Forward Together's 25th anniversary.
When I gave birth to my daughter at 17, I finally met the person who would drastically change my life. With trembling hands, I held her close to my skin and cried in a way I never cried before. There was this moment of overwhelming emotion, having felt a different kind of love I never knew before, but I felt a deeper darkness lurking within me. I was young and afraid that what everyone told me would come true – that the baby lying on my chest would ruin my life. Months after my daughter’s birth, those harmful words were constantly being repeated in my mind and I questioned whether I would ever be capable of being a good mother.
Pushing back against negativity and judgment is difficult when you don’t recognize it as a problem, but only see it as your reality. Until there were people who stood up with young moms, I didn’t even realize there was something to stand up for or that my destiny didn’t have to be pre-determined. The pain and discomfort I often felt eventually pushed me to start asking questions and wonder why I was not seen as a valuable woman in our society – but I didn’t want to stand alone. So when I discovered that Forward Together and the Strong Families Coalition members recognized the need to include young mothers and fathers within their intersectional movement, it helped reinforce that feeling that, yes, I am valuable. Having a powerful and inclusive group of people who dedicated themselves to loving a stranger in the struggle, like me, I had the fuel I needed to keep going and start speaking out.
I wasn’t just raising a child, I needed to overcome intentionally difficult obstacles, disprove stereotypes, and watch my every step or risk losing my child to the system because I was Latina, because I was 17, and because society labeled me as a bad parent before my child was even born. Every time I would stand up tall and feel like I was getting close to accomplishing something great, there was always a system ready to shut me down. In 2006, I was told that my baby would interfere with my motivation to finish high school and go to college, but the only people interfering with my education were people with power who focused too much on regurgitating statistics on my likelihood of graduating instead of getting out of my way.
Why are we pushed to the side, strategically isolated from support systems, asked uncomfortable questions about our lives, and pressured to make decisions that align with societal expectations or risk the possibility of losing our children? When there are overwhelmingly negative messages in the media, narrowly framed data, and biased images of teen parents influencing everyone around me, it felt impossible to try to accomplish anything. Why would anyone listen to me when there’s contradicting data from an academic organization? I learned quickly that by ignoring some of our individual voices, it’s easy for many to render us invisible or exceptionalize our success, but together our voices build power. And that is why Forward Together’s work is so meaningful and important to me and my community.
One of the most valuable things I learned through my partnership with Forward Together is how a healthy relationship with an organization should feel. While there are so many predatory nonprofit organizations who simply seek to exploit the lives of marginalized communities for their own funding and public relation needs, there are few organizations that work to build a better world for us, our families, and families everywhere through patience, respect and meaningful engagement. They work hard to listen, learn, and help us move forward together.
Natasha Vianna is a Boston-based Latina activist, public speaker, and a co-founder of #NoTeenShame. As a former teen mom, Natasha works with activists and organizations across the country to launch and support strategic messaging campaigns that dissect the realities of teen pregnancy while eliminating the unnecessary stigmatization of young families. Recently, she took the stage to share a TEDx talk on the culture of shaming young mothers for their reproductive choices. Follow her on Twitter: @NatashaVianna.