Nicole Lynn Lewis was a young girl with big dreams. The teenager's life was far from perfect, but she was a hard working student on track to follow in her sister's footsteps toward a college education. Then, she got pregnant — becoming a single mother with a fractious relationship with her daughter's father. At the time, the odds were against her. Now, the author and activist can safely say she was able to overcome them.
But Nicole doesn't want hers to be the story of an exceptional triumph. As an activist, speaker and the founder of the nonprofit Generation Hope, she's made it her mission to destigmatize the experience, and help other young parents achieve their own educational dreams. In her new book "Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creative a Better Future for Young Families," she shares her incredible story of resilience and hope, but she also outlines the multiple systemic circumstances surrounding teen pregnancy, and what all of us can do to make a better future for teen moms — and their kids. Salon spoke to Nicole recently about her book, and how everybody wins when girls succeed. As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for print.
There's a line in the book where you say, "A college degree is not a magic wand." Let's talk about what a college degree is and is not.
A college degree is a game changer, for sure. You look at the economic impact of having a post-secondary credential, it's pretty hard to dispute what that can do for an individual. In the case of young parents and student parents, for a family, not only does it create more earning power for that parent, but it sets that little one up for their own academic and career success, years in the future. The economic benefit is clear. We also know that there's research out there around the socioeconomic benefits that come with a college degree. You're more likely to have better health. You're more likely to vote and be civically engaged. All of these different things really help individuals become more connected in their community, to live fuller lives.
What it doesn't do it is erase the glaring disparities that many student parents have coming into higher ed, particularly students of color. The racial wealth gap is still going to exist for that family. If you are a black or brown student, you're going to have to overcome some serious hurdles just to come into higher ed, never mind completing higher education. So It doesn't erase the challenges that many face, but it is definitely game changing and can set that family up for success, and has a ripple effect for generations to come.
It's very easy to look at one individual success story and say, "See, this person pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, why can't everyone?" without looking at the larger systemic issues and addressing them.
I'm hoping that people don't take that away from "Pregnant Girl" because there are so many times that I was on the edge of not being able to pay rent, not being able to afford child care. It would've been very easy for me to drop out of college. For the vast majority of students, those sinkholes are everywhere. There were many times where it would have turned out differently, had it not been for me getting off a waiting list for child care or finally being able to move into an apartment on campus — by the way, most campuses don't have family housing. I hope people look at my story and say, "She was successful, but there were so many opportunities for her to fall through the cracks. How do we make sure that doesn't happen for the vast majority of parenting college students?"
A lot of us looking from the outside in don't necessarily see all of these other factors coming into play. Before we even get to being a parent and a college student, there is reproductive coercion and how prevalent that is.
There are so many aspects of teen pregnancy that we just don't talk about. Reproductive coercion is one of them, where you have a partner who is sabotaging your birth control or pressuring you to have a child, moving for the ultimate goal of controlling you. I talk about my own experience with that. I talk about our scholars at Generation Hope. Oftentimes they're in these abusive situations as a young woman, where you have very little control over your body. That's one aspect. Another aspect is access to birth control is even a challenge in certain communities, particularly for black and brown girls where you're not getting the adequate and thorough information that you need to be able to make decisions about your body. I talk in the book about young women in our program who have been raped, statutory rape, molestation. That is happening in our communities every single day and contributes to higher rates of teen pregnancy.
We have this image of everything was going great in a young person's life and they just got pregnant and then it spiraled out of control. What we really need to come to terms with is that in many cases, young people are in situations way before the pregnancy where they have very little control. They've experienced some incredibly traumatic things that we have to really start to address and help them and help them overcome. Those are the things that we're not talking about in the context of teen pregnancy.
You're really exploring this from the context of what is happening even before a pregnancy starts. And then a girl does get pregnant, and the risks of violence and abuse increase. That's a context that needs to be discussed as well, that the risk of violence for any female, once she becomes pregnant, rises exponentially.
Then we're looking at issues of, of income, health insurance, stable living environment, and what happens postpartum psychologically. Being a student in general is hard. What happens when you're at risk for postpartum depression as well?
