With SisterMentors, Dr. Shireen Lewis Is Building a Fierce Future for Women and Girls of Color in Education

Dr. Shireen Lewis is the executive director of EduSeed and founder of EduSeed’s SisterMentors program. (Courtesy of SisterMentors)

Two decades ago, Ms. had the honor of interviewing the founder of SisterMentors, Dr. Shireen Lewis, in its Summer 2000 issue—and here we are again, just as SisterMentors celebrates its 25th anniversary this September.

Lewis has dedicated her entire professional life to creating and growing SisterMentors, a nonprofit program that helps women and girls of color in the education system. Through her important work, she empowers young women and girls of color to overcome deep-seated institutional inequities in education and in the workplace. For 25 years, her work has helped over 100 women of color earn higher education degrees, including Ph.D.s in math, science and economics.

I sat down with Lewis to talk about the origins, accomplishments and future of SisterMentors.

Dee Martin: Shireen, remind us of the origin of SisterMentors. How the mission has changed over time?

Shireen Lewis: 25 years—wow—yes! Well, first, let me say that I am grateful to Ms. for that article at a time when we were not receiving much media attention. If I remember correctly, the article was part of a section in Ms. called “Women to Watch.” So kudos to Ms. and to Erica Doyle who wrote the piece.

I always like to tell our origin story: September 15, 1997 is the exact date that we were founded. We were four women at Sisterspace and Books, all of us working on our doctorates—all Black women sitting around a table, and we wanted to help each other earn our doctorates.

A few years later, as more women joined, one of them suggested that we give back by mentoring young girls of color from low-income families to prepare them for college. So, we started mentoring girls of color in middle school. That was a big moment for us. Those middle school girls then asked if their younger sisters could join. The youngest was in fourth grade!

A few years ago, a kindergarten teacher called to recommend her rising first grader to the program. That first grader is now a ninth grader. We started very organically, and we work with our girls throughout their educational career, into college and graduate programs.

SisterMentors’ mission did not change, but our approach has evolved. We adapt to every generation of women and girls that come into SisterMentors because each generation has different needs and concerns.

This generation of women and girls are dealing with some major local and world issues: the ongoing pandemic, climate change, mass shootings, heightened racism, growing economic inequality and on and on. This has triggered trauma or exacerbated old wounds. We are emphasizing radical self-care for our women and girls including rest, enough sleep, exercise, meditation and yoga. We also just had a workshop on trauma led by one of our Ph.D.s and one of our young women in college who has been dealing with childhood trauma.

We were four Black women sitting around a table, and we wanted to help each other earn our doctorates.

The original Ms. article on Shireen Lewis, as it appeared in the June/July 2000 issue.

Martin: SisterMentors is working to achieve equality and equity for Black and Brown girls and women in education. Can you place your important work in the larger context of the work for social, political and economic equality for women?

Lewis: I am glad you mentioned “equality and equity,” because there is a difference between those two. Today, those on the frontlines of fighting racial injustice use the word “equity” instead of “equality,” because we are not all similarly situated.

“Equality” does not necessarily produce just outcomes and is about treating everybody the same.

Equity” is about fairness, justice and outcomes. Equity takes into consideration that people are differently situated, that we don’t all start from the same place.

We just had our annual graduation celebration, and it is always one of the most moving and inspiring celebrations we have each year. While paying tribute to one of our Ph.D.s, we also paid tribute to her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother was brilliant, with not much schooling but great with math. But, her grandmother was not afforded the opportunities she deserved because she was Black, a woman and from the South. Her grandmother told her mother to make sure that her granddaughter got the best education so she can be somebody. And her mother did that. We celebrated the woman’s Ph.D., but we also celebrated her grandmother who we knew, that if it were not for her race, gender and roots, she too would have earned a Ph.D.

We celebrated the woman’s Ph.D., but we also celebrated her grandmother who we knew, that if it were not for her race, gender and roots, she too would have earned a Ph.D.

Martin: I want to circle back to the origins of SisterMentors, which of course has roots in academia. Can you tell us more about your scholarship in Francophone West African and Caribbean literature? Your books and articles are also cutting edge, most of them tackling subjects not yet addressed in literature—how do you identify your subjects and topics?

Lewis: I started studying French and Spanish in high school and then I double majored in both French and Spanish in college. I spent about 10 years of my life studying French and not once being introduced to Black French-speaking writers or intellectuals.

My scholarship, like my work with SisterMentors, is about those who are stereotyped, stigmatized and dismissed. When I got to graduate school to earn my Ph.D. in French Literature, it was all about white men, people like Montesquieu, Rousseau, Pascal, Molière. There were no Black people on the canon in the department I was in. It was as though Black people who spoke French did not exist or if they did, their work was not worthy of research and analysis.

My book, “Race, Culture and Identity: Francophone West African and Caribbean Literature and Theory from Négritude to Créolité”  is based on my original  research in France, Senegal and Martinique for my dissertation and is about those Black intellectuals—writers like Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau. And even more importantly about a Black woman intellectual, Paulette Nardal.

The other body of work I am really proud of is the issue of the Black Scholar journal that I put together on Black Girlhood. The voices of some of the young women in SisterMentors are included in that issue. We were all very excited about that!

