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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information about the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

Adolescence is a time of rich experiences for girls as they approach the boundaries of womanhood. It is also a time filled with the risks born of gender, sexuality, class, and race discrimination. For African American female adolescents to have viable options for future education and employment, the contexts of school and family must create a safe and supportive environment for them (Collins, 2000).

In this qualitative study of eight African American mothers of successful high school daughters, I drew upon three theoretical frameworks:

  • Social capital theory underscored that the mothers in my study shared the experiences of parenting their daughters in a community context that differed from the school's dominant culture (Bourdieu, 1991; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Noguera, 2001).

  • Feminist standpoint sheds light on the issues of power and politics inherent in discussions of experiences of mothering, academic achievement, and social conditions among African American women and girls (Dougherty, 2001; Collins, 2000, p. 263).

  • Black feminist thought drew attention to the mothers' experiences that provided them with a perspective from both inside and outside the community's dominant culture (Collins, p. 12).

Research Methods

The data for this study are drawn from interviews, a focus group, and documents that relate to the experiences of eight Black women and their daughters in a small, Midwestern city between 2003 and 2004. The research asked the broader question of how mothers guided their daughters through the intersection of race, gender, and class in school and in the community.

  • Interviews—I conducted eight semistructured, in-depth interviews (lasting one to two-and-a-half hours) with mothers who had daughters in an afterschool club formed to enrich Black girls at a predominantly White high school. These interviews occurred in their homes, their workplaces, or the local public library. Interview questions included what mothers told their daughters about being Black and being a woman, what high school is like for a Black girl, their impressions of the afterschool club and its sponsor, and their advice to their daughters about being successful in high school.

  • Documentation—In the documentation elicit phase, mothers reacted to the district's ethnically disaggregated achievement test scores. The document data came from local newspaper articles, state educational data, and United States Census data.

  • Focus groups—I conducted a two-hour session with the mothers one year after the interviews.

I coded and analyzed the interview data using a color-coding strategy that highlighted nine initial themes focused on what mothers told daughters about being a Black woman, about racism and sexism, mothers' perceptions of the afterschool club, and their perceptions of the school.

Research Findings

1. Mothers voiced resistance to the hostile elements that would limit or deprive their daughters of their rightful access to social and cultural opportunities. In their homes, mothers reinforced strong personal values to their daughters, stressing the importance of being themselves and being proud of who they were as Black women and of resisting attempts to be “put down” or “in their place.” Many girls struggled with the symbolic violence in the school (e.g., the everyday “put downs” in the school halls and classrooms, either implicit or explicit, by teachers and White students, that promoted low expectations for Black women). Notably, the afterschool program created an arena of safety for them.

2. Mothers expressed concern and anger that the school did not provide a safer environment for their daughters or better exposure to Black culture and history. Mothers recognized that daughters faced conflicts from the symbolic violence of the school and from actual violence often played out in class conflicts with other Black girls who were not members of the afterschool club. They believed that more exposure to the positive attributes of Black culture would end both the symbolic and the actual violence in the school.

3. Little or no contact existed between mothers and school officials, including the afterschool club's sponsor. With few exceptions, mothers said the school only called them when there was an issue; the school never followed up to see, for example, what strategies they used to produce such successful daughters. However, the mothers rarely called or visited the school on behalf of their daughters either individually or collectively, even when the girls encountered problems that called for intervention by a parent. Mothers felt unwelcome or believed that their daughters or the club sponsor could handle the situation. However, by failing to involve the mothers at the school level, the sponsor inadvertently isolated mothers from the information and resources they may have garnered from the school.

Implications for School Practice

Preliminary findings affirm the mothers' intense interest and direct involvement in the lives of their daughters who benefited as a result. The mothers' rare contact with the school is not disinterest, but they appear to rely on the club's sponsor and the girls themselves to resolve important issues. Schools should:

  • Facilitate direct, frequent communication links to parents of girls to disseminate information about the school as well as students' academic progress. Schools can also provide opportunities for parents to meet other parents in order to make connections to others in the community.

  • Hire fully credentialed staff who can model roles, and influence girls and their families to develop school and community networks that empower them to resolve issues affecting them in the school and in their communities.

  • Develop mothers' groups to encourage their positive involvement in issues affecting their daughters at the school and create avenues so that this group can share lessons learned with the entire school.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power (G. Raymond & M Adamson, Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Dougherty, D. S. (2001). Toward a theoretical understanding of feminist standpoint[ing] processes in organizations. Unpublished manuscript, University of Missouri, Columbia.

Lareau, A. & Horvat, E. M. (1999). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion: Race, class, and cultural capital in family–school relationships. Sociology of Education, 72, 37–53.

Lin, N. (2000). Inequality in social capital. Contemporary Sociology, 29(6), 785–795.

Noguera, P. (2001). Transforming urban schools through investments in the social capital of parents. In S. Saegert, J.P. Thompson & M. R. Warren (Eds). Social capital and poor communities. (pp. 189–212). New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Also available online at

Barbara Morrow Williams, J.D., Ph.D.
Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, College of Education
University of Missouri at Columbia
201 Hill Hall
Columbia, Missouri 65211

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