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.

The vicious cycle inside Allegheny County juvenile court for black girls and their mothers. I saw it up close.

A typical day in the family courthouse consists of hallways filled with parents and children, all waiting anxiously to have their cases heard. Family dynamics can play a significant role in why a juvenile is actually in the juvenile court system, but they also have a strong influence on what occurs inside the courtroom. It’s heartbreaking enough to see a child looking around to see no relatives around. Even worse is when a family member shows up only to ensure the youth doesn’t go home with them. On those days, I, as a former assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, would glimpse into the lives of broken families.

These stories were prevalent, but the most devastating to me were those involving female juvenile offenders. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that the girls I’m referring to in these situations were practically all black, like me.

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In this black-or-white world, I want to find the gray area

Tiara Tabb in the hallways of Propel Andrew Street High School. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

Tiara Tabb wrote this poem as an original expression of how she views herself and her interactions with others. She said she believes that so many people see the world in black-or-white terms, both literally and figuratively.

Tiara said she wants to find the gray — a middle ground where people can find commonalities and understanding. She sees this as a challenge in her personal relationships and in how people view her.

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Relationships can tear you down and lift you up.

Jayla Wright, 18, is a graduate of Propel Andrew Street High School. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

Without my relationships, I would not be who I am today. Everyone says that you make decisions based on your experiences. My experiences just so happen to include a few bad relationships. But without the bad experiences, I would not know just how good I have it now.

I’m lucky to have the parts of family I am still extremely close to because not many people have that. My family is who I am. It’s possible that I could be a completely different person without their influence. Perhaps I never would have been allowed to be my true self.

One such relative who has had a great impact on my life and who I am today is my grandmother, Linda Crowder. Her age is unknown to me because she gives me a different number each time. She has been a second mother to me when my mother had to work long hours to support me and my siblings. I tell my grandmother everything! From school drama to boys. Now, since I’ve graduated, I talk to her a lot about how nervous I am to become an adult.

We have many funny moments like me sitting in the front seat of the car when she’s driving and slap boxing with her in the middle of traffic. Of course, I’m gentle, but I can’t say the same about her. My grandmother has taught me that a person’s good qualities can often outweigh the bad, and I will always love her no matter what.

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Tyneisha thinks her disability shouldn’t disqualify her from motherhood

Tyneisha Wilder had no idea she would lose her son, Tayden, shortly after he was born.

She is still puzzling it over. “They just came and took him. They said, ‘Ty, we gotta take the baby.’”

Eleven months have passed since then. Tyneisha still wants her son back. But their re-unification hangs on the uncertainty of finding a family that would be willing to adopt both of them. It’s hope against a deadline. They have three months until Tyneisha loses her parental rights.

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Being 16: Janae turns to poetry to make art out of struggle

Janae Dixon, 16, is a junior at Propel Andrew Street High School in Homestead. She is a poet and a songwriter.

For Janae, poetry is an important part of who she is. “Instead of being mad at the world, going around being sad, or taking out my anger on everybody else, I write. Poetry is my outlet,” she said.

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Schools teach the same black history over and over. Students deserve better.

Shaunese Johnson, 22, says learning black history requires more than textbook snippets. (Photo by Brian Cook/PublicSource)

Caged. That’s how I would describe my state of mind during my school years. I think the content of textbooks and lessons is to blame. From my elementary school, I remember textbooks and lectures geared toward the achievement of people who looked nothing like me. I learned about the Boston Tea Party, World War I and World War II. Teachings on African-American history were greatly reduced to only learning about slavery in the South, lynching and oppression.

In my high school, Perry Traditional Academy, I realized what had been missing from my textbooks was the history of my culture, knowledge and authenticity. A “successful” person was usually white, suggesting that, “This is what you have to look like in order to be successful.” If African Americans were in the curriculum at all, they usually disappeared as soon as Black History Month was over.

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Pittsburgh has a severe shortage of black teachers and that’s hurting black students.

American historian Henry Adams wrote in 1907, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.”