This generation of women and girls are dealing with some major local and world issues: the ongoing pandemic, climate change, mass shootings, heightened racism, growing economic inequality and on and on.

In SisterMentors’ unique mentoring model, girls of color primarily from low-income families are mentored by women of color doctoral students, many of whom are first-generation college graduates. (Courtesy of SisterMentors)

Martin: Intersectionality, as we’ve discussed, is critically important in the fight for equality and equity. How has SisterMentors had to adjust its mentoring methods and programs to address the intersectional injustices women face?

Lewis:  Because the women and girls we serve are from different races, ethnicities and cultures we have always dealt with intersectional injustices. We ask our girls and women to start the search for self-discovery very early—be self-aware, ask others how you are showing up in the world. What is your experience as a Black, Latina, Muslim, immigrant or refugee girl—and when [do] all of those identities come together and converge? Together with that, we try to go beyond the media soundbites and discuss the origins of the kinds of dispossession and oppression our girls and young women are witnessing today.

For example, why is it that mainly Black people are experiencing homelessness? Why is it mainly women who are victims of domestic violence? The soundbites will only give you the soundbites. Ask: why is that happening—what is the long history of patriarchy and racism?

Martin: If you have learned one thing throughout the building of SisterMentors, what would it be? What would you tell someone looking to start their own organization?

Lewis: It’s hard to think about one thing! But I would say, “Once you build it, you have to sustain it.” We have moved from raising a little through bake sales, to raising a lot through building a network of supporters including individual donors. People believe in the work we do and want to support it.

There are two more steps we must take to help sustain SisterMentors: First, we are building a reserve fund right now in honor of SisterMentors’ 25th anniversary. And the other step is an endowment. There is lots of talk now about the need for endowments for Black-led organizations. An endowment would allow us to bring much more meaningful change to the communities we serve. Those, I would say, are our next two steps in building SisterMentors.

Other advice I would give to someone trying to start their own organization: Persist. Believe in your vision.

Martin: Let’s talk about SisterMentors and what your work for Black and Brown women means now and in the future. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment so far?

Lewis: Our biggest accomplishment: SisterMentors has now created enough Black and Brown women Ph.D.s to staff an entire university and almost every department within that university! That shows the magnitude of the work we’ve been doing for 25 years. We may have now helped more Black and Brown women to earn Ph.D.s than some universities, especially PWIs (predominantly white universities).

Recently, we helped a Black woman earn her Ph.D in atmospheric chemistry—one of the few Black people to earn such a degree. And more recently, we helped another Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in cognitive ccience. These are major accomplishments, not just for these women and the young girls coming behind them who see them as role models, but also for the world.

I see Black and Brown women and girls as having a major role to play in helping to save the world. And we’re not just talking academia, but leaders in the public and the private sector. SisterMentors is nurturing the next generation of women of color leaders who have skills that can be applied to so many different areas.

SisterMentors’ vision is to create a space where women of color doctoral candidates can work together to help each other complete their doctoral degrees. (Courtesy of SisterMentors)

Martin: You are surrounded by amazing and successful people. Who are the women living or dead that you admire most?

Lewis: For women who are no longer with us, Georgiana Simpson, Sadie T.M. Alexander and Eva B. Dykes, the first three Black women to earn Ph.D.s in the U.S. Sadie T.M. Alexander later also received a JD. Pretty amazing!

For women who are living, I always mention my great role model and mentor Arrandora Sanderson Chase, who lives in Trinidad, and Faye Williams, the woman who had the vision for the bookstore Sisterspace and Books and made it happen. This woman is a pioneer!

Martin: As you stand poised to celebrate SisterMentors 25th anniversary, what do the next 25 years of SisterMentors look like and what is your message for girls of color today?

Lewis: I have a whole list of things! Here’s what I see: First, a wildly successful virtual celebration and fundraiser on September 15, 2022! It is virtual, and I want at least 500 people to join us in that space. Second, that we have reached our current goal for our Reserve Fund. Third, a fully funded endowment for SisterMentors. Fourth, major gifts from women who care about women, like MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates. And, fifth, a documentary on SisterMentors. Of course, there’s always more!

My message for girls of color: What we are already doing with the girls in SisterMentors—we tell them to “go deep.” Explore contemplative practices as this will help you deal with what’s happening in the world today, especially events that may cause trauma like the pandemic, mass shootings, climate change and racist incidents. What I mean is to create daily practices like meditation, mindfulness, yoga—things that help you to be more self-aware, and help you go within. Contemplative practices will help you to do just that.

We need young women who can cope and be leaders to help us solve these complex problems. There is a saying that if you want to change the world, change yourself first.

To hear more from Dr. Shireen Lewis, tune into my interview with her on this episode of “Madam Policy.

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Dee Martin lives in Washington, D.C., and is a partner at Bracewell LLP, where she is the co-head of the Policy Resolution Group. Martin is the creator and host of the award-winning "Madam Policy" podcast and co-founder of Minute Mentoring, a leadership program for young women. Dee is long-time board member of the Feminist Majority (publisher of Ms.), having started her career as an intern with the organization years ago.