Class helps girls build self-esteem
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Eighth-grader Ashley Gonzalez flipped through a fashion magazine during a recent class at St. Paul’s Battle Creek Middle School.
Her assignment: Find words or images that capture her. Gonzalez was stumped looking at the ads and features, a pair of scissors at the ready: Hair? Soccer? Food?
“It’s not about what you have or what you do,” said teacher, Kristy Pierce. “It’s about who you are.”
“That’s really hard,” Gonzalez protested.
Called “Lovin’ the Skin I’m In,” the class started as a book club for girls hosted by a St. Paul nonprofit group; it later morphed into an East Metro after-school activity. It pushes girls to face head-on the pressures of adolescence through journals, crafts, media analysis and straight talk.
Three years ago, Battle Creek turned the experience into a class for English credit. This semester, two schools in Minneapolis are offering the class for the first time.
“The ‘Lovin” movement is really spreading, but our partnership with Battle Creek is something else,” said Robin Hickman, a local activist, TV and film producer, and the class founder. “Girls get credit for healing every day.”
Hickman — a great-niece of the late St. Paul civil rights activist, filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks — conceived of the class more than a decade ago. She was inspired by “The Skin I’m In,” the 2000 novel by Sharon Flake about a middle-school girl who grapples with bullying until she embraces her dark skin color.
Hickman got a group of girls together at the nonprofit Youth Express to discuss the book and talk openly about their own struggles. Later, she teamed up with the East Metro Integration District, a partnership among St. Paul and nine suburban districts. Her class caught on as an after-school activity in St. Paul, Stillwater, Inver Grove Heights and other districts.
“Many of our girls are walking wounded,” Hickman said. “They don’t know their identity. They don’t know their history. They don’t have role models who look like them.”
Pierce, Battle Creek’s cultural specialist, also led the class when it was an after-school activity. At Battle Creek, which offers single-gender classes on the city’s East Side, more than 90 percent of students are minority.
She said some girls stuck with it through the year, but others showed up sporadically, making it hard to forge relationships. She pitched the idea of a class for credit to then-principal Jocelyn Sims. The school wrote a curriculum based on Flake’s novel and other reading. It overhauled the class, which largely was geared toward black girls, to emphasize connections between different races.
This semester, the class debuted at Harvest Prep, a Minneapolis charter, and the Harrison Educational Center, which serves students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
At the recent class Gonzalez attended, the girls made an oversized collage by pasting words and images they cut out of women’s magazines. On the collage, photos of actors, models and athletes of color floated by words and phrases such as “achieve,” “beautiful” and “still going strong.”
“You can pick up any of these magazines in the grocery store,” Pierce told the girls. “But often, you still can’t find yourself in there.”
The day before, Hickman had brought in her collection of multi-ethnic Barbie dolls, which makes students realize how rarely they saw their race and culture represented at day care or toy store selections. The girls also write journals, take photos and write stories about their family background and pen a research paper about an influential woman in history.
Much of Pierce’s energies early on are spent nudging girls to get along and respect each other; she cracks down on snickering and interrupting while girls speak out.
“It’s not often that we have a whole class to talk about our emotions and learn to trust each other,” said student Dominique Finch, one of 30 eighth-graders in the class.
After poring over glossy pages for a while, Gonzales cut out the words “unforgettable” and “daughter.” Why was this exercise so difficult, Pierce pressed her. “I don’t know myself,” Gonzalez acknowledged.
After the class, Gonzalez approached Pierce. She wasn’t sure she was cut out for a daily dose of looking inward and putting herself out there. She asked if she could switch classes.
Pierce urged her to give the class another chance. She told her stepping out of her comfort zone would pay off eventually in self-knowledge and some new friendships.
“To open up means they have to become vulnerable,” Pierce said later, “and that’s very hard for many of our girls.”