Spotlight: Creating Safe Spaces with A’Dorian Murray-Thomas

A’Dorian Murray-Thomas is the Founder and Executive Director of SHE Wins Inc., an organization that seeks to create a pipeline of college and career-ready young women leaders for girls affected by violence. A 2016 graduate of Swarthmore College, A’Dorian was recently named a White House “Champion of Change for College Opportunity” for her work at SHE Wins Inc. In addition to directing programming for SHE Wins, A’Dorian currently supports over-aged and under-credited Newark Public School students to graduate high school at Newark’s Opportunity Youth Network.

Many girls in school discipline are victims of a violent crime. While this issue isn’t new, it’s recently gained more recognition. What is SHE Wins doing to break that cycle?

A’Dorian: Research shows that girls are statistically at greater-risk of having adverse childhood experiences. This level of risk is heightened for girls living in urban communities where issues of community safety are a very real factor, and girls or their loved ones are more likely to be victims of violence. In these communities–which are overwhelmingly Black and Brown–, Black girls who have experienced trauma are disproportionately represented in the students pushed out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline through harsh disciplinary practices. While Black girls make up less than 8% of enrolled students nationally, they make up 14% of students who are suspended. At SHE Wins Inc., we seek to create a healing space that both directly addresses the various traumas girls may have experienced and equips them with civic, college, and career readiness tools required to thrive in and out of school. We do this by giving girls access to positive peer and adult relationships, providing them with new learning opportunities, supporting them to set and achieve personal goals, and creating meaningful experiences in which they give back to their communities. Girls need a place to express and own their fears and challenges while also affirming and honing their strengths. We seek to create this environment at SHE Wins, using a resilience-based framework that supports the holistic development of both our trauma and non-trauma affected youth. By creating a space for self-love, self-actualization, and social action, we seek to empower the next generation of young women leaders from the city of Newark.

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What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten from a mentor, and what is a piece of advice that you often pass on?

A’Dorian: The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten from a mentor was to hold on to my dreams and goals—not only those I hold for my own life, but my dreams and goals for the world I live in. I was told to hold on to these dreams fiercely–write them down, repeat them daily, share them with other people who believe in your vision. I was encouraged to do whatever it takes to remind myself of my vision for my life and my world so that I am constantly working towards making it a reality. It is easy to be disenchanted by the barriers we face in creating the future we want for ourselves and our community. Reminding ourselves of our goals and creating a support system to achieve them can make all the difference.

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At our Voices of Educational Opportunity Forum, you mentioned “Education is more than math and science, it’s also that students feel empowered and safe in the classroom.” What are some signs that bystanders can look for that signal a student is not feeling safe, and what can they do to try to improve that?

A’Dorian: Typically when we think of students feeling unsafe or disempowered in the classroom, we imagine a student who becomes withdrawn. They might become less verbal than usual or less enthusiastic about being in school.These are important indicators to pay attention to, particularly when the student’s behavior is usually drastically different from these new behaviors. Another indicator that students are struggling to feel safe and empowered is when they exhibit the opposite of the withdrawn, less verbal behavior we might expect. We might see a student becoming a major distraction in class, more irritable with other adults and students, or are attending school less frequently. These can be indicators of either their lack of feeling fully safe and supported in school or at home which may limit their ability to be fully present in school. It is often these loudest, most alarming behaviors that are cries for help. This also relates to the value of restorative disciplinary practices as an alternative to zero tolerance ones—they challenge us to normalize making decisions “with” students not just “to” them. Such practices give students a sense of safety and empowerment that they may have lacked and may have been a source of their behavioral challenges. To solve this issue, we must continue to prioritize giving students opportunities to build strong relationships with adults so that school staff can regularly check-in on the well-being of their students, and not only interact with them when teaching content or disciplining them. This is especially important in the urban context where students face more unique barriers to graduating high school and college, but these are also best practices for all schools. Of course, not every school has the same level of financial or human resources that can make these practices an institutional priority. To the best of their ability, though, all school leaders and staff should make it a priority to map out time in the school day for check-ins with students. Issues of student safety and empowerment come down to school culture and climate, both of which can contribute to the well-being of their students if schools invest in them.

What do you want the state of women to look like?

A’Dorian: In my ideal state of women, zip code does not determine access and circumstance does not determine opportunity. We would invest in future women—girls—so that they are empowered with the social, emotional, critical-thinking, and leadership skills to set goals for themselves and achieve them. Initiatives for the well-being of women would support the interests of women from all racial, cultural, socioeconomic, orientation, and ability backgrounds. In this state of women, girls would be encouraged not to worry about wearing glass slippers but shattering glass ceilings. From the school to the home to the workplace, girls and women would be constantly reminded of their individual and collective strength, and be supported to not only develop their own skills and talents, but to use these tools to invest in the development of their communities.

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For more ways to get involved, donate, or volunteer with SHE Wins, click here.