Charlene Davis remembers driving home on a busy street after a rally, when she witnessed an encounter between a young couple.
“I saw a young man abusing a young girl. He was slapping her upside the head,” Davis said. “The girl’s friend was walking next to them, picking up the objects that were being knocked out of her friend’s hand while he was hitting her.”
Dozens of cars passed by as the situation unfolded. Davis stopped to help. The young man got in his car and left.
“I asked the girl’s friend, ‘Why aren’t you using the phone to call the police? Why aren’t you being proactive about this?’’’ she added.
Situations like this motivated Davis, 41, to start Wisdom Lives Here, a nonprofit organization that strives to empower girls and young women in Roseland, Englewood and West Lawn who have been victims of domestic violence or abuse by helping them discover their self-worth.
The Chicago Reporter sat down with Davis, who also works as a youth mentor at Phalanx Family Services, to talk about the goals of her organization and the importance of providing guidance to young women.
How did Wisdom Lives Here start?
I remember my daughter going through an identity crisis. She was the only African-American girl in her class. She wanted to fit in. And she had a fascination about her hair and how it should be styled. One day her godmother gave her a picture book with a lot of African women with different hair and styles. And she told my daughter, “God made you beautiful don’t try to be somebody else you’re not. You are you.”
Then in 2010, I was laid off by Redbox. I was going back to school for my masters in psychology and it was an idea. I began coaching some of the young girls in my family. Then I was being referenced and recommended.
[I came up with the name] reading the book of Isaiah. There’s a passage about knowledge, counsel and understanding and how it leads to wisdom.
Why is it so important to empower young women?
Because times have changed. They have a greater influence [on their own lives and those around them] than they realize. What I’m seeing in these neighborhoods is the role models kids have is the fast way of life, drug dealing and gang-banging. Sometimes what I find is some of them want so bad to be adults and do adult things, but they can’t handle it.
I try to teach them to respect themselves and learn to walk away from bad situations. I care about young women because, as a young girl, I didn’t have anyone to talk to or help me discover my untapped potential. What I learned in life I learned from trial and error. I don’t want young girls to experience the pitfalls, especially when it comes to relationships.
How old are the girls you mentor?
I mentor girls as young as 7 and as old as 22.
How would you describe a typical mentoring session?
First we start off with journaling. I’ll say, “Let’s journal what we’re going to talk about,” because it helps to look back and see the progress. Sometimes you will notice that you were stuck in the same situation for a long period of time.
Another activity we do is called, “Canvas you me,” where we draw the emotions you are feeling with paints and crayons. We take the feelings expressed in the daily journal entry and express them on a canvas. Then we talk about the story behind the canvas and why we are feeling this way.
At first the kids would say, “That’s corny, Ms. Davis,” but they enjoyed it. For them they created something that’s their masterpiece. I do the activities with them so they can see just because I’m an adult doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings and that I don’t go through things on a day-to-day basis. My stresses and pressures may be different from your stress and pressures but I still have them.
How many girls are in a session?
I can have a session with as many as three and a maximum of 20. I like to have a controlled group and because it can get out of hand.
[The girls] are required to respect each other and their comments. They are not allowed to laugh at another person’s story and they are not allowed to take the information shared in the group to outsiders.
What motivates you to take on this role?
I remember growing up, and my mother did the best she could do. I felt like I had a purpose. I wanted to help young girls. It’s my God-given purpose.
The passion that I have, keeps me going. I am passionate about what I do. It comes from the heart.
[But] I wish I had more help. I can’t do it by myself. There are times when I have to shut down and reboot.
I always say, “Who mentors the mentor?” If I don’t reboot, I won’t be any use to those I mentor. I really hope I can get the necessary help. I spend a lot of my own money to buy things for the girls.
How would you define a successful student of yours?
When I see them coming back to the community, and when I see them envisioning themselves as something better.
[One student] had a rough exterior. She was like a fire cracker. She was just angry. Sometimes it took talking to her day in and day out and now she is one of the biggest advocates out here. She’s blossomed into such an incredible young woman who gives back to the community. I just spoke to her today and told her how great of a person she was. She just needed to be affirmed.
You have an annual fall event, “You are Beautiful.” What is it about?
I like to give the girls an experience that they haven’t had before, so usually I like to make it a black tie event. It forces them to think [differently] about what they’re going to wear. And they are given gifts at the end of it. We talk about everything from table etiquette to feminine hygiene. We also talk about how we can better build relationships. And how to turn negative energy into positive energy.
What do you tell young women about carrying themselves?
If you can’t walk in heels don’t stop walking. Keep your head up and have confidence while you do. No one will know how many times you tripped. Just keep walking.
Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.