How do some children break the cycle of poverty? Looking Out: Hope, Help, and Friendship Between Poor, Teenaged Girls, forthcoming from Princeton University Press, addresses this morally-urgent question with a new story about young people trying to make it. It follows two cliques of teenaged girls who lived in Boston-area housing projects as they grew from high school students into young women. Drawing on four years of immersive fieldwork and participant observation, Looking Out shows how the peer group—vilified or ignored in most accounts—can powerfully promote adolescent well-being, success, and even mobility. The girls in this book shared diverse, unyielding support through their friendships. They helped each other cope, aspire, and achieve.
For most teenagers, friendships are at the center of daily life. Friends offer an intimacy and understanding that adults rarely can. But researchers often focus on the risks of friendships between poor young people—emphasizing peer pressure or how “peer effects” spread things like drug use and crime through social networks. Among the girls in this book, however, friends were often a primary source of support. Girls met each other’s needs, both day-to-day and also in times of trauma, like after the violent deaths of peers. They shared money and food; fought off boredom and stayed out of trouble; dodged danger in the neighborhood; dealt with the new challenges of young womanhood. And, they fought hard for their friendships when they were tested by local tragedies, or when new freedoms tugged them in different directions. This care was one factor that helped the girls achieve their dreams of getting from the projects to college. But when they moved away, the young women all struggled when they lost the help on which they had long relied.
Looking Out closely details the girls’ relationships to one another and to young womanhood. What did poverty mean to them, and what did they need to get by? How did their friends—who also had little—meet their needs? How did girls respond to trauma? How did they use social media to manage poverty’s humiliations? What did friendships give that adults could or would not? To answer these questions, the book follows the young women outside of school, into their homes, hangouts and house parties. It shows what their lives looked like away from adults. It reveals what they did everyday, what they fought over, what they cared about. Through this, it shows what they needed to flourish.
The girls’ story challenges how we think about friendships between poor young people. Their story, largely untold, is about the deep well of potential and power found in the strong bonds between teenaged girls.