Mentor Group Helps Girls Learn Communication Skills

Fatoumata Kaba has often struggled to control her anger. During a class last year, for example, the 13-year-old middle school student started punching a classmate who laughed at her after she accidentally fell out of her chair.

“It happened so fast,” Fatoumata said.  “I was just so upset at the moment. I got up and we just started hitting each other.”

Now, the Cicely Tyson School of Performing Arts student, who had been known to hit first and talk later, is participating in a local mentor group for girls called SISTAs 4 SISTAs that’s helping her learn how to work through her issues using words instead of fists.

SISTAs 4 SISTAs is combating communication barriers among teens, particularly in urban communities. This year they are focused on helping shy girls gain confidence and occasionally helping aggressive ones resolve problems nonviolently.

SYSTAS 4 SYSTAS mentees listen to a lecture about public speaking. Brittney M. Brown | The Bridge

SYSTAs 4 SYSTAs, S4S for short, was founded in 1994 by a group of friends in New Jersey. The acronym stands for Supporting Young Sisters Toward Achieving Success.  The organization focuses on girls between the ages of 11 and 21, and has several chapters throughout the state.

Zeldah G. Everson, co-founder and executive director of the organization, says its focus on social development is important because poor communication skills can hinder young girls from being successful.

Mentees learn the fundamentals of speaking in public, resolving conflict and expanding social networks. They also participate in community service, field trips and special events. The East Orange, N.J., chapter recently took part in a breast cancer walk.

Individual development plans are distributed in September and are a part of their weekly routine until the end of the year in May.  The girls list their strengths and weaknesses, objectives, and deadlines for meeting social and personal goals.

For example, if a mentee struggles to make new friends, she writes a plan to overcome her fear. Next she and her mentor discuss steps that will help her achieve her goal. Finally they agree on a reasonable deadline for achieving her goal, either partially or in its entirety. Each mentee will meet with her mentor to discuss the progress of her plan in January.

Fatoumata joined SISTAs 4 SISTAs two years ago. Once a week she and other girls meet to discuss the latest events happening in their lives. Fatoumata asks her peers advice on how she should handle situations once she gets angry and talk about issues that are bothering her during a roundtable discussion they call “What’s Up?”

“I’ve had these problems before the group, but now that I’ve joined I’ve been able to communicate better,” Fatoumata said. “I don’t have to react by hurting the other person.”

Over the years, Everson said she’s seen two types of ineffective communicators: “The loud mouth and the closed mouth.”

Loud mouths are unable to listen to others, are constantly in conflict with their peers and are unable to take responsibility for their actions.  The closed mouths are shy and have a hard time sticking up for themselves or letting teachers, parents or friends know what their needs are, according to Everson.

“She doesn’t speak up for herself and is easily taken advantage of,” Everson said. “This is the girl who is subjected to harassment and bullying.”

Shy girls have a lot to worry about, according to Bernardo Carducci, a professor at Indiana University Southeast and director of its Shyness Research Institute.

Not only are they targets for bullies, they’re more susceptible to giving in to peer pressure, Carducci said. They tend to do things to fit into groups so people will accept them. This can lead to drinking, drug use and even relationship problems.

“The biggest misconception about shy girls is that they’re passive and they don’t try to do anything about their shyness,” Carducci said. “That’s just not true. They try to do things but they tend to do the wrong things.”

The desire to fit in can lead down a destructive path.

“They may take risks, try to drink, try to act out,” Carducci said. “The problem with that is you have to keep raising the level of risk in order to get people to pay attention to you.”

Mamasa Waggeh is a soft-spoken 13-year-old who also attends Cicely Tyson Performing Arts School.  Every week through SYSTAs 4 SYSTAs she interacts with girls from many schools within the area, allowing her to make friends from a variety of backgrounds, a problem she usually struggles with. Mamasa is comfortable with her circle of friends but becomes extremely shy around new people.  The program gave her an opportunity to practice interacting with girls outside of her social network.

“I don’t like rejection,” Mamasa said. “I wasn’t used to making new friends.”

Mamasa likes to joke around and enjoys making people feel better when they’re down.

To most, this would sound like a good trait to have. But to Mamasa it made her feel isolated.  She said most kids at her school are more serious than she is, making her feel out of place.  She worked on getting over her fear of meeting new friends through her group’s networking lessons.

Her mentor gave her three ways to start a conversation. They include the phrase “you look familiar,” talking about the weather, or complimenting the person.

One day Mamasa decided to try one of the techniques after school.

“When I was walking on my home I complimented this girl named Rachel,” she said. “I told her I liked her sweater. She said she got it from Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Mamasa hasn’t maintained contact with Rachel, but felt like she accomplished a goal of her by simply starting a conversation.

The mentees role-play the skills they’ve learned after an interactive, classroom-like lecture during their weekly meetings at the East Orange Public Library.  Every week some eight to 12 girls go after school to learn about a new topic.

One week the girls learned about public speaking.  Their mentor lectured on the ways to effectively speak in front of large audiences.  She taught how to successfully deliver speeches through the use of eye contact, voice fluctuation and practice.

Members of the groups expressed feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, and fear at the thought of speaking in front of a crowd.

Next their mentor suggested exchanging the word nervous for a more positive adjective, excitement. Each girl took a turn in reciting the first paragraph of prepared speech in front of the group.  Mamasa and Fatoumata, who are in the same group, were the first to volunteer.

Their peers sat around a table and listened to the girls recite the speech.  Afterward, they offered compliments or suggestions about the speaker’s performance. One of their sisters, Maryam, suggested for Mamasa to slow down while talking.

Mamasa likes the group setting because she feels like she can talk to her peers about anything.

“Being in SYSTAs 4 SYSTAs means being able to express yourself and having more friendly relationships with other people,” Mamasa said. “Because we’re all sisters.”

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