group that was really struggling. Do you think there’s a connection between the focus on Black boys and how much crisis these girls were in?

CV: I do think it’s connected. I want to preface by saying, based on my years of working with students in Oakland, almost all students feel unseen. Period. Across lines of color and gender. Ageism is real, and youth in our society suffer from a lack of voice and a lack of adults seeing them as full human beings with rights and capacities.

And then, too many of our young people experience added layering to that invisibility. With young Black women, it’s extreme.

The research does indicate that African American males are being targeted as far as suspension rates, policing in schools, incarceration. There is a historical racialized fear of Black males that plays into those overt and covert strategies to marginalize them.

But there’s also a gendered way research happens. At least in Oakland, I don’t think that Black girls are doing substantially better than Black boys when it comes to academics. And what happens if you bring truancy into the picture? Are Black girls actively pushed out or are they just not showing up? We’re not looking at rates and impact of sexual harassment on academic achievement and social development; we’re not looking at rates of sexual trauma. If you look at that stuff, you’re going to get a whole other picture. Black girls specifically, and then queer Black youth additionally, are facing marginalization and attack throughout society.

I boil inside because there’s such a high need with the girls. It’s not to say that Black males don’t need to have their own holding space. What I have issue with is when we promote that as the priority above all others, instead of finding ways to serve all young people, even if that means creating targeted campaigns for various subgroups.

JS: What is the impact on Black girls?

CV: One student said: “I feel invisible.” I can’t find a better way to say it. Even when a Black male is harmed, he has a mother, he has sisters, all these women who care for him are harmed when he’s harmed. You are putting these girls in between a rock and a hard place. Obviously they love their brothers and their cousins, and they want the best for them. But why is it always at the expense of Black girls? So that narrative has to be reframed. Yes, you’re trying to help a certain population, but the perspective is too narrow-minded and you’re again privileging males.

JS: How did you decide who would be in the class?

CV: Initially the administrators wanted to choose the girls they saw as having the most issues. I pushed against that. I feel that we benefit the most with diversity, when we can all learn from one another. Young people don’t all struggle in the same ways, so we often see the ones who are loud, not in class, and making a big noise. But the children who are yelling still have their voices. There’s something inherently healthy about openly resisting a system that’s not built for you. Sometimes it’s the quiet ones, who might even be making straight A’s, who are struggling in different ways or directing their hatred inward. We miss them when we only focus on the loud ones.

So I reached out to teachers and asked them to recommend Black girls who they thought might benefit from community, who might need support to develop as leaders or to come into their voices, those who might be able to help guide others, who might benefit from added support and be open to receiving it. I wanted to create a core group in the midrange of students who might get passed over.

JS: How was the class defined?

CV: It was originally listed it as advisory.

But that looks like nothing on a high school transcript when students apply to college. We listed it as women’s studies so they could get social studies credit.

I took a holistic approach because that’s who I am, and I think that’s what women need, especially in that age group. It wasn’t text-heavy. I wanted to give them exposure to different concepts and theories, but that was a small percentage of what we ended up doing. It was more of a support group. I focused on being present for whatever need was showing up in that moment.

“I’m Not Black”

JS: How did you get started?

CV: The young women in the group were under such constant trauma and triggering of past traumas—in school and in the rest of their lives—that creating a safe space to talk and help each other was a huge challenge.

To build community, instead of having rules, we had a code. We called it the Sisters’ Code. I created it before school started. If I were to teach this class again, I would have that be one of our first projects—to co-create our code—but I was trying to establish some foundations. We discussed it, memorized it, performed it as a class, and revisited it throughout the year. We had T-shirts made.

The girls’ initial reactions were mixed. They felt happy to have that space, but then they often tested and challenged it. We know that happens in the classroom, but this was a little different. I felt there was deep fear or uncertainty about what it meant to have a space that was only young Black women. That wasn’t something they had been in, not intentionally so—amongst their friends maybe, but not like this class, which was just for them.

In the beginning, it was hard for them to sit with that and figure out what it meant. It brought up a lot of their internalized self-hatred, their internalized sense of not being worthy. They weren’t sure why it mattered for them to develop their own race and gender consciousness.

