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Offering intentional programs for Black girls can help validate and inspire, research finds

Jahfi Studio choreographer Sahfi Uwizeye teaches about 20 girls how to perform Econcon on April 14. The dance class is a part of Vitendo4Africa's art therapy program. Most of the African girls dance to help them reduce the stress and anxiety of being an African immigrant or a child of a Black immigrant.
Andrea Henderson
St. Louis Public Radio
Jahfi Studio choreographer Sahfi Uwizeye teaches about 20 girls how to perform Econcon on April 14. The dance class is a part of Vitendo4Africa's art therapy program. Most of the African girls dance to help them reduce the stress and anxiety of being an African immigrant or a child of a Black immigrant.

Research and data show that African American girls are disciplined more harshly in U.S. public schools than white girls. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Black girls are suspended from public schools six times more than white girls.

In a study published last month in the Journal of Black Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis assistant professor Seanna Leath and co-authors found that spaces created by Black women for Black girls foster community, inspire and promote self-worth.

Many school districts across the country are rolling back their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and the fallout is impacting classes, students' book choices and their in-school and after-school programming.

There is a notion that exclusivity is harmful, said Leath, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Wash U.

“Black girls' spaces are important because it's about the self-identity concept, affirmation and around us coming in and understanding where they're coming from,” Leath said. “I think sometimes [Black girl spaces] don't happen because there's a sense that there's something inherently problematic about having specific spaces for students.”

Sixteen African American girls ages 15 to 18 were subjects of the after-school program “Black Girl Magic Crew” at a Tennessee high school. A group of Black women created the program with the help of the Black girls to explore the effects of intentionally generating programming that offers psychological safety, since Black girls often experience physical and emotional stress and psychological violence while in school.

The Black Girl Magic Crew program was established by psychologist Misha Inniss-Thompson in 2018. Researchers Jamelia N. Harris and Leath joined her to write the recent study “Seeing Black Girls in Their Glory: Cultivating Spaces that Facilitate Black Girls’ Psychological Safety.” The girls discussed their school settings and teachers and how critical it was to have places dedicated to Black girls to help them stay focused and be inspired to enter the workplace or further their education.

During their bimonthly meet-ups, they watched movies, shared art projects and participated in conversations about colorism and stereotypes that they heard while in school.

Black girls are generally labeled as defiant, disruptive or angry while in school settings, and the program allowed the girls to come as they are and participate as they felt led to, Leath said.

The study also found that when Black girls are given an opportunity to have fun and activate their imaginations in a safe environment, they can let go of insecurity and self-doubt and disengagement from school.

“The girls talked about gender racial stereotypes they encounter from teachers, primarily, but not specifically white teachers,” Leath said. ”They're often instances where they're Black teachers who do some of the same respectability politics around how they dress, behavior and tone policing. The girls are still heavily surveilled, in school, even just walking in the hallway.”

She said the girls expressed that they wanted to feel valued at school.

Cynthia Steele remembers when one of her college science professors told her that she had the worst paper out of the entire class and that she was not a good public speaker. Steele was humiliated, and she later questioned whether she deserved to be in the science field.

Although the chemist continued with her studies, she said many Black people in science, technology and mathematics often feel as if they do not belong in the industry, and their subject knowledge is constantly challenged.

Steele created the St. Louis nonprofit organization Black Girls Do STEM to help demystify the industries and inspire Black girls to enter the fields.

“It's about resisting the idea that science has to be a white space, and it's about resisting this idea that Black and brown children cannot rise to a high expectation and thrive in STEM spaces,” she said. “Simply because traditional education is not getting the job done does not mean that ingenuity and that brilliance isn’t there. It simply goes uncultivated.”

Black Girls Do STEM offers a Saturday school, mentorship with other Black women in STEM and scholarships.

She said Black girls should be able to be themselves while enjoying science. They also need Black spaces that develop and nurture their success, which is a recipe for a better society.

“Black kids in St. Louis really, really need spaces, so that we can reinforce regardless of your socioeconomics … there is a place for you to go out into this world and dream just as big,” Steele said.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Andrea Henderson joined St. Louis Public Radio in March 2019, where she covers race, identity and culture as part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America. Andrea comes to St. Louis Public Radio from NPR, where she reported for the race and culture podcast Code Switch and produced pieces for All Things Considered. Andrea’s passion for storytelling began at a weekly newspaper in her hometown of Houston, Texas, where she covered a wide variety of stories including hurricanes, transportation and Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration. Her art appreciation allowed her to cover arts and culture for the Houston African-American business publication, Empower Magazine. She also covered the arts for Syracuse’s Post-Standard and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.
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