McNair Research Topic: Sisters in Action for Power & Youth-Adult Partnerships

When people in Portland ask me what I’m studying as the focus of my McNair research, I tell them this: I’m doing a case study of the non-profit organization, Sisters in Action for Power, and their TriMet campaign because I want to know how community organizing work and youth-adult partnerships affected the girls who participated in the campaign. (That’s my one-liner. Admittedly, it could use a little wordsmithing.)

I’ve become accustomed to folks’ response. Eyes get wide, smiles break, and they say, “Oh, cool! So, umm…what do you want to do with that though?” Here is where voices begin to trail off because the next question resting on their tongue is, “So what?” And something short of us knowing what levels of campus politeness are expected may be the only thing stifling such a blunt question.

Below is my response to the ever present, nearly always valid, and too often unuttered question, “So what?”

Girl-led community organizing work is inherently political. Girls, ages 10-17 years old, were community organizers at the non-profit organization Sisters in Action for Power, whose location before closing, was in north Portland, Oregon, USA. These girls were defiantly taking up political space, subverting patriarchy, and emboldening their community. This is not just a moment, but a piece of our local movement building, that should be well documented. Or, at least documented better than it has been.

The title of my paper is, “Sisters in Action for Power: A Case Study of Youth-Adult Partnership and Girl-led Community Organizing for Transit Justice.” The final version will be an effort to begin to fill the gap of documentation and analysis of girl-led youth organizing and the development of youth-adult partnerships (Y-APs) in Portland.

From the essay, “The Psychology and Practice of Youth-Adult Partnership: Bridging Generations for Youth Development and Community Change,” scholars, Shepherd Zeldin, Brian D. Christens, and Jane L. Powers, present an oversimplified definition of Y-AP as “multiple youth working with multiple adults.” Zeldin et al.’s uncomplicated definition has been useful for me as, months back, I began to deepen my knowledge of Y-APs, and then moved on to examine how Y-APs were used at Sisters in Action.

Girls and women of color are all but written out of, and deleted from, Portland’s history of social change actions. The Black girls leading Sisters in Action’s successful TriMet campaign to win student bus passes have not been documented in a traditional manner as a significant contribution to activism in Portland. Applying a Black feminist lens to the history and thin archives of activism by Black women, we can begin to connect the dots between civic engagement, Black girlhood, and erasure.

The problem I will be addressing: how Y-APs, that were built in the context of learning grassroots community organizing skills, affect girls of color, especially Black girls, who were leading a transit equity campaign in Portland with Sisters in Action. I am studying this topic because I want to know how, in the short- and long-term, this work affected the girls who participated.

My McNair research project has begun to find its home in Girl Studies, a relatively new scholarly discipline that started to gain traction over the last 10-15 years. As a junior scholar of Black Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, I was drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of Girl Studies and its ability to speak to the profound and holistic lived experiences of young girls of color and poor girls in the U.S. For me, it felt like a natural rhetorical move in the conception and development of my project.

When it comes to the topic of Y-APs, most of us will readily agree that there are benefits to building intergenerational alliances within the Black community. Where this argument usually ends, however, is on the question of whether or not Black youth are “acting appropriately” as civic participants. Whereas some are convinced that social scientists and scholars ignore Black youth as a whole in regards to social change work, others maintain that systemic oppression forces Black youth to perform civic engagement actions that are not generally recognized by scholars who study Y-APs. My own view is that, yes, systemic oppression constrains Black youth activism, causing them to express it creatively. Having said that, I would like to further the discussion by addressing not only the aspect of subjugation, but also the gendered experiences occurring among young Black Y-AP participants.

Few scholars are analyzing how Black youth participate in Y-APs, and even fewer are looking at how young Black girls affect social change in their communities. That is, unless they themselves are Black scholars. It seems that those most invested in the positive evolution and continuation of Black youth are Black adults. It is here, as a researcher, that I find myself really beginning to contend with what Patricia Hill Collins coined as the “insider,” “outsider” phenomenon, in her essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.”

Relying on the literature of Black feminist scholars as the foundation for the content analysis of in-depth interviews conducted with women who were youth organizers at Sisters in Action in the early 2000’s, I will locate their experiences in the theoretical framework of Black Women’s Studies as presented by Black feminist scholars such as, Collins, bell hooks, Ruth Nicole Brown, and African Studies professor, Shawn A. Ginwright.

I expect to find that these women have been profoundly changed in ways both seen and unseen, overt and covert. But what form these changes have taken within the women…I can only begin to imagine.

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