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Seeing Our Way Free
By Wesley Hogan
New ways of looking at the world never fail to create within me feelings of both excitement and awkwardness, like learning a new dance step. When I became director of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) in 2013, my training was an oral historian, so I asked my colleagues for advice on how to look at photography and film. Many generous and brilliant people expanded my understanding but none more than Courtney Reid-Eaton, CDS’s exhibitions director.
Recently, the richness of her knowledge enveloped me again as I listened to her curator’s talk and panel for the extraordinary exhibit, En | Gender, now on view at Cassilhaus. The show is part of the Triangle’s annual CLICK photography festival, which continues to develop as one of the most exciting gatherings around photographic work in the country.
“I had the good fortune to be invited to Curator Camp at Cassilhaus last summer,” Reid-Eaton began. “A lovely gathering of museum and gallery professionals from around the South. We began with conversations about upcoming projects, interests, and concerns, and when my turn came I asked, ‘Why am I the only person of color here?’ That’s a problem.”
Indeed, who is at the storytelling table is at the heart of documentary, journalism, and the arts nationwide. Most of the people who have trained as photographers, filmmakers, oral historians, and other nonfiction storytellers over the last five or six generations have been overwhelmingly white. For Reid-Eaton, this was true as she began her career: “I think of my photographic influences, especially in documentary, and they’re mostly white; my mentors and teachers were white. That had an impact on my aesthetic and the ways I learned to see. I realize on reflection, that there are things that I make that white people respond to and there are other things that I’ve felt really strongly about that they seem unable to read or connect with or that they exoticize.”
What impact does this have on developing artists who are people of color, or women, or LGBTQI?, she asked. She described how exploring that question became ever more important to her as she recognized that “most gatekeepers in the arts, people with jobs like mine, who select which artists and work to promote and support, are white.”
Reid-Eaton’s remarks got me curious: How do we learn to see, to read, the work by some artists, even as we find others incomprehensible, illegible? She explained that during her first decade at CDS, she “focused on the institution; showed the kind of work our mostly white audience responded positively and comfortably to.” Then her curatorial practice took a distinctly new turn.
“I decided I wanted to spend my second decade centering the work of people of color and women—my communities—by holding and supporting access to places/spaces like CDS and Cassilhaus; encouraging folks from my communities to take on gatekeeper jobs/roles, to create access for others.” She invited in new audiences, gathered local artists from the African diaspora at CDS, and expanded the range of her curatorial practice through innovative shows like “The Self Care Exhibit: A Word and Image Act of Self Preservation and Political Warfare” and “The Jemima Code.”
En | Gender emerges as another example of the nourishing fruit of Reid-Eaton’s intellectual labor. Here she brings together the work of three gender-nonconforming artists of color: Gabriel García Román, Saba Taj, and Lola Flash. “To bring the work of these artists together to be in conversation, to call in our communities, is a joy and a privilege,” Reid-Eaton notes in the gallery guide.
Invoking Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois’s focus on representation, she recognizes that “people of color, Muslims, women—people who have been identified by dominant American culture as minority, marginalized, other—don’t wear those labels in the wider world. We are, in fact, the majority of the world’s population. Our intellectual and cultural contributions, Spiritual practices, and the unpaid, invisible labor of home and family making/sustaining—the stuff that keeps the human race alive and growing—are undervalued, except when drawn on to entertain, enrich, and inspire the ‘powerful.’ But we know who we are. Artists and scholars like the three whose work is included in this exhibition, are working in a tradition that has existed much longer than the camera. Portrait, image, art; vehicles for collaboration and self-determination; opportunities for immortality.”
Cassilhaus has an enviable reputation for bringing thought-provoking artists forward, and Reid-Eaton’s virtuosity opened a space for those present at Cassilhaus to broaden understandings and legitimize the ways people choose to see and present themselves and their communities in documentary. She asked García Román and Taj to share some of their early influences. Who impacted how they saw the world?
Taj noted that her mother could make anything: drapes, delicious cuisine, clothing. She even “sculpted the hell out of the hedges.” Taj grew up in a majority white school where both family and school culture advocated assimilation. She identifies as a queer Muslim femme, and part of her early motivation was to express the beauty and diversity of Muslim and South Asian culture in a North Carolina where people held static stereotypes of both, particularly in the wake of 9/11.
