Research, Mesearch: Educating Urban Black and Brown Girls

by Shena Sanchez, Ph.D. Student, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies

During my first year of graduate school, I developed a habit of quite literally counting my blessings. It has become a way of focusing not only on how happy I am to be in my program, but also on how lucky I am to have entered the academy at all. Throughout my academic career, I have seen other Students of Color (SoC) work incredibly hard to achieve their goals only to be deprived of opportunities that I received by—for lack of a better word—chance. Witnessing this as a Woman of Color (WoC) reinforces that I am not the rule in the academy, but rather the exception. Coming from a multi-ethnic family and community, I genuinely believed that the rest of society reflected my diverse upbringing. This misperception was quickly unraveled in college where I first experienced overt and subtle hatred in the form of racism and classism. During these four years, I was challenged, wounded, and strengthened; but most importantly, I was given a greater purpose.

This purpose is how I found myself in a doctoral program at the School of Education and Information Studies. People often perceive this greater purpose as something noble and I have to remind them that it is not. Fighting for the educational rights of urban Girls of Color (GoC) should not be seen as a noble endeavor. After all, these Black and Brown girls are not charity cases; they are our future. They will make up the American workforce of educators, doctors, scientists, community leaders, activists, policymakers, and businesswomen. They will compose the next citizenry of voters and taxpayers. And they will be the mothers and caregivers of our next generation of citizens. It is our responsibility—across all professions—to ensure that these girls receive an equitable, high quality public education.

As a an educational researcher, I study the experiences of urban GoC—who I define as Black, Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian—living in contexts of poverty. For the most part, researchers, educators, and policymakers know very little about how GoC are experiencing public schools, especially taking into consideration their race, gender, and class. Nearly 25% of students enrolled in American public schools are GoC, yet the field of education research and scholarship greatly lacks data and information on their unique academic experiences. My research helps to fill this paucity and contributes to the small body of literature on urban GoC. I produce work that pushes forth a race-, class- and gender-conscious social justice agenda and I provide empirical evidence to help shape education policies at the school level.

My research interest is in the K-12 educational experiences of Black and Brown girls with an emphasis on their college-going pathways. I examine the role of schools in preparing and guiding these girls on their journey to become eligible for the college of their choice. GoC often suffer academically and socially as a consequence of school policies and procedures that are implemented without consideration of their impact on specific groups of students.

Last year, I started the Lavender Girls Project, a qualitative research study on the experiences of urban GoC as they relate to school discipline and academic tracking. I worked alongside seven urban Black and Brown girls who were tracked in low level courses and experienced frequent school discipline. The Lavender Girls Project is grounded in educational justice and an ethic of love, centering the voices of urban GoC. I use feminist epistemological lenses to examine how entwined systems of oppression result in academic outcomes that are unique to Black and Brown girls. My work is informed by theories of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989), womanism (Walker, 1986), mujerism (Isasi-Díaz, 1992), womanist care (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002), and Political Race Theory (Guinier & Torres, 2002). These theories guide my exploration into the issues faced by urban Black and Brown girls, as well as help me frame them within a broader sociopolitical and sociohistorical context.

This tremendous opportunity to be the primary investigator of my own study has allowed me to gain new research skills, share findings aimed toward guiding school policy, and continue building, strengthening, and defining my work as an emerging scholar. Nothing has revealed to me the stark inequities in opportunities for GoC more than being in a doctoral program while conducting research in urban public schools and working on the Lavender Girls Project.

Being in the academy, I feel as though I have entered a circle of intellectual privilege and access of which I was on the outside for most of my life. Coming into my own as a scholar, I am conscious of the transition that I am making into the territory of the intellectual elites and constantly reflecting on what this means for my identity as a WoC raised in poverty and from an immigrant family, for my scholarship, and for my service to urban Black and Brown girls. It is my hope that this dynamic life—as a girl from a small far away island, an adolescent from the urban and global hub of the Washington D.C. metro area, and an adult from the ever-changing South—with which I have been blessed will continue to pilot my scholarship and activism in seeking educational justice for urban Black and Brown girls.

Shena Sanchez is pursuing a Ph.D. in Urban Schooling at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. She was awarded a CSW Travel Grant to present her research at the International Conference on Urban Education in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2016.

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