A Conversation with Dr. Mary Black

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Desiree Law, Marketing and Communications Project Manager at Center for Responsive Schools, sat down with Dr. Mary Black, Associate Superintendent of Student Support Services for Cumber-land County Schools and co-founder of the P.R.I.D.E. P.A.C.T. Leadership Academy for Girls, a program which serves young girls within their community through the development of key social-emotional skills. We wanted to learn more about P.R.I.D.E. P.A.C.T., the impact it has had on the students who participate, and the way this program works to teach social and emotional competence.

How did P.R.I.D.E. P.A.C.T. get started?

Dr. Black: P.R.I.D.E. P.A.C.T. began in 2007. It was a direct result of having looked at a documentary that Oprah Winfrey did when she started her school in South Africa. A colleague of mine and I were at a conference in Greensboro, and we were talking about the enthusiasm in those little girls’ faces and the fact that they were so hungry for an education. I said, “You know, we can do something similar to that here in Fayetteville. Of course, we don’t have the funds that Oprah Winfrey has, but what we do have are our connections and a deep desire to help young ladies.” And she said, “I agree; let’s just try to put some things down on paper, come up with some ideas, and see what we’d come out with.” And that’s how it began, as a result of that documentary.

What does P.R.I.D.E. P.A.C.T. stand for?

Dr. Black: P.R.I.D.E. stands for Personal Responsibility for Intellectual Development and Excellence. P.A.C.T. stands for Positive Action to Change my Tomorrow. We actually have the girls articulate what that means to them so that it wouldn’t just be letters with a periodbehind them when they talked about personal responsibility for intellectual development and excellence.

What kinds of activities do you do with the girls who participate?

Dr. Black: We have had field trips. We have guest speakers. We have test-taking seminars. We had Miss North Carolina visit us last year; she spent two hours with the girls just letting them ask questions. We have arts and crafts. We have a variety of activities because we want to make certain that they will look forward to what’s going to happen [during our sessions].

When we first started out, I planned most of the sessions. And I did it for probably about six years. And it was working me into a frenzy. And then it suddenly dawned on me that I had twelve mentors—professional educators—and we decided that each one would take a month and plan all the activities any way they would like. And I would support their efforts so that the variety would be there. So, we’ve had field trips, we’ve gone to museums, and just about anything that you could think of in terms of trying to make it exciting for girls. A key component of that is always service. They must always do a service project because I believe that gratitude should be a part of their character.

Are there any field trips, outings, or speakers that really stand out to you as something that was a special moment or where you saw it had a deep effect on the girls or yourself?

Dr. Black: Well, an author, Dr. Kimberly P. Johnson, came during a summer seminar and she led them through a poetry exercise. It was unbelievable what they were able to produce there. We went to Wilmington to see the battleship. That was exciting for them.

What is the Culminating Exercise?

Dr. Black: In June of each year, the girls can choose their own mode of presentation, just to internalize and summarize what they have learned throughout the year with us. They determine how they are going to present it in front of their parents. This is a big, big thing for them; we call it our dress-up time. On the other Saturdays, they’re in t-shirts. But during the June culminating exercise, they dress up and people get to see them in a different light. What a sight to see the girls bloom on that day. You would not believe how mature they would become from the very beginning until the end of the year. And then you see a variety from grade three all the way up to grade twelve. And you actually see the growth from that very little shy girl who came in at third or fourth grade and how that person would get up there on that stage and absolutely illuminate the room. I like the little shy girls because we teach them how to project and how to speak: “There’s no embarrassment with what you’ve got to say. Just say it the best you can. And we’ll just fine-tune it with you together.”

What are your goals for the program as a whole, whether they’re qualitative or quantitative?

Dr. Black: It will be great to have a hundred or more girls each year. And we have come very close to that over the years. And to give you a little bit more background on the application process, girls would [write] an essay and have to do an interview of sorts in order to get into the program. But we were missing out on a lot of girls who probably would want to come. And so I removed that and say that if you’d like to attend, then, we’d be happy to have you come. And so that’s how we were able to keep at least anywhere from 48 to 50-plus each month to come. It’d be nice to have a steady group of 80, 90, or 100 girls each year.

How does social and emotional learning fit into the work you do with this group?

