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Nakesha Woods

Sisters Inspiring Sisters (SIS)

13806 Bonington
Sterling Heights, Michigan 48312

Sisters Inspiring Sisters (SIS)

By Tunde Wey
September 12, 2012

Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus
: We Hope for Better Things; It Shall Rise from the Ashes -- Detroit’s motto, penned after the great fire of 1805. It is an admonition to break away from an unsuccessful past and build a better present. The work of two Detroit-born sisters heeds this counsel. They are working to break generational cycles of abuse, neglect and hopelessness; their weapon is their story and example.

Nakesha Woods and Natrina Groce are co-founders of the youth mentoring organization Sisters Inspiring Sisters (SIS). Sisters Inspiring Sisters (SIS) is an organization working to empower adolescent girls by teaching strong interpersonal and social skills and demonstrating self-esteem through qualified mentorship.

SIS works with female high school students, offering a 19-week program in eight Detroit high schools. They offer weekly mentoring sessions lasting between an hour and an hour and half, with each mentoring session hosting between 15 and 30 participants. During these sessions discreet topic areas important to young women are discussed in a participatory group mentoring environment. Topics include dating, relationships and domestic violence, college preparation, money management, social etiquette and conflict resolution, among others. Guest speakers with deep expertise in topic areas are frequent contributors to some of these discussions.

SIS employs a flexible curriculum and session schedule, adjusting its programming to meet the needs of the different schools and its participants. Mentoring sessions are usually held after the school day for interested students; however, some schools allow their SIS students to participate in the sessions as an elective.

SIS also recently began running a summer program in conjunction with The Matrix Center, in the Osborn neighborhood. This shorter program runs for around 6 weeks with a more condensed curriculum.

In addition to its classroom life skills based curriculum, SIS also offers experiential learning opportunities to the young women it mentors, such as the annual SIS fashion show with young women as models.

In the last school year (2011- 2012), SIS has worked with 240 young high school students. They have goals to grow their program to every school in Detroit.

An important aspect of the SIS approach to mentoring young women is providing female college student mentors. Most of these SIS mentors are also pursuing a social work education; this qualified mentorship allows for a more informed interaction between participants and mentors. A certified social worker acting as a mentor advisor supports the work of SIS mentors during the group mentoring sessions.

This is the animating proposition behind SIS -- that young women connect more easily to other women, ergo sisters inspiring sisters. The message behind the name is also revealing; SIS is only successful because sisters Nakesha Woods and Natrina Groce’s relationship personifies the importance of mentorship.

Nakesha Woods, 33, and Natrina Groce, 28, grew up in Detroit raised by a single mother. Woods, the older of the sisters, was the first in her family to attend college. Woods says “I wanted more,” a powerful recognition of the expectations she had for herself and a selfless understanding of what others expected of her. She says not having anyone else to model her college career after and having a younger sister who looked up to her made her success more urgent.

Woods received a full scholarship to Wayne State University, graduating in four years with honors with a degree in Psychology. Her educational success is impressive; as she recalls, not many of her peers attended college, and of the few who did many dropped out soon after. (A 2010 Education Trust study showed that Wayne State University, which has a 30% black student population, only graduated 9% of its black students within six years – less than one out of ten.)

Armed with the positive example her older sister had provided, Groce also completed an undergraduate program in Finance and went on to receive a Master’s degree in Human Resources. Groce says her older sister’s example and encouragement were especially important for her as she was graduating high school because her friend at the time had dropped out.

After Woods graduated from WSU in 2001, she and a friend Eugenia Thompson started SIS as a way to work in the community as well as get experience for future employment. Woods, however, was more successful with her employment search than she had anticipated and three months after SIS was started Woods was employed. This was the beginning of an almost 10 year hiatus for SIS, during which time Woods worked professionally in the social work field.

In a turn of roles, the re-launch of SIS in 2010 would be spurred by Groce. Inspired after a talk with her Christian minister, Groce told Woods that they needed to continue the important mentoring work of SIS. The timing was perfect; Woods was ready for the transition and in the intervening years had been building out the curriculum for SIS. The two sisters got straight to work, with Woods revisiting old contacts and setting up program partners and Groce filing for federal non-profit status for the organization. They were soon back in business.

Watching Woods and Groce talk, it is easy to see their genuine rapport; they laugh conspiratorially, sharing inside jokes and good-naturedly teasing each other. They are openly proud of each other’s achievements; this pride is evident in the sincere and unhesitating compliments they pay each other. The real strength of their relationship, however, is less about compliments and more about how they complement each other.

In speaking about the operation of SIS, Groce describes her older sister as the more creative of the duo, while characterizing her role as one of manager -- dealing with the details and important minutiae of the organization. Their complementary personalities are reflected in the division of labor, with Woods focused on the curriculum and program development and Groce, the more business-savvy of the group, concerned with the sound fiscal position of SIS.

Currently, SIS works exclusively in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). This is important to Woods and Groce, who, as products of DPS, say they recognize intimately the needs of the students, especially the young women. “The goal is to provide role models so they are aware of other options,” Woods says. Groce adds, “[The young girls] want someone to understand them and not feel like they are being judged … [the mentorship is] not a mother-daughter or teacher-student relationship but more of a friendship. “

Ultimately SIS is looking to create a safe environment where young women are comfortable and can form strong, lasting interpersonal relationships with each other. Nurtured by the promise of mutual support and encouragement, wonderfully embodied in the relationship between these two sisters, the hope for continued generations of strong Detroit women is not misplaced.

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