Her dreams are big and bold, the way dreams are supposed to be.
She drives a 10-year-old Mercury Tracer, but has her eyes on a luxury car. She works a job that pays above minimum wage, but hopes to one day make much more. She lives in the projects, but wants to own property, a big house for her future family and for her mother.
For now these are only dreams, distant and airy. But 20-year-old Tazie Ashley has taken what might be one solid step toward reaching them: She has decided to put motherhood on hold.
"I like the finer things in life," says Ashley, a student at Southwest Community College. "I know you can have that with kids, but you have to be financially stable. . . . I told my mother and I told myself I will never be on [welfare]. Never. That's my plan."
Ashley's attitude helps explain why the birthrate for unmarried black women has shown signs of a slow but steady nationwide retreat. The birthrate of 7.4% in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available, is the lowest since 1955. At its high point in 1971, the birthrate was 9.6%.
"For all ages under 30 there have been really sizable declines in the 1990s," says Stephanie Ventura, author of a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The chance that an unmarried black woman will have a baby has dropped, and that's a very important finding. The rate is lower than at any time in the last 41 years."
The era of high birthrates among unmarried black women and girls is not a closed chapter. In 1996, 70% of all African American children were born to single women--the percentage so high in part because married women are having fewer children.
But one generation can learn from the other. Young women like Ashley draw from a reservoir of borrowed memories--the experiences of mothers, aunts, cousins, friends--and use them to inform their own lives.
A small and slender young woman, Ashley could easily pass for a high school student, even younger, until she speaks. It is as if she has held on to every shred of advice and wise word ever offered her, and now she speaks them with full authority.
"A kid can't raise a kid," she says. "I can't have a kid. I'm still doing what I want to do."
In Ashley's upbringing, the message to wait has been fundamental, reinforced by a strong-willed mother, once a teenage parent herself, who pushed her daughter to expect more from life. And by youth programs and jobs that took her from the projects and exposed her to other possibilities.
After 14 years living in the Avalon Gardens Housing Development, Ashley has seen "babies having babies," and nothing about that life entices her. Ashley's dream is to attend Grambling University in Louisiana and to open youth centers in the city.
"I look at them like, 'Y'all, I'm not getting caught up in that, no, no, no!' . . . I'm with getting an education, getting a job, taking care of my family, that's all I'm with."
Being with that has meant she has sometimes suffered taunts from some girls in the projects who have accused her of thinking she's "all that." They once threatened to jump her, she recalls.
"They envy me," she says, holding a plaque that she has just been awarded for serving on the Housing Authority Youth Council. "I tell them, 'Don't hate me, be better than me.' I tell them, 'You can do it too.' "
A Change in Attitude
No single factor can fully explain why so many young women like Ashley are now less likely to have babies. U.S. Surgeon General David Sachter pointed to several factors, including African American women "seeing themselves moving into careers and not having babies" and better sex education.
Other experts say the national decline--which began before welfare reform--is the cumulative effect of complex social developments and changing attitudes: the difficulties of raising a family on a low income. Fear of AIDS. New forms of contraception. Youth with increased expectations. Religious leaders discussing sex more openly.
What is certain is this: Something is happening, slowly and steadily. In the houses of worship, in the community centers and the schools, at kitchen tables and in bedrooms, people have been talking--and that talk is shaping itself into action.
"This is a reflection of us choosing to live our lives consciously rather than by default," says inspirational writer Iyanla Vanzant, author of "One Day My Soul Just Opened Up" (Fireside) and "In the Meantime Finding Yourself and the Love You Want" (Simon & Shuster). "People are waking up."
'Something Good Will Happen'
On a scorching day, the social hall at Avalon Gardens is packed with people coming to talk about sex and pregnancy prevention. On a side patio, a clown in a rainbow wig entertains the smallest children with a game of musical chairs. The back door of the hall opens onto the projects, a sea of mint green cookie-cutter houses and sidewalks, enclosed by a black wrought iron fence. There, Ashley is holding court.
"I'm gonna be somebody," she proclaims. "You'll hear about me on the news."