Washington, DC (May 21, 2019) — Tearra Walker looks forward to Saturdays; not because it’s a day off, but because it’s a day when she is very much on. It’s when she combines her unique and courageous experiences as a spoken word artist, trained NASCAR technician and natural advocate to show others that they, too, can identify and realize their own talents.
Tearra is the facilitator for a program offered exclusively to Washington DC girls and young women who have been involved in the youth justice system. Participants in the 12-week Saturday sessions are young women ages 13–22 whose attendance is part of their individual commitments and court-ordered plans to making better choices. The curriculum focuses on personal character development, self-care, decision making, conflict resolution, self-esteem, etiquette, developing positive habits, goal setting and leadership development.
Tearra is the group’s facilitator, assigned to the role by Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., which launched the program last year as part of its partnership with DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) and Progressive Life Center. For more than four decades YAP has provided community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.
On one Saturday in March, about 6 weeks after Tearra began leading the first group, girls and young women arrive early. They make small talk and catch up as they grab plates of eggs, grits and fruit. A couple of them hold babies; others laugh over jokes about friends and frenemies in the facilities where they’re serving time or neighborhoods where they are working to stay out of trouble so they can avoid lock-up.
By 9 a.m., doors close and Tearra takes center stage. Some chatter resumes, but the energy in the front of the room is a powerful force.
“How do you spell love?” Tearra asks.
“S-E-X,” one girl answers. “M-O-N-E-Y,” answers another.
As group facilitator, Tearra is in her comfort zone. She’s covering familiar topics — subjects she tackles in her poetry and spoken word performances; issues like neglect, abuse, sexual exploitation, and losing loved ones to prison and gun violence. After asking the group participants to reconfirm their oath to confidentiality and respect, she enables trust as she makes comfortable references to past pain while also sharing stories of her fruitful young adult journey that now includes a fulfilling family life with her new wife. Tearra is a Southeast DC native who comes with the kind of credibility that makes it clear to this group that whatever their struggles, she can relate — and there’s hope on the other side. Some of the girls and young women are coming to terms with their own sexuality and most if not everyone in this room is healing from trauma linked to substance abuse, rape, sex trafficking and/or other types of exploitation.
Tearra asks them to explain their answers to her love question. Then there’s debate and examples of why and how their kind of love would mean sex or cash or control or pain.
It gets very personal. They speak of trading what they have come to see as acts of love for money to feed kids or drugs to comfort addictions. Some of the younger girls couch their realities in jokes; but the pain is palpable.
Tearra makes sure the members of the group know the purpose of today’s discussion.
“School teaches you to spell love L-O-V-E. Through life experiences, like a lot of you, I learned to spell love S-E-X. As I matured, however, I learned that love is actually spelled T-I-M-E, when others invest positive time into your life.”
By the end of the session, the conversation takes a turn.
Young women speak of friendship, nonjudgmental constructive criticism; kindness. “This goes both ways,” said one girl as she took ownership of her mistreatment of others.
“T-I-M-E.” “C-A-R-E.” “C-O-M-P-A-S-S-I-O-N, That’s how I spell love now.”
When the session ends, Tearra explains why she takes the program participants through the exercise about love.
During our discussions we continue to work through the types of love we have experienced, through trauma what our experiences have taught us; to finally relearning a healthier approach to healing and growing in our emotional intelligence.”
In addition to conducting the group sessions, Tearra works with the girls and young women individually to help them see and embrace their gifts and strengths as she connects them with resources to help them reach their individual goals. The work is modeled after YAP’s unique neighborhood-based Advocate mentorship model, which has a track record of improving the likelihood that youth will remain in their communities, out of placement.
“Being a part of YAP is an amazing journey,” she said. “Everyone’s passion is genuine.”
A couple of weeks ago, Tearra started her second 12-week group session.
“My charge is to empower them; to get them to see their potential and strive towards a different lifestyle. They need life skills…belief in themselves; communication — understanding how amazing they are so they can end self-destructive patterns and realize what it means to spend quality time with people who are interested in their education, skills and future — displays of real love,” she said. “This is the only way for true healing to come.”