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Students explore topics of black girlhood, self empowerment in after-school workshop

Margaret Lin | Web Developer

Komiyah Butler, a sixth-grader at Danforth Middle School, participates in a writing activity at the Dark Girls after-school workshop. The girls were asked to journal about how they see themselves in the mirror and draft manifestos for the program.

When the school day ends at Danforth Middle School on Syracuse’s South Side, a small group of 15–20 female students gather in the library for the Dark Girls workshop. Here, they are sisters, not students.

That’s what Marcelle Haddix, creator of the program and the director of English Education Programs at Syracuse University, insists they call each other as a way of establishing mutual lines of respect and communication between Danforth students and program volunteers, including SU students who are there to mentor the girls in grades six through eight.

The workshops began last week and will take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 14. In the program, the girls engage in activities including art, poetry, yoga, dance, writing and reading literature focused on representations of black girlhood and topics of self and female empowerment.

“Dark Girls is about really honoring and celebrating black girlhood in a positive light, and understanding the intellectual history and tradition of black women and black girls in our society,” Haddix said.

In 2013, Haddix worked with the Community Folk Art Center and participated in a panel discussion for a screening of the documentary film “Dark Girls.”

Haddix said she found the film powerful in that it raises awareness around issues of colorism among women, specifically within African and African-American culture, and discusses ways that society determines what counts as beauty.

“We wanted to extend that to think about how black girls’ self development and identity development are impacted by societal representations of beauty at a very important time of their life — during adolescence,” Haddix said.

Last Tuesday, the first day of the program, Haddix asked the girls to journal about what they see when they look in the mirror. The girls were then able to read their entries aloud or share it with program volunteers privately, and discuss what they wrote.

“It’s important to celebrate our bodies and body image,” Haddix said. “We want to reimagine a different narrative for what matters and what counts as beautiful and define that for ourselves.”

The girls also worked in small groups to create Dark Girls manifestos, said Gloria Gyakari, a sophomore information management and technology major and mentor in the Dark Girls workshops. The manifestos were meant to understand how the girls were feeling about themselves and each other, she added.

Gyakari said that as a mentor, it’s most important to be emotionally open with the girls. The mentors in the program also help the girls discover what they may want to do with their futures and give them the pathways to do it, she added.

“When I was growing up I wish I had had this,” Gyakari said. “It’s important to be a leader and take some time out of your busy schedule. You should never keep your motivation to yourself.”

Blair Smith, a doctoral student in SU’s School of Education, said the mentor aspect of the program is a valuable way to have SU women of color involved in important conversations.

“Students on campus don’t really go out and see the reality of people’s lives in the Syracuse community,” she said. “It’s a mutual relationship of growing and learning.”

Smith said the program also gives the girls tools to navigate what can be difficult school and social situations for students of color. They hold role play situations in which they help the girls respond to these potential conflicts.

“They’re brilliant and they get told every day that they’re not,” Smith said. “It’s something that needs to be unlearned. There’s a way we function because of what we’re told to see; we often see ourselves or each other in the eyes of racism.”

Reba Hodge, a doctoral student in the School of Education, said that it’s also important for the girls to have mentors now so that they don’t have to wait until high school to be exposed to the possibilities that higher education can offer.

Many of the mentors may share similar stories or histories with the girls in the program. They help the girls to create vision boards for what they may want to do with their life in the short term and long term, Hodge added.

“So far I’ve felt like we were successful,” Hodge said. “We really aim to create a space for the girls to come and just be young girls. We don’t give them enough of those opportunities,” Hodge said.

Haddix, the creator of the program, said that another important aspect of the workshops is developing student-teacher relationships at Danforth. Haddix said that when the students are in school, student-teacher relationships can often have a particular tone due to the demands of curriculum and discipline.

“We’re trying to create a different kind of experience and environment for the girls to be seen in a more authentic light,” she said. “It’s important not to only see students in one way and limit their possibilities.”

Though the program is still in its very early stages, Haddix said she can already see relationships developing and a safe open environment being created.

Haddix shared the progress of one such relationship with a young girl in the program who is extremely shy and very serious about her participation. One day, Haddix was teaching the girls yoga, an activity that is very personal to Haddix and one she said she feels very passionate about.

“Our mats were side by side, and she was mirroring everything that I was doing for the entire 45 minutes. Afterward she showed me other poses she is able to do,” Haddix said.

Haddix explained that, for the adults in the program, it’s important to be vulnerable and willing to share their passions, as she did with yoga, in order to encourage the girls to do the same.

Slowly, after connecting with the students, be it through mental or physical activities, a relationship begins to develop with the mentors where the girls may feel safer and more willing to share, Haddix said.

Following the activity, the girl felt comfortable enough to share a poem with Haddix that she had written.

“Within the span of five minutes she composed a poem that was unbelievable,” she said. “There’s these ideas and experiences that are certainly within each of the girls. I’m excited to have those moments where they finally unleash, let it out and share those things.”

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