By Tori Marlan
The room is small and depressing, furnished only with a round table and a few hard chairs. No art or paint livens the brown brick walls, no couch or cushions provide comfort. A window spans the width of the room, but it’s up so high, snug against the ceiling, that only sky is visible. Even the sunlight seems harsh in this space, beating down directly on the table, making you squint.
Four African-American teenage girls sit around the table in navy sweatpants. A tough-looking 16-year-old with a compact build and cornrows is explaining to the others what it’s like to be a Girl Scout on the southeast side. “We consider our Girl Scouts club like a gang, like the GDs consider their club a gang,” says the girl, Natasha, leaning forward in her seat. “We do this.” She flashes a bastardized version of the three-finger Girl Scouts salute, keeping her fingers apart rather than together to make it resemble the Gangster Disciples’ pitchfork. “Whassup?” she says, giggling. Almost simultaneously, Emily, a spectacled 16-year-old scout from Broadview, throws back the sign, revealing a mouthful of braces as she laughs.
Natasha and Emily have been Girl Scouts for many years. Emily now considers herself an independent scout, since the girls in her troop “got all cool” as they grew older, and fell away. The other girls here, Tyesha and Melanie, both 14, had never been to a Girl Scouts meeting before today.
It wasn’t a typical meeting. Traditional scouting is out of the question for these girls. They aren’t allowed to make arts and crafts or garden, because they aren’t trusted not to stab each other with scissors or shears. They can’t go camping or take field trips, and they aren’t allowed to sell cookies or tag along downtown with career mentors. They’re inmates at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
Four years ago, the leaders of Girl Scouts of Chicago started up a troop here, figuring that girls in trouble with the law, perhaps even more than others, could benefit from the organization, which aims to “inspire girls with the highest ideals of character, conduct, patriotism, and service that they may become happy and resourceful citizens.”
Every Thursday afternoon troop leader Johnsey Louden passes through the metal detectors at the juvenile court building at 1100 S. Hamilton. After checking in at the front desk of the detention center, she follows a staff member up to the fifth floor and down a series of long corridors with tinted windows that overlook a vast concrete courtyard where boys and girls spend their separate rec hours tossing around a ball. Once inside the girls’ residential quarters, Louden approaches the inmates in the TV room and tries to sell them on “some quality girl time.” Typically, she says, no more than six bother to get up and see what the Girl Scouts meetings are all about.
Although she has never led a Girl Scouts troop outside the walls of the detention center–or “on the bricks,” as the girls say–she did lead her son’s Cub Scouts troop ten years ago and is now responsible for recruiting, selecting, and training new Girl Scouts leaders for parts of the city’s southwest side. From 1986 to 1993, employed by the Cook County Sheriff’s Youth Services Department, she presented anger-management and drug-education workshops to kids in schools and churches–an experience she believes helped prepare her to work with the girls at the detention center.
Louden’s relationship with Girl Scouts goes way back: she was a scout herself on the south side in the 1950s. Today’s scouts participate in some of the same activities, she says, like crafts and community service, but as the world and the girls in it changed, the organization evolved accordingly. “Our biggest decision was whether to wear brown-and-white saddle oxfords or black-and-white saddle oxfords,” says Louden. These days the Girl Scouts handbook addresses the problems of gangs and drugs and teen pregnancy. Louden doesn’t necessarily think the meetings at the detention center will “turn a person around.” But, she says, “If it helps them to make better decisions, it’s worth it.”
Since the population here changes every week, Louden rarely meets with the same group twice. New girls arrive, some get released, others get shipped off to prison. For this reason, and because of restrictions imposed by the girls’ circumstances, she holds “self-contained” meetings. Nobody here is working toward a badge.
Louden mostly just gets the girls talking. It’s a welcome reprieve, they say, from the enforced silence of life at the detention center, where spontaneous chatter can land them facing a wall for 40 minutes. Conversation here is limited to one hour a day, during recreation, unless the girls get special permission from staff–and when that happens, according to Emily, they often waste the opportunity. “Everybody usually just talks about each other,” she says with a sigh.
Louden presses them to think about weightier matters–like stereotypes, careers, how to control anger, and how advertising and the media manipulate us. “I’m kind of focusing on things that will help the girls when they’re released,” she says.
At todays meeting, which just ended, she passed out newspaper articles about crimes and deaths. She wanted the four girls (their names have been changed; charges against them were not disclosed because they’re minors) to think about how the incidents might be perceived differently by different people and how the grim outcomes might have been avoided.
One article told the story of four children, aged two to six, who died after accidentally getting locked in a car trunk.
Natasha was outraged at the father, who had left the trunk open. Rocking back and forth in her chair, her voice a roller coaster of inflection, she said, “Why would you open up a trunk and don’t close it back? You have to be cautious anytime there’s children around that young. I have a son myself. I have to be cautious. That’s how my son’s arm got broken, ’cause I wasn’t cautious of the things he was doing or the things that was being done around him. You have to be cautious.”
“But a trunk?” said Tyesha. “You ain’t gonna think they gonna climb in a trunk.”
“My son would,” said Natasha.
“Six years old, though?”
“My son’s two,” Natasha said.
