UW News

November 28, 2022

‘Everything that you need is already in you’: Supporting young women of color through the Sisterhood Initiative

Starting college is full of unknowns: Can I handle my classes? Will I find friends? Will I feel at home here?

Am I ready for this?

For nearly four dozen young women of color starting at the University of Washington this fall, Rashida Love wants to assure them: Yes.

Rashida LoveKiyomi Taguchi / UW

Love is the director of the Sisterhood Initiative, an effort to create community and foster academic and social success for young women of color, from their first month at the UW all the way to graduation. Now in its first year, the cohort-based program of weekly seminars, regular support groups, guest speakers and activities is designed to take on 30 to 40 young women a year, allowing each class to become mentors to the one entering after it.

Love calls it a holistic program. The primary goal: Support students through graduation. But that takes more than teaching study skills; it’s about cultivating the whole person, in community with others.

It’s the kind of program Love wishes she’d had during college and graduate school.

“I wanted the opportunity to work with women of color who are just starting their academic career and confirm right from the start, you are strong, you are amazing, and you have so much to give. Everything that you need to succeed is already in you,” Love said. “So with the Sisterhood Initiative, how do we draw that out, and continue to draw that out?”

One model is another College of Education program, the Brotherhood Initiative, whose success led to the creation of the Sisterhood Initiative. Launched in 2016 to help address lower graduation rates among young men of color (a trend nationwide), the Brotherhood Initiative has created a supportive network centered around mentorship, service and academic success for some 250 students.

This year, the Brotherhood Initiative welcomed its largest cohort of 60 students, double the number from the program’s first year.  And the five-year graduation rate among students in the program is nearly the same as that of male students who are not from underrepresented communities.

Joe LottKiyomi Taguchi / UW

The fundamental goal of the Brotherhood Initiative, Founding Director Joe Lott said, “was really to create a smaller learning community of people who look like each other, and support one another in a way to build trust and just rely on one another to succeed.”

Both the Brotherhood and Sisterhood initiatives rely on donors to sustain and add programming and services. That support ranges from providing new activities for an entire cohort, Lott said, to something as individualized as helping a student find a place to stay to finish the quarter.

“It’s all about the students, and their learning and social trajectories, and seeing them grow and change,” said Lott, an associate professor of education. “We’re just here to create the conditions to help them succeed.”

That often means exploring leadership and career opportunities. Last year, the Brotherhood Initiative piloted (and now continues) the Positive Social Change Challenge, in which students work with the Foster School of Business and CoMotion to develop ideas for a socially minded business enterprise. It was something students had expressed interest in, Lott said, and the Brotherhood Initiative was able to innovate to meet the need.

In this first year of the Sisterhood Initiative, Love wants to focus the group on identity development and awareness, mental and emotional health, and leadership from a very specific kind of intersectional lens, beyond the usual white male leadership perspective, Love said.

But for the Sisterhood Initiative to truly succeed, it will take engagement from the students, as well.

“Just being in proximity with women of color does not do anything different for you. The Sisterhood Initiative is going to be what you make it,” Love said. “If you challenge yourself to grow, if you ask the hard questions, if you do or think about things a little differently than you’ve done them in the past, you are going to get so much out of this program.”

“But it’s only if you go there with us that the Sisterhood Initiative will really become the shining star that I know that it can be.”

For more information about the Sisterhood Initiative, contact Love at rlove1@uw.edu. For the Brotherhood Initiative, contact brother@uw.edu.