Mindful Jamaa's: Cultivating African American identity and socio-emotional awareness through sisterhood networks

What if the racial & cultural identities of African American girls were recognized as critical for development and cultivated in schools?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

As an African American psychologist serving children of color in schools, I learned how critical it is for school personnel to know how to support students of color in middle school as their identities are forming. At this age, there are unique challenges with ethnic identity development where they ask, “how does my race and culture impact who I am, my relationships, and where I belong?” Our groups provide a place for identity questions to be asked within a sisterhood community. At the same time, in my clinical work with parents of African American adolescents, a substantial amount of the care was focused on guiding parents in the process of racial socialization of their teens. Racial socialization is the process where a child is guided and directed into making sense of the world in the context of their race. This is a critical part of parenting. For the teens, they needed to know how to navigate their social environment, including maintaining relationships both within and across racial lines. There were also school policies (especially discipline) and society influences that the girls did not recognize were shaping their self image--- often from negative stereotypes in the media and through interactions with adults that didn't understand them. It is through the recognition that ethnic identity and racial socialization are critical elements of the development of African American girls that the Mindful Jamaa’s was born.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Seattle, Federal Way

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

African American youth in the U.S. are not only expected to undergo the typical developmental experiences of adolescence, they are also coping with a world in which they may be regularly experiencing racial prejudice. Encounters with prejudice and stereotypes can cause African American youth to develop an insecure identity and have a low sense of belonging. Our groups counteract the negative societal messages that can shape their ethnic identities. We recognize that identity development is part of a multilevel system where African American adolescents develop their identity in the context of schools, neighborhoods, and family context. We encourage ethnic identity development and influence adaptive and healthy functioning across different social and cultural contexts. For African American adolescents, we believe self awareness and belonging are vital for success in school and life.

Dealing with racial discrimination can cause an adolescent to follow the path of developing a negative sense of self and negative ethnic identity.  Alternatively, an adolescent can learn to understand the strengths of their heritage and can have adults deliver messages that counter the stereotypes that are projected in the media and through interactions with others. This process is called racial socialization. Racial socialization includes guiding and directing adolescents of color into making sense of who they are in the context of their racial heritage. This process, we assert, leads them to a path of resistance to negative internalization and promotes resilience. Since it is both through context and social influences that African American youth are developing ideas about where they fit in, and what it means to be African American, Mindful Jamaa’s groups provide the ideal context for positive racial socialization—adults counteracting the negative messages while also building a sense of self in the context of culturally-centered peer relationships.  Through the curriculum, the girls form a sense of belonging to their ethnic group by learning more about their cultural heritage, including values, traditions, and articulating strengths. Mindful Jamaa's also extends the work beyond the group context.  We engage and empower parent in communicating with their girls about positive African American identities through "conversation cards."  This translates to not only exposure to racial socialization at school, but also parallel messages being delivered from home.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

The middle school girls in our pilot, Mindful Jamaas, met for 6 weeks. Groups were led by a psychologist who followed Sisters of Nia, a cultural enrichment curriculum that uses the Eight Principles for African American living to promote ethnic identity, belonging, and personal and community empowerment. In Mindful Jamaas, the girls discussed topics such as healthy relationships, stereotypes in media, and setting goals as African American women. They also participated in activities such as journaling, initiating family conversations, and fun and interactive personal development-based games. The girls found a safe space to share concerns, support each other, and celebrate the individual and group strengths as part of their ethnic identities

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Mindful Jamaa's builds ethnic identity and nurtures positive associations in the school environment. To determine the program’s impact, we collected data on changes in ethnic identity, resilience, belonging at school, and beliefs about their ability to do well in school. Quantitative data was compared to a control group of African American girls in the same school who did not participate until 6 weeks later. The Jamaa’s grew in their positive ethnic identity more than the control group. The girls who participated in the culturally focused group demonstrated higher levels of school engagement, had stronger beliefs about their ability to to well in school, AND higher resilience scores. The increased engagement at school was further validated by separate teacher ratings of the Jamaa participants. Thus, greater school belonging and engagement were secondary benefits of Jamaa groups.

