Brittany K. Barnett, an Aspen SOAR Fellow along with Girl Rising CEO Christina Lowery, is Founder and President of Girls Embracing Mothers, a non-profit organization “dedicated to empowering girls in grades K-12 to break the cycle of incarceration and lead successful lives with vision and purpose.” Brittany was motivated to create the organization from her first-hand experience of being a daughter with an incarcerated mother.
As an activist, attorney, and author, Brittany has devoted her work to fostering healing in families affected by incarceration. Her efforts have made a significant impact on countless families. GEM has established a unique partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, offering invaluable support to incarcerated women and their daughters. Through this collaboration, these families can build and maintain strong relationships, even within the confines of prison walls. What inspired you to start Girls Embracing Mothers (GEM)?
My own mother was incarcerated when I was 22 years old. I was devastated. It’s a terrible blow for any loved one to be incarcerated, but when it’s your Moma? It’s a primal wound. I remember the first time I visited my mom in prison. We were separated by this thick plexiglass, so close, but so, so far. We put our hands up to the glass to have some semblance of touch, and that’s when I saw it: the imprint of two tiny lips on the visitor side of the glass – the mark of a child who had been there before me, desperate to kiss and hold her mom. The sight of it almost broke me. I was a young adult when my mom went to prison. How could a child bear that weight? I resolved then to do something for girls like me and my sister, and the girls I saw in the prison visitation rooms on our visits. GEM is a direct result of my own lived experience. How is GEM supporting girls and women affected by the separation of incarceration?
Girls Embracing Mothers nurtures the bond between incarcerated mothers and their daughters and empowers girls with mothers in prison to lead successful lives with vision and purpose. We use a two-generation approach to break the cycle of incarceration for young girls and women. At GEM, we see a family’s path forward as interconnected and interdependent. This means we work to strengthen the mother-daughter bond and provide space for intergenerational healing, while also attending to the overall wellbeing of both parent and child. Each month, we take girls to and from the prison, more than four hours round-trip. We bring in creative arts, healing justice curriculum, and food. We facilitate meaningful discussions between girls and their mothers in an intimate classroom setting, where they can touch and hold each other. It’s important to us that mothers and daughters take an active role in the planning and implementation of activities, creating an environment where all are empowered to contribute and accompany one another.
For our girls, we offer monthly workshops, quarterly events, and an annual summer camp to enhance the value of peer understanding and to build community among girls with shared lived experiences. We help our GEMs build their confidence and self-esteem, discover their leadership and communication strengths, establish cognizance of health and wellness, and build positive relationships.
We also offer “mom-only” intensive programming for women inside prison including career-readiness and skill-based training, healing justice and parenting workshops, financial planning, and transitional services.
The results of our approach speak volumes. Not one girl in our program has entered the juvenile or criminal legal system. They do better in school and report a significant increase in their sense of well-being. The mothers in our program are 86% less likely to return to prison upon release than their peers who haven’t participated in GEM.
Why is the mission-driven work of GEM critical right now?
Record numbers of women pack America’s jails and prisons. Female incarceration rates have increased by 475% from 1980-2020. Nearly 60% of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers. Maternal incarceration is a growing crisis, with very little being done to address the ripple effects caging women has on our communities and our children.
The traumatic effects of parental incarceration are well documented. The estimated 2.7 million children who have a parent in an American prison are three times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, prolonged feelings of isolation, and trauma-related stress than their peers. Studies by Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child and others find a high correlation between children with incarcerated parents and the diagnosis of learning disabilities, low educational achievement, and impaired teacher-student relationships. For girls, the issues are compounded. Children with incarcerated parents are among the most vulnerable in our society – and among the least served. GEM meets this crisis head on. What do you think is the most vital need of a girl who is separated from their mother?
The most vital need is to be reunited with her mom, and where that is impossible, to nurture and maintain the maternal bond in all ways possible until her mother’s period of incarceration is over. She needs love and support. She needs healing justice. To be recognized and seen. To be heard. To have a community of peers who know what she is going through and help her feel less isolated and alone. The skills and approaches to maintain her sense of power and esteem in the face of this unimaginable loss. In truth, there is more than one vital need. We try to meet many.
What one action do you wish all of us could take to accelerate GEM’s mission?
Raise your voice, your vote, your efficacy against the scourge of incarceration in this country. And, if you can, please support us financially. You would be shocked at how little funding is available for direct services, even for these incredibly vulnerable girls and their moms. You wrote about your childhood and experiences with your mother in a book that the Washington Post described as “powerful and devastating.” What moved you to tell your story in a book?
I wanted to tell the truth about the devastation the war on drugs and the propaganda war that accompanied it wrought on our communities. And I wanted everybody to see that the victims of incarceration are not statistics but human beings, each with their own unique heartbeat, their own tremendous story of survivorship. And equally as important, I had girls like me in mind. Girls like those we serve in GEM. I wanted all the little girls with big lawyer dreams or whatever their big dream may be to read this book and see themselves in me. To know that they can do anything they put their minds and hearts to. Anything at all. In that way, writing the book and running GEM are part and parcel of the same project. What is your message to girls all over the world who could be overcoming overwhelming barriers like you had to in your childhood?
First, that these barriers are wrong and unjust and you in no way bear responsibility for any part of them. Your pain and wounds are real and healing is paramount. And that you are a gem, born of the pressure you have endured. Every single one of the challenges you have faced can be a stepping stone to a tomorrow that you create with the power of your own imagination. You are a force and a light. The possibilities are infinite.