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Cleveland Jewels provide positive role models for black girls



Becoming a teenage girl can be a turbulent experience for anyone, much less a teenage girl dealing with poverty and other sources of instability at home.

The Cleveland Jewels are here to help, with a new mentoring program at Mary B. Martin School that aims to support girls and help them to become healthy, confident young women who are leaders in their community. The program was started by Case Western Reserve University graduate students who spend an hour each week mentoring middle-school girls.

Case graduate student and Shaker Heights native Alexis Payne was inspired to start the Cleveland Jewels after she graduated from Howard University, where the nonprofit mentoring organization Jewels, Inc. was founded in 2007. Cleveland Jewels is the fifth branch of Jewels Inc. and the only branch not affiliated with a historically black college or university (HBCU).

“Cleveland doesn’t have a local HBCU, but we still need mentorship and role models for black girls in our community,” Payne said.

Payne chose Mary B. Martin as the first site because of its proximity to Case and its location in the Hough neighborhood, where nearly 72 percent of children live below the poverty line and the median household income is less than $15,500, according to the Center for Community Solutions.

The group started meeting in November on every Tuesday for workshops that focus on goal-setting, self-love, critical thinking and self-reflection. The mentors plan to address topics like physical and mental health in future workshops.

At one recent meeting, the eight girls brought their lunches to the school library for a Jewels discussion that gave the girls strategies for resolving conflict and served as a safe space for personal stories. One girl told the group she was upset because her best friend said she had another best friend. The mentors offered advice and told her that it’s possible, and even healthy, to have more than one best friend.

The discussion also touched on how black women are sometimes portrayed in media in negative stereotypes that depict them as mean and argumentative. Payne told the girls that image isn't based in reality and that they should strive for thoughtful, rational solutions to conflict.

“As black young ladies, we want to you to be examples of how black women interact with each other,” Payne said. “When we have disagreements, we are able to discuss our disagreements and maybe agree to disagree or come up with a common ground.”

The Jewels program puts a strong emphasis on exposing girls to positive representation of black people, and black women in particular. Recently, the group took a field trip to a screening of "Marshall," a biographical film about the early career of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. 

Payne also wants to empower the girls to pursue careers in high-profile, intellectually challenging careers. Payne and the other mentors often tell the girls about their own career aspirations, most of which are in medical or other health-related fields.

"Our aim is to be role models so that they can see themselves in us,” Payne said. “It’s a positive feeling that somebody cares and is looking out for them and there is representation for them in the world."

When the program started at Mary B. Martin, the mentors asked the girls some questions to get to know them, including what they want to be when they grow up. Most of them said they wanted to be hairstylists or nail technicians, Payne said.

Payne attributes their answers to a lack of exposure to black women in other jobs. And while she acknowledged that there’s nothing wrong with those career paths, she would also like to help the girls expand their horizons. The group is planning trips to meet black women in a variety of careers, starting with Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Lauren C. Moore.

Just a few months into the program, the mentors are already making personal connections with the girls. Payne recalled a recent conversation with one girl who Payne noticed had natural leadership qualities.

“You can tell that a lot of people follow her lead, so I pulled her aside to tell her that a lot of responsibility comes along with being a leader,” Payne said. "I encouraged her to conduct herself like a Jewel -- in a way that when people follow you, they’re following you in a positive direction.”

Dream, a sixth-grader, said the mentors have been a source of positive female interaction that she needs, especially since she lives far away from her sisters.

“I can ask them for advice. If somebody wants to argue with me, I can ask them what I should do to resolve the problem,” Dream said. “It’s like they’re my real sisters.”

“They understand me and what I go through, because they’ve probably been through it when they were younger,” she said.

The Jewels are expanding their reach by adding tutoring, after many of the girls said they were struggling with math. 

The mentors are also raising money to take the girls to Washington, D.C., in the spring to visit Howard University and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Payne described the trip as an opportunity for the girls to get a glimpse of college life at an HBCU and meet other girls from Jewels programs in Washington. 

Mary B. Martin Principal Gary McPherson said that he is grateful to have the Jewels program in his school and that he is already seeing a positive impact.

“Talking with some of the girls, I know that as a result of these interactions, they're able to put together some options for their futures that maybe they wouldn’t have before,” he said.

“The mentors are really approaching this in a heartfelt manner with love and trying to ensure that the next generation of young black women are empowered.”

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