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East St. Louis program for girls of color inspired by teacher's bond with student

 Briana Morales in a library
Josh Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year Briana Morales has founded a new nonprofit to support girls of color in and around East St. Louis and Chicago.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

Da’Miya Brown was a student, mother, spoken-word poet, scholar-activist and community leader who shared an “inseparable bond” with Briana Morales, her English teacher in East St. Louis.

Now Morales, who last spring was named 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year, has started a nonprofit in honor of Brown, who lost her life in a car accident last year.

The organization, (Sister)Hood of Hope, will officially launch in the new year with the mission of elevating “the voices, power and brilliance of young girls of color across the state of Illinois” through scholarships, mentorship and youth development programming, Morales said.

The organization is run by Morales and a team of fellow Illinois educators, starting with East St. Louis and Chicago chapters.

“The inspiration for all of this was my student, Da’Miya Brown, who was the most amazing young girl that I ever met,” Morales said. “We had this inseparable bond.”

“As two girls of color trying to find their way in the world, I felt really tethered to her,” she said, “but really what tied us together the most, even after graduation, was our bond as women.”

That bond was a testament to “the power that sisterhood has when we embrace each other in that community and how that can change the trajectory of your life,” she added.

Brown was in Morales’ English class during her junior and senior years at Wyvetter Younge Alternative Center, which has since become the Gordon Bush Alternative Center, before graduating from East St. Louis Senior High School in 2021.

Da’Miya Brown and Briana Morales are pictured at Brown's graduation.
Briana Morales
Da’Miya Brown, left, and Briana Morales, right, are pictured at Brown's graduation.

Brown was also a mother to two young boys.

“She was such a resilient and remarkable young person,” Morales said. “And I reflect on so many other parts of who she was and the fullness of her life because, just as all women are, we’re complex people with lots of different identities and amazing things that make us who we are.”

In addition to being a student and mother, Brown was a scholar-activist, community leader and spoken-word poet who wrote poetry about changing the world and making her community a better place.

“She found peace in writing about her lived experiences as a way to communicate that with broader audiences,” Morales said.

“She was such a selfless person,” she added. “She spent so many days after school going to work and also giving back to the community through ministry and raising her boys in such a way that they would do the same.”

“She lived such a beautiful life where she was loved unconditionally,” Morales said, “and that love in the community of sisterhood that brought her up and brought her to and through so many uniquely challenging points of her life, is also the same community that still exists and that we can still pour into for girls just like her and not so much like her at all, because it’s not just girls like Da’Miya who need the community of sisterhood.

“It’s all of them. We’ll never be in front of a girl who doesn’t.”

'Three-pronged approach'

The first year of the program will run from January to June 2024 for 10 girls in and around East St. Louis and 10 in and around Chicago, starting with a kickoff and concluding with a “Sister Symposium.”

The nonprofit uses a “three-pronged approach of positive youth development,” Morales said.

The three prongs include:

  • The (Sister)Hood of Hope Mothers’ Memorial Fund to provide young mothers ages 17 to 22 with postsecondary education scholarships in honor of Da’Miya Brown. The nonprofit is aiming to award four $500 scholarships in the spring.
  • Mentorship by pairing each girl with a mentor to meet with monthly for professional, academic, personal and parenting guidance.
  • Positive youth development programming in the form of monthly sessions on specific competencies.

Morales explained that positive youth development is a research-based framework for improving the lives of young people and engaging them in advocacy and awareness about themselves, the world, their community and how they can make a positive contribution. In 2016, a group of researchers adapted the framework to the contexts and lived experiences of young girls of color as they develop.
(Sister)Hood of Hope’s program will guide girls through each of the adapted framework’s competencies like confidence, critical consciousness, and connection and caring, Morales said.

“We’ll walk the girls through what each of those means, how it connects you to sisterhood, what that means in the larger context of a community,” she said.

Then the girls will choose one of the competencies to focus on in an advocacy project before the springtime symposium that will bring together all of the girls from East St. Louis and Chicago in a central location.

What's next?

Morales said that in advance of January’s launch, the nonprofit is looking to solidify its list of mentors and girls who would like to participate in the program in and around East St. Louis and Chicago.

“We really want to spread our reach as far as possible into the surrounding communities and reach the girls who would benefit from this type of programming the most,” she said, pairing them with mentors who could have a significant impact on their lives.

Those interested in being a mentor or participating in the program can sign up at www.thesisterhoodofhope.org, Morales said.

The organization is also accepting donations on its website for the scholarship fund as well as to support general programming like materials the girls need and transportation costs.

The nonprofit was given a $10,000 donation recently when Morales was a guest on The Drew Barrymore Show in New York City.

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.