García Román’s early influences included Jan van Eyck, and as he developed his work, he grew fascinated by texture; he wanted his subjects to be able to talk back to their portraits by allowing them to add their own words. “From the queer Latina fighting for immigration rights to the non-binary disabled Trans Filipino,” García Román writes, his sitters are “heroes in their own right.” Both Taj and García Roman explored how their early influences shaped their art, and how they began to create new expressions to better represent their own experiences and communities. Taj’s work presents a broad range of Muslim women’s experiences and emotions; García Román has focused on self-determination. Lola Flash makes disarming, complex portraits of gender non-conforming trailblazers such as Cheryl Dunye and DJ Formika. Reid-Eaton moves with these “outsiders” from margin to center, as figures that García Román notes are “inherently worthy of attention, emulation, and storytelling.”
One hundred and fifty-six years have passed since Frederick Douglass’s first “Lecture on Pictures” in 1861. Yet artist Coco Fusco recently observed that today, elite art schools avoid revising curricula and modes of critique that incorporate critical race theory or the history of anti-racist cultural production. Without that formative training, curators and artists lack a common ground for informed discussion about power and representation. I’m grateful, enormously so, that I work alongside a curator who fosters that informed discussion day in and day out and helps me to learn to see and engage in more authentic dialogues with people who’ve lived lives that may be different than mine.
“We know none of us are not free until we are all Free,” writes Reid-Eaton. Go see En | Gender—it’s on view until December 3—and imagine what your freedom will look like.
Wesley Hogan is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where she teaches the history of youth social movements, African American history, women’s history, and oral history. She is a research professor at the university’s Franklin Humanities Institute and Department of History. Hogan’s book on SNCC, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (2007), won the Lillian Smith Book Award, among other honors, and she is currently working on a post-1960s history of young people organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker.
‘Don’t Get It Twisted:’ Black Girls’ Dehumanization Is Not the Same as Adultification
by Linda M. Burton & PhD & Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D.
Ask NBC News. They recently learned what happens when you tweet a story with a headline that erroneously twisted Sally Hemmings’ personal narrative of horrific, repeated rapes at the hands of Thomas Jefferson into a headline about her being Jefferson’s mistress. NBC News learned that in this current climate of close interrogation of history and fact-checking, Twitter, especially Black Twitter, claps back. Mightily.
NBC News now knows not to twist, at least one Black woman’s narrative, Sally Hemmings’, into something it was not. But what about the rest of American society? Do pockets of America continue to twist Black girls’ narratives about who they are and their vulnerability and innocence into tales of willing and complicit precocious sexuality?
In the recently released report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia Gonzalez, this question is answered with a resounding, “YES!” This report calls into sharp focus adults’ perceptions that dehumanize and both explicitly and implicitly impugn Black girls. The report finds that adult respondents from their study perceive Black girls as young as five to nine years old, in contrast to white girls, as needing less nurturance, protection, support, and comfort, while at the same time being more independent and knowing more about adult topics and sex.
To their credit, the authors chronicle the history of such dehumanization of Black girls and Black boys back to America’s inception and lift up the institution of slavery as further proof that such perceptions are not new. Such dehumanizing perceptions are often used to retell and revise the terror inflicted upon and objectification of Black bodies throughout American history.
Additionally, Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez review several dominant paradigms about Black femininity that emerged during slavery and note that the contemporary manifestations of these paradigms belie the implicit biases and racism (our word not theirs) that result in Black girls being treated more harshly and their developmental behaviors being criminalized.
We agree with the authors’ point about the continued, undeserved dehumanization of Black girls. Unfortunately, while the Girlhood Interrupted report focuses the spotlight on these dehumanizing perceptions of Black girls, the report also equates such perceptions with the term adultification.
As Black female behavioral scientists who have cumulatively studied adultification in the lives of Black girls and boys (see Burton, Winn, Stevenson, & McKinney, 2015) and Black families in different settings for over 50 years, we are concerned that framing the dehumanization of Black girls identified in the report as adultification is deeply problematic. In fact, we disagree altogether with the choice of adultification as a way to situate this very important discourse.
Admittedly, the authors, as a few other authors have done before them, defined adultification as, “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” And from there they argue that their participants’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturance, guidance, and protection are similar to the dehumanizing stereotypes of Black women.
Using the adultification concept in this way twists the fundamental meaning and incumbent processes as it is discussed in existing social science and family therapy literature. In a 2007 article, Burton provides a standard definition of adultification that is not dehumanizing: “adultification comprises contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family network.”
