SISTAS COMING TOGETHER
Florida Courier contributor Penny Dickerson shares story of hope and survival to African-American students during trip to Iowa city
BY PENNY DICKERSON
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
America’s racial climate deserves a seasonal calm. A monumental movement of protest has swept the nation following a string of Black-male homicides that angered multitudes and simultaneously created a new platform for dialogue amongst millennials – the next generation of potential law enforcement, judicial and education leaders.
To nurture potential and advance soft skills like communication and respect, a warm and friendly conference called “Sistas Coming Together” convened in Sioux City, Iowa on Nov. 18 Hosted by the Sioux City Museum of Art, plaintive words of hope were breathed into at-risk youth.
Iowa Principal Jacque Wyant and I live a distant 1,400 miles apart. Thirty years ago, we walked the same halls and marched in the same band at Jacksonville’s controversial, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
It took 50 years, petitions and national news for the school’s name to be changed to Westside High School, a reflection of the surrounding neighborhood demographic that has currently morphed to a predominate, African-American populous.
It took me and Wyant 10 minutes at a summer band reunion to agree to employ conciliatory efforts to address a critical racial and low socio-economic disparity affecting students at Wyant’s own West High School:
The rural Sioux City school is comprised of 1,165 students;
•51.8 percent are non-White;
•82 are African-American students;
•47 are female and 29 participated in “Sistas Coming Together.”
“My girls never get to meet or see women like you Penny,” remarked Wyant at their June gathering.
Exposure to professional women of color who defy adversity, graduate from college, realize their life dreams, and further embody self-respect and acceptance of cultural identity best strikes the target of Wyant’s commentary and intent.
From South to Sioux
A 22-year education veteran of Philipino descent, Wyant is in her fourth year as head principal at West High School.
Her leadership boasts graduation rate improvement from 78 percent to 88 percent and a dropout rate decrease from 7 percent to 1.5 percent.
“Every decision I make for my school is based on the outcome and needs of my students first,” said Wyant. “This posture hinders my popularity among school staff, but my decisions are always student-centered.”
She refers to the high school’s select jewels as, “Her girls.” Many are mixed-race or biracial with non-college educated, single parents, resigned to work menial jobs in regional factories or other blue-collar facilities. The results create an intimate struggle beyond the average Black girl’s plight.
Every opportunity in the world should be accessible to the African-American Sioux City girl. To reinforce the latter, Wyant used a grant awarded in 2010 from Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools (IS3) to fund my travel across the Midwest plains.
“Leaving Florida’s perpetual sun for 20 degree temperatures was more than a notion,” I shared. “But I gravitate towards motivating lives and igniting passion, so it was a reasonable fair trade.”
Burying the ratchet hatchet
“Can’t we all just get along?”
It would seem a mute inquiry in a high school where only 47 of the students are young women of color. They are ordinary girls – typical in their love for fashion, music, and sharing robust laughs, yet also atypical. The commonalities that bind them, subsequently divide.
“Over the past eight years, relationships between the African-American girls has always been one of support,” states Wyant. “Female students at West High cross ethnic, grade, socio-economic status and involvement barriers and my students, staff and parents will tell you that ‘cliques’ do not exist at West High. Just walk into the lunchroom. It is clear that students “mix it up.”
Problematic for Wyant’s enrollment and student social pulse has been transfers from other large urban areas outside of Iowa which resulted in an influx of African-American students. The “more the merrier” concept was met with unexpected territorial stress.
“At the beginning of the school year there was tension amongst our African-American girls like yelling in the hallway and disorderly conduct,” Wyant explained. These behaviors soon bred fights.
Coming from “the wrong side of the railroad tracks” is an African-American associative dilemma. Spike Lee’s iconic film “School Daze” pitted the dark-hued “Jiggaboo” against her light-skinned sorority sister, while Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple’’ portrayed main character Celie as abused with the double- indemnity of having “blue-black” skin.
But when real life mimics cinematic reference, serious intervention is necessary. Young women of color at West High School engaged battles that spanned hair texture and weaves to mulatto complexions of classmates.
Wyant sought to squander the discord without haste.
“The first steps taken were to contact parents followed by a mediation between the “ring leaders,” Wyant stated. “The second time the tension(s) appeared, school administration decided to have all girls meet with outside facilitators.”
Namely, Flora Lee, who is past president of the local NAACP and serves as support staff for the Sioux City Community School District’s (SCCSD) Area Education Agency, and Lori Gentry, the Equity Liaison for SCCSD who additionally meets with African-American focus groups in the area.
Three separate meetings were held with conflicting students resulting in the elections to have a “respect” conference.
Five student leaders were identified to work with Wyant’s school administration along with Lee and Gentry. “Sistas Coming Together” emerged as both the initiative and name.
Wyant and I were raised as military brats — a lifestyle that afforded world travel and diversity exposure.
“Beyond band, high school was an otherwise miserable existence for me, but I knew I wanted to be a writer or journalist,” I shared with the girls. “Growing up on military bases, attending college and graduate school in Philadelphia and Boston, and a stint as a flight attendant each contributed to my positive path.’’
To amplify the bigger picture, I executed my dual role as an adjunct professor of English at Florida Community College at Jacksonville.
I used slang cards that read popular catch phrases like “hot mess,’’ “aight,’’ “crew,’’ “posse, and “badonkadonk’’ followed by discourse on the fine line between humor and derogatory name calling. Every student needs to utilize
Standard American English as a communications asset that garners social, academic, and workplace respect.
Lesson on survival
I strategically distributed chocolate play money in varied denominations to teach responsibility from philanthropy to value. The overarching lesson was: “You navigate life with what you’re given, but education is a bridge to help you acquire more.”
Moreover, pride in appearance and exuding poise characteristic of young ladies was an evocative message.
Most resonant was a raw spiel regarding my own cancer survival — a symbolic example that life’s adversity may delay goals, but limits zero possibilities for remarkable women of promise.