By Ahmari Anthony | Urban Agenda
Black girls are suffering in silence.
President Barack Obama has launched My Brother’s Keeper, a national initiative to help mentor and support boys of color, with a chapter in Pittsburgh. Girls of color have received no such initiative.
Nia Hudson-Henriquez, 15, is in a community leadership program for black girls that partners with a similar program for boys here in Pittsburgh.
“Just yesterday, we found out that the boys went to the White House. We never been out of state,” she says.
The groups also attend retreats, she adds. While the girls classes and seminars end at 9 pm, and they must conform to a strict 9:30 curfew, Nia says, the boys are allowed to run free until 2 in the morning.
Such subtle inequities reflect a larger issue at hand: the dismissing of black girls. And one place that they suffer the most is most crucial to their development: school.
“We’re in the struggle against racial oppression and patriarchy together, and unless we examine everyone’s experience, we lose the ability to support our girls and young women as they seek to bounce back from adversity,” Monique Morris says in her book “Pushout.”
The term “pushout” refers to the non-inclusive, hyper-punitive policies and practices in place in public schools across the nation that disproportionately affect black girls. These things may disrupt or end their ability to participate and succeed in schools.
This phenomena of black girl pushout is attributed to many occurrences, from instances of black girls being suspended or threatened with expulsion because of their hairstyles to kindergarten-age black girls being handcuffed and placed in squad cars during tantrums.
“Being at school is like prison,” says Alleah Rose, an 18-year-old Pittsburgh Obama graduate. She has never liked school, even in elementary school, because she felt as though it did not cater to her needs. Especially in her senior year, she felt it was a “hostile environment” that did not allow for her and other black girls’ voices or leadership.
Morris’ book uses history, statistics and the narratives of black girls, like Nia and Allie, from across the country in various stages of their lives to highlight how the school and juvenile justice systems have failed or pipelined them.
“Pushout” describes how some of these issues are rooted in century-old stereotypes of promiscuous and angry women, such as the Jezebel or the Sapphire caricatures. Others stem from the lack of adequate support and resources for black girls with mental illnesses, learning disabilities, and childhood trauma. Others are simply flaws in school policy and practices.
A study conducted by the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and the African American Policy Forum showed black girls are suspended six times more often than their white counterparts.
Black girls are given out-of-school suspensions at higher rates than girls of every race. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that report suspension gaps between black and white students, both boys and girls, that are higher than the national average. Thirteen percent of black girls are suspended, while the number reaches no higher than seven percent of girls of any other race, according the the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Women’s Law Center released a report, revealing black girls made up 31 percent of girls referred to law enforcement and about 43 percent of girls who had a school-related arrest. Nine percent of black girls with disabilities receive out-of-school suspensions, compared with 6 percent of white girls with disabilities.
Many national and local organizations have become aware of this issue and are attempting to remedy it. The African American Policy Forum has held a week-long social media campaign, called #HerDreamDeferred, for two years.
The first day of the campaign was themed #BlackGirlsMatter: Countering Criminalization In and Out of School. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the co-founder and executive director of the organization, hosted a webinar with other experts on the topic — including Morris.
Another organization is local: Gwen’s Girls. The organization has three locations in the Pittsburgh area– the North Side, Clairton and Penn Hills– and has been serving girls since 2002.
Executive director, Kathi Elliott says that their program stresses the importance of education to their girls.
“That’s truly where girls can be empowered,” Elliot says.
She also says that she feels the schools unintentionally harm girls by having a lack of resources, so students specific needs “go unmet.” Currently, Gwen’s Girls is seeking funding to begin a program that will combat the issue over suspension. She says this initiative is “something she hasn’t told many people about.”
It is called Alternative to Suspension, and the goal of the program is to meet the social and educational needs of student during their suspensions from schools. Instead of sitting home all day, girls would be able to complete classwork and address the reasons for their suspension. The program would be piloted from the organization Penn Hills location.
Tia Torres, a current youth organizer and former student of TeenBloc, a local organization that focuses on student-leadership and advocacy for and by black and brown youth, outlines the most pressing ways black girls are being pushed out.
“One of the main struggles is representation,” Torres says, referring to classroom curriculum and the people teaching it. Students are more likely to connect with and feel driven to do their work if they see themselves reflected in it.
Torres says, “Our girls can be pushed out at any moment just for being themselves…for being loud or being angry when they’re angry or sitting down with an afro or their twistout on fleek.”
She points to low expectations of black girls as another massive issue in schools that can affect them long-term, especially if they pursue higher education. She explains how teachers may “pass” students along because they “don’t want to deal with them again” or give them higher grades than they deserve, leaving them unprepared and with an inaccurate perception of their skills.
Kelis Campbell, a 16-year-old Pittsburgh Obama student, recalls bad memories from her middle school years. She said her teacher found her talking– after she quickly completed worksheets she felt were below her skill level– to be disruptive, so her desk was moved to a back corner of the room. For half of the school year.
She was forced to remain there and complete her worksheets alone as punishment for speaking. This occurred in both 7th and 8th grade.
TeenBloc’s Torres says she has “seen the disparities,” even back when she was in high school.
“I would see students being pushed out and assume they were bad kids, that somehow it was the child’s fault.”
Now, social activists and academics alike are realizing that this is not the case, and finding solutions to combat this issue.
Some ways listed in the few books and studies done on this subject are ending zero-tolerance policies in school, ending exclusionary policies– such as out of school suspensions and alternative schools– training educators to recognize signs of abuse, and reducing the presence of law enforcement in schools. Morris also calls for schools to invite students to “co-construct their environment” by listening to their voices when writing policy and funding more research on this topic.
“Education, particularly formal education, is a primary avenue for accessing greater opportunity,” Morris says in her book. “Those who are pushed to the margins are often rendered too powerless to manage a clear vision of what a truly inclusive learning environment even looks like, let alone how they might participate in ways that support their well-being as learners, as Black girls, and as negotiators of their own destiny.”