Safe House provides haven, guidance for girls in north St. Louis

JEFF-VANDER-LOU – As a 20-something “northsider,” Shante Duncan was admittedly insecure as she faced the dicey realities of city life, which included an emphatically bad boyfriend break-up. She would find safety and security in her great-grandmother and in the sisterhood that came with rapping with her formative female peers. 

A formal sister-circle, S.H.E.R.A.H (Sisters Helping Each other Reach A Higher Height) took root in Duncan’s apartment. Years later, it branched off into the Love Project, which first mentored girls in community homes and, eventually, schools. 

Coming full circle, S.H.E.R.A.H, has grown into the Joan B. Quinn Safe House, named after Duncan’s “still-kicking-knowledge” great-grandmother. The house is situated in the same neighborhood, Jeff-Vander-Lou, where Duncan grew up. 

A photograph honoring her influential great-grandmother is centered on the dining room wall of the safe house that is populated with girls who, like a young Duncan, seek safety and security.  

“We wanted to create this space of compassion and sisterhood, and I felt like that’s what my grandmother represents, so we named it after her,” said Duncan, who was determined to reach back and uplift other girls to higher heights.

When Duncan first started the sister circles, she immediately witnessed the power of togetherness. 

“Once it became consistent, we started seeing how powerful we really were, and our mission became to empower ourselves as women and to assist in the rebuilding of the community,” Duncan said. 

Starting with just three women, the group would do yoga, meditation and have real, open  and personal dialogue and embrace other women’s groups. 

“It became super clear that if we do the work of working on ourselves and master the art of loving ourselves, we can take all of the good work that we’re doing in own personal lives and share it on a large scale in the community,” Duncan said, pointing to such possibilities as building up houses and starting businesses.   

When Duncan eventually began the Love Project, having that same open dialogue with young girls at area schools revealed that a large number of them had experienced some kind of sexual trauma or violence.

Many of the girls, Duncan said, had suffered such assaults as rape, pedophilia and trafficking, but were afraid to alert law enforcement or the state Department of Social Services’ family support division. 

“So, instead of just giving them a safe place for 45 minutes a week, I decided to create a live-in safe place for them,” Duncan said, explaining, “We want all women of color to come and feel like they can come and move.”  

 Currently, the Joan B. Quinn Safe House serves girls of color who have experienced sexual trauma and violence. Clients must be at least 18 years old, until fulfillment of a few state requirements are met. 

Duncan said the requirements were minimal and would allow girls as young as 12 into the safe house. Once there, girls receive life-skills classes and therapy, and those that are old enough to work can seek employment. However, Duncan doesn’t rush the young women into jobs.

“We know we live in a society that rushes us to go get a job, so we try to pace them and let them go a little slower, so instead of just finding a job, they find a purpose and don’t get a job that they end up hating,” Duncan said. 

“We try to set them up for absolute success,” she added.  

Empowered to succeed, the girls learn self-love, community development and entrepreneurship, through seven principles of self-care: physical, psychological, social, financial, professional, emotional and spiritual. 

“We know that if you can master the art of self-love, then you’re going to pretty much master your life,” Duncan said. She added, “I tell them that if they’re looking for a space where they can embrace their ‘victimhood,’ this ain’t the space. And once they heal from trauma, it’s time to go to war, rebuild and do the work.”

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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