Organization Type

  • hybrid

Annual Budget

  • $10k - $50k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Program officers at local foundations with interests in social justice and equity in education have encouraged this work. Two foundations discussed opportunities to incorporate this work into their portfolio. We are using the results from the pilot project as preliminary data to support grant proposals. By obtaining funding, we will have the capacity to provide these groups in middle schools on an ongoing basis during the academic school year.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

This program is innovative because it focuses on supporting an invisible process—ethnic identity development. We offer a unique experience by integrating cultural values and openly embracing culturally derived strengths that are often unnoticed by school personnel. Although there are projects that focus on forming student’s academic identity (e.g., STEM), professional identity (e.g. engineer) and emotional development, rarely are others focused on supporting the racial socialization process. Our focus on ethnic identity, belonging, and school engagement makes our program unique.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

We have reached a point in the field of education where we acknowledge that universal approaches to intervention are not as effective for students from ethnic minority backgrounds. We can now see the positive effects of providing culturally appropriate services to students who struggle with self-esteem and ethnic identity, building these programs in schools has been a challenge. Equipping ethnic minority students with stronger identities will help them resist from allowing negative stereotypes to shape their identities and empower them to create an alternative path to emotional wellbeing.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

Mindful Jamaa groups are offered after school in middle schools, once per week. The groups are 90 minutes long, weekly over a 12 week period. Participants are African American or mixed-race African American girls due to the cultural enrichment curriculum we have included in the group. The groups are delivered by an African American female psychologist and psychologists in training. Each session, snack time, discussion of an African proverb, an activity, and a "staying in focus" assignment occur. All themes include identity and coping skills. The 12th session is a celebration ceremony.

Community Leadership

School staff design the recruitment process, select participants, provide ongoing feedback on participant behavior change in the classroom, and review results. Midstream we received feedback on some data collection barriers so we responded & revised our approach for data collection. Parents are also participants by facilitating home discussions of the same content through conversation cards and also by reviewing all results from the data.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

One of our long term goals is licensing to package this intervention for schools to use as an engagement tool. We ultimately would like to finalize a version of this process that can be scaled up and implemented in all middle schools both girls and boys. We are inspired by our President's My Brothers Keeper and My Sister's keeper initiatives and would like to tap into schools desires to be responsive to erase all disproportionate outcomes.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Cultivating a sense of self, belonging, and purpose is exactly what we are doing! We are fostering positive ethnic identities in African American girls by showing them that emotional wellbeing starts with validating their own culturally-centered reality, nurturing their lived experiences, and identifying that a primary source of strength is culture. Through a stronger sense of self, they learn to defend from being shaped by negative stereotypes

Leadership Story

My commitment to social change began when I was in the high school, one of four African Americans in a class of 1388 students. I was smart, yet receiving messages that it wasn't possible to be "good enough" to meet my goals. I had to force myself to feel like I belonged and fight against negative perceptions from high school, to college, through graduate school, and even in my current job as a professor. My dedication is unwavering--I am making a difference for our future generations being a researcher and a psychologist that serves the children whose voices are typically unheard.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

The project was recognized in the 2015-16 edition of Research that Matters. The University of Washington publication of faculty research in the College of Education.

Organization's Twitter Handle



Join the conversation:

Photo of Carissa Purnell

Thank you for speaking TRUTH... we often times as adults assume we know how to coach, teach, and guide our young ones, but their voices, their power and lived experiences as youth is something beautiful. As a woman of color who navigated the world looking more and more for people who looked like me as I continued my education and professional path, this program hits home. I believe it the power of family, and that comes in many forms, just as you have begun to build. You build hope in a lives that have been taught not to believe. As we say here in Salinas, echale ganas. Abrazos. 

Photo of Janine Jones

Thank you Carissa Purnell !  You made my day!  :)

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