Jan. 31, 2024
Out-of-school (OST) programs and organizations tailored to Black girl literacies play a pivotal role in supplementing the educational experiences of Black girls, offering them opportunities often absent in conventional school settings. These programs serve as invaluable platforms that foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of Black culture, history, and literature, which are frequently marginalized or overlooked within mainstream curricula. By engaging with culturally relevant materials and activities, these spaces empower Black girls to explore their identities, build self-confidence, and develop a sense of belonging to support a strong foundation for their academic and personal growth. Such programs often provide supportive environments where Black girls can see themselves represented, enhancing their sense of agency, and encouraging a love for learning that extends beyond the classroom. Building upon a previous roundtable and brief that focused on Black girl literacies on social media as an informal literacy space outside of school, this blog highlights a series of interviews with program founders and participants that were conducted to better understand the literacy practices and experiences in OST literacy programs tailored for Black girls.
Out-of-School Literacy Programs
While books such as David Kirkland’s, A Search Past Silence, or Alfred Tatum’s, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, highlight the urgency to address the reading achievement “crisis” with Black boys, Black girls also perform at the lowest proficiency rate nationally in literacy out of their gender peer group similar to Black boys. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), in 2022 only 19% of eighth grade Black girls in the nation were at or above proficiency in reading compared to 43% of eighth grade White girls.
Historically, OST literacy programs have been commonplace in the Black community to provide supplemental learning instruction for students. These societies were established during the postbellum period as a response to the systemic exclusion of Black individuals from educational institutions, particularly during times of segregation and limited access to formal schooling. They functioned as alternative educational spaces, providing literacy education, intellectual growth, and cultural development for Black children who were denied entry or adequate resources in traditional educational settings. These societies were instrumental in fostering a love for learning, imparting knowledge, and empowering Black children with essential reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.
Literacy scholars like Detra Price-Dennis, have asserted that OST literacy spaces in today’s society must be reclaimed for Black girls to embrace their identity and support their upliftment. Price and other scholars highlight that these spaces must afford the intellectual ownership of Black girls, and produce critical thinking, awareness, and activism. Research in the last two decades highlighting Black girls’ connection to the urban literature genre, shows that Black girls practice substantial literacy skills outside of school on their own merit (Gibson, 2016), and the draw to urban literature is based on the commonalities with cultural identity and experiences conveyed in the genre and void in school texts (Rountree, 2008). In summary, OST literacy programs can provide an inclusive space for exploring urban literature and other genres, allowing Black girls to find connections between their own lived experiences and the texts they engage with, which they may not typically receive with in-school courses.
Overview of Research
The findings highlighted in this blog were gathered from a series of semi-structured interviews between June to August 2023 with five program founders and leaders at various Black girl literacy organizations and programs. Program leaders were queried on curriculum design, the range of activities offered, strategies for recruitment, as well as the successes and challenges encountered in sustaining their programs over time. Insights from these leaders provided details involved in implementing and maintaining effective Black girl literacy initiatives, key strategies, and obstacles within these programs.
Interviews with participants of these Black girl literacy programs aimed at gathering insights into the program’s influence on the lived experiences, growth, and perceptions of Black girls engaged in literacy initiatives. Participants were asked about their experiences within the program, including the impact of the curriculum, the value of activities, and their journey of joining the program.
Out-of-School Literacy Program Profiles
Founded in New York City in 1999, Urban Word empowers adolescents and young adults through literacy, self-expression, and civic engagement. Through their free creative writing workshops, college preparation sessions, and platforms for performance, Urban Word champions the power of youth expression and leadership. They were instrumental in founding the National Youth Poet Laureate Program, awarding the inaugural title to Amanda Gorman in 2017. Additionally, Urban Word hosts the Black Girl Magic Ball Fellowship, which focuses on fostering civic participation with Black girls and imparting the courage to challenge societal norms.
Girls Like Me Project
The Chicago-based nonprofit, Girls Like Me Project, equips adolescent Black girls with the tools and strategies necessary to become influential and independent digital storytellers. By employing media literacy and digital storytelling techniques, the Girls Like Me Project fosters a space where Black girls can learn to deconstruct media messages, reclaim their narratives, and redefine their representation in the media landscape. Inspired by her volunteering experience in her son's fourth grade class, the founder of the Girls Like Me Project observed young girls at an early age emulating negative television representations of Black girls and conceived the vision for the program.
