In September 2016, a troubling report was released. It begins:
“Until very recently, little public attention has been focused on understanding the ways Black girls and women experience institutional racism and sexism. Over the last year, the national conversation about the experiences of Black girls has gained momentum. This report is an attempt to share some troubling local data in order to support additional conversation and draw public attention to these issues. Among its findings:
- Black girls are suspended from the Pittsburgh Public Schools at more than three times the rate of white girls.
- Black girls are referred to juvenile court three times more often than white girls nationally. In Allegheny County, it’s 11 times more often.”
While black females are not incarcerated at the rate of black males, that’s not to say they fare better in schools. The phrase “pushout” is used to describe institutionalized racism and sexism that results in inequitable treatment of black girls in school, and the subsequent effects on their lives.
From this, it seems clear that furthering understanding of the girls’ lives—and of the girls themselves—is key to combatting institutionalized prejudice. And who better to tell you about that than, well—them?
“There’s a surge of research on African American girls right now, but we want to make sure that the body of research is informed by girls’ direct perspectives,” says Britney Brinkman, Ph.D., associate professor of counseling psychology and co-founder of Chatham’s Psychology of Gender Research Team.
In January 2017, Dr. Brinkman, along with the University of Pittsburgh’s Dr. Sara Goodkind, launched a project as part of local non-profit Gwen’s Girls “See the Best in Me” campaign. “See the Best in Me” is an initiative focused on self-esteem, critical thinking, and advocacy skills that enable girls to better understand and express themselves about the issues that affect them daily.
The project involved about 80 girls, who participated in Gwen’s Girls after-school programs. They used a research method called photovoice to capture their experiences. “Rather than responding to questionnaires or focus group prompts, photovoice offers a broader way of expression, through photos but also drawing, poetry, and collage,” says team member Jeremy Holdorf, MSCP ’18.
For about six months, Dr. Brinkman, Holdorf, and the other members of the team met periodically with the girls to talk about how the photographing is going, bat around ideas, troubleshoot technology mishaps, and otherwise touch base.
The program culminated in a gallery exhibit at Chatham that ran from June 6-9. The exhibit displayed these photos by 26 girls, along with drawings and notecards from a workshop that included over 80 girls. The goal was to share the work with as many people as possible, to counteract negative stereotypes and get more positive messages out into the community.
“We wanted to help kids connect their individual experiences to group experience,” explains Dr. Brinkman. “To help them see that it’s not just them; that other black girls might be having similar experiences. It lets us not only learn from individual experiences, but also paint a bigger picture of what’s going on.”
Dr. Brinkman takes an individualized approach to mentoring research assistants. “Part of our mentoring is getting to know each student, their strengths and growth edges. Jeremy has an MFA in film and video, and we’ve worked on how to connect these skills to psychology. Another team member has worked at Gwen’s Girls, and with her, it’s like ‘You’ve worked with these girls the most, so tell us when we’re missing something, and we’ll help develop your competencies in research methods.’ I love it when our team members have different strengths and our team is collaborative.”
Chatham University’s Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology and Doctor of Psychology in Counseling Psychology programs focus on the professional, intellectual, and personal growth of students, emphasizing human-centered values as well as evidence-informed treatment approaches.
 Goodkind, Sara. (2016). Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Pittsburgh, PA: FISA Foundation & The Heinz Endowments.