Kara Isreal is Goddess of the Week!

“Despite surviving the misfortunes that my family and I had to endure, I know that this world will throw more adversities and challenges not only at minority women but women in general. But now I also know that I have a solid foundation of confidence and strength that will allow me to overcome anything that gets in my way on my journey to success.”

— Kara Isreal, 2010 Step Up Teen Scholarship Recipient

Kara Isreal, 2010 Step Up Los Angeles Teen Scholarship Recipient

Kara Isreal is the recipient of the 2010 Step Up Women’s Network Los Angeles Teen Scholarship. Step Up is dedicated to connecting underserved teen girls with professional women mentors and enrichment programs to empower the girls to become confident, college-bound and career-ready. I had the great pleasure of hearing Kara speak at the Step Up Inspiration Awards last week in Beverly Hills. As Kara presented her winning essay, there was barely at dry eye in the room. She is truly a goddess of strength, determination, and grace.

The following is Kara’s winning essay that she shared with all of us last week at the 7th Annual Step Up Inspiration Awards.

Written by Kara Isreal

I wake up on the morning of October 4, 2008 feeling so excited – it’s my sweet sixteen! But then the reality of where I am kicks in. I’m in an unknown territory. I hear more sirens outside than normal, I hear the neighbors arguing about where the last drop off of drugs was and who was going to change the baby’s diaper. I look out of the window and see the transactions of narcotics and money from one hand to the next. I think to myself, this is why this neighborhood is called “the jungle” – people make up the animals in a jungle fighting over drugs, property, women and even parking spots. And this was supposed to be the start of a good day.

I close the blinds, having seen enough. I start to reminisce about birthdays of the past and think about how much I always love the annual call from my granddad who enthusiastically congratulates me on making it through another year in life. I sigh, knowing that I won’t get the call this year because he doesn’t have my number….NO ONE does because one month earlier, my family was evicted, and we have been bouncing from place to place, eating dinner in our car in McDonalds parking lots and on this morning, my 16th birthday, my family and I are staying in a two-bedroom bedroom apartment making room for 7 people. It was supposed to be my sweet 16 but it was more like salty tears and a super wet pillow. This was the beginning of the most challenging time in my life. Things got worse from there and I experienced the unimaginable, including being raped………more than once.

But through my pain and innumerable tears I found a way to walk with my head up and not have it hung in constant shame. In between the unpredictable travels between school and maybe a hotel room. I began to appreciate school and a new found safe haven in an organization called Step Up and the support system and stability it provided.  On a weekly basis I looked forward to Tuesdays because I knew I was going to be in a stable environment for an extra two hours after my school day. Step Up offered me refuge in programs such as Spoken Word and Poetry where I was able to write down all my feelings, kept in a place no one could criticize, grade or comment about. Step Up gave me the microphone I needed to either reach out for help or encourage my fellow Step Up sisters; which includes my younger sister who also found a safe space in Step Up.

Through Step Up I have gained mentors that have shaped my ambition, built my confidence and who I will never forget. Powerful Step Up women like Shannon Gabor; who I worked for last summer in Step Up’s internship program. Her achievements taught me no obstacle is too big and she pushed me to be a strong writer by having the confidence in me to give me important projects. Powerful Step Up women like Michelle Centeno, my Step Up SAT Prep and college applications instructor who guided me through the stressful processes. She is the first in her family to graduate from college and as I saw her walk across the stage at her UCLA graduation I was reminded that I have to set the standard for my younger siblings as she did for her own. Powerful Step Up women like my Step Up young luminaries mentor Reese Alexander who always keeps me on track with setting my goals and making sure they are realistic.

The most impactful thing Step Up has given me is the key out of Los Angeles. On our spring break Bay Area college tour during my junior year I finally realized that it was totally okay to leave the only place I had ever known. I wasn’t scared to step out of my boundaries and I placed myself in a picture without Downtown L.A. as the backdrop for my college home.

2009 Step Up Teen Scholarship recipient, Shalisa Craig, hugging Kara. Shalissa is currently attending Cal State Northridge & received a 4.0 GPA during her first semester of classes!

My goal in life is either to become a child psychologist with a private practice helping sexual, mentally and physically abused kids; or be a part of a marketing and advertising company. I set my sights high! Thanks to Step Up I am already on my way and can clearly see myself achieving these goals because I am proud to announce that this fall I will be attending Bethune-Cookman University a Historically Black College in Daytona Beach, Florida founded by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune a civil rights leader and an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dr. Bethune is the educated, influential black woman I strive to become.

