At first, Gisselle Smith-Echevarria thought she would write about pollution, a safe topic, nothing personal.

Then, she grew more fearless. She scrapped that idea and instead penned an essay that hit close to home: her family’s bout with homelessness when she was 9 years old. She wants to inspire others in similar circumstances not to give up hope.

Smith-Echevarria, 17, a senior at the Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, is among 10 young women from the city who shared their stories in a newly released book, Speak, Young Brown People, Speak. We Are Listening!

”It was very important to share my experiences,” she said. “I felt like I needed to do it.”

Smith-Echevarria and the other teens wrote candidly about poverty, racism, sexism, social injustice, police brutality, and environmental racism. Some wrote poems; others expressed their views through artwork. They were allowed creative freedom with minor editing.

“The girls embraced the project because it provided an outlet for their voices to be heard and released to the masses,” said Gaylene Gordon, the girls’ adviser and creative-writing instructor for the book project.

The book’s publisher, Alberta Lampkins, issued a national call in 2020 seeking essays, poems, affirmations, and art submissions and received 10 from the girls from the Women of the Dream program in Camden. Six other submissions came from girls in North Carolina and New York.

”They spoke boldly. I was really just blown away,” said Lampkins, of A.L. Savvy Publications, a self-publishing company in North Carolina. “We need to listen to what they have to say.”

Lampkins waived all fees and covered all expenses, including paying for the striking cover design. She gave all the participants two free copies of the book, too.

The girls, wearing orange Women of the Dream T-shirts, were treated like rock stars at a book unveiling Wednesday at the Camden High School complex. They sat on stage in the auditorium and were introduced at a news conference.

Nine of the girls are seniors at Brimm, Creative Arts, LEAP Academy, and Penn Tech High schools. The remaining girl from Camden, Monae Clayton, graduated in 2021 from Brimm.

Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen and School Superintendent Katrina T. McCombs purchased copies of the book and got their autographs. Carstarphen called the signing “beyond incredible.”

”Your city is proud of you,” McCombs said. “We can’t wait to see what you accomplish in the next chapter of your lives.”

McCombs read a poem from the book as the author, Aaliyah Burke, 18, stood with her at the lectern. McCombs, who grew up in Camden, said she related to the girl’s poem, titled “Misunderstanding,” which reads, in part:

I am a woman

My posture is strong

My voice is stern

My heart is broken.

Burke, an aspiring veterinarian or possibly psychologist, said she enjoyed writing a short piece instead of an essay. Expressing herself was cathartic, she said.

“I felt like I got a very lot off my chest,” she said. “It felt right.”

Another author, Killiam Cato, spoke for her fellow writers at the event.

“All of the girls you see here today have dreams from the time they were little girls — the dream of a life that wasn’t so hard,” Cato said. “We watched our parents and caregivers struggle under the weight of poverty, crime, addiction, food insecurity, and institutional racism.”

She added: “Sometimes, it was hard to believe that just a few miles away, girls our age have a completely different reality: clean, safe neighborhoods, big, single-family homes, closets full of new clothes, kitchens full of healthy foods, and the support they need to go to school and just be teenagers.”

In her essay, Smith-Echevarria recalled moving from place to place, living with relatives and living in motels for 18 months when her family was evicted. At one point, she was enrolled in a predominantly white suburban school district nearby where she found it hard to make new friends.

“Bouncing around from one place to another affected me in ways that I didn’t understand then, but I realize now that we were homeless because we were poor and Black,” she wrote.

Smith-Echevarria said the experience helped mend her relationship with her mother. It also made her grateful for small things, such as water-gun fights on hot summer days at the motel with her brother and friends.

”I want people to know it gets easier. Just hold on to your happiness,” she said.

Ildeanis Martinez wrote about what she believes are unspoken problems in some dysfunctional Hispanic families. Raised by a single mother, she watched her mother struggle financially. She didn’t agree when girls were given tasks that boys didn’t have to do.

In her essay titled “Pain,” Jasmine Robinson expressed hurt she experienced when she was judged by the color of her dark brown skin. She was rejected for dates or ostracized by some, the last picked for activities.

”Growing up, I hated to look at mirrors; it just reminded me of something nobody liked. Little did they know that little jokes planted hatred in me about myself,” she wrote.

Robinson, 17, who attends LEAP Academy, said she eventually became more confident in her skin tone and no longer worries about how others view her. She plans to become a dental hygienist.

“I will never let them steal my sunshine,” she wrote.

Shaniya Bates and Clayton wrote essays that touched on police brutality. The girls began working on the project around the time that George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Bates, 17, said police twice raided her grandmother’s house without warrants seeking a cousin and her father. The first time happened when she was 8 and again when she was a teenager.

”No kid should ever have to experience what I went through,” she wrote. “To experience police brutality breaks you in ways you can’t imagine.”

Clayton wrote:

I’m From Camden

Where you don’t know if you going to die or not

Get shot

When you get stopped by the cops

They don’t see innocence

They just see color

They get scared and shoot

Leslie Morris, who founded Women of the Dream in 2008, wanted to give the girls a forum to express how their lives have been affected by injustice. The nonprofit provides mentoring, life skills, and college-prep training to about 200 high school and middle school girls in Camden.

”They have been trained to be OK with being transparent and honest,” said Morris.

Proceeds from books purchased through the group’s website will help fund scholarships for the 10 authors. The other authors are Lanasia Melvins, Paris Mears, and Trinity Martinez.

For more information or to buy the book for $15, visit https://womenofthedream.org/ten-of-our-women-of-the-dream-girls-are-now-authors/ or contact Leslie Morris at 609-968-8961 or leslie.morris@womenofthedream.org