Several of the Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez interview questions directly interrogate adults’ perceptions about parameters of the adultification process, for example: “How often do Black (or white) females take on adult responsibilities? How knowledgeable are Black (or white) females about sex?” As asked of respondents, however, even the second question is likely to conflate potentially precocious knowledge about sex with Black female children’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexual reproduction resulting from healthy, proactive parent-child conversations in response to the earlier onset of puberty for Black girls.
The other questions asked in the study have nothing to do with adultification. Quite the contrary, clinically, children who take on these roles need a lot of nurturance, comfort, and support to adequately learn and perform such roles. Playing an adult in a child’s body, with a child’s emotional maturity is hard. Full Stop. Black women need nurturance, comfort, and support too. Fuller Stop. In our view, the frame of adultification, in the ways Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez define it, seems to be more accurately and simply be characterized as dehumanization and promoting racist gendered stereotypes about Black females.
To be clear, Black girls’ being more knowledgeable about sex, perhaps sexual reproduction, at earlier ages than white girls does not equate with any definition of what being a Black woman is to us and many others. Furthermore, twisted perceptions about Black girls’ knowledge of sexual risks conjuring up the age-old, American stereotypes of the “jezebel” Black woman which, as Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez note, persist in present day American culture. That stereotype promotes racist notions of Black women as precociously sexualized, morally bankrupt, incapable of regulating their emotions, and unable to deeply feel — loss, love, grief or much of anything else for that matter.
We agree that adult Black women are still considered in the context of this racist, humanity eroding, gender offensive trope. And, we are concerned that viewing little Black girls through the Black female adultification lens, as posited by Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, risks further imposing such dehumanizing stereotypes onto lives of Black children.
Indeed, conflating adultification with dehumanizing perspectives is intellectually flawed and poses obstacles in discerning alternative framings of what is happening in the lives of young Black girls and how the broader population is complicit in the process. Rather than considering the adult respondents’ perceptions that Black girls behave in adultified ways, shouldn’t we call it what it really is?
There are generic processes that people engage in on a daily basis to reproduce race and gender inequalities among individuals and groups. One such process is emotion management. Because race and gender inequalities foment feelings such as anger, resentment, despair, and sympathy that threaten to destabilize the social order, these emotions must be managed, which means, relative to the study we discuss here, that our perceptions and emotions about Black girls “must be managed.”
One way of managing societal emotions is by regulating the narrative about Black girls using particular language and assigning certain attributes to them. The dominant group in society usually controls the narrative and reinforces it in existing social structures, in this case schools and the judicial system, while more private discourses among ordinary people work to strengthen destructive narratives and stereotypes. Indeed, emotion management by controlling negative narratives on Blacks is thriving in certain pockets in today’s America.
As Black female behavioral scientists whose humanist resolve and intellectual rigor was birthed in the complex cities of Compton, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively, we have lived experiences about the damage that twisted narratives and errant frames can visit upon Black and white America, particularly when scientists waywardly compare Blacks to whites. Such twisted frames attempt to strip us Blacks of our humanity and seek to render us as less than or an oddity in that, regardless of gender or class, we are perceived as having no sense of emotional intelligence, proclivity to care for others, or ability to self-regulate, regardless of our ages. Such framings move us no closer to accurately identifying fundamental causes in the persistent strengths inherent in or inequalities hoisted upon Blacks in America for centuries. Less we forget . . . Black women have shown America how to be humane.
We hope that the Girlhood Interrupted report can spark a wider discussion on the uncertainty that some Black girls live with on a daily basis, particularly those Black girls whose families and/or communities are economically impoverished or unsafe. Uncertainty is a state of ambiguity, one in which immediate and future conditions or events are unpredictable or otherwise not clearly determinable by those involved. In some environments, uncertainty, even when buttressed by community strengths and individual connections, can lead to a narrowing of viable options, a hesitancy to act, and a diminished likelihood of acting in ways that support longer-term, positive outcomes.
Under such uncertain conditions, some girls may act with an eye toward the moment because unpredictable resources and the ever-present specter of need require orientation to the here and now. This behavior often emerges from a lack of control girls may experience as they struggle to simply survive in a world where key resources are scarce, there are limited opportunities to thrive, and a broader society dehumanizes them in narratives based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of their lived experiences.
