Between Solidarity and Generosity


What do women like Losang from Tibet, Najat from Saudi Arabia and Kangbai from Africa all have in common? They are part of SisterMentors, a nonprofit program in Washington, D.C., that promotes education among women and girls of color.

SisterMentors helps women of color, many of whom are the first in their families to get a doctorate. The women are enrolled in universities in the United States and abroad, including New York and London. In exchange for the free help they get from SisterMentors, the women doctoral candidates mentor disadvantaged girls of color in middle and high schools. The women and girls are African, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latina, Asian American and women and girls who are immigrants.

SisterMentors was founded over five years ago by Shireen Lewis who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago. She migrated to the United States to attend college, became a lawyer and practiced law in a New York City law firm before deciding to get her doctorate in Francophone Literature. Born and raised in a postcolonial country, Lewis quickly understood the value of education, particularly for oppressed groups. It is this lesson about education that fuels Lewis’ drive to help women and girls of color.

Shireen Lewis (shown at right) has created a nonprofit organization, SisterMentors — founded on the concept of solidarity — that fights to help young women of color who confront obstacles as they try to complete their higher education degrees.
In the United States, studies show that 50% of all people who begin a doctorate drop out, primarily at the dissertation writing stage. The percentage is considerably higher for women of color: out of all doctorates awarded in 2000, only 9.9% went to women of color. SisterMentors tries to help solve this problem by bringing women of different nationalities and religions together so that they can help each other including reading each other’s work and giving constructive feedback. The doctoral candidates meet once every three weeks, report on their progress and dialogue about obstacles they are encountering. The program is based on a peermentoring model. Lewis is director and also does individual and group mentoring.

SisterMentors mentors girls of color—including immigrants—encouraging them to stay in school. Girls of color are dropping out of school in high numbers and at an early age and the drop out rate is particularly high among Blacks and Latinas. The reasons range from poverty to teacher bias. SisterMentors mentors 25 girls encouraging them to stay in school and go on to college. The doctoral candidates are role models for these young girls who see women of color who look like them and who have persevered and succeeded despite the odds.

The sessions between the young girls and the women doctoral candidates include dialogues about why school is important and how it is beneficial to their future.

Additionally, the girls go on a campus visit to demystify attending college. At a recent session, when the girls were asked what SisterMentors means to them, a 13-year old replied: “You are the older sisters some of us do not have. You are here to help and guide us.”

Since it was founded, SisterMentors has helped 14 women of color to get their doctorate and will help 16 more to make progress toward the doctorate in 2003. The most recent graduate is Kangbai Konaté whose mother is from Mali and father from Guinea. Konaté acknowledges that without SisterMentors she would no doubt still be working on her dissertation in Sociology entitled, The Use and Place of Africa in the African American Process of Self-identification: Interpretative Discourse and Cultural Negotiation. In addition to the SisterMentors group meetings, Konaté teamed up with a Tibetan woman from the group. Through mutual support, they both finished the first draft of their dissertation.

Konaté was born and grew up in France and has been living in the United States for the past six years. She obtained her doctorate with highest honors on March 17, 2000, from Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Her dissertation committee was made up of distinguished scholars: Michel Wieviorka, her dissertation director; Denis Lacorne; Elikia M’Bokolo; and John Atherton. With the encouragement of her committee, Konaté, who works in the area of development, plans to publish her dissertation in French and English. Although she is no longer a part of SisterMentors, Konaté still mentors the young girls. She recently explained: “I have the opportunity to positively influence young girls, who like me, live in a society that does not often give them a positive image of themselves.” In the next few months two more women will get their doctorates, one from a university in Washington, the other from a university in London.