To mark Women’s History Month, writer and activist Ola Ojewumi examines how African-American women have historically helped drive social change—and how they can help African-American girls overcome the challenges they face in America’s public educations system today.
This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English language learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.
For much of history, Black women have remained unknown change-makers, most recently depicted in the film Hidden Figures. In my own youth, I idolized the first woman to run for President. No, not Hilary Clinton, but Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
Though the history books may look at us as an afterthought, Black women have a long history of fighting for social change in America. It is this same spirit we need now to help Black girls succeed in America’s schools, where they continue to face the same challenges that have plagued them for decades.
Challenges in School—Where Black Girls Lose Their Innocence
Black girls face unique obstacles in life, mainly because of racial disparities in education. First, they are pushed out of school, then funneled through the school-to-prison-pipeline. The Black girl push-out in school starts through negative stereotypes and poor education funding.
Black girls are also disciplined more harshly and are more likely to experience school suspensions and expulsions. In some counties in California, Black girls represent 70 percent of the juvenile justice system. These girls are handed handcuffs instead of a helping hand.
Schools may symbolize safety for all children, but it’s the place where Black girls lose their innocence. Though still children, Black girls are viewed as older and remain unprotected from sexual harassment by adults, educators, peers, and school security guards or officers.
Sexual harassment impedes academic performance, and 60 percent of Black women experience sexual assault before turning 18, up from 40 percent a few years before. It has become commonplace to see cellphone videos of security officers unlawfully brutalizing Black girls. Adding to the injustice, these men are protected, not prosecuted.
All of this contributes to Black girls’ statistically poor performance in the classroom, which has led to lower high school graduation rates and poorer futures. If we can improve the experience of Black girls in school – and keep them at the forefront of the fight for education equity, we can begin to bridge the achievement gap between white and Black students.
Our Own Heroines
If there is anything Black women know, it is that only we can save us. We must be our own heroines.
Fortunately, the millennial generation has lawmakers like Kamala Harris, the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, fighting for us. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava Duvernay is showing us that Black girls rock by using cinema to illuminate the stories of Black women on the big screen.
And Black Lives Matter (BLM) seems to be taking shape as the birth of the new civil rights movement. Many are unaware that BLM is an official nonprofit organization with several chapters across North America, and that three extraordinary Black women founded this movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Their groups have organized initiatives in Ferguson and successfully worked to remove the Chicago police superintendent for withholding from the public a video of the killing of a Black teenager for a year.
I am an activist because I am the dream of so many of history’s hidden figures—Diane Nash, Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates, Jo Ann Robinson, Amelia Boynton, and Septima Clark—whose contributions to equality we all feel every day. I learned from them what it means to support my sisters, the value of patience and perseverance, and that education and protest can fight the double-headed monster of racism and sexism.
Black girls have repeatedly survived circumstances meant to destroy us, but our centuries-long battle toward equality is a hard-fought battle that has yet to be won. Nevertheless, Black women and girls have never have stopped fighting.
We press on, and we will lead for generations to come, continuing to make history.
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Ola Ojewumi is an activist, journalist, and a community organizer based in Washington, D.C. She founded two nonprofits, Sacred Hearts Children's Transplant Foundation and Project ASCEND. She has been published in CNN.com, the Huffington Post, Marie Claire Magazine's online publication, and the American Association of University Women.