Untwisting this narrative by, in this instance, uncoupling the frame of adultification and dehumanization is particularly important given the context of recent political rhetoric in America. It has become fairly common for public and political discourses concerning people of color and their communities to be inappropriately cast as having undesirable attributes.
In today’s America, we seem to have once again backslid to the days of the Moynihan Report where national leaders promulgated stereotypes about Black families being “tangles of pathology” and dysfunctional, no matter their social class. As in times past, national leaders foment the wholesale acceptance of such denigrating stereotypes among their followers who have little to no understanding of the profound inaccuracies of the rhetoric and who exercise little discretion or censorship.
We optimistically ask America not to get the findings in this report twisted. The adult perceptions studied in this work reflect the dehumanization of Black girls, not their adultification into Black women. Does America have the capacity to resist the twist, censuring and holding itself accountable for creating accurate narratives, frames, and discourses about Black girls and the Black women they aspire to become? If not, let NBC News’ recent twist serve as a good example of a bad example. There will be a clap back.
Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., is Dean of Social Sciences, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and a professor of public policy at Duke University. Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Karla FC Holloway Retires from Duke University with a Public Conversation on Race and the Academy — and a Message to Those Following in her Footsteps
After years of visionary contributions to Duke University and the academy at large, Karla FC Holloway, retired this month with public announcement of both an annual mentorship award and a fellowship named in her honor.
The Dec. 8, event, “Word Work: Race and the Academy,” featured Holloway, the James B. Duke Professor of English, professor of law and African and African American studies, in curated conversation with former student and TV personality Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair and Director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University.
Kerry Haynie, a professor of political science and co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity moderated the conversation along with Blair LM Kelley, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at North Carolina State University.
Members of the Duke administration, faculty, students, friends and family members gathered in Penn Pavilion for the intimate conversation that touched on higher education, leadership, writing and lessons Holloway learned during her distinguished career at the university.
“I’ve appreciated every opportunity I’ve had at Duke to be responsible. I’ve called it a position of authority,” said Holloway, noting that the word ‘leadership’, softens the act of leading. “To claim that language back, gives you the stature you need to be the decision-maker.”
She added: “With whatever grace there is in the universe, I’ve also been surrounded with people who will pick me up, give me books, say a good word, remind me that there’s another step,” Holloway said. “You just keep going. … I want all of you, especially in these times that we’ve left you, to keep going.”
At the end of the program, Harris-Perry who was mentored by Holloway as a graduate student at Duke, announced the creation of an endowment in Holloway’s name. The endowment will fund an annual award, the Karla Holloway Mentoring Award, for a nominated individual who has displayed excellence in mentoring young women and girls. It will be administered by the national Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color, currently being led by Harris-Perry and the Anna Julia Cooper Center. Read more about the award and eligibility requirements here.
As a founding member of DCORE, she led the university’s participation in the Collaborative, an initiative emanating from the White House Council on Women and Girls.
The event also served as a fundraiser for Holloway’s alma mater, Talladega College, an historically black college in Alabama.
Kristina Johnson, a former dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, followed Harris-Perry’s announcement, announcing an endowment and fellowship in Holloway’s honor, the Professor Karla Holloway Scholarship.
Walvid King, an Associate Vice-President at Talladega and Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth also provided remarks.
In addition to serving as mentor to innumerable students, Holloway has held several highly influential barrier-breaking roles at the university. She was the first African-American Dean of the Humanities and Dean of Social Sciences, the first African American female chair of Duke’s Appointment, Promotion and Tenure (APT) committee, and an elected member of the Academic Council and its Executive Committee (ECAC). She was co-founder of the John Hope Franklin Center and the Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI). As chair of the Department of African and African American Studies she guided it from a program to full department status.
She is also an affiliated faculty member with the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life and the Trent Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities
Holloway is the author of eight books, including the most recent “Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature.” Her research interests include African American cultural studies, biocultural studies, gender, ethics and law. She earned a Master’s of Legal Studies from Duke Law School in 2005. She serves on several boards including Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Princeton University Council on the Study of Women and Gender.
The event was sponsored by the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE), the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Dean, Duke Law School, the Department of African and African American Studies, the Duke English Department and the Franklin Humanities Institute.
Thank you all. You offered generous sites for sanctuary, words that were wanted, gentle urges, quiet nudges, and certain spirits. You have assured that I have had a life in letters – a collection of hours finding their rhythm in words. All of which I would have wanted. Had I only known.