Located in Dallas, Texas, the #TeenWritersProject began as an afterschool club dedicated to creative writing, poetry, and music that engaged over 70 students attending the first week. The club served as a platform for students to explore their creativity, crafting poetry, songs, and scripts. The club led to the establishment of the #TeenWritersProject, a collaborative and safe haven for teens to write, be published, and receive compensation for their work while fostering a community where young voices are celebrated, validated, and given a platform for expression and recognition.
Brown Girls Read
The South Carolina-based program, Brown Girls Read, was conceived to offer BIPOC girls the opportunity to delve into books that not only mirrored their appearance but also resonated with their life experiences. Since its launch during the pandemic, the program has positively impacted over 50 girls, providing them with literature that reflects and validates their identities, fostering a love for reading and a connection to narratives that echo their own realities.
The Black Girl Literacies Project
The Black Girl Literacies Project in Philadelphia is a cost-free initiative tailored for Black girls that offers a safe space to explore various facets of self-acceptance and empowerment through literacy. Started in 2020, and geared towards Black girls aged 14 to 18 in Philadelphia, this program's weekly sessions, attracting 15 to 20 girls, are structured around engaging discussions, activities, and excursions. Participants engage in journaling, creating TikTok content, painting, reading, and engaging in discussions surrounding pertinent issues and concerns of the participants.
Key Themes In Practice
1) Usage Of Multiple Modes Of Text
One commonality with all of the programs was their use of multiple modes of text in practice. Each program showcased diverse and innovative approaches to literacy that employed a variety of text mediums to engage and empower their participants. For example, the Brown Girls Read program utilized unconventional storytelling methods by intertwining narratives into creating quilts. The #TeenWritersProject facilitated the creation of magazines through paid internships that guided teens in the co-design of these publications. Participants in The Black Girls Literacies Project create social media content by makingTikToks that use different modes of text. Additionally, the Girls Like Me program utilized various forms of media hosting movie screenings as demonstrated, i.e. the Little Mermaid in Spring 2023, released in collaboration with National Geographic. Furthermore, participants in the Girls Like Me program are currently immersed in producing their own media through a documentary that employs visual, audio, and digital texts to craft a narrative that resonates with their experiences.
2) Exploration Of Identity and Culturally Relevant Content
The Black girl literacy programs were unified in their commitment to exploring identity and delivering culturally relevant content to their participants. These programs created a space where literacy was intertwined with lived experiences and cultural appreciation, which enabled Black girls to form deeper connections to their identity and lived experiences through literacy. For instance, the founder of the Brown Girls Read program shared how she orchestrated a Gullah Tour in Charleston that enabled girls to understand the rich Gullah culture firsthand. The #TeenWritersProject embraced a unique approach to literacy by inviting a tattoo artist to engage in discussions about literacy through symbolism and diverse forms of expression. Similarly, the Girls Like Me program engaged participants in meaningful discussions and reflections using Sharon G. Flake's book, The Skin I'm In. Girls Like Me also provided their participants with an immersive experience at the Essence Festival in New Orleans where they learned about the Cajun and Creole cultures. In an interview with a participant from the Urban Word program, she highlighted the significance of Urban Word teaching her how to deeply reflect on her own identity. She stated, “I am provided poetry to read and reflect on in school on a general level but in the Urban Word program I had to dig deep and reflect on who I was as a person connected to the pieces of poetry that we read. It pulled out thoughts and ideas that I didn’t know I had and felt about myself.”
3) Collaboration and Relationship Building
A consistent emphasis on collaboration and relationships across programs was used through various strategies to foster a sense of community and interconnectedness among participants. Despite the constraints of virtual settings, these programs adapted by utilizing platforms like Zoom, allowing students to engage in reading circles and writing groups through breakout rooms. Brown Girls Read prioritized relationships by leveraging word of mouth and constituent-generated recruitment to bring participants together. A member of the #TeenWritersProject revealed her initiative "Write A Book with Me" promoted collaborative storytelling online, while Urban Word and Girls Like Me relied significantly on friendships from participants and their own professional network for participant recruitment. Moreover, Girls Like Me viewed their program as a sisterhood, focusing on the bonds and camaraderie within the group. The Black Girl Literacies Project also played a vital role in creating a space for girls to develop and strengthen connections with each other.
