In Washington Monday, the focus was on the well-being of Black girls and the advancement of their education.
More than 150 attendees from African American women’s civic organizations, high schools and colleges attended the African American Women Civic Leaders Education Policy Briefing convened by the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans.
In partnership with many local jurisdictions, the Initiative has worked to uplift the promise of African American students nationwide and to lead critical conversations about how local districts, schools and communities can advance an education agenda that supports Black students. This work has often partnered to advance the work of My Brother’s Keeper and has thereby focused primarily on the educational outcomes of young men and boys of color.
But not until now has any federal agency centered the educational needs of Black women and girls.
Khalilah Harris, Deputy Director of the initiative, told EBONY Monday’s convening was the first time in U.S. history that Black women have convened other Black women and girls to discuss an educational agenda that centers on Black women and girls.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Harris said. “We want to focus on women and girls and make sure our voices are heard and that we can support each other, particularly the high school and campus leaders who are working to create safe campuses.”
In a statement issued by the White House on the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), President Obama emphasized his belief that “every student deserves a world-class education” and that “we need a great teacher in every classroom.” Obama recently signed ESSA into law, continuing the federal effort to bring equity and excellence to education by increasing access to early childhood education by establishing new resources to measure progress in student outcomes, and by increasing the rigor of accountability measures such that they are responsive to the needs of students from all socioeconomic conditions.
Under this reauthorization of the Early and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the measure of our successes will now be drawn from data that can be disaggregated by race and gender (rather than just by race or gender), which is a step toward accessing more information by which to understand just how Black girls are situated among their peers and how they may be uniquely experiencing conditions that impact their learning.
From interrupting school to confinement pathways (including, but not limited to high stakes testing, school discipline, and chronic absenteeism) to preventing campus-based sexual assault, African American female students are in need of a remedy to the negative effects of society’s mischaracterizations of Black femininity, particularly in schools.
If the comments from Monday’s meeting at the Department of Education are any indication, young women feel erased by much of the national discourses on the conditions in schools impacting youth of color, and they are still experiencing gaps in mentorship, advocacy, and other educational investments. These gaps warrant a response of our entire community, but notably, from the powerful network of educated Black women, many of who occupy important decision-making positions in our communities and institutions; and many of whom are already engaged in activities to promote the wellbeing of African American girls on a smaller scale.
Black Greek-letter organizations, as well as other African American, membership-based civic organizations such as The Links, Jack and Jill, and the National Council on Negro Women, among others, have advocated, volunteered, tutored and mentored young women into successful life outcomes for decades—and in some cases, for more than a century. These are women who know how to make room at a table, how to reset the table so that it responds to the needs of our communities, and how to hold space at the table for other young women who’s voices should be there.
The problem is that much of this work is happening in local communities in ways that are not connected to a collective educational agenda, particularly one that increases the affordability of school for young Black women and that prevents school pushout and underperformance among Black girls at a national scale.
“This work is already happening in silos,” Harris told EBONY. “Imagine if all these women came together for our young women and girls.”
Indeed, imagine what could happen if our African American civic organizations came together to advance a coordinated service agenda in support of the educational outcomes of Black young women and girls. Black women vigilantly hold spaces in our nation that uphold and advance the virtue of democracy and justice. What might be possible if these efforts were to center on educational justice for Black women and girls? How could our civic organizations work together to uplift every girl in our communities? How could our organizations and their members better respond to the educational needs of girls who look like them, who come from the communities they did, and who are asking for their mentorship?
These questions are not rhetorical. In partnership with #AfAmWomenLead, they are our call to action.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is the Co-Founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (The New Press, 2016).