In 2004, Jelysa Roberts was a junior at Cathedral High School, a girls-only, private Catholic school in Manhattan. She was enrolled in a college prep program and looking forward to a very bright future. Then, she found out she was pregnant. She knew two things without question: she would have her baby, and she would graduate from Cathedral.
"I remember a lot of people telling me, ‘Oh, your life is over,’" she said. "This is it. And I'm like, ‘You all don't know me.’"
Enter Benita Miller. A longtime activist and legend in the realm of social justice, Miller dedicated her life to finding solutions for pregnant teens and new moms struggling to navigate a new and unfamiliar world.
"And I gave birth," Jelysa said. "And they said I couldn't come back, so we went to the Civil Liberties Union to fight for my rights."
Miller founded the Brooklyn Young Mother's Collective, offering everything from legal to social services support.
Her role as a champion for the rights of teen moms came naturally to her. Born and raised in Detroit, she herself was the child of teen parents. But her true calling began when she became a single mom while studying for her law degree.
"So, when I started practicing law what struck me in family court was the lack of support for families, in particular young mothers," she said. "So thinking about my mother's journey and my own journey, I started to help young mothers that were connected to family court. That was the beginning of it. My whole goal was to educate young women about what it would be like if they got involved with the child welfare system."
In the last decade, teen pregnancy numbers have been moving in the right direction, down more than 59% from 2010, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But what keeps Benita Miller up at night is the worry that teens who do become pregnant might simply slip between the cracks.
She said, "My fear is that they will disappear into poverty, right? And they will disappear into feeling disengaged in their own community. And as a result they have more stress when parenting. Or they become very invisible at a very early age because the focus becomes the so-called saving the baby, as if we can inoculate children against poverty if we don't help their parents."
In her nearly 25-year career, Miller created countless programs to help teen mothers. She estimates the groups she's worked with have helped hundreds if not thousands of pregnant teens. One of the biggest weapons in her arsenal: Title IX. She was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union as one of the nine people who shaped the law and educational equality.
"Nowadays, people that do social justice work think about their verified check or how many followers they have on social media, not everybody, but lots of people," she said. "But when we were doing that work I was so focused on just helping young women and young children get to the other side of what was a very segregated school setting. It was hidden in plain sight. Everyone accepted that it was OK to marginalize young women around their education based on their pregnancy and parental status.
When Jelysa Roberts became pregnant, she was forced move from her parochial school to a New York City "P" school in Brooklyn, a public schools set aside for students who were pregnant or new moms, a system that segregated them from the rest of the student body.
"I was at a college prep school," Jelysa said, "so going there I was in classes with, like, 10th graders and I was supposed to be in the 11th grade."
But when Cathedral made it clear they did not want her back, Miller, Roberts and the Civil Liberties Union used Title IX, which prohibits schools from excluding pregnant students from any of their educational programs, to make sure her senior year seat was waiting for her.
She took time off for maternity leave, took her Regents exams in June and by the start of the school year, she was back in class at Cathedral.
Miller, with Roberts at her side at the Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective, then used Title IX to close down the "P" schools, allowing students to remain at their own schools while they were pregnant or caring for their newborns.
"Once we looked at the law, particularly Title IX, which is grounded in the principles, not just about sports, but around education access, we started to move toward closing the programs," she said. "And we successfully did that. Lots of people were very upset about it because we were working from a paradigm that those schools helped some of the girls. But when you have at the time about 400 pregnant teenagers, but only 40 of them showing up for the 400 seats, there's a disconnect. Those young women did not see those schools as places that would generate or promote their success."
Roberts went on to earn her MBA, and works for the Department of Education. Her son, Kai, is now 16 years old. She's a mom of three, and planning her wedding. Miller's work has led to dozens of policy changes. But her work is far from over.
She says it was never about creating what she calls, "well-adjusted poor people,” so it's not about simply offering services. She says it's about creating conditions that liberate and promote self-determination, and that means giving the people who need help a voice.
"The way that I see fixing it is through big system change,” she said. “So how do you start to look at the policies and practices that hold people back or constrain their future? That's the work that I continue to do."