Center on Poverty and Inequality Launches Gender, Justice and Opportunity Initiative

May 24, 2018

Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality, with granddaughter Ellika and 11-year-old activist Naomi Wadler at the Center’s launch of its Initiative on Gender, Justice and Opportunity on May 15.

To hear her talk about rights for African American girls, discussing policy and speaking out on hot-button issues like gun control, one might think that Naomi Wadler is an incoming Georgetown Law student, with plans to change the world.

She is, in fact, already changing the world. Wadler’s passionate speech against gun violence made headlines around the globe at the March for Our Lives rally earlier this year. She organized a walkout at her Virginia school, despite opposition from school officials.

She may become an excellent lawyer – but not for another decade or so. Because right now, Wadler is 11 years old.

Wadler appeared at Georgetown Law on May 15 at the launch of the Initiative on Gender, Justice and Opportunity, a project of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. Her presence was central to the event and a manifestation of the Initiative’s guiding principles: that girls of color should take the lead in identifying responses and solutions to the challenges they face.

The Initiative will fortify and grow the Center’s existing commitment to conducting research, engaging in advocacy and offering solutions to challenges in the lived experiences of marginalized girls in the United States. The Center will work with girls of color and launch a nationwide network that will provide resources on trauma-informed approaches in schools.

“Today, we are celebrating a new stage of the Center on Poverty’s mission to support low income girls and girls of color,” said Executive Director Rebecca Epstein.

Making a difference

The Initiative on Gender, Justice and Opportunity builds on years of work in support of girls who have been marginalized. The Center on Poverty and Inequality has hosted conferences and authored reports on how public systems can do better in their approach to girls, including groundbreaking research on the adultification of black girls and safety in schools.

The research found that black girls are five times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, and more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses like disrespect and disobedience, due to discriminatory perceptions. The Center has turned that research into action, helping form national coalitions to advise on policy, and working with officials to better serve girls in the school and juvenile justice systems. The network already has 250 people signed up nationwide – ranging from school superintendents to mental health counselors to community liaisons.

The work of the network will be guided by an advisory council of girls. Wadler, Epstein said, is considering joining that council.

“We have a broad cross-section of [applicants] who are in a position to make a difference,” said Epstein.


Three distinguished senior scholars have already been invited to participate in the Initiative: Kimberlyn Leary, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Jamilia Blake of Texas A&M, a leading educational psychology professor; and Thalia González, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College who is a nationally recognized expert in restorative justice.

At the May 15 event, González spoke of her work at the intersection of school discipline and restorative justice. She has been working with groups of girls in formulating questions for research surveys that she will administer in schools in several cities to identify the health benefits of restorative justice, and how to better support them by building on their strengths and resilience.

“These girls of color who have been so deeply impactful in my life are not the subjects of the study, they are the researchers,” she said. “[W]e’re doing something that’s radical and different, because we’re turning to the wisdom and the experience of those who know best, which is marginalized women and girls.”

Leary spoke of girls of color and mental health, noting that while discussions of mental health in communities of color still carry stigma, mental health professionals should bear responsibility for why girls and young women of color have not gotten the treatment they need.

“One reason mental health and girls of color has received less attention is because the profession has been less attentive to girls and young women of color,” Leary said.

“Do Something”

In a special moment for Georgetown Law, Wadler was introduced by 16-year-old Ellika Edelman and her grandfather, Professor Peter Edelman – the faculty director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Ellika applauded Wadler’s courage in speaking out, despite the fact, she noted to much laughter, that at just 11, she “even makes me feel old.”

In her remarks, Wadler praised the Center on Poverty and Inequality, noting that its reports “should be required reading for policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels.”

In an interview with authors/scholars Monique Morris and Melissa Harris-Perry, Wadler urged the audience to “support girls in schools, advocate for better [and] more equitable disciplinary policies, represent girls who are targeted by resource officers and pushed toward expulsion. Fight for black girls!”

And she had a special message for the lawyers in the room: “Don’t just read all these terrible statistics and shake your head,” she said. “Do something! You are lawyers!”

So would Wadler like to become a lawyer herself? She said after the event that law school was a possibility but admitted that her career plans change every few minutes. Would she like to go to Georgetown? “It has nice resources for its students,” she observed. “[Scholars focus on] different topics – even if it’s [a] really controversial topic – and I really appreciate that.”

The work of the Center on Poverty and Inequality has become even more urgent following the 2016 presidential election and the rollback of progress made during the Obama Administration at agencies such as the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, Epstein said. The Center has increased its funding to work on issues facing girls of color, with generous support from the 4Girls Foundation, Inc., the NoVo Foundation, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.