Any mom can appreciate how stressful, difficult and sometimes isolating it can be when you bring a newborn baby home, even when you have a village of support surrounding you. The reality is that for young mothers, many of them don't have the village of support. They don't have basic needs, even sometimes for their little ones — diapers, formula, things that I think we often take for granted. When you come home with that baby, and you're a young mother, you often don't have this really strong network that can rally around you. You've been stigmatized and marginalized because of your pregnancy, and shamed. You're trying to take care of the little one, be hopeful for a future that looks pretty dismal, and you often don't have the resources that you need to even be able to provide for that baby in a way that you want to.
It's an incredibly difficult time. I do think that there's opportunity for mothers of any age to really rally around young mothers and young parents at this critical stage when they are more likely to experience depression and other mental health issues that can not only be damaging for them, but could be damaging for their children. Just being able to be hopeful for the next day is a challenge. never mind being able to sit back and plan for your future and say, "I want to go to college. I want to pursue a career." It's so hard to see a bright future for yourself, especially with everyone around you is telling you that you're not going to be successful because you're a young parent.
What is the broader impact when we are bringing these teen moms into academia, and then into the workforce? Who benefits from that? What changes?
We've all seen in this pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted black and brown women and black and brown mothers in particular, that when one community suffers that we all suffer. The pandemic has illustrated that in a really painful way for us as a country. Economic recovery can not only focus on certain groups. We need to have comprehensive supports across the board and start to include some of the populations that we've been historically excluding from opportunities, including opportunities to succeed in higher education.
At Generation Hope, some of our moms are incredible examples of why this is beneficial to all of us. Our moms have gone on to work as teachers in public school systems. They're working for the Department of Defense as computer engineers. And nurses, even in the pandemic, we've had our scholars still in college in our program, being on the frontline in the Coronavirus battle here working directly with COVID patients. I hope people really see that there is a benefit to all of us. These are the nurses and the teachers and the doctors and the people who are protecting our country from cyber security threats.We miss out on all of that talent, we miss out on all of that expertise and skills, when we say, "No, you can't go to college and you can't be successful."
How do we change that narrative, to say that a girl who quote-unquote "gets pregnant" is worthy — that she deserves this, that she is entitled to an education?
I think I'm hoping that we can change the narrative by helping people to see the inherent value in every individual and everyone. Regardless of what their decisions are, regardless of whether they experience a pregnancy or not, every young person has inherent value and incredible potential, including teen parents. Often, the pregnancy is not the first thing that's happened to them; they have been through some really difficult traumatic things that we as a society really need to start coming to terms with and showing up for these young people. Seeing past their pregnancies and seeing the potential that they have for the future. And hoping that the book really does help people begin to think differently and say, "Let's peel back the layers of all of the negative stereotypes and the shaming and the stigma that really serves no purpose." When you think about it, it doesn't produce any good in the world and it's not preventing teen pregnancy. It's not helping those individuals who experienced teen pregnancy and go on to parent. I hope we could move past that and start to really think more deeply about how can we show up for this population.
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How can we show up? What can we be doing in our own families, in our own neighborhoods, in our own schools?
We're all in a position to change that narrative and to be more supportive of young parents. I think whether it's your church, your neighborhood, your school, your community group, you are probably connected in some way to a young person who has experienced the pregnancy and doing parenting. That's an opportunity on a one-on-one level to reach out and to really say, "I believe in you, I want to help you. Let me work with you." There's an opportunity for us to say, "Hey, I want to connect with young parents and my community in any way that I can." Oftentimes there are nonprofit organizations in your community that are helping young parents in some capacity. It might be providing diapers and baby wipes. It might be helping them with housing or getting through high school.
Looking for an organization in your community that is doing something to support students parents, and teen parents. On a higher level, on a more systemic level, what are the policies that we can all get behind that ensure that young parents are set up for success, whether it's housing affordability, whether it's this free college movement? There are many policies that could really make broad impacts on this population. And we as individuals have an opportunity to have influence — whether it's at the local level or at the federal level — really doing our homework and saying, "What can I do just as a citizen to make sure that the population is successful?"
And what can we do to get involved with Generation Hope?
People can go to generationhope.org. We have all sorts of opportunities there. If you're local, we have mentoring opportunities and you can volunteer in our childcare program. If you're not local, we also have virtual opportunities, whether it's tutoring or providing career readiness support to our students. There are plenty of ways for people to get involved, and we would love to have more people supporting our mission.