After working at a few professional jobs that were not leading me toward my dream of improving my community, I reassessed my formal educational studies, experiential learning, and forced myself to become a lifelong learner. My first employment opportunities were with State agencies providing counseling, educational, and support services for specific groups of individuals. Each position required memorizing manuals of standard procedures and following them… literally. Innovation was not rewarded; in most instances, it was frowned upon. After deciding to make the jump into the not-for-profit world, I ended up taking a leadership position with the Urban League affiliate in Peoria. I quickly learned not-for-profit employment entailed working longer hours, funding challenges, and intermittent community support based on how effectively we could communicate the approach to resolving issues and show tangible examples of success.
During the eighties and nineties, The National Urban League and affiliates programming focused on youth development, particularly in areas of economic development, education, and positively impacting the issue of teen pregnancy. The Urban League was viewed as leaders in the areas of employment and positively impacting the educational levels of young people who enrolled in our programs. However, because there was no consensus on the causes or solutions to the issues of teen pregnancy, we spent hours debating at national forums, as well as, working with local coalitions focused on improving the lives of young women and their children.
Luckily, we received program development assistance from two students who were working on graduate degrees. One, an older woman, returned to university to attain her bachelor’s and master’s degrees after working in the child welfare system for many years. Her keen insights and actual lived experiences were particularly useful to us in the design and development phase of the program. The primary focus was to assist young mothers in finishing their education, successfully parenting the child(ren), and not having more children until she was more educationally and economically stable.
The second graduate student was enrolled in a master’s in counseling program. Her skills were especially vital because we learned early on that we could spend months helping the young woman to create a plan, execute on the plan, and then see a young man disrupt her life again with promises he couldn’t keep. As a result of numerous individual and group sessions with teen moms, we developed a companion program for young men. Hiring male staff and adding men to the advisory committee brought in the male perspective. Young men and women learned alongside each other. In many respects, the quality and outcomes of our programs improved by the inclusion of the young men rather than viewing them as the problem.
The Urban League’s innovative programs were of high quality because we were able to attract a variety of funding sources as well as critical staff to meet the education, social, and health needs of program participants. As our funding proposals were approved by foundations as well as local, state, and federal funding sources, the funders demanded extensive program evaluation and fiscal accounting. The funders had little data on solutions developed by African American staff for African American families and children. State and federal evaluators were interested in the intricacies of the programs. The evaluation teams pored over our written reports, observed staff/participant interactions, and asked questions of staff. The evaluation teams were quick to point out the deficits in our models using the standards set by white developers. Their lack of cultural understanding and cultural competence continued to perpetuate the myths that our children and families were dysfunctional.
As a staff, we were forced to learn measurement skills and defend the rigor of our program’s outcomes. Our families were succeeding, but we were having a difficult time explaining to funders because the standards set were simply to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and reduce welfare dependency. The funders had not considered young people would graduate from high school and pursue college careers. The staff and (primarily African American) volunteers who worked with them weekly chronicled their academic struggles and mastery of a curriculum that demeaned their race or made them feel invisible. They gained tremendous strength when forced to learn what was taught in the classroom while educating themselves about the contributions black people have made since the beginning of time. They were not deficient. They had tremendous potential despite parenting while still teenagers. Once they moved past the self-defeating behaviors and educational deficits, they were able to make decisions about their futures, including education, employment, and when to have additional children.
As time went on, I became furious rather than discouraged. One of my reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. in Research was born out of those interactions between program participants, funders, and their evaluators. They had degrees from prestigious universities yet voluntarily acknowledged they knew nothing about African American cultural traditions, norms, or experiences these families faced daily. Without creating our own measures and increasing our abilities to proactively account for our successes as well as areas where improvements were genuinely required, those young people would have been cheated out of valuable learnings.
So, when I think of education, I see lifelong learning as the answer, along with the ability to seek out new skills and knowledge as necessary.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.