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UVA Joins Research Effort to Improve Lives of Black Girls and Women

Nov 20, 2015 |

Contrary to a promising backdrop that shows a decrease in teen pregnancies and an increase in high school graduation and college enrollment for young women of color and females in general, black girls and young women face an alarmingly high rate of school discipline and arrest compared to other youth, including black males.

According to 2011-12 statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than white girls – 12 percent compared to 2 percent. Black boys were suspended at a rate of 20 percent, while white boys were suspended at a rate of 6 percent.

The University of Virginia is among 25 institutions joining the newly created Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research, announced on November 13 at a White House forum. The group will be dedicated to researching and advancing programs to help youth whose problems have only recently come into the public arena: girls and young women of color.

Fellows of the Carter G. Woodson Institute with students in the "Freedom Summer" Class at UVA in 2014

“Together we are publicly affirming the critical need for research about women and girls of color and committing some of the limited resources of our institutions to pursuing and supporting this research,” said Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor at 
Wake Forest University, MSNBC host and one of the forum’s leaders.

Maurie McInnis, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of American Art and Material Culture

The November 13th forum, “Advancing Equity for Girls and Women of Color: A Research Agenda for the Next Decade,” hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls and Wake Forest University’s Anna Julia Cooper Center, explored ways to improve the lives of women and girls of color. The White House initiative especially aims to promote study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields; meet the needs of vulnerable youths; and increase economic prosperity.

The forum follows a November 2014 report from the Council on Women and Girls that looked at barriers and disparities facing women and girls of color at the intersection of race and gender.

The new collaborative, which comprises universities, colleges, foundations and nonprofit organizations, has pledged $18 million to support existing and new research efforts about women and girls of color. Along with the collaborative’s funding, Prosperity Together, another consortium of 20 women’s foundations, plus the Ms. Foundation, also pledged a $100 million, five-year funding initiative to improve economic prosperity for low-income women. 

“We’ve now identified a national problem: what’s happening to women and girls of color,” University of Virginia Vice Provost Maurie McInnis said. “In New York, for example, black girls are 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school, and 50 times more likely to be expelled. Such acts create a school-to-prison pipeline that forever changes the trajectory of their lives and has an impact on the well-being of their families, their communities and society as a whole.”

According to a White House fact sheet released in conjunction with the forum and research announcement, “Girls and young women of color represent a growing share of juvenile arrests, delinquency petitions, detentions and post-adjudication placements.”

Representing UVA, McInnis said, “UVA will be one of the initial signing institutions, having pledged well in excess of $1 million over the next five years devoted to research on women and girls of color. In fact, we already do an enormous amount in this area.”

The University has committed to a range of projects and research related to this vulnerable part of the population, especially through the Curry School of Education and in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

  • In the Curry School of Education’s Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, associate professor Joanna Lee Williams, a 2014 William T. Grant Scholar, led an October conference “Youth of Color Matter.”
  • UVA’s Young Women Leaders Program, which since its inception in 1997 has served more than 1,000 middle school girls and trained more than 1,000 college mentors, has also led to new programs at other universities and colleges in the U.S. and in several international locations, including Cameroon, Ethiopia and Mozambique. Led by Curry School professor and clinical psychologist Edith “Winx” Lawrence and Program Director Jaronda Miller-Bryant at UVA’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, the program uses a curriculum developed and based on UVA research.
  • The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, directed by Alice Griffin Professor of English Deborah McDowell, has supported significant work in this area, including the “Black Girls Matter” symposium on Nov. 12 as part of its “Engaging Race” series.

McInnis has asked UVA’s deans if they have existing programs in this area, or if they want to do new work on this topic. She said the University will make a future funding commitment, most likely issuing a call for proposals in research areas related to African-American girls over next five years.

Issues of police brutality and incarceration have focused mostly on black men, but recent research shows that black girls and women face violence or bias leading to involvement with the juvenile justice system and higher barriers to economic prosperity.

Deborah McDowell, Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, and Alice Griffin Professor of English

“Although African-American girls represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute 32 percent of girls who are detained and committed,” the White House fact sheet says. “Native American girls are only 1 percent of the population, but 3.5 percent of girls who are detained and committed.

“The most common infractions that girls are arrested for include running away and truancy – behaviors that are also symptoms or outcomes of trauma and abuse. Once in the system, girls may be treated as offenders rather than girls in need of support, perpetuating a vicious cycle that is increasingly known as the ‘sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline.’”

Whether researching school discipline or sexual abuse in addressing the problem, the collaborative initiative will seek to fill a gap in data, as well as a gap in effective programs.

“Friday’s event was the initiation point for a yearlong process to develop a research agenda for the next decade focused on women and girls of color,” Sara Kugler, co-director of the Wake Forest center, said. “This is an ambitious project that will build on existing work, rely on collaborative efforts and innovative partnerships, and aims to be consequential in advancing equity and justice for women and girls of color.”

Video of the White House conference is available here

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