WE WIN Institute, Inc. began a new initiative at Cooper High School called the Rites of Passage, “Women of Distinction” Mentoring Program. It has been a learning experience for both the mentors and mentees during the first half of the 2008-09 school year.

The goal of the mentoring program is for African American girls to develop positive peer relationships necessary to support each other towards becoming capable, responsible, and determined women. To achieve this goal, junior and senior high school girls have been matched with ninth grade girls to provide academic and social mentoring throughout the school year. The focus has been to assist ninth graders in being successful in a high school setting.

The program began with mentors learning about each other and learning about WE WIN Institute. Through the Circle process, they shared their stories. Many shared about the struggles and pains in their lives. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable and even share tears together.

The initial plan was to offer African dance for both mentors and mentees once a week. After they danced for a couple of weeks, the mentors decided they would rather work with the mentees on homework and further their knowledge of African and African American history and culture rather than dance. Although they enjoyed the movement, they didn’t think dancing should be the emphasis the first year of the program.

Several mentors went to the public library in downtown Minneapolis to hear a discussion between civil rights leader Matthew Little and newspaper columnist Sly Jones. They learned about Mr. Little’s upbringing in a segregated south, how he came to Minnesota, his work with the NAACP and how he helped to organize the Minnesota delegation to the March on Washington in 1963.

The mentors were given an overview of the academic progress of their mentee’s. They learned the academic areas they most needed support with. Mentors and mentees began the bonding process by sharing information about themselves, their families and their aspirations for school and for life.

The girls learned about Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is an African American holiday that means first, and signifies the first fruits of the harvest. It is based on a seven principle value system. The principles are Umoja which means Unity, Kujichagulia which means Self Determination, Ujima, which means Collective Work and Responsibility, Ujamaa which means Cooperative Economics, Nia which means Purpose, Kuumba which means Creativity and Imani which means Faith. For the majority of the girls, learning about Kwanzaa was a new phenomenon. They were excited to hear the history and the importance of this holiday that acknowledges and celebrates the greatness and successes of African American people.

In January, mentors and mentees studied about the life of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. All the girls took a pretest about Dr. King. All the girls were in the 10th percentile or lower in their knowledge of Dr. King; this includes the mentors. After finishing the King unit, 93% of the students made 85% or above on their test of Dr. King.

Students learned about Dr. King’s life in a segregated Georgia, his schooling, his work in Alabama and the Montgomery bus boycott. They also became aware of how he was thrust onto the national scene as a civil rights leader. They learned about the March on Washington, how he won the Noble Peace Prize in 1964, and his stance against the war in Viet Nam. They also gained knowledge of how Dr. King came to Memphis Tennessee to help the garbage workers, and while in Memphis delivered his famous, “I’ve Seen the Mountaintop” speech; the night before his death in 1968.

Mentors and mentees worked together and wrote collective poems on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two of the poems were picked to be published in the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder.

Jaleice Johnson, a mentor in “Women of Distinction” was the first place winner of WE WIN Institute’s Black Excellence Contest. Jaleice won a trip to Washington D.C. She was able to experience the inauguration of the first African American president of United States of America; Barak Obama. She presented her Black Excellence essay to members of the Black Congressional Caucus. She also received a personal tour of the Capitol by Congressman Keith Ellison.

In February, students learned about Queen Nzingha, the great African queen from Angola who fought and resisted Portuguese domination for over 40 years. None of the girls had ever heard of Nzingha. Not one girl passed the pretest on Nzingha. They were eager to learn about this African Queen who allowed any enslaved African who could make it to Angola to have their freedom. All the girls passed the test on Queen Nzingha.

Students have been studying about the great educator Mary McCloud Bethune. They learned how she started Bethune Cookman College in 1904 and how she was appointed director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration and a special adviser on minority affairs by President Franklin Roosevelt from 1936-1944.

Mentees went to KFAI 90.3 FM radio in Minneapolis and took part in a Black History Month program. They joined other WE WIN students from Olson Middle School and Zion Baptist Church. They explained the importance of having an understanding of their history and culture, the torture of the Middle Passage, the misery of slavery and how African people struggled for their freedom. They told their audience about all the contributions people of African descent have made to the United States and the world. Students shared the contributions of great Black she-reos such as Fannie Lou Hammer and Queen Mother Moore. They talked about the sacrifices of Black heroes such as Gabriel Prosser and Kwame Ture.

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There are many things that mentors and mentees are learning from each other. Like any new program there are growing pains; but the girls continue to learn, they continue to struggle with each other; and they are beginning to develop relationships with each other that is allowing them to begin to trust each other. It is exciting to watch how young people can support each other to create academic and social success.