by Avonie Brown
No doubt you have heard it said in more ways than one that, “Black people just can’t get it together;” or that “We don’t know how to work together.” But just how truthful are these statements? Our history of resistance and survival suggests otherwise. African people in the Diaspora have always been about community. We have arrived at this place in our history not because of individualistic indifference but because one by one people came together and formed communities of action. Whether in churches, schools, around the kitchen table, in the field, on picket lines or in boardrooms, we formed collectives that have made a difference in all our lives. And that tradition is alive and well today.
Since September 1997, a group of women have made the academy their target; they have turned a typically solitary struggle into a triumphant communal experience. SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups For Women of Color grew out of the very personal experience of its founder Dr. Shireen Lewis. Then a Ph.D. student in French literature at Duke University, the Trinidadian native said she was working on the second to last chapter of the dissertation when she hit an intellectual wall. “Even though I was close to finishing writing the dissertation, I was having a particularly hard time getting myself really motivated to complete it,” said Lewis. “It is ironic that I was able to motivate myself almost until the end but when it was time to complete it I really felt stagnated. I felt then that I needed to be in a community of other women who were doing the same thing that I was doing and that I really needed their support. That’s where I got the idea to start the support group.”
And the need is very real. Reports suggest that in many doctoral programs only half of the entering students will finish, however Lewis believes the attrition rate is much higher, especially among black women. Many must deal with financial, family and other personal pressures in an academic environment that is not supportive but remains hostile, isolating and discriminatory to black women. Lewis believes that community support is the buttress required to break through these academic/personal barriers.
So she approached Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton, co-owners of Sisterspace and Books, with the idea for SisterMentors and they very quickly offered the bookstore’s facility as a meeting place. Williams explained that Sisterspace was willing to make this commitment because SisterMentors is consistent with their philosophy and because they saw SisterMentors as an extension of the legacies of sheroes like Mary McLeod Bethune. “At Sisterspace we are about promoting literacy and self-empowerment. Literacy has always been a big issue for Africans in America because education was not always accessible to us so if you were fortunate or able to get educated then you had a responsibility to make sure that others were also educated. That’s what Bethune was about `each one teach one,’ and SisterMentors is just following in that tradition,” said Williams. “And that is what motivated Shireen to use her knowledge and her skills to extend herself to her community. In a real tangible sense it’s the only thing that made sense. As an activist and being as educated as Shireen is, she understood early on the importance of connecting with other women to create a community of support to further her vision and to also give back to the larger community.”
At the group’s first meeting Lewis was joined by four other women. And three years later their `interactive model of goal setting, time management and peer mentoring’ has been an unequivocal success. Ten women have received their doctorate and six more are expected to graduate this year. In the meantime two groups of eight women continue to meet every three weeks while others remain on a waiting list.
Despite ongoing validation of the support groups Lewis explained that SisterMentors has greater implications than women acquiring advanced degrees. “Its about building community,” she insisted, “and demystifying the process so that people will understand that a graduate degree is tangible and accessible.” While a Ph.D. represents years of hard work, Lewis said that it does not confer any academic elite status on its holder, instead it brings even greater responsibility to the community. “A Ph.D. does raise your earning potential but it adds to the intellectual and economic wealth of the community. Our presence in the academy has undeniably expanded the scholarship about black people, and the scholarship produced is essential because so much of our stories have been deliberately hidden.”
Community constantly resonated throughout Lewis’ discussion and she insists that members of the support groups must understand its importance if the group is to work effectively for them. As the groups’ leader she said she “continuously strives to create and maintain a community which rejects favoritism and discrimination and encourages instead respect for each of its members so that everyone can live up to their full potential.”
For Lewis community is inclusive and is able to bridge the gap across differences. “My idea about community extends to other people of color. I believe that if black people are to truly move forward in the 21st century we must be inclusive of other people of color. This is not an option. This is why my groups consist of women of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures. It is this inclusiveness — this forming of community with other oppressed groups — that will make all our struggles more effective,” she shared.
Lewis added that if we can build communities we will eliminate “the disconnectedness that prevents us from reaching out to each other and causes us not to be able to speak up when we see an injustice.” She said that SisterMentors is not just a group of women who meet every three weeks but they are in the process of forming a community. “Community is not a noun it’s a verb, it is an ongoing process of building and maintaining, you never stop working at it,” she said.
To that end SisterMentors extends its community beyond the small academic enclave of women. Lewis said that the group has made the mentoring of young girls of color a priority.
“We understand that we are obligated to reach out to young girls and let them know what it is that we are trying to do. We can explain to them that in spite of all of our struggles, education is important not only because it will lead to getting a better job and making money, but it also impacts on our critical thinking and the way we look at the world, said Lewis. “Imagine if we could have that kind of positive impact on girls’ lives, it could have a wonderful trickling effect. It has to start somewhere and I’m optimistic that one person can make a difference, one group of women can make a difference.”