The Black Scholar recently interviewed Shireen K. Lewis, scholar, Senior Editor of TBS, Executive Director of EduSeed and founder of its SisterMentors Program, Washington D.C.
Q: Shireen, could you give us some background on the non-profit you work with? Feel free to give us some highs and lows as well as general information about how it started and its achievements.
A: I had the idea for women of color doctoral students creating community around the dissertation very early one morning. The idea came after a very tough week working on a dissertation chapter. I was raised in a very small community and so I knew what it felt like when people came together to help each other. I think it is Tracy Chapman who asks “why are there so many of us yet people are still so alone?” The group of women who came together broke through the isolation that we were experiencing during the dissertation writing. About four years later, after we saw our success, we decided to give back by mentoring girls of color from low income families. Most of us were earning our doctorates from predominantly white institutions and we were either the only ones or one of a handful of black and brown women in our departments. We knew that was because the pipeline was not being fed and we wanted to do something about that. So that is how the mentoring of girls began.
So what do we do today? Today, we are still doing the same thing but in a more sustainable manner. SisterMentors is under the umbrella of EduSeed, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our goal is to increase the number of women of color who earn doctorates and help girls of color from low income families to go to college and earn a Bachelor’s degree.
SisterMentors is a unique mentoring program in many ways. It is comprised of three groups: girls of color in first through twelve grades, young women in college, and women of color doctoral students. The program has helped 26 young women to go to college and 53 women of color to earn doctorates including in Math, Science and Economics. The core of our work lies in our long-term commitment to the women and girls. The girls join our program in elementary or middle school and stay through high school and college graduation and the women stay in our program anywhere from two and a half to five years. The women doctoral students that we serve mentor girls while they are with us.
Like most nonprofits, the most challenging aspect of our work is raising funds. I spend a lot of my time fundraising and I am also involved in program activities. The work is very rewarding and I have received recognition including an Honorary Doctorate from Rutgers University and SisterMentors has been recognized by the District of Columbia for its many years of service to the city.
Q: How exactly does the work you do with the nonprofit connect with your scholarship or does it?
A: My scholarship is about moving intellectuals from the margin to the center. My book, Race, Culture and Identity: Francophone African and Caribbean Literature and Theory from Négritude to Créolité traces a literary tradition of black francophone literature from after the first world war to the late twentieth century. So I start with black radical scholars living in Paris in the 1930s affiliated with the manifesto Légitime Défense and end with another manifesto written in 1990’s titled Eloge de la Créolité. I include black intellectuals like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Paulette Nardal, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Jean Bernabé. I emphasize the important role women like Nardal played in pioneering this modern literary movement.
It is the same thing that we do at SisterMentors. Our work is to move women and girls from the margins to the center by empowering them through education. Growing up I saw women around me, including my mother and grandmother, who were smart and self-confident but were unable to advance their education because of lack of opportunity and gender-based societal pressures and expectations.
Q: What’s your personal background as a scholar?
My background as a scholar was greatly influenced by the fact that I grew up in a country where the leader was a scholar, an intellectual and a prolific writer of history books that are still being taught at universities today. Eric Williams became prime minister of Trinidad shortly after I was born. He had a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University, was a professor at Howard University and published many books even during his tenure as prime minister. I grew up hearing my parents describing Williams as “brilliant” and saying that “he has brains that he hasn’t even used yet.” So I always wanted to get a Ph.D. so that I, too, could be “brilliant.” I also grew up hearing about the Black Power movement in the U.S., witnessing large scale protests by oilfield workers organized by their trade union (against multinational oil companies which were profiting from the exploration of oil where we lived, and in Trinidad in general), and learning about women’s inequality from books I read and from witnessing women’s lives.
All of my learning from kindergarten to post-secondary took place in Trinidad. I began learning French and Spanish vocabulary and grammar in secondary school in Trinidad. I then transitioned to reading the works of intellectuals from France and Spain when I did “A” levels (two years of study after secondary school which was a prerequisite for university). I then began serious study of social issues in France and Latin America when I came to the U.S. and began college because I double majored in French and Spanish. And then, of course, I did more in-depth readings and analysis of French and Francophone literature to earn my Ph.D. in French. My readings of French Enlightenment philosophers, such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, and modern scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir and Michele Foucault, and my engagement with liberation theology through novels and films from Latin America, have influenced my thinking on social justice for women and marginalized communities and have certainly influenced my scholarship.
Q: Do you think of yourself or your work as activism?
A: It depends on your definition of the word. I truly believe that we will begin to see radical change in this world only when women leaders become a critical mass. So that is why my work is focused on women and girls. I am hopeful that women and girls, including those who benefit from SisterMentors, will become leaders who work to empower the powerless and better the lives of the disadvantaged. Once that happens, we will move toward peace and justice in this world.
Q: What do you hope for your work with TBS?
A: I am working with colleagues who are dedicated to continuing the high caliber of this journal nurtured by Robert Chrisman. I am honored and excited to be part of this team. I would like to help TBS continue to publish articles that are on the cutting edge – that no other journal is focused on. For example, the issue of how climate change affects black people and the black community. This is a very important issue that we should all be talking about.
Q: Where were you born and how did your surroundings affect how you grew up and who you are today?
A: I was born in a village in the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago, located in the Caribbean. The village is called Pepper Village and is connected to a town called Fyzabad on the island of Trinidad. I grew up in the early post-independence years when Trinidad and Tobago had gained independence from Britain. The village itself did not have a school so I went to the first school in my village when I was about 8 years old. Prior to that, I went to a school many miles away which was overcrowded and was difficult to get to because of unreliable transportation. Once I got to that school in my village, I blossomed and began to excel in academics and this was mainly because of the close personal attention of the teachers and their commitment to the students. The youngest teacher at the school, whose name was Dora, took me under her wing and pushed me to excel in all areas of my life. That first school in my village profoundly changed my life and is responsible, in large part, for who I am today. Today, I am a lawyer and a Ph.D. with a strong sense of how education can change one’s life and the positive role that mentors play in children’s lives.