Group of young women from the ESTEEM program
The Juanita Sims Doty Foundation’s gems take a photo with community women leader and presenter Mona Arnold McBride for their weekly ESTEEM mentoring meeting. Photo by Karla McCullough

Unlikely Relationships: Wisconsin Sisters Helping Tackle Black Dehumanization in Mississippi

Karla McCullough patiently waited for her flight to begin boarding at the Atlanta airport, heading home to Jackson. It was a late evening in November 2018 when a kind, white woman approached her and asked if she recognized the woman on the cover of her book. 

“Yes, of course I do! That’s Sister Thea Bowman,” McCullough responded. 

The Jackson woman then started a conversation with the woman from Wisconsin telling her that Sister Thea is from Canton, Miss. “That’s where both of my parents are from,” McCullough told her. She explained that Sister Thea’s life was geared toward social justice and trying to eradicate the racial injustices against Black people.

The woman who approached her that night was Sister Marla Long of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and she wasn’t alone. She introduced her sisters, Helen Elsbernd and Eileen McKenzie, to McCullough, and they struck up a conversation. They were so enthralled that they barely noticed that the plane was boarding, they were the only ones left in the waiting area.

Sister Thea Bowman in black and white
Sister Thea Bowman was a Roman Catholic sister, teacher, scholar and civil rights activist who founded the National Black Sisters Conference to support African American women in Catholic religious institutions. Photo by Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Canton

The Need for Racial Healing

It turned out that all the women were boarding the same flight to Jackson because the sisters were flying to Jackson to canonize Sister Thea Bowman as a saint in the Catholic church. After landing in Jackson, they exchanged information, which eventually led to McCullough taking them on a tour of Sister Thea’s hometown of Canton. 

“I knew about the multicultural center where they have an exhibit for Sister Thea. I knew that she had gone to Holy Child Jesus School and taught at the school. I just showed them around to different places,” McCullough said. 

“We had many discussions and learned of her work with the foundation working with the youth,” Elsbernd said. 

McCullough is the executive director of the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Black residents in Jackson, with a focus on tackling the dehumanization of Mississippians of color. The foundation began more than a decade ago by partnering with 21 organizations to increase the number of children of color in the medical field, the director said. 

Today, the same network of organizations and the foundation have started a mentorship program in six states at 13 sites and with 26 organizations. The Franciscan Sisters gave the foundation small grants between 2018 and 2019. But then in 2020, the religious group called her about their new grant project called “Seeding the Legacy.” 

Using funds from a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, the sisters drafted a proposal to work in partnership with the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation to break the dehumanization cycle and encourage what McCullough calls racialized healing. 

Karla McCullough and Juanita Sims Doty
Juanita Sims Doty and Karla McCullough, Juanita Sims Doty Foundation executive director and Doty’s niece, received the Governor’s Award for their A-TEAAM work in Jackson Public Schools. Photo by Karla McCullough

“We talked about it, and I’m one that does not hold back about racial injustices against Black people, and they were all for it,” McCullough, who is also on the advisory board of the Mississippi Free Press, said. “As a matter of fact, one of the sisters said we know we need to learn.” 

The sisters submitted the proposal in August 2020, and in November, Karla received confirmation that the foundation’s legacy would be “sewn into” with the amount of $600,000. It was perfect timing as the foundation had lost about 95% of its funding in 2020, the executive director said. 

“When I tell you that was God’s order of our steps, I know that’s what it was,” McCullough said. 

Who would have thought that a chance encounter at the airport would bear such promising fruit years later? “I think it was maybe Thea working in the background or guardian angels or our God. It was an inspiration, I think,” Sister Elsbernd said. 

Then Trauma Is Manifested

The dehumanization cycle is not linear, McCullough said, and you can’t break half of it, and suddenly it stops. We have to disrupt the cycle as a whole, she explained. 

“With the dehumanization cycle, it ultimately says that it starts with people believing that young men and boys of color are not human and are perceived as threats. So, it gives a license to white people to think that their actions against the boys and young men of color are validated because they are a threat,” the executive director said. 

