Sistafriends: Creating community for African-American womenThird-year College students Marsha Bievre, Joan Pierre and Robyn McCoy did not know each other when they first came to campus, but they all shared a similar Orientation Week experience -- long tests, unpredictable weather and the lack of any welcoming community of fellow African-American women.
"We were bombarded by printed information in our orientation packets, in our mail folders, at our dorms," said Bievre. "And we had advisers and resident heads to help out. But there was no organized group of black women to turn to when we needed to deal with problems specific to black women."
To provide this sort of support group, the three students have founded a new campus organization, Sistafriends, which has as its stated goal "to enrich the quality of black female life on campus." Sistafriends -- whose motto is "Many Shades, Many Voices, One Power, Sisterhood" -- is the first organization of its kind on campus devoted solely to the needs of undergraduate black women.
"The formation of Sistafriends is not only an example of a growing trend on college campuses of students forming their own support groups to deal with a range of issues, but also a part of the University's tradition of students creating innovative organizations to meet specific interests," said Kathryn Stell, Deputy Dean of Students in the University and Chair of the Coordinating Council for Minority Issues.
Stell points to the formation of Asian American Students for Christ, the Hong Kong Student Association and the Muslim Students Association as examples of this tradition, as well as to the fact that many of the more than 150 student organizations started out in the same manner as Sistafriends -- a small group of like-minded individuals banding together to improve the quality of campus life.
Sense of community
Bievre, Pierre and McCoy had discussed forming a group like Sistafriends ever since they came to campus, but the idea started to become a reality only last year.
During the past summer, the three made connections with women at other campuses that encouraged them to form a support group. Bievre studied at Stanford and got to know its academic support network for black women, Sisters at Stanford. McCoy studied the black women's support group at the University of Michigan, and Pierre made contact with similar groups at Harvard.
"Stanford has a huge women's study center, and I was amazed at the amount of unity and organization shown by students," Bievre said. "We felt that black women at Chicago had the power and motivation to bring these things to our campus, and we felt energized to start working at it this fall quarter."
After gaining Michael Dawson, Associate Professor in Political Science, as an adviser, Sistafriends had its first official meeting during the first week of October. The group also met in late November to address ways of dealing with the stress of finals week, focusing on African-inspired spiritual exercises, including prayer and meditation.
"Our goal is to create a sense of empowerment for sisters on campus, to give them a sense of community and togetherness," said Pierre. "We want to deal with academic issues, such as retention of black students, recruitment of black faculty and becoming positive role models for younger women in the College."
McCoy said, "We also want to deal with personal issues facing black women, issues that can affect us academically -- health, relationships, sexuality, contraception and the role we have to play within society."
The organization is geared toward undergraduates, but it has made connections with similar groups on campus for graduate students.
"Graduate students have given us good feedback on our efforts and have said they will work with us on various ongoing projects," said McCoy.
Sistafriends also is interested in becoming part of a nationwide college network of black women's groups.
"It is important to hear from other black women on predominantly white campuses," Bievre said. "It not only gives us the sense that we are not alone, but it also can provide us with information that we can use, such as internships for black women that are open to students across the country."
The first formal meeting of Sistafriends focused on just this kind of information sharing.
"We assumed that it would be mostly first-year students, since they need the most information," Pierre said. "But we had more returning students than first-years."
McCoy said, "Initially the discussion was based on our own academic experiences -- dealing with professors and teaching assistants, networking, finding jobs on campus. But we soon found out that everyone had a story to tell, and we gained as much from the discussion as the rest of the group."
"When bad things happen, you tend to keep it to yourself," Pierre said. "But when you hear a lot of people expressing the same concerns, you are able to garner a real sense of empowerment and ameliorate the situation."
Sistafriends plans to build on this sense of empowerment by developing a mentoring program in which third- and fourth-year students would be a resource for first- and second-year students.
"It is really important to build relationships with first-year students," Bievre said. "During the year, Sistafriends can reinforce to new students, 'Here are our experiences, take them if you will, and they may help you.' "
Pierre said, "When I was a first-year, it would have really helped if I had known then what I know now. Mentoring new students is our way of giving back what we have gained from others."
"It is important for a system of encouragement to be there," McCoy added. "We are subconsciously bombarded on a daily basis with negative images of black women. Sistafriends can be a place to reinforce a positive picture of black women to our students."
-- Jeff Makos