Word Work: Race and the Academy (updated)
A Curated Conversation on Race and the Academy
Featuring Melissa Harris-Perry and Karla FC Holloway
*View the program here: wordwork_2016-program
On the occasion of Prof. Holloway’s retirement from Duke University where she is the James B. Duke Professor of English and a professor of law and African & African American Studies, she will be joined in conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry, who is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair and director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University. #wordwork2016
5:00 -7:30 p.m.
Thursday, the 8th of December
The conversation will be moderated by:
Blair LM Kelley
Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs
College of Humanites and Social Sciences
North Carolina State University
Department of Political Science
Co-director, Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity
The event is co-sponsored by the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity and the Talladega College Alumni Association, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Dean, the Department of African and African American Studies, the Duke English Department and Duke Law School.
Whose Village Are We Talking About
By Karla FC Holloway
I have noticed a prevailing and quiet discomfort amongst black women I know, who felt disconnected from the joyous celebration of the first woman to become a major party’s nominee for the presidency. This, despite our shared and deeply held pride in seeing the excellence and command from black women party leaders who stepped confidently into leadership roles, deftly managed state delegations, and who were clearly and absolutely major players in the Democratic National Party’s committees. We know that these women, each standing tall and accomplished, had earned their accolades.
But despite their presence, a quiet unease muted my own celebration and that of others I know in part because we intuitively recognized how those individual accomplishments are as stellar as they are individuated.
Our collective black bodies, the ones that mark our place were also on display at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. It’s important not to dismiss a critical distinction. When it comes to our anticipation, pride, and hope, it is not the cracks in the ceilings that matter as much as the crack in our communities. It is not the exquisite accomplishment of some of us but the extraordinary vulnerability of most of us.
I see this play out in my own university when white women lead diversity initiatives that would not even have a name if it were not for the systemic biases practiced against black folk. Joyful congratulations are attached to their ascensions to leadership and they are seen as exemplary. But when there is critique about diversity policy or inclusive procedures from experienced black voices who recognize the old patterns finding ways and means in the new ones, and who have known ceilings of our own, we are labeled as unreasonably discontented and unpleasantly cynical.
Clear-eyed and astutely analytic Black feminists foresaw this divide decades ago. It was apparent then that we would need a different word (womanism) to name our activism and that the language of intersectionality was a better descriptor of our project. We watched as the women’s movement became a celebration of individual accomplishments. The gain was an evolving list of names on Fortune 500 lists or a mega-audience when these exceptional women shared lessons on how to move forward. Women need only to (…wait for it…) “lean in!”
We listened to women with the wherewithal or chutzpah to sense that a phrase about a village or the values our children might live by was available for the taking from black folk despite the fact that we did more than say the words, we lived in and through those experiences.
Back in the day, the conflict between the woman’s movement and the civil rights movement was deeply rooted in the bodies that occupied them. Some dreams of liberation would be empowered enough to name the quality of freedom others might want and even give name to the conditions of that gain. Our bodies were always and already consumable.
If you wonder at the story in a body, consider those daughters, Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump. On their respective stages, they stood in absolute certainty that their personal and prettily told-stories about their mother and father would be enough to be named iconic. Iconic. Really? Their speeches were to be compelling enough to stand in the stead of each parent’s policies and practices (and although there are certainly achievements, there are also policies that led to decades-long incarceration, lowered wages, and punitive policing to the point of dangerous disregard and disrespect—recall “wilding” and “super predators”).
Nevertheless, the audience was told these two girls had words that simply by being spoken in their role as daughters of the privileged, could humanize their parent. Pardon my skepticism. I have never been in a group that could, or would pretend there was excellence to be extracted from a rather common and nearly pedestrian performance.
We’ve demanded more. In fact, as an exemplary seeing and saying of words that matter and that had their origin in substantive acts, consider the remarks and the commanding presence of Reverend William Barber. That moment touched me deeply, not just because of its performative quality, but because he has lived the struggle expressed in his righteous moral reclamation.
Despite the smug assurance that lay behind these individuated symbolics, I know fully and well that my identity lies nestled within the parade of others—the Muslim father, the black “Mothers of the Movement,” the disabled girl, the transgender activist…all of whom stood in for communities of folk that public policies and public moralities render vulnerable. The only ones who got to celebrate individual accomplishments were singular white women who were so extraordinarily empowered by the moment tears streamed through twitter like a river.