This cycle manifests itself in various systems, such as in the education system, where African American boys are three times as likely to be suspended than their counterparts, she said. And then trauma is manifested. 

“I had one of the ambassadors ask me, ‘Dr. McCullough, is the future really real?’ And so if they don’t even believe that the future is real, what do I care about life? As a result of that, they’re self-inflicting harm and harming others, you start these negative narratives all over again,” she said. 

The grant money will go toward the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation’s goal of disrupting the dehumanization cycle and racialized trauma of people of color on a systems level. Solutions including mentoring youth groups, developing curriculum and hosting community awareness workshops. 

Group of young men in dress clothes for the Youth Leadership Summit
The Juanita Sims Doty Foundation’s A-TEAAM gathers for a photo at the 2018 Inaugural National Youth Summit in Jackson. Photo by Karla McCullough

The foundation and 21 other organizations partnered to spearhead two mentoring programs. The Ambassadors of the Evers Academy for African American Males, or A-TEAAM, partners Black sixth graders with a village of Black male professionals who meet once a week. 

“We wanted to make sure that someone was always there, so we asked each organization to come up with four to six mentors to create a village for their ambassador. If they didn’t see one, they would see the other,” McCullough said. 

Their program for Black girls, Empowering Scholars Through Education, Engagement, and Mentorship, or ESTEEM, pairs Black seventh graders with students at Jackson State University and Mississippi State University, who serve as their junior mentors on a weekly basis. Community members and leaders come and talk with the girls every other week, McCullough said. 

“We needed that intergenerational impact for the girls,” she said. 

Peanut Butter, Jelly and Implicit Bias

The director said young people often need conversation, someone to believe in them and someone they can trust. In light of that, the foundation has created the extra care team where the conversation replaces punishment, providing the extra care needed for behavior modification, she said. 

“I’ve experienced one young man who he told us that he was dumb anyway because he had seen children in this city, where they didn’t know how to learn, and they were in the bottom of everything. This is a result of the narrative, a part of the dehumanization cycle,” McCullough said. 

Young women standing in a circle, holding hands
Seventh graders in the ESTEEM mentoring program form a circle of trust at their weekly meeting. Photo by Karla McCullough

McCullough and Doty had a conversation with the young man about implicit biases using a peanut butter and jelly analogy.

“This implicit bias that peanut butter and jelly goes together because it wasn’t meant to be together. Somebody put together and they thought it was great. Some people think it’s horrible, but it’s an implicit bias because we hear it all the time,” she said. “So we had to explain to him your skin color, the school you attend and who you are—those can be implicit biases because of what people hear and see.” 

They encouraged him to recognize his strength and intelligence and toward the end of the school year, they got a progress report from the principal saying the young man was being the ultimate ambassador. It is progress like that that assures McCullough that their solutions are working, she said. 

“We use these culturally responsive tactics and teaching mentors how to act in the most responsive way. We have things around that look like them, but there’s a big difference in letting them see that you’re inclusive and letting them feel that you’re inclusive,” the executive director said. 

Sisters: ‘We’ve Done Such An Injustice’

Sister Helen Elsbernd of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration said they find McCullough’s work toward empowering youth and breaking the cycle of racism very important. For the last five years, the Catholic group has become more aware of Franciscan sister Thea Bowman’s work in fighting against racism. 

Their discoveries have encouraged the congregation to reconcile their own white privilege, Elsbernd said. 

“We had a congregation that met in 2018, and we said what are the needs of the world that we need to address, and one of them was that we recognize our white privilege and how we have to be anti-racist,” Elsbernd said. 

She said that the congregation has been doing a lot of reading and has a committee that meets every two weeks for discussion on what they can do to build a better understanding of the white privilege they’ve lived with. 

“I read ‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo. I just recently read the book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent’ by Isabel Wilkerson,” Elsbernd said.

