I aim to look at the strengths [marginalized communities] have, and use them to promote better outcomes.
From an early age, Keisha Bentley-Edwards recognized some of the injustices and inequities that face certain communities, particularly people of color and/or low-income communities. Although Keisha grew up in Santa Ana, CA in a working class neighborhood with gang violence, she was exposed to more resources than her peers, including a gifted and talented program. She contemplated why she was chosen over other students when she didn’t feel significantly smarter or harder working than them. Through these foundations, and a passion for helping people with their problems, Keisha began her collegiate career studying psychology at Howard University. She later, during her Masters at Columbia University, joined a research team focusing on children’s resilience and mental health in schools, as she drew a connection between that and her experiences growing up.
Validating and Improving Research for Representation
Through her work, Keisha noticed there was a significant gap in research that acknowledged cultural strengths, as opposed to a deficit approach in researching African Americans. In other words, she believed that identifying and bolstering healthy support systems would lead to more positive health, social, and educational outcomes than solely focusing on risk factors. Keisha also noticed that most research was not accessible to the broader population, particularly those who would benefit significantly from it (from practitioners to community members, etc.). She saw that some students were seen as “lost causes” by 10th grade – written off by the age of 15 by teachers, community leaders, and adults. She was saddened and enraged by youth being cast aside at such a young age, and thought about how she could change that situation.
As Keisha deepened her studies, she realized the lack of attention focused on Black youth, especially in a culturally relevant way. She decided to focus her research on documenting, validating, and examining the experiences of Black youth involved in bullying, a group that is typically missing from the bullying discourse. Through her explorations, Keisha learned that cultural influence and language were very important in accurately capturing the intricacies of bullying within Black communities, as well as teachers’ ability to identify when bullying has occurred for Black children. She notes that when we think about Black aggression and violence, people often conflate gang violence and bullying, but how each is executed is distinct, which means that interventions must be different to have an enduring and positive impact on physical and mental health outcomes.
The Importance of Mentors and Networks
Keisha’s professional trajectory has been heavily supported by mentors and networks of peers. She recalls a pivotal point in her career, when a college professor and mentor told her that she wasn’t doing her best, and encouraged her to stretch herself further. “I remember having a faculty member pull me aside. As a first-generation college student I didn’t understand how undergrad led to graduate school, and she said, ‘hey! I don’t feel like you’re giving your best work! And you need to get an A in all of your psychology courses if you want to go to grad school.’” This, and many other pushes from faculty members, set Keisha on the right path.
Keisha notes that she had some outstanding African American scholar mentors during her PhD tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, including Dr. Howard Stevenson, Dr. Margaret Beale Spencer, and Dr. Diana Slaughter Kotzin. These and others made her feel like she was ready to do what others said was impossible. “It really made all the difference in the world…having these three senior scholars advocating for me,” says Keisha. “I think the best thing that they did for me…was they just made me feel like I was ready to do what other people said was impossible.”
New Connections has been a source of support and networking for Keisha, as she cites the importance of her New Connections mentor’s (Dr. Cathleen Willging) contributions to her work. Not only that, she believes her RWJF grant encouraged her recent promotion (from Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin College of Education, to Assistant Professor of Medicine and Associate Director of Research for the S.D. Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University). She has enjoyed Symposia and Research and Coaching Clinics, and is thrilled to be part of the New Connections family, noting the special connection. “When you go to the New Connections events, you’re surrounded by all these scholars who are really passionate about helping people and doing meaningful work. It not only makes me feel good and motivated, but there’s actual work getting done.”
Title: Assistant Professor of Medicine
New Connections Year: 2014
New Connections Status: Past Awardee
Bentley-Edwards, K. L., Agonafer, E., Edmondson, R., & Flannigan, A. (2016). If I Can Do For My People, I Can Do For Myself: Examining Racial Factors for Their Influence on Goal Efficacy For Black College Students. Journal of College Student Development, 57(2), 151-167. doi: 10.1353/csd.2016.0018
Bentley-Edwards, K. L., & Chapman-Hilliard, C. (2015). Doing race in different places: Black racial cohesion on Black and White college campuses. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 8(1). doi: 10.1037/a0038293
Sanchez, D., Bentley-Edwards, K. L., Matthews, J. S., & Granillo, T. (2016). Exploring Divergent Patterns in Racial Identity Profiles Between Caribbean Black American and African American Adolescents: The Links to Perceived Discrimination and Psychological Concerns. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44(4), 285-304. doi: 10.1002/jmcd.12054