When Priscilla Odame first came to Cooper High School, she wasn't your average new girl.
“I remember people used to laugh at me because I just came from Africa,” says the high school senior. “I didn’t know, like, how to dress, how to fit in or whatever.”
She says “fitting in” in the United States went against everything she learned in her native Ghana. She says, back home, schools are extremely strict and talking back to teachers and parents is not tolerated.
Odame isn’t the only student who faces this inner struggle to fit in while obeying her African upbringing. There are several African immigrants in her high school alone, and many of the females have found a way to combat this culture clash through a program called the African Girls’ Initiative for Leadership and Empowerment (AGILE).
“The mothers had complained that their girls were having a hard time fitting in and they were just basically picking up just the negative, you know, negative things they saw on T.V.,” says AGILE leadership coordinator LaBelle Nambangi. “They wanted something where they could maintain their African culture, but at the same time be able to integrate into the community.”
In a way, the program follows African tradition, where the older women in the community train adolescent girls how to properly dress and act. They build the girls’ self esteem and teach them leadership skills. However, AGILE also incorporates a rigorous college prep course, as well as a curriculum that educates the girls about HIV-AIDS, teen pregnancy and other social issues.
Nambangi says the program can be an eye-opener for the girls’ parents, too. She says some African parents only push their male children to excel in school and sports. The program aims to show them and their daughters there are many opportunities for girls to be just as successful.
Donations fuel the program that’s run by the Minnesota African Women’s Association. It started in a few schools in 2004. Now it’s in a half dozen schools in the northwest metro. The group meets at Cooper Thursdays after school.
Odame says it has made a difference for her by offering, not only key life lessons, but also a feeling of home.
“I have my group of friends from the same continent,” says Priscilla. “We know how we talk. We just basically know how we behave back home. So it’s kind of like my second family over here.”
October 15, 2012