More than a century later those words ring true.

While Adams’ quote did not address the significance of what a teacher looks like, a study released in March by the Institute of Labor Economics suggests a teacher’s race can have a lasting effect on the choices students make.

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Living in Clairton: ‘Nobody really cares unless it is football’

Tamia Law, 16, is a lifelong Clairton resident. She wants to see a Clairton that is safer and more supportive to all of its youth, not only the football players. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

My name is Tamia Law. I go to Propel Andrew Street High School and I am in the 11th grade. I have lived in Clairton my whole life. It’s a community known for its great high school football team but also drugs, violence and vacant properties.

I used to go to Clairton Elementary School but I left in the second grade. I struggled with things like reading, and it was very hard for me there. My mom didn’t think the school had the resources I needed either, so she sent me to Propel McKeesport. It was so much different from Clairton. The students and teachers were just so nice. I loved it.

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Getting in the game: Physical activity is a win-win for black girls

When I was growing up, my mother made sure I was involved in every activity I could be. I took ballet lessons, art lessons, music lessons, attended engineering camp and went to camp where I learned to fluently speak Spanish. She did it to ensure that I did not become a product of my surroundings. As a young, African-American girl living in Lincoln-Larimer, being involved in many activities was a welcome escape from the sometimes stifling poverty and occasional violence around the neighborhood.

Sports were never on the agenda. Lincoln Elementary (my school) had teams, but in the 1990s, girls in our area participated in drill teams — a form of cheerleading that focused more on synchronized stepping. Sports were mostly reserved for the boys. If there had been a sports program for girls in our neighborhood, I’m sure my mother would have signed me up for that, too. Yet, the reality was then, as it is now: Sports programs outside of school for black girls are scarce.

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They say I’m pretty — for a black girl.

Corrine Jasmin questions who is setting the standard of beauty for black women in America. (Photo by Aaron Warnick/PublicSource)

My mom was on a date with a man who later would become my stepdad. They were in a bar in Corry, Pa., an hour outside of my hometown of Erie. For some of the time we lived in Corry, she and I were the only black family in the town. Mom stepped out to use the lady’s room.

According to my stepdad, onlookers gazed at my mother as she was walking to the bathroom and asked him who she was because they had “never seen a black woman that beautiful before.”

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I am black, I am a student, and I’m tired of racism on my campus

Maia Ervin is a PublicSource intern and a student at Washington & Jefferson College. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

I was lying in bed when I received a text message from a friend at 12:30 in the morning. Our president of the Student Government Association, a white male student, used his Snapchat to alter an ad for blacklight mini golf to “black golf.” The picture had circulated with Tiger Woods as the spokesperson, “welcoming his people.” The administration of Washington & Jefferson College defined the posts as “offensive and inappropriate.” They stated that “[m]any community members have expressed frustration and anger over this incident.” But when I saw the two photos, I felt nothing. A part of me didn’t even deem it necessary to respond to the text messages as these types of situations have become familiar to me.

This is a part of my life on a campus where 81 percent of the nearly 1,400 students are white, where only three to four dozen students are black like me.

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‘I hid my accent and culture. I was just always the new black girl.’

Zoe Vongtau is originally from Nigeria. She came to America at the age of 7. (Photo by Njaimeh Njie/PublicSource)

Being a minority, the one out of 100, isn’t fun or easy. I don’t feel unique in a positive way. Nor do I feel safe and accepted in many spaces. I’m sharing my story in the hopes that it will help others who feel the same way.

I came to America at the age of 7.

I was born in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. I had only seen, lived and related with people who looked like me.

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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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11-year-old Keliyah wants to be a lawyer, sings a special song


Keliyah Washington is 11 and lives in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh. As one of the younger girls to share about herself with PublicSource, we wanted to be sure she understood why she was doing it and that she was comfortable with it.

When we first met, and I described the idea behind the video, she said, “Why do I have to say ‘I’m a black girl?'” I sat down on a stool next to her, searching for the right words.

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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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