Since September 1997, a group of women have made the academy their target;
they have turned a typically solitary struggle into a triumphant communal
experience. SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups For Women of Color grew
out of the very personal experience of its founder Dr. Shireen Lewis. Then a
Ph.D. student in French literature at Duke University, the Trinidadian native
said she was working on the second to last chapter of the dissertation when
she hit an intellectual wall. "Even though I was close to finishing writing
the dissertation, I was having a particularly hard time getting myself really
motivated to complete it," said Lewis. "It is ironic that I was able to
motivate myself almost until the end but when it was time to complete it I
really felt stagnated. I felt then that I needed to be in a community of
other women who were doing the same thing that I was doing and that I really
needed their support. That's where I got the idea to start the support group."
And the need is very real. Reports suggest that in many doctoral programs
only half of the entering students will finish, however Lewis believes the
attrition rate is much higher, especially among black women. Many must deal
with financial, family and other personal pressures in an academic
environment that is not supportive but remains hostile, isolating and
discriminatory to black women. Lewis believes that community support is the
buttress required to break through these academic/personal barriers.
So she approached Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton, co-owners of
Sisterspace and Books, with the idea for SisterMentors and they very quickly
offered the bookstore's facility as a meeting place. Williams explained that
Sisterspace was willing to make this commitment because SisterMentors is
consistent with their philosophy and because they saw SisterMentors as an
extension of the legacies of sheroes like Mary McLeod Bethune. "At
Sisterspace we are about promoting literacy and self-empowerment. Literacy
has always been a big issue for Africans in America because education was not
always accessible to us so if you were fortunate or able to get educated then
you had a responsibility to make sure that others were also educated. That's
what Bethune was about `each one teach one,' and SisterMentors is just
following in that tradition," said Williams. "And that is what motivated
Shireen to use her knowledge and her skills to extend herself to her
community. In a real tangible sense it's the only thing that made sense. As
an activist and being as educated as Shireen is, she understood early on the
importance of connecting with other women to create a community of support to
further her vision and to also give back to the larger community."
At the group's first meeting Lewis was joined by four other women. And three
years later their `interactive model of goal setting, time management and
peer mentoring' has been an unequivocal success. Ten women have received
their doctorate and six more are expected to graduate this year. In the
meantime two groups of eight women continue to meet every three weeks while
others remain on a waiting list.
Despite ongoing validation of the support groups Lewis explained that Sist
erMentors has greater implications than women acquiring advanced degrees.
"Its about building community," she insisted, "and demystifying the process
so that people will understand that a graduate degree is tangible and
accessible." While a Ph.D. represents years of hard work, Lewis said that it
does not confer any academic elite status on its holder, instead it brings
even greater responsibility to the community. "A Ph.D. does raise your
earning potential but it adds to the intellectual and economic wealth of the
community. Our presence in the academy has undeniably expanded the
scholarship about black people, and the scholarship produced is essential
because so much of our stories have been deliberately hidden."
Community constantly resonated throughout Lewis' discussion and she insists
that members of the support groups must understand its importance if the
group is to work effectively for them. As the groups' leader she said she
"continuously strives to create and maintain a community which rejects fav
oritism and discrimination and encourages instead respect for each of its
members so that everyone can live up to their full potential."
For Lewis community is inclusive and is able to bridge the gap across
differences. "My idea about community extends to other people of color. I
believe that if black people are to truly move forward in the 21st century we
must be inclusive of other people of color. This is not an option. This is
why my groups consist of women of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures. It
is this inclusiveness -- this forming of community with other oppressed
groups -- that will make all our struggles more effective," she shared.
Lewis added that if we can build communities we will eliminate "the
disconnectedness that prevents us from reaching out to each other and causes
us not to be able to speak up when we see an injustice." She said that
SisterMentors is not just a group of women who meet every three weeks but
they are in the process of forming a community. "Community is not a noun it's
a verb, it is an ongoing process of building and maintaining, you never stop
working at it," she said.
To that end SisterMentors extends its community beyond the small academic
enclave of women. Lewis said that the group has made the mentoring of young
girls of color a priority.
"We understand that we are obligated to reach out to young girls and let them
know what it is that we are trying to do. We can explain to them that in
spite of all of our struggles, education is important not only because it
will lead to getting a better job and making money, but it also impacts on
our critical thinking and the way we look at the world, said Lewis. "Imagine
if we could have that kind of positive impact on girls' lives, it could have
a wonderful trickling effect. It has to start somewhere and I'm optimistic
that one person can make a difference, one group of women can make a
For more information about SisterMentors Dissertation Support Groups For
Women of Color contact Dr. Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the group's
website at www.sistermentors.org.