Dr. Black: When you look at social-emotional learning and the components of social-emotional characteristics, one can’t help but have eyes on those things that deal with empathy, with how you need to be assertive but not be obnoxious, how you need to carry yourself. If you’re going to grow up to be in the business world, then there are certain expectations that one must-have. And sometimes we cannot assume that all students know what it means to have good character. You have to explain to them what good character looks like. You have to model it for them. In terms of social-emotional learning and those competencies that they need, those are the things that we capitalize on during our monthly sessions—not necessarily doing it in a form of drill and krill but modeling it and giving them examples. [We] show them people in the world who model these characteristics and let them decide for themselves what this really means. It is absolutely the core of what we are all about: being great role models so that they can see for themselves the whole notion of what it means to be graceful, what it means to have an attitude of gratitude.

How has COVID-19 impacted your meeting dates, times, and/or locations?

Dr. Black: It has greatly impacted us because our program runs parallel with our school system schedule. When kids are not in school, we are not meeting. So now we’re thinking very creatively how we can continue to meet for the coming school year, although it’s going to be virtual. I know that we will be able to do it because our girls are very tech-savvy and they love things like that. I don’t think it’s going to be difficult for us to be able to have our meetings on Saturdays, even though it’s going to [have] a virtual structure. We’re going to meet, and we’ll do some of the same kinds of things that they are doing in their classrooms, and we’re just going to extend those learning opportunities for them.

As we are watching what is happening in our nation, does your program address racial and social injustice? If so, how? And how may that change in the current climate?

Dr. Black: We have not addressed them to the extent that the opportunities are presenting themselves today. We have covered aspects of our history because most of our girls are African-American. We always have a women-in-history month, and we highlight people who have made major contributions. But our girls are very thoughtful. They will initiate an idea. And I usually allow them to speak their opinions without judgment and without our interjecting our biases or saying, “This is the way it was when I was your age.” I make certain that our mentors understand that it is not about us. It is about getting our girls a forum. Let them have a forum so that they can express themselves so that they can have an opinion. I want them to be able to generate ideas without fear. I want them to be able to say [what they are thinking] but be able to articulate it well. Express themselves well and then be prepared for someone to say, “Well, maybe I have another idea, maybe I want to look at it differently,” and that’s okay. And they should not get an attitude because someone did not agree with them; it’s okay to express your opinion, although everyone might not be receptive to it.

I’m looking forward to how we are going to talk about what this [moment] has meant to them. Many of them have participated in some of the marches. Parents are talking to them more openly about it. They have definite opinions. And I certainly want to give them that forum so that they can express themselves because I share with the mentors that we become learners when we work with these girls. We are the students. We are the learners. They have something to say. And I want them to be able to say it in such a way that it matters. It matters to them and it matters to us.

One thing that really summarizes my thinking with this is that on most of my brochures I always include this Chinese proverb: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” Now, that is very powerful. And I’m looking at them as the seeds that will become the flowers of tomorrow. And we want to make sure that we nurture and cultivate these seeds so that they will be beautiful flowers, second to none. We talk about it and then I ask them, “How do you see yourself in terms of this proverb? Do you see yourself as a seed that’s going to become this beautiful flower in the future regardless of your career path?” They can articulate very well what that means to them.

It must be great to see how they move in a positive direction and grow throughout the years.

Dr. Black: It’s very powerful. I love those girls and they know that I’m always there to assist them; not to take over any parental roles, but for them to know that there is a mentor available no matter what they’re going through. And that’s so important. The other thing that I have on our brochure that I have to share with you: the mission is to educate a girl and change a community. Women are very powerful and if we can educate a girl, the community will change because we will take the lead. We need to teach them along the way so they will be prepared to take the community and move forward.

One of the things that’s important to CRS is representation. How does representa-tion impact your mentoring relationships?

Dr. Black: It makes a difference. They need to see it makes a difference. They need to see someone in the role that they want to be in. In our cases, we’re able to touch the future. I come alive when I see these girls because that’s my hope for the future. I want to pour into them what I wish I could have had when I was growing up when I was their age. I didn’t have girls groups. I wish I had, but now to be able to do this through these other little girls is very gratifying.
The girls are hungry for it. They are reaching out for someone and they need someone to add that structure. We say some of the same kinds of things that their parents say to them. But it is different in our setting, and they all learn it. And I think that [we] have five graduates this year—all college-bound, with scholarships. To me, that’s phenomenal.

That’s a clear measure that what you’re doing is making a difference.

Dr. Black: I hope so. You know, they [pick up] my mannerisms and the things that I say, and that’s why I have to be very careful about the way I present myself to these young ladies because they are mimicking me every step of the way. I cannot afford to lead them inaccurately.