Today, we continue our Getting to Know You Series, which spotlights the hard-working and amazing women of the NBWJI Team.
Today, we spotlight Senior Policy Fellow on Education and Reentry, Aishatu Yusuf, MPA. Learn more about Aishatu's influences, what excites her about NBWJI, and even some of her favorite forms of self-care.
Tell us about where you grew up.
AY: I grew up in what I now know as a small town outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. I say "what I now know" as a small town because, as a child, I didn't know it was small. Honestly, it wasn't until well into my 20's that I understood I was a small-town girl with big dreams and a big mission. I grew up in a place where I ran through farms, picked cherries from trees, swam in creeks, and we didn't lock doors.
I grew up in a place where my physical safety was not at risk, where mental and emotional safety was a battleground, and conformity and assimilation were a must. My mother, originally from Harlem, NY, moved to Utah to raise my sisters and me. For her, rearing her children in a physically safe place, and safer than her upbringing, was paramount. My mother was a social worker and an avid volunteer. My entire childhood was consumed by finding areas in my life where I could give of myself, time, and resources towards the service of others. I know people say the ability to volunteer is a privilege, and I agree. But in my family, where privileges were few, the ability to give, even just a smile, or to let someone know you care about their experience, their voice and their outcome, shaped my life.
Who inspires you?
AY: The countless girls, young women, and older women who share with me their journeys of healing from system involvement, exploitation, and trauma inspire me. Their resistance, resilience, and strength fuel me. Also, I am inspired by my NBWJI team and others who are working to ensure women and girls do not endure the same experiences as women and girls who came before them.
What or who inspired your academic and professional career?
AY: Honestly, and she would never know this, but my oldest sister inspired my career. My oldest sister has battled a substance addiction my entire life. She has participated in both survival crimes and crimes that stem from her addiction. But honestly, she has just tried to survive in a system that prioritizes punishment over health, healing, and treatment. My sister's story is not unique. Across the nation, and globally, Black families, like mine, have been the collateral damage and the intended consequence of systemic and historical purposely inflicted harm, racism and bias. As a result, my career focuses on working with researchers, policymakers, advocates, communities, and families to change outcomes for families like mine.
Please talk about your work at NBWJI and what fuels your commitment to it.
AY: I lead research and policy projects that interrupt the school to confinement pathways for girls, and projects that work to better understand the specific needs of women as they re-enter society after a period of confinement. Through research and trainings, I help communities, school districts, and local, state, and federal governments understand how we can all work to change the negative outcomes for Black and Brown communities. I also work to amplify and scale the fantastic work nationally at NBWJI and other women/girls serving organizations countering the criminalization of girls in school. This generation and the next generation of Black girls deserve to attend schools and live in communities where they are seen, heard, loved, and educated for who they are.
My commitment is fueled by how much progress has been made and how much needs to be done. We now have school districts across the nation that are changing their school policies to become more inclusive and less exclusionary. We have states like California that are ending suspension and expulsion for grades K-8. We have federal legislators that are introducing policy that will change the treatment of way Black girls and other girls of color in schools. We have local policy shifts that are including the expansion of Title IX, and provisions for LGB, trans and non-binary students. There is much work to be done, and I am encouraged by how much progress has occurred in just the last decade.
What do you think is one of the most pressing issues impacting Black women and girls?
AY: The outcomes of unaddressed/untreated trauma, depression, and other mental health issues are among the most pressing issues for Black women and girls. In this work, we often research the "why" the "who" and "where." Examining the root causes of many of the negative outcomes for Black girls and other girls of color often reveals that their actions, in-actions, choice, or refusal are based on unaddressed or untreated mental health conditions or trauma. At NBWJI, we work to uncover the cause of an outcome, like school suspension. We also work to understand what the root causes are, like the impacts of an incarcerated parent. Our holistic approach, in tandem with research, policy, and practice provides a more in-depth exploration of systemic approaches to changing the outcomes of Black girls. As we work to understand the "why" and the recommendation, we also work to see the whole person, the whole woman, and the whole girl.
Tell us about some of your favorite forms of self-care?
AY: I practice self-care as a yoga teacher and a practitioner. I run a lot and eat lots of gummy candy. Mostly, I enjoy unscheduled, agenda-less free time with my family and friends.