“It’s interesting because one of the comments that Isabel Wilkerson said is that some white people are choosing to maintain whiteness as the superior class over democracy. I think you saw that played out in this past election.” 

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration live in Lacrosse, Wis., a city of 50,000 white-collar workers, Elsbernd said. The population is majority white with around 10% of the population Black or people of color. Following the police killing of George Floyd in nearby Minnesota, the city held peaceful demonstrations in Lacrosse. Still, not everything is as it seems. 

Human Trafficking Awareness Prayer Service
Left to right: Sister Linda Mershon, Sister Sharon Berger, Sister Sandra Hoeser and Sister Julie Tydrich hold up signs of hope and dignity at the Human Trafficking Awareness Prayer Service in February 2020 inside the Mary of Angels Chapel in Lacrosse, Wis. Photo by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration

“I watched a video that was made with students of color in our public schools, and they are feeling discrimnation at times,” the sister said. “For a while, the school resource officers were policing the schools, and what they were finding was that the students of color were getting penalized and getting detention more than the white kids were. They decided it was not being helpful, so they are discontinuing that.”

Elsbernd said she was aware of the barriers society was putting up for Black people, but her knowledge only went so far. McCullough has done a great job of explaining the dehumanization cycle and its ramifications it can have on black youth, she said. 

“We’ve done such an injustice to create that kind of environment for kids to grow up in, but it’s pervasive in our country. The caste system really made sense to me in terms of how we’ve had two levels of how we regard people. We have so many of those biases and our whole society is really built on that,” Elsbernd said. 

Executive Director Karla McCullough said one of the great aspects about the partnership between the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation and the Fransican Sisters of Perpetual Adoration is that the sisters don’t let the digestion of their white privilege overshadow the work they’re doing. 

“The honest truth is they recognize that they have it. They know that resources is the number one thing that Black communities and communities of color need, so they’re doing that. I won’t deny them of us walking this path together,” McCullough said.

‘Unlikely Relationships’

During the proposal stage of the grant application process, McCullough said the Sisters asked her what would she do to change racial injustices if money wasn’t an issue, a question that had never been posed to her before. 

“I put it together, gave it to them, we kind of talked about it on the Zoom call and then of course we got the seed. All the grants we received since then, I did not have to get ready because I was already ready with the dream,” she said. 

The Juanita Sims Doty Foundation has also received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to support their efforts to end the dehumanization cycle within systems in the state of Mississippi, the executive director said. 

“So what I learned from them is don’t just think about the now, how can you be impactful years to come so when the opportunity presents itself, you’re ready?”

McCullough’s tolerance level has also strengthened during their partnership, and she has developed unlikely relationships, which confirms that she is in the right place, she said. 

“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I can work with it because my tolerance is here,” McCullough said. 

The legacy and goals of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are geared toward addressing the needs of society, Elsbernd said. It is what they’ve been doing since 1849 in Wisconsin when they helped Catholic immigrants from Germany, who were being shunned for their religion. The area of social justice is no exception, she said. 

Four women standing together
Left to right: Sister Eileen McKenzie, Dr. Karla McCullough, Sister Helen Elsbernd and Sister Marla Lang post together after a chance encounter at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Ga., in 2018. Photo by Karla McCullough

“It’s one thing to prepare the youth and help the youth become more self aware and owning their own goodness, but then we have to work with society so that the society will accept them as such,” Sister Elsbernd said. 

With their work beginning in a state that was one of the birthplaces for the Civil Rights Movement, it is vital that the Foundation makes their relationship with the Fransican Sisters work and that some changes occur, the director said. 

“I want the legacy to be that we created unlikely relationships and partnerships that changed the trajectory for racial injustices for people of color in the state of Mississippi. I also want it to be clear that our values are being brave, be honest and open. We’re not holding anything back, but we are respectful,” McCullough said. 

To learn more about the Juanita Sims Doty Foundation, you can visit their website at www.jsdfoundation.com. To learn about the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, you can visit their website at https://www.fspa.org/

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