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Sister Power: How Phenomenal Black Women Are Rising to the Top. – book reviews

In April, Americans from all walks of life gathered in Philadelphia to answer the nation’s first peacetime bipartisan “call.”

Christened “America’s Promise,” the event explored the myriad
components of American volunteerism and their connection to curing the
country’s social ills. Not surprisingly, mentoring was a word on most
of the lips of the participants. Indeed, if there was an overriding
consensus, it was that Americans must mobilize to mentor the nation’s
youth. However, the question plaguing both delegates and concerned
observers was, “How do we do it?”

While child advocates continue to seek answers to this question in
the conference’s aftermath, many African Americans are grappling with
other issues in addition to this one. Aghast at the crises in our
communities, concerned Blacks are simultaneously wondering how to stem
the growing tide of violence, academic under-achievement, economic
disparity, joblessness, teen pregnancy and devaluation of human life.
They reasonably muse that if mentoring is part of the remedy, what
should its components be?

It is against this backdrop that Sister Power: How Phenomenal Black Women Are Rising to the Top has assumed a new importance.

Originally deemed a study of the leadership models ascribed to by
powerful and successful Black women, the book’s primary audience was
assumed to be aspiring Black women seeking to navigate the inevitable
workplace confrontations with racism and sexism.

Dubbed “Phenomenal Women” by Richard Stockton College author Dr.
Patricia Reid-Merritt, the book is based on interviews with forty-five
powerful Black women. Ranging in age between thirty-three and
sixty-eight, they hailed from every part of the country and worked in
both the public and private sectors. This heterogeneous group of highly
motivated women ran the gamut from grassroots activists to those with
extensive post-graduate training. Yet despite these differences, the
author found that the women shared seven common characteristics which,
she asserts, collectively constitute the “sister power” to which she
attributes the womens’ successes.

The seven characteristics common to all of the women are: a
self-confidence engendered during childhood by family, church, school
and community; spirituality; clearly defined goals; cultural pride;
humanistic values; social consciousness; and political sophistication.
Also, all were pioneers. Having no role models, they forged their own

Reid-Merritt notes that the confluence of two forces – a supremely
positive childhood preparation swirling against a devastatingly
negative tide of racism and sexism – created a mind-set that, for some,
would eventually develop into a new vision of leadership strong enough
to surmount almost every obstacle. In a racist, sexist society, they
believed they could and should operate at the highest level.

The book’s often witty conversational tone enhances biographical
anecdotes replete with accounts of adults who continually affirmed and
encouraged the endeavors of little Black girls. Early on, all of these
talkative children were told that they were smart, loved and able.
Intellectually, the sky was the limit!

It is these childhood memories that those designing mentoring
programs should probably reference. For as community activists,
educators, and parents are seeking answers, Reid-Merritt – perhaps
unwittingly – offers one. By illuminating how crucial adult involvement
and encouragement were to each woman’s success, she underscores the
importance of positive reinforcement from the network of communities to
which a child belongs. Every interviewee acknowledged teachers, family
members, members of her faith community, and adult leaders of her
extra-curricular activities who said, “You can do it!” In today’s
jargon, they would be identified as role models and/or mentors.

Reid-Merritt’s engaging and exceptionally readable account of her
interviews with these powerful Black women could be tremendously
valuable to varied audiences – those designing mentoring programs for
Black youth, especially for Black women; employees of “special”
enrichment, or honors, programs for minority college students; and
people designing community-based initiatives for younger children.
Moreover, Sister Power could constitute equally important assigned
reading for students enrolled in mentoring programs, as well as
participants in community service initiatives. Lastly, the book would
immeasurably enrich courses in which future teachers and health and
human services professionals are enrolled.

An encouraging aspect of the book is the discovery that although
“some sisters clearly put individual gain and personal aggrandizement
before the welfare of the African American community,” they comprised
only 15 percent of those studied. Thus, the overwhelming majority of
the women had analogous childhood and young adult experiences that
reinforce many of the values that the proposed mentoring programs seek
to restore.

The importance of learning and celebrating Black history is a theme
that resonates throughout the book. All of the “sisters” recalled how
the history of Africana people had been taught to them as children. As
a result, they revere its importance. Consequently, the interviewees
repeatedly attributed their personal success to the sacrifices and
accomplishments of Blacks of earlier generations. It is therefore
ironic that the author’s own tributes to “the ancestors,” are

Reid-Merritt devised a style that skillfully meshes interview
excerpts, folksy biographical anecdotes, and historical narrative.
Unfortunately, neither she nor her editors picked up some rather
glaring factual inaccuracies. An interviewee’s misidentification of the
late renowned African American historian Nathan Huggins as white went
uncorrected. Nevertheless, the historical inaccuracies do not
invalidate the book’s overall usefulness in many different disciplines.

To the author’s credit, Sister Power’s content is organized
chronologically, rather than biograpically. Accordingly, the book lends
itself to assorted instructional and self-help formats.

Thankfully, Sister Power: How Phenomenal Black Women Are Rising to
the Top is devoid of the psycho-babble and jargon that mar so many of
the current spate of self-help and social science books. Reid-Merritt
offers her readers a text whose skillful interplay of interview
excerpts, “sisterspeak,” and history and statistical data is
exceptionally readable.

Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson is a member of the Department of African American Studies at the College of New Jersey in Trenton.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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