I am a black girl and...

Black girls in the Pittsburgh region share an identity and, for many, it means they are exposed to systemic inequities. But each girl’s identity rises above the common denominator. Their struggles and aspirations are unique. This is who they are. This is our region through the eyes of black girls.

By PublicSource | March 2017—Present

Lead Photo by Martha Rial

The motivation behind this project: We hear about girls and women bumping into the glass ceiling. We hear about systemic disadvantages faced by the black community. But what if you represent both? You are a black woman. Then, let’s throw in that you are a minor; adults think you don’t know any better. This ongoing project is exploring the intersecting identities of black girls. It serves as a platform for the girls to tell their stories about how they feel they are perceived and treated, what their hopes and fears are and what they think would better their lives.

She lost her mom and her home. How Monet is finding a promising future in Pittsburgh.

It’s 4.30 a.m. and Monet Spencer wakes up, scoops Maxwell House into a coffee maker and waits for the air to fill with the aroma she remembers from breakfasts in her late mother’s kitchen.

Wrapped in that comfort, she starts her long day. She’ll catch two buses and a trolley to get from her Hill District apartment to Brashear High School, where she’s a senior taking computer science and AP English classes and playing flute in the band.

She hears her classmates grumble about perceived hardships like broken phones or difficult tests.

Monet has no time for those complaints.

She knows real hardship.

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If everyone got screened, gifted education in Pittsburgh could be more equitable. School officials aren’t sold.

Can Pittsburgh’s schools learn anything from Fort Lauderdale?

The county-wide Florida district is among the nation’s largest, with about as many second graders as Pittsburgh has total students, and they’re more diverse, with students of varying cultures attending its more than 200 campuses.

But Broward County Public Schools saw the same problem we have here in Pittsburgh: An unmistakable underrepresentation of minority students considered to be “gifted.”

More than a decade ago, the Florida district mapped students identified as gifted and found that in the more affluent areas, tons of kids seemed to make the cut. In the less affluent section, with larger black and Hispanic populations, not so much.

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Who gets to be considered ‘gifted’ in Pittsburgh schools? Too few black girls.

TraOnna, a Brutus in Vans tennis shoes, believes Cassius is behaving with considerable dishonor.

Under stage lights Downtown, TraOnna scolds Daynell for corrupting the assassination of Julius Caesar by tolerating bribery.

“Brutus, bay not me,” Daynell snaps back.

The eighth graders work through initial nerves to show themselves as the caliber of students who can elevate a convoluted Shakespearean text into a plausible argument between teenagers.

Back at school, Daynell Griffin and TraOnna Malloy, both 14, share the frustration that they feel they have to work harder than white students to prove their intelligence, simply because they’re black girls. They’re both engaged, curious students, taking on Shakespeare and August Wilson in the mornings, and leaning on the other’s strengths if a homework problem won’t unravel or a thesis statement doesn’t read right.

But the school district treats each girl very differently.

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Why don’t more students at Pittsburgh’s Gifted Center look like me?

Donise Griffin, 13, sees racial inequity when she leaves Colfax K-8 for the Pittsburgh Gifted Center. (Photo by Guy Wathen/PublicSource)

My name is Donise Griffin. I am a 13-year-old seventh grader at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8. I have attended the Pittsburgh Gifted Center since the middle of my sixth-grade year. I am very artistic and creative. I like anything that I can get my hands on. I love to read and write because both let your imagination run wild, opening up doors that may not be possible in the real world. I also love math because I love to be proven right. I’ve never had a bad view on learning.

The gifted center has given me extra opportunities, so I can further understand what I can do with my life after school. I’m now thinking about becoming an architect because I could make my ideas come to life, and I can even use math to prove that my designs are stable.

What I don’t like about the gifted center is that there aren’t many students who look like me.

The range of students is not all that different. True, there are other races and ethnicities, but there’s not that many. The majority of the students are white. I am the only black student in the seventh grade who goes to the gifted center from my school.

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Racism can be difficult to prove, but I think it happened to me

When she was singled out during the fire drill for talking, while many of her classmates were doing the same, she just felt embarrassed. It was later that she wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that she is a black student in a majority-white school. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

I’m sitting quietly on the gymnasium floor next to my friend. All of us, kindergarten through eighth graders, had just been ushered out of our classrooms at Sacred Heart Elementary for an emergency evacuation drill. Our gym is in a different building than our regular classes. Once the students were settled, they all started talking.

My friend turns to me and starts telling me how another kid told him he was “deaf as a bat” earlier that day. He hadn’t heard that before and thought it was pretty funny. I usually try not to get into too much trouble, and I know how upset teachers can get when we talk during emergency drills. Then again, everyone else around me was talking, and nobody has corrected them. I decided that it was OK to talk, as long as I wasn’t too loud. I turn to my friend and continue the conversation, laughing with him.

After a few minutes, a teacher from across the gym notices us — or me specifically. She is heading toward us across the gym, looking at me the entire time. I don’t think she even knows my name.

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Do black girls pay a higher price when comprehensive sex education isn’t taught?

Oakland Catholic senior Liza Wilson knows a girl whose birth control method with her boyfriend is ‘pulling out.’

Ciara Bailey, a senior at Winchester Thurston, says some of her peers think oral contraceptives provide protection from sexually transmitted diseases.

And at West Mifflin Area High School, sophomore Cheyenne Rhone often hears about students having unprotected sex and staying in negative relationships.

Those examples, the trio says, are proof that schools should teach comprehensive sex education and abandon abstinence-only lessons. “There’s way more to it to keep us healthy and safe,” said Ciara, 17, of Monroeville.

The girls, who are black teens, know that the stakes are higher for their peers, who disproportionately become pregnant, contract STDs or are victims of dating violence and rape compared to their white counterparts. That’s why they are part of an effort by the group GirlGov to push for comprehensive sex education at all schools.

“We should talk about condoms, contraception and not leave people out,” said Cheyenne, a 16-year-old from West Mifflin. “We should talk about how healthy relationships should be because people just don’t know that.”

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The parts of me that can’t be mixed and matched

Sienna Rodriguez-Truley, a 17-year-old living in Jeannette, Pa., is biracial — black and Hispanic. For many of her school years, she would adjust the way she looked and acted to try to fit in. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

“You’re just brown on the outside and white on the inside.”

That’s what one of my friends of color told me when I was in middle school. I’ve dwelled upon those words for the past six years. I’m in 12th grade now, and I’m still carrying that baggage. That flippant comment awoke me from an oblivious state. My skin was indeed brown, due to the fact that my father has skin the color of a dark, bold coffee and my mother has freckled skin the shade of milk. Resulting is me, an ambiguously ethnic latte. Too dark to look like my mother’s child, but too light to resemble my father.

For most of my childhood, I grew up in predominantly white areas. I didn’t associate with my colored-ness. I never acknowledged it until I got older.

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Videos: Six women speak about the outlook for black girls in Pittsburgh

The facts and figures on how black girls in the Pittsburgh area are faring shocked many attendees of the Gwen’s Girls Equity Summit. Even those who work with and advocate for the girls on a daily basis. And black girls and women themselves.

The statistics — cited from an October 2016 report funded by the FISA Foundation and The Heinz Endowments — conjured powerful reflections from many of the girls and women. Here’s what some had to say:

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