Forum steers Metro Detroit girls toward self-discovery

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Southfield — High school girls were asked to grip a personal mirror and look within Saturday asking themselves "who am I?" and "what do I need to overcome?" in a reflection session teaching them to take back their narrative. 

Sixty girls gathered for the Torch of Wisdom Foundation's inaugural Who Am I? conference centered on increasing self-awareness, giving back and setting a philanthropic mindset.

Alexis Davis displays messages created by participants of the Who Am I Conference in Southfield on Saturday, January 25, 2020.

Before girls start focusing on where they want to go in life and getting involved by volunteering, the foundation sets the precedent to focus on themselves, learn their values and how to prioritize their time, said LaSonja Chapple Campbell, program director of the foundation. 

"We think it is really important for the girls to be a part of this program to establish the foundation to ready themselves to be able to give make a difference," she said.

"The girls are from all walks of life, urban and suburban girls. What's so important about that is that the socio-issues that impact girls, they cross the economic lines. And so when you start talking about girls who have self-identity issues, girls who have been bullied, girls who have suffered a loss, girls who have parents who are drug-addicted ... it doesn't matter how much money is coming into the house, they're all dealing with something."

Psychotherapist Marcia Phillips speaks during The Who Am I conference in Southfield on Saturday, January 25, 2020.

In the first part of the workshop, the girls talked about self-identity, what they see when looking in the mirror, their physical attributes and then how to move past the exterior. The session was led by Marcia Phillips, a psychotherapist and founder of Perfectly Scarred, a nonprofit for child-burn survivors, like herself.

Phillips said many girls are in an emotional prison and that often stems from actions by adults who tell them they don't have anything to be stressed about or to "get over it" when something arises.

"If we really thought about how someone handled our situation or didn't handle our situations, things might be a whole lot better," she said. "So, by us, not addressing things or not even saying, you know, come hop up in bed and just tell me about your day and not having that often open communication, we ultimately teach children that they have to handle it themselves."

During the session, Phillips asked girls to judge her before telling her story of being burned at 14-months-old, leaving her with life-long discoloration and suffering from hidden issues. Girls leaned on one another, listening to Phillips' life story that others defined for her and the courage it took for her to define it for herself.

DayAnna Williams, center, listens to psychotherapist Marcia Phillips during The Who Am I conference in Southfield on Saturday, January 25, 2020.

Reinforcing that it was a safe space where they are supported and not judged, she asked they reveal what they needed to overcome in their life. Tears were shed as the attendees joined knee-to-knee with another unknown girl to confide in.

Azjah Johnson from Detroit was recommended to attend by her principal. She was the only one of her cheer team who attended and said she was surprised on how many people she connected with that she didn't know.

"When I walked in, I was like whoa, this is a lot of people and I didn't have to stay cool for long because I had to adapt to a new environment," said Johnson, 16. "I had to become aware of other people's feelings and how to cope with hearing different things about different people and I really did get emotional hearing what people have went through because I kind of went through the same things."

It's important to have these conversations in a time of social media where everyone feels connected but, studies show, they're becoming more lonely, Phillips said.

Niya Stone, left, Romiya Charleston, Natalie Brintlay, and Moriah Mixon fill a basket on Saturday, January 25, 2020, to be given to women at the Haven Center for Abused Women in Pontiac.

"They are actually more lonely because all of their connections with people are virtual, and through social media ... but when are we actually connecting, when do we put the phone down go outside and play or when do we have people sleepover, and sometimes it's because of adult trauma," she said. "We think that we're protecting our children but we're really starting to build up a wall based on past fears."

In the second part, attendees engaged in conversations that allowed them to connect on underlying issues and values. Girls came forward and talked about the type of dolls that were made available to them, most were white and they grew up asking themselves why they don't have long, straight hair.

"We're telling them, give your talent and to give your treasure, but you have to understand what things matter to you," Chapple Campbell said. "Where do you want to donate your time because you can get caught up trying to volunteer and be all things to all people."

The nonprofit hosts a series of events throughout the year and in May, an event for both boys and girls ages 16-19 are invited to The Learning Network, a youth employment six-week training hosted by Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_