Despite surviving the misfortunes that my family and I had to endure, I know that this world will throw more adversities and challenges not only at minority women but women in general. But now I also know that I have a solid foundation of confidence and strength that will allow me to overcome anything that gets in my way on my journey to success. I have escaped the dark place that they call the jungle, survived abuse, am optimistic about all of the brighter birthdays I will celebrate in the future. With my success I hope to reach down and help the women behind me. We have the power to rise above our circumstances. We have the power break down barriers. We have the power to break down barriers and crush all statistics that rise against us. We are women of manner and nobility. And I thank you all for your support along the way.

To learn more about Step Up Women’s Network, please visit www.suwn.org.

All photos by Maya Meyers.

Girls on the Wall: The Power of a Girl’s Story

Written by Tabby Biddle

Meet Whitney. She is 17 years old, intimidating, tough, and infamous among her peers at Warrenville Correctional Facility in Illinois for a crime she won’t talk about. Whitney is one of Warrenville’s longest-term inmates and the secret she holds not only keeps her locked up in prison, but also locked up and unable to heal on the inside.

Whitney is one of a group of incarcerated teenage girls whose journey is documented in “Girls on the Wall,” a film directed and produced by Heather Ross & Sincerely Films. The documentary captures an 8-month journey of the girls of Warrenville as they participate in a theatre workshop.

The workshop is led by Meade Palidofsky, known as “Ms. P.” to the girls. Meade is the artistic director of Storycatchers Theatre. She is a playwright and lyricist who has been working for more than 30 years helping young people find their voice and tell their stories through performance art. “It’s a real gift to be able to use what you love to do to get other people to not only learn playwriting and songwriting, but to actually use that process to heal themselves,” she told me in a recent interview.

Healing is exactly what takes place. As the girls of Warrenville go through the process of creating a musical based on their lives — journaling about their past, sharing with their peers what feel like shameful secrets, re-living and dramatizing their crimes – a transformation takes place. As these young women begin to open up about their stories, they begin to release their wounds and restore their self-dignity. Furthermore, when they hit the stage in front of their families and prison staff, a profound healing happens for everyone.

Watching the documentary at a recent screening in Los Angeles, what affected me the most was experiencing the immense talent and sheer beauty within each one of these young women. That’s not the usual perception of prison inmates.  “I think when people think of kids that are locked up they think of them as bad kids, evil kids, or dysfunctional kids. They think that for anyone who is locked up, there is something wrong with them.” Even though I might not have wanted to admit it, before I saw “Girls on the Wall” I was carrying around some of those misperceptions.

From the film, I quickly learned that these girls are smart, talented, kind, compassionate, funny and incredible young women – all that locked inside the toughness of prison life. Each one of them in their own way was hurt badly through early experiences (usually related to family) and never received the appropriate support to recover. Drug-addicted parents, sexually abusive family members, physical and emotional assault were all common themes for these young women. One young woman’s only crime was running away from foster placements because she wanted to be with her mom who was a crack addict.

“When the girls tell their stories it becomes so clear why they are locked up. It usually starts from a trauma they have experienced causing them to be angry and depressed, which causes them to drop out of school, do drugs, join gangs, and eventually become incarcerated. It’s a pretty clear cycle,” says Meade.

“I think what people learn when they come in to work with the girls is that what’s dysfunctional is our system. What’s dysfunctional is that we don’t have a lot of systems that work for kids on the outside,” she adds.

I decided to ask Heather, the director and producer of the film, why she thought a girl telling her story was so healing. She told me: “I think a lot of the time girls may feel on some level that their story has been deemed unimportant, especially to the outside world. All kids, and I think especially girls, get used to adults ignoring them. And for these girls in particular, I think the situation is magnified because their marginalized for other reasons — they’re in trouble with the law, most come from families that are barely making it (if at all), and I don’t think stories like theirs make it into the media much.  I think just realizing that they have a unique story, and that other people might want to hear it, is enough to turn their heads.”

“Once you tell the story, then you let it go.” – Meade P.

“Girls on the Wall” illustrates that storytelling can help each one of us make sense of our past – and heal even the darkest parts.

For Girls on the Wall screenings and air dates, click here. To learn more about Storycatchers Theatre, click here.

Tabby Biddle, M.S.Ed., is a writer/editor dedicated to amplifying the voices of women making a positive difference in the world. Her work has been featured by The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and other national media. She lives in Santa Monica, CA.