“A two-year-old you have to watch like that,” Tyesha agreed, “but not when you’re six. My niece is six, and she act like she’s grown. So I don’t know how other six-year-olds act, but at six you should know better.”
“We don’t know if it was an accident, if they pulled the trunk down on purpose or if they were playing with it,” said Louden. “We don’t know those details and probably never will.” She turned to Natasha. “So, you think it’s the father’s fault?” And then looking at Tyesha, she said, “And you think it’s the oldest child’s?”
Emily, the girl from the suburbs, said she didn’t think that six-year-olds would necessarily know the dangers of playing in a car trunk. “It depends on how they’ve been raised,” she said matter-of-factly. “Some six-year-olds have sense, some don’t.”
The group then moved on to an article about Ryan Harris, the 11-year-old girl who disappeared while riding her bike in Englewood and was found dead the next day.
Again Natasha spoke up first, saying it was important to supervise children but adding that Harris “should have also known that she shouldn’t go with strangers.”
“But that’s assuming she went willingly,” Emily pointed out.
Whether or not she went willingly hardly mattered to Melanie. In her eyes the little girl made a big mistake. “She took off on her bike and rode off.”
Natasha agreed. She never would have strayed as a child, she said, because “in my neighborhood they’re quick to snatch you.” The conversation drifted off, and Louden tried to rein it in.
“It’s a bad world out there,” she offered, “and unfortunately kids are targets because they’re easy.” She looked around the table. “Whose fault do you think it is?”
“Honestly,” said Natasha. “I think it’s the little girl’s fault. But then again, it’s the parents’ fault.”
“I don’t like saying she’s at fault, that she deserved it,” Emily said, seeming a bit irritated.
“What about the person who did it to her?” Louden suggested.
“That’s whose fault it is, isn’t it?” Emily said.
Melanie still blamed the girl. “Her grandparents told her not to leave out of sight. So she was supposed to stay around, not even go off the block.”
Next they discussed a drunk-driving accident. Tyesha said her own cousin recently caused an accident that killed his girlfriend, a passenger.
“I don’t feel he should go to jail, ’cause she knew he was drunk,” she said.
Natasha perked up in her seat. “Me, I’m a very good driver. And I do drink. A whole lot. And I’m young. But ain’t no way in the world–I don’t care how drunk I am–I will not get behind no steering wheel.” She hit the table with her open palm. “For nothing. If something was wrong with my son and I was drunk and I had to take him to the hospital, I would rather ask somebody else to drive who was sober. I think he should suffer for it and go to jail. That’s how I feel.”
“If he was that drunk,” said Tyesha, “he couldn’t drive, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t walk. Why would she let him get behind a steering wheel?”
A few minutes later, though, when Louden asked the girls whether they really thought passengers bear the brunt of the responsibility to prevent drunk driving, Tyesha seemed to waver from her argument. “Everyone I hang with do everything I do,” she said. “That’s the point of being together. Because everybody doin’ the same thing. So why would that person take the keys from me, but they can’t drive neither?”
They moved on to an article about a girl whose father had shot her mother in the head. The mother lingered in a coma for 18 years before dying.
“It would be real hard on a kid to see their parent like that for 18 years,” said Louden.
“Well, not really,” said Natasha, “’cause my biological mother, she left me at the age of two, and like I always told my son, I always gonna be there. My son call me here every day. He calls me–he knows who I am. He knows mama gonna be there for him.” Natasha eventually found her way back to the article, saying that the sight of the mother probably had comforted the girl, even though the mother couldn’t talk to her.
Melanie disagreed. “I don’t think it was good for the daughter to see her mama like that,” she said. “She should have gone ahead and died.” A grin began to grow on her face. She covered her mouth to stave off the laughter, and then threw her face down on the table and relented, letting it all out. The other girls watched her shoulders shake. When Melanie gained her composure she lifted her head and said, “Naw, it ain’t funny, but it was like she was dead anyway.”
“She probably felt a closeness to her mother, even though she couldn’t respond,” Louden said.
“The way she was talking to her mother, she could have went to the funeral place and talked to her,” Melanie said.
“That’s another opinion,” Louden said, diplomatically.
“You can hold your mama, you can kiss your mama,” said Natasha. “At a funeral place your mama cold, froze feelin’. You don’t want to hug and kiss your mama like that.”
“They should have just gone ahead and killed her,” said Melanie. “Not killed her but let her die. It was her time to die.”
“If it was her time to die she would have died when she got shot right then and there,” Natasha argued.
“Her life was gone,” Melanie said.
“Well, we got some different opinions and that’s fine,” said Louden. “We’re going to end.”
After Louden left the room, Melanie and Tyesha filled out forms that registered them as official members of Girl Scouts. Louden hopes that they will call when they’re released to find out where their local troop is located, but she doesn’t really expect them to. Only one girl from the detention center ever has.
As the girls wait to be led back to their residential quarters, Natasha and Emily turn into a two-woman recruiting team, talking about how much better Girls Scouts is on the bricks.
“We usually have fun,” Natasha says, launching into her Gangster Disciples analogy. “We got our own colors like the gang, our own organization. Just like they got their own little thing, we got our own little thing. But they be slinging rocks and we be slinging cookies.” o