“We the Dark Girls are talented, smart and strong…”
This is the beginning of the manifesto of the Dark Girls Project. These words can be heard from the voices of 40 young girls and women every Thursday after school at Danforth Middle School. These words mark the start of every meeting.
At the start of the New Year, Danforth Middle School launched its Building Women Program. The Dark Girls project was born as a segment of the program. In mid-January, sixth- to eighth-grade students interested in the program were asked to write an essay about why they wanted to be involved. A group of 20 girls were chosen.
Danforth Middle School called on Dr. Marcelle Haddix to help, having heard of her previous work in the Syracuse community surrounding Dark Girls. Haddix, who is the Director of English Education Programs at Syracuse University, has dedicated her free time to addressing the issues that young, dark skinned girls face.
She decided to take on this role in 2013, after the Community Folk Art Center in Syracuse screened a documentary titled “Dark Girls” by Bill Duke and D. Channin Berry. The documentary explores issues of colorism and attitudes about dark skin both outside of and within the Black American community. Haddix felt compelled to action.
“After the screening, I began collaborating with the director of education at the Community Folk Art Center,” Haddix said. “Thinking about a way to create a curriculum or program around these issues, tailored toward middle and high school girls.”
She has spent the following years doing just that through her weekly workshop, Dark Girls: A Celebration of Black Girlhood, and now through the Dark Girls Project.
“I wouldn’t call it volunteer work,” Haddix said when asked about the time she puts toward helping her community. “For me, it’s always about seeing where there is a need and where there is an interest. It’s the only way I know how to be. It’s the way I live.”
Haddix is not alone in her efforts to help the young girls at Danforth Middle School. Reba Hodge, a SU doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching and Learning, and 20 SU undergraduates join her. All of the participants in the program are brought together by no other incentive than their collective common interest in helping the students.
As part of her doctoral program, Hodge spent a lot of time at Danforth Middle School.
“I found myself in my extra time working with the young girls there,” Hodge said. “They could always come to me when they were having a rough day, and I found that there was a lot of tension and anger between the girls. I wanted to do something about that. I felt compelled to do something about that.”
Both Haddix and Hodge work to provide a safe space for the girls. The Dark Girls Project intends to help the girls work through the issues that they encounter, but also gives them the opportunity to have fun.
“One of our main goals is to cultivate a space for young girls where they can just be girls and enjoy and celebrate their childhood,” Hodge said. “We also want to build an environment where they can learn to affirm and respect one another.”
Haddix and Hodge plan to accomplish the program’s goals through literacy and art activities and mentorship. Each of the 20 middle school girls was paired with one of the 20 undergraduate students based on shared interests. The idea is to form a mentor/mentee relationship. At the start of each meeting, the mentees stand in a circle facing their mentors, who stand in an encompassing circle. The manifesto is then read with each mentor and mentee standing face-to-face. The girls are then encouraged to do that day’s activity with their mentor. The mentors’ primary role is to provide guidance and support for the girls, but it is also hoped that they will instill in them a goal to aim for.
“We have been working to connect the young girls with [Syracuse University] students so that they can see and aspire to higher education,” Hodge said. “We want to introduce them to this at an earlier age than high school so that they can set goals and envision their future earlier.”
During the first meetings of the program, the students watched the “Dark Girls” documentary and developed their manifesto. Haddix has a lot in store for the girls in their coming weeks.
“I’m planning to do something around music production and creation,” Haddix said. “Someone is going to come in and talk about fashion and hair. I plan on having a book club — the book I have is “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson. [At the last meeting], the girls just cut out magazine clippings and decorated their journals that they will be using. We have a lot of ideas for the program.”
What will happen once the Dark Girls Project ends? Haddix does not plan on throwing in the towel. She is working to reach and help more young girls.
“It would be nice to have a sustained partnership with a school like Danforth and to continue to offer the program every year,” Haddix said. “I am also going to further collaborate with the Community Folk Art Center.”
Like Haddix, Hodge hopes that the program will be brought back next year as well. She feels strongly about the work that she is doing and the work that still needs to be done.
“The work that we’re doing at Danforth Middle School is urgent and it’s necessary,” Hodge said. “I hope that we can expand the program to other schools in the district. I want these girls to be proud of who they are. It is urgent and necessary that we provide them with a space where their voices can be heard and validated.”
— By Veronica Wheelock, Staff reporter