4) Advocacy and Giving Voice
There is a continuous commitment to advocacy and empowering Black girls to articulate their thoughts, share their stories, and engage in critical discussions that advocate for their voices to be heard within broader societal conversations. The founder of Brown Girls Read expressed that she looks at literacy as being how we make meaning in the world and contribute our voice to be heard in the world by critiquing or contributing to the narrative. Similarly, #TheWritersProject integrates a leadership and development program that instills a sense of agency in advocating for their own stories. Urban Word prompts its participants to craft and share their own narratives while engaging in critical conversations on race and gender, leading many alumni to pursue college majors in Women's Studies or Creative Writing. A participant from the Urban Word program shared, “I wanted to make an impact outside of school as a leader so much that I now travel to Lower East Side Manhattan from the Bronx to go to a school that could offer better opportunities, but it is a predominately White school. So I aspired to join Urban Word because of the Black girl voices I saw that looked like me and the poets that came out of the program. I remember going to my first Black Girl Magic Ball and feeling so empowered when standing next to Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, an honoree of the program. and learning about her journey as an author to find her voice.”
5) Socioemotional Learning and Affirmation
Prioritizing socioemotional learning and affirmation was consistently important in the programs to nurture the emotional well-being and self-esteem of Black girls. Urban Word, for instance, advocated for a shift in perspective, rejecting the negative stereotype of students being "too talkative" and instead encouraging open discussions about participants' thoughts and emotions to foster a space where their voices and feelings were valued. Similarly, Girls Like Me implemented group therapy sessions and healing gardens, providing a supportive environment for participants to engage in healing practices and share their feelings. The Black Girls Literacy Project incorporated the teachings of scholars such as bell hooks, exploring the vital connection between literacy and self-love among Black girls. A member of #TeenWritersProject highlighted how the program had significantly bolstered her confidence. She stated, “My confidence has grown tremendously from being in this program. I now feel more comfortable with sharing my opinions and thoughts in the classroom at school and have started to take the lead in groups and in school clubs now.”
6) An Intergenerational Community Approach
A distinctive emphasis on intergenerational learning was notably observed in some of the programs. For instance, Girls Like Me fostered an intergenerational approach through its Sankofa nights that created a space reminiscent of an old-school block party that featured African drumming, artistic expressions, spoken word, and communal fellowship. The Sankofa night provided an environment where youth and older adults could share cultural literacies and experiences with one another. Similarly, Brown Girls Read implemented a cross-generational approach by facilitating pen pal connections between the girls and elders. The pen pal program cultivates an exchange of ideas, experiences, and stories across generations.
OST initiatives that serve Black girls through literacy provide necessary supplemental learning experiences that address the systemic gaps within educational systems where the unique needs and perspectives of Black girls are often overlooked. In closing out an interview with a participant from the #TeenWritersProject, she stated, “Some classes in school can be creatively stifling and I probably would have given up on writing if I didn’t have spaces like the Teen Writers Project that existed for me to stay engaged outside of school through literacy creatively.” By centering on Black girl literacies, programs like #TeenWritersProject and the other four explored in this research fill the void of literacy taught in school by offering tailored and culturally relevant learning experiences. This kind of supplementary education is instrumental in not only improving academic outcomes but also in nurturing a positive self-identity and resilience that are essential in navigating the challenges Black girls may encounter in their educational journeys. Ultimately, these OST spaces dedicated to Black girl literacies serve as pillars in the holistic development of young Black girls, are instrumental to their success, and are necessary to sustain in our communities.
 What can we learn about Black girls’ use of social media for in-school learning? New America. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/briefs/what-can-we-learn-about-adolescent-black-girls-use-of-social-media-for-in-school-learning/
 Kirkland, David E. A search past silence: The literacy of young Black men. Teachers College Press, 2013.
 Tatum, Alfred W. Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Routledge, 2023.
 NAEP Report Card 2022 NAEP Reading Assessment: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/highlights/reading/2022/
 McHenry, E. Forgotten readers. Duke University Press, 2002
 Price-Dennis, D., Muhammad, G. E., Womack, E., McArthur, S. A., & Haddix, M. (2017). The multiple identities and literacies of Black girlhood: A conversation about creating spaces for Black girl voices. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 13(2), 1-18.
Gibson, S. (2016). Adolescent African American girls as engaged readers: Challenging stereotypical images of Black womanhood through urban fiction. The Journal of Negro Education, 85(3), 212-224.
 Rountree, W. (2008). Just us girls: The contemporary African American young adult novel. Peter Lang.