So some of them would come to my class late, or come in and be silly. There was a lot of passive resistance. Much of the initial work was helping them uncover for themselves: Why do we need to do this work? Why do I need it? What do I think? I had them talk and talk and talk. I brought in media, readings, and poems—anything I could think of to prompt them to do their own discovery around what it means to be a young Black woman.

JS: And what did they say?

CV: In the beginning, a lot of the girls said “I’m not Black.” They didn’t like the term. That was hard for me. I had to hold back because I feel very strongly about Black liberation. But they had experienced it as a label of harm. So they’d say, “I’m not Black, I’m brown.”

I asked them: “What are all the negative things that are associated with Blackness?” We did a huge brainstorm that I left on the wall. It was painful, but I wanted them to remember and ask themselves: Is this who we are or is this a misrepresentation that we don’t agree with? Externalizing those reflections was helpful because they had internalized it so much.

Now it’s true that race has no scientific validity. By the end of the year they understood that it’s a social construct, but also that we have a great history of building solidarity around our experience within that construct. What we live and breathe every day as racialized beings is real.

Then, once those initial walls were down, when I would touch something deeper, they often tried to avoid what was painful by making fun of someone else in the class. The infighting and backbiting were fierce. Even on a good day, they would often throw verbal jabs at each other.

I would call their awareness to the way those jabs accumulate over time and tear at our self-esteem. We have to treat each other better than that if we want to be treated better ourselves. We know we’re worth it. It took a long time to get to that place. A lot of it was returning over and over and over to the conversation. And then modeling something different for them—being conscious of how I engaged with them and how I talked to them, always coming from a place of love and respect so that they knew that was the standard.

What was most difficult for me were the emotions they brought in—the deep pain or sense of hopelessness, their sense of not being worthy, of not being seen. The need for social-emotional support was so high; even those receiving therapy needed more. That created a whole different challenge for me than being a general-ed teacher. I talked to my own therapist about it. She told me that the teacher holds the hope and the therapist holds the hopelessness. Being in a space where people can actually show you their despair is not as rewarding in a day-today way. As a teacher, I always engaged in a hopeful way and brought that out in young people, but in this group, I wasn’t the one who got to witness most of their transformation.

Their teachers would come to me and say: “What’s going on in that class? Are you drugging them? They’re doing so much better. They’re being so helpful to the other students. They’re acting as leaders.” Over and over again, I heard rave reviews from their teachers. Although the girls often resisted me and each other during class, they couldn’t stop talking about the class to folks outside of it.

But that wasn’t what I saw. When we were together, what I often saw was the pain. I had to hold hope for myself because the manifestation of them being able to purge what they were feeling was so powerful when they went out into the community.

Confronting Conflict

JS: Did you have a curriculum for the class?

CV: I decided that the most meaningful thing I could give them was a space that was unapologetically different from everything else they were doing—a space that was completely different from school as they knew it.

We had reflective writing and journaling when they came into class. And then an open share; we would gather in a circle and use a talking piece. Sometimes, as long as it was respectful, I would let them keep talking and talking. Then I might guide the conversation with another question to more critically investigate whatever was coming up. And then we’d send the talking piece around again.

Of course, that meant the teacher inside me was often screaming, “But we’re not reading anything!” That was my own internalized voice saying that reading and writing are the most important ways of learning. But that’s not always true.

The first content area that I pulled out was looking at conflict: How are we dealing with conflict now and does that approach serve us? We spent two solid weeks on it and then kept coming back to it. The reflective writing assignments included: What is conflict? What kinds of conflict have you been in? Describe a conflict that you thought went well. Describe a conflict that you thought ended horribly. What was the impact of each? Who do you tend to get into conflict with the most? Why do you think that is?

They had so much to say, so much to discuss. As they talked, I would listen and write. I have three notebooks full of the girls’ words.

When I got home, I’d sit with what had been shared and I’d think. Where do we go from here? What’s the need they’re expressing? Is there some area where they can be pushed to learn something new or to see themselves in a more holistic and more humanizing way? The girls’ words were my text.

The girls were very clear that what they needed and what they wanted was the social-emotional support. Whenever I came too close to my teacher role, they said, “No, we don’t want you as a teacher, we want you as a mentor, we want you as a counselor, and we want you as a mom.” Since I knew from the beginning that the purpose was to support them, I took their feedback seriously.

JS: What other topics were important to the group?