I’m saving my tears.
But let me also be clear that I will work mightily to assure Hillary Clinton is elected. I’m a pragmatic progressive who knows that Supreme Court appointments will determine the fate of any president’s politics and any politicians’ legislative initiatives. These will matter to my community far more than the balloon filled, teary celebrations of a fractured glass ceiling, a father’s awkward embrace of his daughter, or a grateful mother hugging hers.
I will not be blinded by the optic. I know exactly where “we” stand, and I’m perfectly willing to find myself in that company. That’s where my “we” finds its village. And that’s the place where our children will find their example.
Karla FC Holloway is James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, where she also holds appointments in the Law School, Women’s Studies, and African & African American Studies. Holloway is the author of BookMarks: Reading in Black and White and Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character, as well as Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics andPassed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial, both published by Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfHolloway.
Applying Science in the Real World
Duke Senior Researching the Effects of STEM on Girls in Kenya This Summer
By Camille Jackson
Senior Jenna Peters was planning to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. She thought she’d join a neuroscience lab, but then a summer abroad in Kenya exposed a new interest.
“I did not know I loved teaching,” said Peters who developed her passion after traveling to Muhuru Bay, Kenya during summer 2015 to teach a class of 90 girls in an engineering club. “I was so nervous. I tried not to speak for more than 10 minutes at a time and to switch gears often to keep it interesting and stay ahead of the students.”
Peters worked for WISER, or the Women’s Institute of Secondary Education and Research, a community development organization focused on empowering underprivileged girls in a rural area of Kenya. Founded by Sherryl Broverman, an associate professor of the practice in biology and global health at Duke, the WISER secondary school is in its 6th year.
This summer Peters has returned to Kenya after being awarded the Dean’s Summer Research Fellowship for her proposal, “Evaluating the Effects of STEM Education Intervention for Female Students in Rural Kenya.” The fellowship is part of Duke’s participation in the Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color, an affiliation of U.S. institutions committed to improving research, housed under the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.
“Anecdotally we know they are applying their engineering skills outside of the classroom,” Peters said. “The goal is to see if they believe they can continue in STEM fields or succeed in math classes. We want to see if they pick more science-focused classes as related to their involvement in the club.”
WISER students come from a communities plagued by poverty and HIV, but most continue their education after attending the highly-ranked program.
“The girls are extraordinarily busy,” Peters said. “Before the WISER program was introduced very few girls from the community sought higher education. The program provides clothing, shoes, books — and more importantly, takes them away from everything so they can focus on their schooling.”
Peters, who already had an interest in global health, said WISER helped her understand the impact of education on improving health.
“I chose WISER because I am interested in working with girls. I am very practical and investing in girls is one of the best things you can do for a community,” Peters said. “It results in improved health outcomes and the girls are more likely to invest in their own families and children. It’s a good way to achieve global health goals.”
Last summer Peters helped design curricula as a Global Women’s Health Technology Fellow.
“I got them to apply science knowledge to real-world applications,” said Peters of helping the students in the engineering club build flashlights and evaluate whether flashlights could become the basis of a new business in the community.
“We explored the pros and cons with the girls and determined it would not be a viable business, but it was a great problem-solving exercise,” Peters said. “It was so wonderful to see these girls present their ideas. We want them to take their entrepreneurial mind-set back to their communities and to improve their problem-solving skills, ultimately giving them an opportunity to learn outside of rote memorization.”
The learning worked both ways. For example, Peters learned that innovation does not necessarily mean inventing new things. When the students were asked to innovate, they reimagined preexisting materials.
“A dishwasher detergent bottle became a toy, broken glass could serve as barbed wire on top of the WISER building, soap scraps could be melted down to make new soap,” Peters explained. The students were engaged in active learning.
One positive outcome of the engineering club that Peters noticed immediately is that girls in the club will fix their classmates’ broken calculators, determining whether there is a problem in the circuit or a dead battery.
“They don’t need to be saved,” said Peters of the common misconception applied to communities of color. “We just need to open the door and get out of the way.”
Here, Peters shares her story of personal transformation and acceptance during her first summer in Kenya:
Women and Girls of Color: ‘What Truth Is Missing?’
