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Sisterhood of Success

As two alumnae of the Sister SAGE program graduated from Cheyney University in 2016, several more were on hand to support them. Tyese Brown is in front with current SAGE member Siana Galarza. In back, from left: Mekela Clarke, Jasmine Bethancourt, Lauren Sealy, Anais Valdez, Sha-Tara Johnson, Kinuthia McDavid, Krystina Sealy, and Kadija Corke.

Tyese Brown was at an inspirational service in the 1990s at Indiana’s Victory Christian Assembly when a guest minister told IUP students what he foresaw for them. Brown’s life purpose, he declared, was to work with young women and girls. “I thought, ‘Okay, that’s great,’ but I didn’t really believe it,” said Brown, who earned her IUP psychology degree in 1997.

But later, as a graduate student and as a staff member at a community center in New York, she did find that young women and girls were drawn to her as a mentor. Last December marked 15 years since she started a Brooklyn girls’ advocacy and empowerment program called Sister SAGE. In that time, the program has provided hundreds of girls with a support system and a positive influence.

Even while growing up in West Chester, Brown had always wanted to live in New York City. That chance came when she entered a master’s program in educational psychology at New York University. After earning her degree, she thought about going straight into a doctoral program but decided she first needed practical experience. She found it at Brooklyn’s Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, now RiseBoro Community Partnership. She has been with the organization 20 years, going from director of an after-school program to clinical director of the youth department.

Tyese Brown, with Arieana Matthews

During a senior cookout on Long Island, members of Sister SAGE worked with seniors in “cooling centers,” where they made crafts, such as no-sew fleece blankets. The blankets were donated to Project Linus for hospitalized children. SAGE founder Tyese Brown is with Arieana Matthews.

Along the way, she taught step—a traditional dance for historically African American fraternities and sororities—through an after-hours, middle-school program. In her teaching, other things came up, particularly problems the girls had at home.

“I was intrigued about having safe spaces that have nothing to do with dance, because what about the girls who can’t dance?” Brown said. “They need a place, too.”

She began raising money and in 2002 started Sister SAGE (Strengthening Advocacy for Girls’ Empowerment). Open to all girls in grades 6 through 12, the program recruits mainly Black and Latina students. Meeting twice a week and on an occasional weekend, members focus on leadership, community service, culture, sisterhood, and activism. On one day, they may talk about hunger disparity or how women are depicted in the media—discussions that promote critical thinking—and on another, they may cook and serve meals to homeless men at the Bowery Mission in Manhattan.

Brown credits IUP as her primary influence in forming SAGE—not because of the prophecy at church but because of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. A former Zeta president, she has instilled in SAGE members the sorority’s values, such as scholarship, service, and sisterly love. She even borrowed an incentive—hoodies with the girls’ names embroidered on back. “It makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger,” she said.

She describes Zeta’s influence, on both her values and her friendships, as pivotal. “My experience in my sorority really shifted my view of what it’s like to have an extended support system that’s not blood,” she said. “A lot of young people could benefit from that model.”

As a lesson from working at Red Lobster in Springfield during every break from IUP, Brown has reinforced in SAGE members the need to earn their rewards. Members are offered occasional trips to amusement parks or Broadway shows, but first they must meet community-service requirements. A small number of girls go a step further, selling candy to raise money for vacations that even many adults have never taken—to places like Mexico, Aruba, and Antigua. “If we cultivate desire—a taste and a standard—in young people, they’re going to make decisions in life so that they have those same things as adults,” Brown said. “They might be more inclined to get good grades, make sacrifices, or be responsible, because this is something they expect.”

Brown estimates that in 15 years, SAGE has served upward of 550 girls. Funding, which has come from such sources as New York Women’s Foundation, Citibank, Chase, and various state agencies and private donors, covers the cost of 40 girls. Brown has stretched that funding thinner to accommodate more. SAGE also serves about 100 younger girls through the Little SAGE program.

From an educational standpoint, the group’s success is astounding. All the women—100 percent—who spent two or more years in SAGE have completed high school or obtained a GED, and 88 percent have enrolled in an institution of higher learning or have already earned a degree. Of those women, 65 percent have earned a master’s degree or are currently enrolled in a graduate program.

“It goes back to cultivating desire,” Brown said. “For girls of color who may be living in impoverished conditions, education is one of the primary mechanisms for rising out of poverty.”

Brown earned a second master’s degree, in social work, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, where she is now pursuing a doctorate in social welfare and serving on the adjunct faculty.

Recently, she has moved into an advisory role with SAGE, passing along day-to-day responsibilities to her staff but continuing to seek funding sources. In response to requests, she is also developing an implementation manual, so that SAGE can be replicated elsewhere.

One day, she hopes to work at the city or state level—influencing, informing, and possibly drafting policy that will fund endeavors for youth, particularly minority girls in public schools.

“I want to look through the lens of having dealt with 550 girls in Brooklyn,” she said, “to possibly developing programs that could be delivered to thousands.”

Click on any photo below to launch a slideshow of full-size images.

Sister SAGE has participated in New York City’s AIDS Walk since 2004. “SAGE supports this cause because the epidemic disproportionately impacts Black women and girls,” said SAGE founder Tyese Brown, back right.
Sister SAGE marked the program’s 15th year with a trip to Kenya in January. Founder Tyese Brown and SAGE alumnae visited the Briton Community School and Orphanage to donate clothes and money and to teach a workshop about career planning. Representing SAGE, in back, from left, were Jasmine Bethancourt, Tyese Brown, Mekela Clarke, and Rosnely Vasquez.
Sister SAGE founder Tyese Brown worked with children at Briton Community School in Kenya. (Nely Vasquez)
Boys from the Briton Community School in Kenya, where Sister SAGE alumnae visited in January (Nely Vasquez)
Students outside the classroom at Briton Community School in Kenya, where Sister SAGE alumnae visited in January (Nely Vasquez)
Tyese Brown and SAGE alumnae played hand games with students from the Briton Community School. (Nely Vasquez)
A teacher served meals at the Briton Community School. Many of the students live in poverty and get their main nourishment from school meals, Brown said. Yet, before eating, they first offered food to SAGE visitors. (Nely Vasquez)
Members of Sister SAGE take part in a summer-long beautification project in which they paint benches, clean debris, lay mulch, and install plants.
During a senior cookout on Long Island, members of Sister SAGE worked with seniors in “cooling centers,” where they made crafts, such as no-sew fleece blankets. The blankets were donated to Project Linus for hospitalized children.
SAGE members Kinuthia McDavid, left, and Ashley Ganesh worked on plantings with Borinquen Plaza Senior Center’s lead gardener.
Sister SAGE founder Tyese Brown painted a bench as part of the group’s summer-long beautification project.
Janelle Rivera, left, and Deidre Taylor helped with plantings as part of the beautification project.