CV: We talked about friends and the way they treated each other. Sometimes their friendships included a lot of talking behind each other’s backs, making fun of each other, betraying one another, lying to each other. So I asked them: “What does it mean to be a friend? What does that word mean to you?” We had to keep coming back to that. Some were able to say, “I’m going to try and act a little differently.” Others realized that every time they hung out with a particular friend, they got in trouble or there was drama. Often it boiled down to repressed hurt and anger. Each time we came around to the same topics, we peeled back more layers.

Every week we had free art days when the students created collages or paintings about different areas of their lives—family, love, relationships, culture, the media. Two days a week we did movement: African dance, yoga, tae bo. I was blessed to have a volunteer, Kihana Ross, who was doing research for her PhD on strategies for African American wellness. She helped me bring in guest speakers and co-led different activities. We both fundraised so the girls could have food every day, so they’d focus and feel cared for.

JS: It sounds like the beginning was difficult. How did you know that the group was starting to have a positive impact?

CV: About two months in, the younger students started running to my class. I started getting text messages throughout the day, letting me know what was going on in the community or what they were doing. Then I knew that things had shifted and they had accepted me as being on their side, being in their corner.

One girl often found herself in a lot of conflict. When she reached out to me before going up to someone and challenging them, I knew that was an important shift. She was seeking counsel. And she had opened herself up to growing and changing. It wasn’t perfect, but she grew throughout that year in how she addressed conflict. It was incremental.

Other girls in the school started coming up to me and saying, “I want to have a Polynesian girls group,” “I want to have a Native American girls group.” That’s when I knew they were talking about it with their friends and other girls were seeing the need in themselves to speak out and claim a space that was just for them.

One of the young women who had said “I’m not Black, I’m not Black” in the beginning focused her final junior English project on Black women’s empowerment. Now here she was saying, “I am proud to be a Black woman. I am proud of who we are.”

All of them at the end of the year said unequivocally they were so thankful for the space, and they believed that every Black girl should have that space.

What Does It Take?

JS: This was a great thing you were able to do for these girls. But wasn’t it an exceptional situation? You got to say how many kids, you had extra people coming in. There was money for food. What are the implications for teachers at schools that don’t have those options?

CV: Our situation was in no way ideal. We were in East Oakland, in a school that had just had three principals in three years, in a hostile environment and an extremely traumatized neighborhood, where Black girls were last on the list for services.

I would say the No. 1 thing is to not be afraid to advocate for what you know the students need, and to do so in a way that’s creative, collective,
and forward-thinking. I wasn’t going to the principal and saying, “Give me this, please, please.” If you’re always putting yourself at the beck and call of those in power, then you’re never going to have anything. The resources we had weren’t coming from the school, they were things I advocated and fought for, alongside other allies at the school site. The money we raised was through crowdsourcing.

My advice to teachers is to always push back against the isolation. They set us up in these situations where we feel isolated and overwhelmed. I make an effort to know each person at the site and have a personal relationship. It’s important to figure out who are your comrades, who are your allies, and who is politically opposed to what you’re doing. Then it’s the same advice I give to students. You don’t have to like everyone, but it’s important to ask: “How can we work together? How do we leverage the resources we have amongst ourselves to work toward a common goal, even in the face of differences?

JS: Then the district changed the school’s direction again, and you didn’t get to do a second year. What was that like?

CV: That year was so hard because I started at zero. It was all about building trust and community amongst the girls. In the second year we could have done some of the revolutionary projects that I envisioned. I know I would have seen them step up as leaders and begin to show up more in the community, not just in our circle.

I wish we could’ve had another year. And I wish that folks could have taken on working with the other groups of girls so we could build solidarity. How can I show up for you and your struggle when I can’t even see my own? It would be great to build different groups up strong and then bring them together to dialogue and build a deeper unity across all of the cultures. I would love to see that. That’s one of the major problems with how much churn there is in schools these days—we rarely get to build on the foundations we’ve laid. It’s always starting from zero.

This course was a labor of love for me. I often felt personally, emotionally, and physically challenged by the group in ways that were uncomfortable. The group landed in a place that was far from where I ultimately wanted to go in terms of theory and practice, but the end result was a place that reflected both my and the girls’ authentic growth and needs. The experience taught me to honor where people are at, starting with myself.

Jody Sokolower is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools and one of the editors of Rethinking Sexism, Gender, and Sexuality.