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A year ago, coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, and everything from schools to businesses went remote. That same week, on March 13, Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own home, part of the ongoing pandemic of racism.

Both she and her boyfriend were demonized by law enforcement and omitted from the national dialogue on police brutality until the lynching of George Floyd two months later.

By then, data on COVID-19 began to reflect the disproportionately higher rates of infection for Black and Latino communities and the lack of access to healthcare. We’d already seen the way coronavirus and racist stereotypes hurt the Asian American community. And Donald Trump ordered a COVID-19 immigration ban that lasted until President Biden recently rescinded it.

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In 2021, there is still no justice for Breonna Taylor. We are fighting just to get people to call a man who targeted Asian spas in the killing of Asian women a racist and a sexist who committed a hate crime. And it’s women of color, who are represented more than others in frontline jobs, who have been economically struck the hardest by coronavirus.

Racism is a public health crisis, from inequities in access to healthcare to medical bias to disparities of every kind. The psychological effects of living with racism hurt our physical, spiritual, and mental health. It’s a domino effect of destruction.

Where there is racism, there is sexism, xenophobia, and all manner of marginalization. COVID-19 simply put our problems in bold, capital letters.

And our children have witnessed it all. Our girls and they — who are at the intersection of many of these communities and whose challenges often go overlooked — need our protection, support, and love.

Not even Meghan Markle in her royalty could be shielded from the toxic effects of racism. The monarchy, like the world, wasn’t designed for it. Well before COVID-19, she was isolated and confused on how to forge forward. She was suicidal.

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Over the last year, our kids have also been pulled from their social circles, forced to live remotely, fighting more stress than ever before. Markle, even with riches our children don’t have, did not want to live anymore. It’s Women’s History Month, but what are we doing to ensure our girls, women, and they of color have a future?

In Massachusetts, three mentorship organizations are focusing more on the care and spiritual feeding of girls and them to build a healthy mindset and cultivate self-care practices.

Chica Project is a Boston-based nonprofit empowering Latina women, girls, them, and other people of color.
Chica Project is a Boston-based nonprofit empowering Latina women, girls, them, and other people of color.Chica Project

Over the last year, Chica Project, a Massachusetts nonprofit dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for Latinas and women of color, has prioritized mental health.

Since the pandemic began, leadership surveyed their students — nearly 43 percent reported a decline in mental health. About half of them are experiencing food instability and have at least one parent out of work due to coronavirus. Many share a room and work jobs to help at home. Some have a hard time accessing WiFi to get what they need.

“A lot of our youth feel isolated even more,” said Erika Rodriguez, Chica Project executive director. “They are talking about wanting to reach out for help, wanting to lead those conversations at home and be ambassadors for mental health, for identity, for vaccines, for access to information at home. It’s so important to hone in on mental health and train them on how to have these conversations.”

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Through mentorship, networking, and skills training, Chica Project has served over 3,000 youth over the last decade. This past year, they have gone remote and expanded beyond Massachusetts, mentoring 300 girls and them, ages 12 to 18, here, as well as in New York, Texas, and the Dominican Republic.

But despite their hardships, the mentees have also shown resilience and a passion for change.

“The new generation is so unapologetic and ready to talk about their experience, to resist,” said Lina Cañon, associate director. “They will tell you their pronouns and where they are at. They are talking about their mental health and embracing their culture. They are fearless and speaking their truth. They have become the teachers, too. The mentors are intergenerational.”

ASPIRE (Asian Sisters Participating In Reaching Excellence), another Boston-based nonprofit, empowers Asian American girls and women. They, too, have emphasized the importance of mental health. Since the pandemic began, they’ve worked with about 26 girls, ages 14 to 17. They recently honored the lives of the women killed in Atlanta.

“We are putting together personal wellness plans,” said ASPIRE youth program co-director Jewel Pereyra. “The news is a trigger. They are worried about elders being targeted. We had a session on mental health and we are talking about how to manage stress by seeking therapy, checking in with your friends, and checking in with yourself.”

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After the killing of George Floyd, Pereyra said there was a big shift in talking more openly and placing priority on self-care in the context of social justice.

“We talk about what solidarity looks like, anti-Blackness in our communities, and we talk about anti-Asian violence. I see a stronger voice in the girls,” she said.

“In Asian American communities, the family is the unit. You are selfless and indebted to the family. Oftentimes young women manage the family and don’t have time to think about our own mental health. I think we neglect ourselves, and we can’t afford to do that anymore with the growing rates of suicide and self-harm,” Pereyra added.

Centering wellness is essential to building up our youth, said Ivanna Solano, co-founder of Love Your Magic, an organization dedicated to uplifting Black and brown girls and them.

Since the virus shut down our country, the Boston-based grassroots organization has served over 200 students, as young as seven up to 17, across 10 states.

Founded by educators of color, the goal was always to fight the school-to-prison pipeline through advocacy and empowerment. What has shifted due to COVID-19 is a deeper dedication to joy.

“We have to make sure we are well mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Solano said. “Young people, specifically Black and brown girls, are living through double pandemics of racism and the coronavirus. Everything is heavy. We wanted to lean into the joy, to create opportunities to bask in each other’s magic. We don’t do that enough.”

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Love Your Magic creates intentional spaces of community and conversation through a book club, virtual camp, and workshops. Their Be Well initiative offers a mental health specialist stipend program, free yoga, and meditation. There’s also a focus on learning circles for educators and parents.

“It takes a village,” Solano said. “We have to be intentional in the way we talk to Black and brown girls, the books we read them, the messages we send. When we pour into our Black and brown girls, we pour into the world, and we see it in everything we do.”

In our society, girls and them are erased and devalued. And Black and brown girls bear the brunt of the pain while being expected to grow up and become the melanated backbone of our democracy.

Save our girls and we just might save ourselves.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.