Bal­ti­more’s Sis­ters Cir­cle changed my life

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By LaShae Felder

When I was 10 years old, I was se­lected for Sis­ters Cir­cle, a long-term men­tor­ing pro­gram for girls in Bal­ti­more City. At that time, I had no idea how it would change my life. My mother was di­ag­nosed with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, and with her in­abil­ity to walk, she was no longer able to work. My fam­ily faced sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial strain, and this neg­a­tively im­pacted my school per­for­mance and self-con­fi­dence. It was the be­gin­ning of mid­dle school. And I was be­gin­ning to sink.

Founded in 2000, Sis­ters Cir­cle was cre­ated by Heather Harvi­son, a lo­cal ed­u­ca­tor and busi­ness­woman, in re­sponse to a re­quest from Irma John­son, former prin­ci­pal of a Ti­tle One school in Bal­ti­more. Ms. John­son wit­nessed her most promis­ing girls fall through the cracks as they tran­si­tioned to, and moved through, the mid­dle and high school years — fac­ing var­i­ous risk fac­tors such as teen preg­nancy, school dropout, and in­car­cer­a­tion. They lacked con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ties and any vi­sion of a pro­fes­sional, in­de­pen­dent fu­ture.

In part­ner­ship with Bal­ti­more City schools, teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors iden­tify at-prom­ise 6th grade girls each year to par­tic­i­pate in the af­ter-school pro­gram in prepa­ra­tion for a 7-year min­i­mum for­mal men­tor­ing re­la­tion­ship. Sis­ters Cir­cle also of­fers weekly af­ter-school pro­grams, monthly cul­tural and ed­u­ca­tional events, sum­mer camps and pro­grams, col­lege and ca­reer guid­ance and more — just for girls. With each new­ex­pe­ri­ence and op­por­tu­nity, we be­gin to rise above and change the nar­ra­tive over time.

All I wanted was some sta­bil­ity and some­one to be there for me, and my men­tor Pam pro­vided just that by be­ing a con­sis­tent pres­ence in my life. I was able to grad­u­ate from high school and pur­sue a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion from Steven­son Univer­sity.

And it’s not just me: 98% of Sis­ters Cir­cle mentees have grad­u­ated from high school with the re­main­ing 2% earn­ing their GED; 92% of Sis­ters Cir­cle grad­u­ates are ei­ther cur­rently in, or have grad­u­ated from col­lege or an al­ter­na­tive train­ing pro­gram; and of those who have com­pleted their col­lege de­gree or al­ter­na­tive train­ing, 88% pos­sess full-time, gain­ful em­ploy­ment.

Why does this model work? Re­search shows that men­tor­ing black girls cre­ates a height­ened op­ti­mism about the fu­ture. Young girls learn more about them­selves and oth­ers. They are ex­posed to the world around them. And men­tors sup­port each young woman in find­ing her own voice and path — rather than as­sum­ing or pro­ject­ing what that path should be. By em­pow­er­ing girls early on, we be­gin to break the cy­cle of in­jus­tice that young women of color face in the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, the work­force, and in so­ci­ety as a whole.

As black girls, we are raised with the un­der­stand­ing that adults can­not be our friends and to just do as you’re told. To some de­gree, it feels like we are sup­posed to make our­selves in­vis­i­ble. The girls where I come from are part of a nar­ra­tive that places us in­side of a box – a box that so­ci­ety says we are not likely to es­cape. We are deemed “op­por­tu­nity youth” — that is, 16 to 24 year olds who do not com­plete school or se­cure full-time em­ploy­ment.

But Sis­ters Cir­cle coun­ters that tra­jec­tory time and time again. Pam be­lieved in me and re­ally saw me. She sup­ported me ev­ery step of my jour­ney as I went from an in­quis­i­tive and shy lit­tle girl to a first­gen­er­a­tion col­lege grad­u­ate, an ed­u­ca­tor and now an em­ployee work­ing for the very or­ga­ni­za­tion that brought us to­gether in the first place. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

This is one pow­er­ful ex­am­ple of an or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing ev­ery day to help Bal­ti­more city girls like me.

Won’t you join us?

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