Abstract: Community-Engaged Research Empowering Black Girls for Critical Consciousness and Action (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Community-Engaged Research Empowering Black Girls for Critical Consciousness and Action

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Sara Goodkind, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Kathi Elliott, CEO, Gwen’s Girls
Britney Brinkman, Associate Professor, Point Park University
Background and Purpose: In U.S. society, Black girls experience a double bind. Experiences of oppression can be harmful to their health. However, when they resist oppression, they are frequently labeled defiant or delinquent and face disciplinary consequences. Empowerment programming presents a potential means for Black girls to escape this double bind, by channeling their justified resistance to oppression into collective action to address societal inequities. Our community-engaged study was designed to assess the effects of an empowerment program developed out of a community-academic partnership between Gwen’s Girls, Inc., an agency dedicated to providing gender- and culturally-responsive programming for Black girls, and university researchers.

Methods: The Black Girls Advocacy and Leadership Alliance (BGALA) was developed and piloted with high school girls in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018-2019. Based in critical consciousness theory and Black feminism, it was designed to promote collective rather than individual resilience. Weekly after-school sessions focused on components of the empowerment model, including positive gendered racial identity, critical reflection, political efficacy, and collective action. Fifteen girls aged 13-17 completed the year-long program. Participants completed pre-, mid-point, and post-surveys. Paired samples t-tests were used to examine change over time in measures of girls’ individual and collective resilience and empowerment. Additionally, a participant observer took detailed field notes at each session, and researchers conducted in-depth individual interviews with participants. Lastly, a focus group was held during the final session to provide an opportunity to document participants’ reflections on their experiences. Researchers thematically analyzed observation, interview, and focus group data to enhance understanding and interpretation of quantitative results.

Results: BGALA participants experienced high levels of discrimination, with two-thirds attributing experiences of everyday discrimination to their race and over half to their gender. About 40% reported being unfairly discouraged from continuing their education by a teacher or advisor, and a similar percentage reported being unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened, or abused by police. Analyses of survey data revealed no change in measures of individual resilience but showed significant changes in measures related to collective resilience. Specifically, there was an increase in perceptions of societal inequity and a decrease in adherence to neoliberal ideas that disregard systemic challenges, thus demonstrating the development of critical consciousness. Qualitative analyses demonstrated that participants critically reflected on their experiences of oppression, developed mutual support and positive gendered racial identity, and engaged in collective action.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings demonstrate the utility of an empowerment model in increasing critical reflection and positive gendered racial identity among Black girls, which challenges traditional individualized models of resilience and reframes Black girls’ resistance to injustice as an alternative, collective form of resilience. Given the mounting evidence of the harmful health effects of behaviors defined as individually resilient among people experiencing oppression, redefining resilience collectively and promoting it through empowerment interventions for Black girls and other minoritized youth is both promising and necessary. This research also demonstrates the potential and effectiveness of community-engaged research for developing and evaluating strengths-based interventions focused on macro-level change.