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Strong Families Equal Bright Futures

A decade of research by UGA professor Gene Brody and Velma Murry is teaching Georgia's African-American youth how to succeed in life.

by Karen Smith (MS '84, PhD '86)

A group of African American parents are sitting around a Milledgeville recreation center, talking about their kids. “I just want him to do his best,” says one father of his son. “His best is good enough for me.” The group nods in agreement, and then someone asks about their fears. “Lord have mercy,” exclaims one mother. They call out a chorus of concerns about their children: hanging with the wrong crowd, drinking and doing drugs, getting pregnant, dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law.

In another room, their kids are talking about their dreams. “I want to be a singer,” says one. “A teacher. A professional athlete. A doctor or a lawyer,” say the others. Their parents may not know what’s on their minds tonight, but seven weeks from now, after they’ve completed the Strong African American Families (SAAF) program, these 11-year-olds and their parents will have discussed a number of issues relevant to growing up African American in rural Georgia.
The Strong African American Families program was developed by two UGA researchers in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, Gene H. Brody and Velma McBride Murry, who have been studying rural African-American families for more than a decade. Their research examines what families and communities can do to help children succeed. Two 10-year longitudinal studies laid the foundation for the development of SAAF, and now the effectiveness of that program has been tested with more than 700 families.

“We’ve been able to identify what makes a difference in children’s lives,” Murry explains, “because we ask questions about what’s working.”

The families Brody and Murry study live in small towns across Georgia where poverty rates are among the highest in the nation and unemployment rates are above the national average. These rural communities are witnessing a rapid increase in early sexual activity and alcohol/drug use among African-American youth. Pre-teens who take these risks are more likely to have an assortment of problems later, including school dropout and involvement with the criminal justice system. They are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. African-American families can’t afford for their kids to go down that path, not when the typical black family has only 58 percent as much income as a white family, the black unemployment rate is more than double the white rate and one out of three African-American males born in 2001 will likely be imprisoned at some point in his lifetime.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find out why things go wrong,” Brody insists. “But we are trying to develop models of what promotes competence. We ask ourselves why some kids do well in school, have good family and peer relationships and are free from behavioral and emotional problems even though they live in difficult situations.”

Tracy Ellington and her two children live in Baldwin County, where the dropout rate for African Americans is 7.3 percent, well above the national median of 4.2. Her daughter Kiambre, 11, is a good student, but her son Kendal, 14, struggles to stay on track. His behavior at home isn’t a problem, but at school he acts the clown, disrupts class and doesn’t turn in his homework. Last year he was suspended twice. She tells him, “If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it at school. Be respectful to me and to the school.” But she sees the crowd he hangs with wearing the colors, clothes and jewelry of local gangs, and she worries.

Every morning when she drops him at school, she says, “Tuck your shirt in. Pull your pants up. Have a good day.”

Back when Kendal was in fifth grade, Tracy signed the two of them up for SAAF—and she believes it helped them both. The main lesson that she recalls from SAAF is the importance of keeping up with her kids, knowing where they are and with whom they are spending their time. For example, Kendal is a good athlete and would really like to be a professional football player some day. At the end of last fall’s season, he had four F’s on his report card. The coach suspended him from the team and Tracy arranged for him to study, rather than play, at the Boys and Girl’s Club every afternoon. Her message to Kendal was clear: homework first, football after you pull up your grades.

“Once he shows me that he’s responsible,” she says, “ I’ll give him a little breathing room.”

Brody and Murry’s research shows that parents who monitor their children’s activities outside the home, get involved at their schools, and have frequent family discussions raise kids who are better able to cope with life’s challenges. Those parents also feel good about themselves and their childrearing abilities–a positive consequence of success that keeps the ball rolling in the right direction.

This research is coordinated at the Center for Family Research, a center of excellence within UGA’s Institute for Behavioral Research in Athens. Brody and Murry have been extremely successful in attracting outside funding for their work. They have been awarded more than $20 million from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Children’s Trust Fund. This money currently supports five ongoing research projects, including SAAF, a diabetes education/intervention project for older African-Americans, and evaluation of a statewide child abuse prevention program for first-time mothers. In 2003, Brody and Murry received a prestigious five-year Developing Center Grant from NIH to study how best to provide preventive mental health services to rural African Americans.

Cultural sensitivity is a hallmark of the research conducted at the Center. The questionnaires, educational materials and group activities used in the prevention programs are developed in consultation with members of the African American communities where the research is being conducted. Interviewers and group leaders are always African American so that participants will feel as comfortable as possible when discussing their personal lives.

One of these community liaisons is Jacquelyn Bailey, the Parent Services Coordinator for the Baldwin County School District. “Children nowadays are a new breed,” she says. “Even the best of parents have a hard time. The pull of the world is so strong, and kids are learning or hearing stuff so much younger. Parents are at their wits’ end about what to do.” Because she is well known in the county, Bailey was asked to help recruit families for SAAF and to lead one of the parent groups. She was impressed by parents’ openness, their respect for each other’s opinions, and their willingness to learn from one another.

“They talked about things many of them had never talked to anyone about before,” Bailey recalls. “They learned that they were not in it by themselves, that some of what they were sweating was just normal kid behavior and that some of their punishments may be too harsh. The kids would say to us, ‘I’m glad you talked to my mama because she was killin’ us.’ ”

Meanwhile, two years after completing SAAF, Tracy Ellington continues to apply the lessons she learned there to her family. She thinks it’s working because Kendal still talks to her about things that bother him, like how hard it is to stay out of trouble when his friends laugh at his antics. “I tell him to walk the way he wants others to walk,” she says. “If you have a friend who laughs or runs when you get in trouble, that’s not your friend. Get rid of friends who don’t mean you any good.”

This sort of open conversation is essential for families living in dangerous circumstances, according to Brody and Murry. In Kendal’s neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Bill E. Ireland Youth Detention Center, dealers sell drugs up and down his street. Kids there face tough choices every day. “If I could just talk to them,” Tracy says, looking out her front window at the teens walking down the block, “I think I could make a difference.”

Jacquelyn Bailey feels the same way. “There’s a breakdown in families,” she says. “Knowledge about life is not getting passed on from generation to generation. But what I learned from SAAF is a program can come in and teach parents what they need to know, and families can get back on track.”

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photos by Dot Paul

Click on image to enlarge

Tracy Ellington and her son, Kendal Josey, 14, participated in UGA's Strong African-American Families program sponsored by the Center for Family Research.

Kendal, shown with Prince Hernandez, 14, sometimes disrupts class and doesn't turn in his homework.

UGA professors Gene Brody (right) and Velma Murry developed the SAAF program based on a decade of researching the many issues facing rural African-American families.

Kendal corrects grammar errors during language arts class Oak Hill Middle School in Milledgeville.

Jacquelyn Bailey serves as a community liason for the SAAF program.