Pontiac Teens Hear from Successful Women in Adolescents to Queens Program
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 2, 2016)
Pontiac, MI – When asked how many young ladies in the room had been raped or molested, nearly everyone rose their hands.
When asked how many young ladies in the room knew someone coping with a drug problem, nearly everyone rose their hands.
When asked how many had considered suicide, about two-thirds raised their hands.
How many have had someone close to them murdered? Over half.
Moderating the “Adolescents to Queens” program at Pontiac High School on Thursday, Kaino Phillips did not even have to ask about how many of the 120 young ladies in the room were living in poverty. How many came from homes that were not particularly stable. Or how many went to schools with infrastructure issues, staffing issues, security issues, and not enough resources or support.
“I’ve got to figure out a way to get these obstacles out of your life,” Phillips said. And that is, ultimately, the answer. But in the meantime, what can young women in trying circumstances do to be strong, happy and successful?
Reaching out from the stage were four women who knew what it was like to be in their shoes. Grammy nominated songwriter Melanie Rutherford, Lathrup Village Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Garrett, mother Amanda Spann, and cyber-security expert Jane Harper shared their stories with the teens.
For Rutherford, the problems of poverty and abuse were not the only challenges. Rutherford was a writer. She was different. “I liked Edgar Allen Poe. I used to talk to trees. I liked to think differently. I was the kid who was always in school,” she said. She came from a family of 13 where she never felt like she would be anything. The world was hard on her, and she had to be tough. She got A’s in school, but after school she had no choice but to be street-smart too.
At the age of 21 she had her daughter. It was at that moment that life became exceptionally real. “There was this movie, Shawshank Redemption, and this line in the movie was ‘get busy living or get busy dying.’ That stuck with me. I thought, I need to get busy living.”
She won a songwriting competition in Detroit and met rapper Redman. He flew her to New York and she had the opportunity for a contract. “All I had to do was keep my mouth shut and do the deal. That’s all I had to do. But what do you think I did? I opened my damn mouth, tried to act hard. And I came back home with nothing,” she said.
That rejection could have been the end of it and getting the contract could also have been the end.
“If I had got that money at 23, I surely would have been dead. I had to take the road less traveled. I had to work hard and pay my dues. I had to struggle so I could know what I had and not mess it up,” Rutherford said.
Fortunately she kept her contacts and worked hard, most recently teaming up with Grammy nominated recording artist Kem on a couple of his albums. She has written for American Idol and co-written for other Grammy nominated artists: Patti Labelle and Ronald Isley. She’s also worked with Redman, Method Man and Erik Sermon.
For Rutherford, success came when she started visualizing attitude like a bag. “What’s in your bag? What do you carry around with you? Do you carry hurt, disappointment or guilt? Nah, get that out of there. Figure out what you want to carry and keep it with you. All kinds of stuff can be going on around you, but you just keep walking. [Say] ‘I got my bag,’ and keep going.”
In jail, Amanda Spann got woken up each day at 4am and from then on her day was controlled and regulated. She was one small person in a big system where she was even more stuck and unhappy than her life leading up to incarceration.
The worst part though was that she had just had a baby five months before, and she had to spend most of her son’s first year of life away from him and behind bars.
For Spann the way to cope with the struggles of her childhood was to steal. She’d lost her parents young and her sister and brother-in-law raised her in a home with three other children. “I didn’t feel loved. I felt like they didn’t care about me,” she said.
She found love in the opposite sex and excitement in stealing. Four kids and a year in jail later she finally put her foot down and decided she needed to change her life. And that is what she did. She came home from jail about a year ago. She came home to nothing, “no job, no clothes, no apartment.” But she was humble enough to ask for help, and strong enough to put in the work of going back to school, getting a job, and volunteering in the community.
“Stealing might seem cool while you’re getting what you want, but I caught two stealing cases and it caught up to me,” Spann said. “I had to learn a lot. But it is never too late to get your life together. You can do it.”
It’s no surprise to know that sometimes young women make bad choices when their brains are clouded by what they think was love. Garrett was no exception. As a teenager, Garrett sought love and affirmation from boys she knew in school. When her dad transferred her to a private all-girls school she became even more determined to act out, and she started meeting boys from outside her close-knit Southfield neighborhood.
One of these young men was a 15 year old drug dealer. “I thought this boy was the love of my life,” she said. She said dating a drug dealer seemed exciting at the time. But then one day she found out that he was in the hospital. He’d been shot.
Even after this young man’s funeral she did not learn her lesson. The need for love and the need for excitement kept her going on the same path – bad boy after bad boy, not knowing what real love was and not knowing what she wanted to do with her life.
But then there was a moment of clarity. A man that she could have sworn was the love of her life put something in her trunk and told her to follow him over to a house. She didn’t question it, but came to find out later that it was a gun. “Why did he put it in my car? And why did he take a separate car? It made sense later. If I got pulled over, it would be me going to jail and not him.” She knew that was not how love worked.
Relationship patterns are hard to break, but at a certain point she knew that she wanted a better life for herself. She started getting involved in her community, doing volunteer work and eventually getting involved in politics. She also admitted that she needed someone with experience to help her figure out her issues, so she started going the therapy.
Though she’s given many speeches, this is the first that she talked about her past. “We get older and we grow up, and we try to forget all that, or hope no one ever finds out. No one likes to talk about it. But this is what these girls are living with, right now. They need to know where people come from, and they can do it too.”
Jane Harper grew up in Pontiac at the height of the crack epidemic. She attended every school in the district because her family moved around so much. People would steal food from her house to buy drugs, and she did not learn about drug raids by seeing them in the movies. She experienced them first hand by watching officers kick down her door. She was abused and neglected. Both at home and at school she was made to feel ugly. But instead of turning to drugs or boys, she turned to books.
Now she is the boss of her world. She owns her own home, has a loving and professionally successful husband, an incredible education with more letters after her name than would be practical to list, and is a top cyber security professional with a passion for creating secure networks for major hospital systems.
She knew early on that she did not want any entanglements with boys, and something that she saw stayed with her. “There was this boy that all the girls liked named Dinky. And Dinky had all these girls thinking they were his. So one day this group of girls start fighting over Dinky. How do you think that ended up? Do you think any of these girls married Dinky? It ended with one girl dead, one girl in jail, and one girl with a scar across her face. All over a boy,” Harper said.
She said part of the struggle is because women compete instead of care. “As women we need to be better to each other. We need to be sisters and support each other,” she said.
The presentations, given to a room of 120 female students, had a noticeable impact. Some young ladies cried. Some squirmed uncomfortably. Some asked good questions. And some laughed.
“That’s a big give-away,” Rutherford said. “You laughing is a tell-tale sign that something we said up here hits home.”
The teens were invited to stick around and talk to the women after the presentation, and this week, volunteers from the Ascend Foundation will meet with the girls one on one to talk about how the presentations made them feel, and help guide them toward resources to help them overcome the challenges they are facing.
Pontiac Teens Hear from Successful Women in Adolescents to Queens Program