What is your story of strength?
I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and at the time, the city looked a lot different than it looks now. I grew up in a predominantly African-American community, and am a product of DC public schools. I grew up in a single parent home, and my maternal grandmother has always been my primary caregiver, along with my two younger brothers. My mother passed when I was 13, and my father has been in and out of jail and prison my whole life. It was really a struggle not to have my father around, and to have grown up without the opportunity to develop that relationship. After my mother was gone I had to reshape my outlook, my thinking, and depend not only on my grandmother but also my community for support (my church, my teachers, etc.). Additionally, growing up a child of an incarcerated parent comes with a lot of shame, embarrassment, and feelings of loneliness and anger. A lot of questions came up, like: “Where is my parent? Why am I not allowed to see my father? Where is he? Is he thinking about me?” Then there’s the tangible struggles like finances, and living with one less income in the household. It just posed an additional challenge. My grandmother and my mother were working constantly and with three kids it wasn’t a smooth ride.
So ultimately, my struggle turned into my story of strength around my junior year in high school. I was involved with a nonprofit based in DC called LearnServe International, which teaches high school students to become social change makers, social entrepreneurs, and social leaders. In the LearnServe program, I had to identify an issue that I wanted to see improved in my community and my life come up with an innovative solution to the problem. At the same time, I was working on my Girl Scout Goal Award, which also has to be some type of community project, and all the while my grandmother and I were looking around for scholarships so I could afford to go to college. My grandmother said to me one day, “you know Yasmine, there are thousands of scholarships out there but I don’t see any for children of incarcerated parents.” So her mentioning that, me being in LearnServe and Girl Scouts and having to come up with a community project all led me to come up with the idea to start an organization called ScholarCHIPS. The idea was that it would be a mentoring and scholarship program for youth with incarcerated parents (CHIPs). It started as just an idea, but then it caught on and I presented it in front of a panel at LearnServe and then we received a seed grant and got some more publicity back in 2010 and 2011. Fast forward to today, and we are now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We have had 29 scholars come through the program thus far, and we just had our first cohort of graduates from the class of 2016. This will be our 6th year in operation and we have awarded over $100,000 in college scholarships. Of course, growing up in this situation, when I was looking around for help, it ended up being really powerful. I’ve heard the phrase “turn your pain into power” – and I’m thankful that my pain has fueled my desire to achieve and succeed and give back. It’s been a blessing to have the opportunity to provide other youth with an incarcerated parent the chance to get support, funding, and mentorship to go to college. In an ideal world I would have had both of my parents, but I’m very thankful and excited about what has happened with the students in ScholarCHIPS thus far and what is to come.
Can you tell me about a woman in your life who embodies strength?
The woman I admire most in the world is my grandmother. One of the hardest things I can imagine in life is having to bury your own child. I can’t even imagine having to do something like that, but she just did what she had to do and somehow was still positive with me and my brothers, despite her pain. She tried to protect us and encourage us to be our best – she was just very inspirational through it all. She is the definition of superwoman, especially considering what she went through before I was even born.
I’d also like to add Oprah and Queen Latifah because they mirror what I aspire to be. Queen Latifah is a plus-sized woman, and both she and Oprah have defied the stereotypes of what beauty is or isn’t. They are both glamorous and successful and powerful and beautiful despite the world telling them what they should look like. Those are the kinds of things I want to be able to do in the world.
Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?
I’m working on being more proactive and productive with my time. I’m fairly productive overall but I notice areas in which sometimes I’m lazy or I get exhausted and take a long nap, or I don’t get enough sleep, and I need to work on managing my time better. There are times in which I know I should be working on something but because I’ve overextended myself my mind and my body are like, “you can forget it!”
I could also do a lot better with my diet and keeping a regular exercise regimen. Financially and especially emotionally, sometimes, it can be difficult to manage everything. With school (my master’s program), managing the ScholarCHIPS organization and other commitments, it can feel like a lot.
How can women better support each other?
One of the big ways is to network and connect! Making those connections for other women and being able to help other women advance is powerful. Being able to empower and encourage each other – from privately telling a woman she did a good job at work, to publicly recognizing our appreciation for each other. Everything you can do to build other women up privately and publicly is so important. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own things, but when we bring others up it brings us up even more. I’d also say beyond the recognition is the investment. Global research shows that investing in women builds stronger communities and economies, so any chances we have to invest in women, female-led businesses, female entrepreneurs – it’s valuable to women and to society as a whole.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Being a woman to me means being fearless. We have so many struggles and barriers we have to deal with – our bodies, societal pressures, careers, what we can and can’t wear, what we should look like – there are just so many pressures. In my eyes, to be a woman is to be an overcomer, and being able to become confident in our inner and outer selves. When a woman’s confidence comes from the inside out, it affects all the people around her. It’s something that we have inside all of us.