USC Upstate News

SiHLE Program Offers A Rich Mosaic Of Skills And Values, By Black Women For Black Women

01- 22- 2009

Spartanburg, S.C. -- African-American teenage girls ages 16-18 will have an opportunity to build pride in their gender and ethnicity while learning valuable life skills aimed at reducing sexually-transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and physical and emotional abuse when they take part in a program offered by University of South Carolina Upstate students who have been trained in the SiHLE (Swahili word meaning beautiful) curriculum.  

Teens will be selected from the Viking Academy at Spartanburg High School. Sessions will be held each Saturday in February from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Saturday sessions will include two weeks of readings in Black feminism, followed by four weeks of sessions with the teens, and culminating in a presentation by the Upstate students and teens to the community, faculty, and other interested leaders. 

The SiHLE (Sistering, Informing, Healing, Living and Empowering) peer education program is designed to so that participants can develop the strong interpersonal skills they will need to build healthy relationships. Led by African American females, the program consists of small group discussions, training, and role-playing that educate participants about HIV risks and how to initiate conversations about abstinence, safe sex, and effective communications skills. 

“The SiHLE initiative is currently a staple on the campuses of many historically black colleges and universities because it has proven to be an effective intervention tool for at-risk populations,” said Dr. Lisa Johnson, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies Programs at USC Upstate. 

Johnson was asked to develop a mentoring program for African Americans when she came to USC Upstate in 2007. In her opinion, the best way to serve the African American community is to equip the teenage girls with skills to handle their romantic relationships more effectively and retain a sense of self. 

“I shared my story of being in an abusive romantic relationship as a teenage girl in hopes that girls in Spartanburg won’t have to go down that road,” said Johnson. 

Johnson began collaborating with Teretha Fowler, who currently works with adult women who are HIV positive. Their aim was to create a program that would significantly reduce the number cases of HIV in African American and Hispanic populations, and to equip young women with basic assertiveness skills. 

Fowler is one of two Center for Disease Control-approved trainers in South Carolina for the SISTA program. SISTA, which is the parent program for SiHLE, is an intervention program aimed at reducing the risks of African American women (ages 18-29) becoming affected by HIV.  

“While SISTA works with adult women, the SiHLE program strives to teach the same skill set to adolescent girls by providing them with the opportunity to ask questions and to talk openly and honestly. SiHLE helps the girls to realize their own self worth, to understand what a healthy relationship looks like, and to define what they want out of their relationships,” said Fowler. 

“The skills used to reduce HIV are the same skills that will reduce emotional abuse, physical abuse, teenage pregnancy, and any other type of relationship problem,” said Johnson. “When teenage girls learn assertiveness skills, effective problems solving skills, and gender and ethnic pride, they can begin to take control of their lives.” 

SiHLE teaches the participants to value the traits of black womanhood, such as curly hair, dark skin and curvy bodies. These traits are often portrayed as negative by the mainstream media so teaching the girls to take pride in their physical traits also helps them to be more willing to draw boundaries in their own lives. Additionally, the teenage girls are talking and working with African American college women who can be role models for them and set an example to which they can aspire.  

“We bring the teens to the USC Upstate campus and let them attend events and get a feel of what college life is like and see who they can be in the future, if they make positive life choices,” said Johnson. “This semester the program will include selected field trips to campus to see speakers like black women’s responses to hip hop culture. We want to expand their horizons and their knowledge base.” 

When USC Upstate launched the SiHLE program in 2007, 12 teens from Cornerstone Baptist Church participated, thanks to the work of Letitia Jones. This fall, nine at-risk students from Spartanburg High School participated. 

“What started as a mentoring program proved much more in-depth. The Program is exceeding our wildest dreams,” said Johnson, who points to the strong support of Rep. Harold Mitchell and grant funding from Spartanburg High School as indicators of the program’s success. 

Jasmine Rice, a junior majoring in business/marketing at USC Upstate, and has been involved as a mentor with SiHLE from its beginning. She was recruited from Johnson’s Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, a staple course in the curriculum of the Women’s and Gender Studies minor. Rice’s extraordinary leadership skills led to her recent naming as assistant coordinator for the SiHLE program for spring 2009. She will create weekly lesson plans, coordinate with the trainer, the peer educators and the teens. 

Teens in the Spartanburg community most definitely need to be taught the skills that SiHLE offers,” said Rice, a native of Spartanburg. “When you have friends who are in high school who are sleeping around and having babies, they need to know that they have other choices. Teaching them assertiveness skills, about abstinence and safe sex, and how to talk to their families about these subjects is important. Teenage girls need to be strong, able to stand up for themselves, and be able to break the cycle of teen pregnancies in their families.” 

Porcha Barksdale, a senior at Spartanburg High School, participated in the SiHLE program last year and hopes to be selected for this year’s program. “I learned so much! They taught us that just because you have a boyfriend and you love that person, doesn’t mean that you should be pressured into doing something that you are ready to do.” 

Because there is frank discussion about abstinence, sexual relationships, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and motherhood, each teen has to present a signed parental permission slip to participate in the SiHLE program. The teens role-play various situations so they can have firm answers to help them defuse an emotionally intense situation without alienating an intimate partner or family member. 

One participant last year struggled with issues beyond relationship problems and shared those with the group. Her family was getting evicted on the very day of one of the training sessions and they had nowhere to go. The program helped her by teaching her to respect herself no matter the circumstances. 

Rice says that exposing the teens to USC Upstate is an incentive for them. They meet college students like Rice and Kayla Greene and Ebony Smith, who all serve as mentors, get exposed to the African American sororities, and see that they need good life skills in order to go to college. 

Barksdale found the USC Upstate students to be good role models who shared a lot about their lives. “They shared a lot of stories with us and basically told us that it is okay to be different. They try to help us do what we need to do to help us make a better life for ourselves. I want to learn more.” 

“I’m from Spartanburg so I know many of these girls and have known them since they were little, said Rice. “I let them know that I’m watching them and want them to do better. What we need in Spartanburg is more strong women, more strong role models.” 

For more information, contact Dr. Lisa Johnson, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at USC Upstate, at (864) 503-5724.