Student Well-Being

Interview: Attitude Adjustment

October 01, 2003 6 min read
Through the Sisterhood Agenda, Angela Coleman helps African American girls face the future with confidence.

Self-esteem programs may be a much- parodied convention, but Angela Coleman has the numbers to stand by hers. The 12- to 17-year-old African American girls served by Sisterhood Agenda, Coleman’s Durham, North Carolina-based organization, miss fewer days of school, have lower rates of sexual activity and teen pregnancy, engage less often in negative behaviors like drinking, smoking, and fighting, and display more personal pride than their peers. Coleman, a 32-year-old Princeton graduate whose high school guidance counselor dissuaded her from applying to Ivy League schools, used her own struggles with self-definition to help design Sisterhood Agenda’s culturally specific summer camp and mentoring groups. From awareness-raising field trips to see performances and exhibits about the African American experience to plain old- fashioned girl talk about self-image, the organization’s activities equip its students with the kinds of critical thinking skills that lead kids to make healthy choices.

Ten years old next year, the organization is making a push to share its methods with others. Sisterhood Agenda already licenses its curriculum to a variety of organizations nationwide, and it has an activity guide for educators and community workers in the pipeline. Teacher Magazine reached Coleman at her office in Durham—where her 4-year-old daughter was playing under her desk—to discuss improving outcomes for African American students.

Q. What are the unique challenges faced by African American girls?

A. Poverty disproportionately affects girls of African descent. They’re also disproportionately affected by several health issues—they’re more likely to die from breast cancer, more likely to be obese and overweight, and have high blood pressure. All of these things have been linked to stress. Race and gender have always been negated in this country, so the social, economic, and health issues that are facing them have a historical perspective. When they read magazines and textbooks, they’re not there. They don’t know their history as women, they don’t know their African history, they don’t know their African American history. And that really has a big impact on self-confidence and the concept of who they are, where they fit in. It’s particularly true if their family is not actively involved in making sure they have a healthy perspective of where they’re from. And parents don’t do that because they don’t know themselves. Even the most educated parents are not necessarily educated in their history and their culture.

Q. Are images of African American girls in the media a problem?

A. There’s an absence of positive images. If you look on BET and you watch videos targeting that demographic after school, the vast majority of them fail to empower. Females are objectified, in that you see body parts, you don’t even see faces. They don’t have an active role; they’re just there to support and gyrate around the male artists.

Q. Given this context, what were your experiences like growing up?

A. I always loved school. In elementary and middle school, I was in a predominantly African American environment. When I went to high school, it was more of a mixed environment but, in high-level classes, I was the only black person. I played basketball and ran track, and black people usually do those things, so I had [all] types of friends, but in high school I wasn’t as comfortable. When I went to Princeton, there was history there. In the eating clubs, they’d have pictures of all the people who cared for the house, and they were all black people with white uniforms; the club members, they’re all white men in suits and ties. [Yet] the first time I was really exposed to numbers of African authors and books was in college. And I was like, “Why so late? Why do I have to wait until college to learn about my history, my heritage, and to know about these people who were doing all these great things?” If I had known earlier, maybe that would have made me feel better about myself.

Q. What led you to create Sisterhood Agenda?

A. In college, the research I was doing was showing me that black girls were having issues with beauty images. Beauty is more important to girls and to other people interacting with them—teachers, their family members, the outside world—than for boys. It has been undervalued for certain features; [if] you have big lips or a big nose or dark skin, you’re not considered beautiful. They had these studies from 1970, where a lot of black girls were choosing white dolls over black dolls. I was like, “That is so old.” And they repeated the experiment in 1990 and got the same result.

That was disappointing to me, and I wanted to do something about it. I did community development in Washington, D.C., I did Big Sister mentoring, and I worked in a teen pregnancy home in New Jersey, and I just found across the board that there were social services out there that were not engaging black girls. My mother was my role model growing up. She taught me certain things about being a woman—making myself a priority, feeling attractive, how to sit in a skirt. That’s how I developed healthy self-esteem. I thought I had something to contribute by assisting black girls in their development in ways that my mother assisted me.

Q. How does Sisterhood Agenda do this?

A. We have several groups of 10 to 12 girls that we work with [on a weekly basis throughout the year]. They’re from all socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels. Some are court-referred and are in trouble, others are honor roll students. Oftentimes they’ll go to the same school, but they’ve never talked to each other. We’re basically teaching that they can still uplift and support one another. We discuss aspects of life, things you would need to know in your journey toward womanhood. We also go back and see what African Americans and Africans have done what has worked, and what hasn’t worked, and why.

Most African societies have some type of rites of passage tradition: There is a specific way in which they say, “You need to learn to do this,” and then there’s someone who can say, “Well, you’re not ready yet, you still need to work on this.” We don’t have that here; other things are used as indicators of adulthood, whether it’s having children or getting a job or having a car. [Sisterhood Agenda is] not a rites of passage program in the strict sense because there are no rites to pass and there’s no celebration or ceremony that marks the end of one component and the beginning of the next component. But it’s based in the African rites of passage tradition in bringing same-gender, same-age [kids] together for socialization and support by an older person in the community.

Q. In a more traditional classroom setting, what can teachers do?

A. I think they have to have a certain consciousness. Each student is different, so you can’t lump all students from one ethnicity together. But you can recognize that they are going to have different needs. Just [have] the awareness that, for example, black girls need to be exposed at some point, whether it’s during school, after school, or on the weekend, to positive black female role models, because that’s who they identify with. I still think a white teacher can be a role model—don’t get me wrong. Young people need all the positive role models they can get. Just realize that they might have other needs that are cultural needs.

Teachers make such a big impact on their students without realizing it by just being a person. I think extending themselves beyond that teacher role is what teachers used to do, but now school dynamics have changed, and it’s kind of risky to do that, [even] if you have time. We have life experience to teach; it would just be good if we had a format and the space in which we could do that more.

—Samantha Stainburn

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