By Britt Jenkins
Last month I had the opportunity to attend an eye-opening conference focused on issues affecting women and girls of color. Renowned political scientist and Duke alumna, Melissa Harris-Perry, a feminist scholar and director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, organized the April 29th ‘Know Her Truths’ conference to kick off the Collaboration to Advance Equity through Research.
The Collaboration, initiated last fall at a White House Council on Women event, is a voluntary affiliation between universities, institutions and advocacy groups committed to addressing the deficits in research on women and girls of color.
Participants in the two-day conference represented diverse gender identities, ethnicities, beliefs and backgrounds. This was an incredible gathering given that in the weeks prior, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the HB2 legislation that targeted many of the individuals and stakeholders in attendance, making the ‘Know Her Truths’ conference an affirming and important experience for many of us.
With the current political environment in North Carolina perpetuating discrimination by excluding the voices and visibility of entire groups of people, Dr. Harris-Perry began the conference with a definition of feminism.
Feminism, she said, is “when someone asks the question ‘what truth is missing?’” Dr. Harris-Perry’s message steered conference participants to critically examine what truths have been neglected. The conversation topics — such as bias in school discipline, grassroots advocacy strategies and the influence of stereotypes on reproductive healthcare — were bold, and encouraged us to challenge one another and be candid, resulting in a breath of fresh feminist air.
The panel discussion on school discipline disparities focused on how society criminalizes black girls. The panelists began with an overview of research that examined implicit biases in the discipline of black girls, but the conversation quickly transformed from an empirical discussion of disproportional impact to personal accounts.
Janel George, an attorney with the NAACP, recounted a time in elementary school when her teacher targeted her because he thought her voice was “too loud and grating,” an apt illustration of the “loud black girl” stereotype. An audience member responded, sharing her own experience of how the criminalization of young girls of color in school is often reinforced in the workplace. She said that she, like others in the room, had been accused by male co-workers of being too aggressive when confronting workplace discrimination.
If standing up against discrimination is perceived as aggressive, “what do I tell my daughters?” asked the woman.
It was apparent to me that the stereotype of the “angry black woman” is still a powerful and pervasive influence in the perception black women, even within professional settings. Of course no real answer could be determined, but the space provided an environment to affirm the perspectives and specific realities of the women who spoke.
My favorite panel at the conference featured members of the New Orleans non-profit Women with a Vision who specialize in grassroots “front porch” approaches to civil action post-Katrina. The organization, which was started in 1989 in response to the HIV health crisis, has been successful in providing outreach to the most neglected, including marginalized women, sex workers and their families. Their groundbreaking work led to a violent backlash. In 2012, their building was set on fire. Despite the hardships, Women with a Vision have continued to engender trust within communities and actively create relationships with their clients that elicit a sense of partnership and empowerment.
This spoke to me directly as a public servant and graduate student in public policy who has spent the majority of the last two years in a more sterile, academic environment. Often stakeholder voices are subverted in favor of empiricism and objective analysis, which inevitably leads to biases that can take away from the experiences of the people being most affected by a problem. It was beautiful to see the care and dignity Women with a Vision provided to clients who eventually became friends, allies and fellow collaborators.
The final breakout panel I attended included policy makers and advocacy leaders on reproductive healthcare measures. While the panel featured a conversation on abortion rights, it was quickly extended to a discussion on discrimination felt by women of color in all spheres of reproductive healthcare. Research has shown that African Americans are perceived to be able to endure more pain than other races, which has resulted in withheld pain treatments, limited reproductive healthcare options, and unnecessary pain and duress during labor.
At the end of a day full of powerful testimonies and truth-sharing, Dr. Harris-Perry addressed the room by directing a message to one young woman who had provided one such testimonial by saying, “We hear you, we believe you, we affirm what you say and we are proud of you.” The affirmation and acknowledgment of voice was the most important, empowering component of this conference. The conference reinforced for me that incorporating truths from a variety of perspectives is just as valuable as other forms of data. And it showed me how research and advocacy could blend together to create more informed, inclusive movements.
The conference provided a space for Collaborative members to network, share ideas, best practices and outcomes related to research and the lived experiences of women of color. As my work with the Collaborative, hosted by the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity, continues this summer I look forward to facilitating this kind of truth telling about issues affecting women and girls of color on Duke’s campus and beyond.
Britt Jenkins, MPP, is a recent graduate of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy with a research interest in reproductive rights. She currently works as a research assistant at the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity.