Dr. Stephanie Sears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco, received a Ph.D. from Yale University in 2004 for her research and study of sociology and African-American studies. Seeking to better the lives of youth through her work, Sears' research explores empowerment and resistance in the lives of young women of color in an effort to explain the role that gender plays. Questions about race, class, and gender, and an absolute love for books and learning drive her search for answers to subjects that she finds compelling. Her exploration of these questions and her wish to better understand her own experience with adversity and loss have earned her numerous teaching fellowships, research grants, and awards at both USF and Yale.
Sears was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on January 20, 1964, and was raised in Bloomington, Indiana, by her grandmother, Lavenia Norris, after the death of her mother, Patricia Redding Sears. Her father, Richard Sears, worked as a barber and was a former Green Beret. Sears always enjoyed school. At the predominately black St. Rita's Elementary School back in Indianapolis, students engaged in friendly academic competition. "We were all excited about getting good grades," Sears said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). She also had a special affection for her teachers. "I loved them because my mom was a teacher," said Sears. "I remember my mother's classroom. She wrote poems, and I'd watch her grade papers; it was a source of pride for me."
Norris would tell Sears stories of her mother's many accomplishments, her intelligence, her oratory awards, and her sense of humor. "My grandmother encouraged me to follow the same path," Sears said. "She spoke about her own life growing up during the depression and the hardships and racism she experienced. She had a sense of how racism worked at-large, and she also raised me to be aware of that, not to let that limit what I could do or who I thought I was." And she was there for Sears through the difficult days after Patricia's death. "It was my grandmother's efforts that allowed me to move through that moment," Sears said.
Sears graduated from Bloomington High School in 1982 and entered Stanford University. During this time she had begun to wonder why she had succeeded despite her mother's death, and why some of her friends appeared to be falling apart in the wake of less tragic events. Sears decided then to major in psychology and focus on "coping strategies and resiliency among youth." Sears said, "Reading was an escape for me that allowed me to flourish academically, which then created time for me to transition. With that strong academic base I was able to maintain myself in a certain way, which then set me up well for high school and college." But her questions persisted. She wanted to understand why men and women make certain choices in their lives and was intrigued by the ability of humans to survive. "And I was curious about my mother," Sears said. "I found these questions fascinating. To better understand, Sears took African-American studies courses and several that focused on black women's experiences in the United States. She also joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a predominantly black nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting communities throughout the world.
Unlike the move from a predominately black Catholic school to a white public school that Sears experienced back in Bloomington, the adjustment to Stanford was not necessarily about race but about class, Sears explained to CBB. She learned what social wealth meant as she began to comprehend the level of society many on campus were connected to. "Prior to that I never really thought about it. Back then I thought our family was probably middle-class," she said. "At Stanford I realized that we were lucky if we were working-class. I had never been exposed to young people with that amount of money before. I saw them driving Porsches. It was mind-boggling. At first I felt out of my league; it took some time to figure out how I needed to maneuver in this environment."
She also realized that despite the enormous wealth around her there were others struggling like herself. After a couple of years navigating academic life Sears knew she had nailed it, just as her grandmother had urged. She had refused to let anything make her feel that she did not belong. "So it was also through academics that I figured out that I did fit," she told CBB. Stanford awarded her a bachelor's in psychology in 1987. Sears continued her studies at San Francisco State University, earning a master's degree in 1994. But she didn't stop there. She soon entered Yale University.
About entering graduate school at Yale, Sears said she was ready because of her work with young people around issues of AIDS and racism and her thesis work—the Nia Project, a rites-of-passage program for African-American girls. This project had grown out of her work with support groups for girls of color at Galileo High School in San Francisco, and became the basis for the development and implementation of an ongoing program.
At a Glance …
Born Stephanie Dawn Sears on January 20, 1964, in Indianapolis, IN; married Anthony R. Baker, 1996; children: Zoë, Asha. Education: Yale University, Joint PhD, African and African-American studies and sociology, 2004; Yale University, MPhil, African and African-American studies and sociology, 2001; San Francisco State University, MA, ethnic studies, 1994; Stanford University, BA, psychology, 1987.
Career: San Francisco Peer Resources, San Francisco, CA, high school coordinator, 1989-94; Girls After School Academy, San Francisco, CA, board president, 1993-94; Girls After School Academy, San Francisco, CA, board president, 1998-2000; California Association for the Education of Young Children's (CAEYC) Diversity and Equity Project, San Francisco, CA, lead researcher, 2002-03; California Tomorrow's Diversity in Health Care Project, San Francisco, CA, 2002-03; University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, sociology professor, 2002-.
Memberships: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; Pacific Sociological Association; Society for the Study of Social Problems.
Awards: Yale University fellowship, 1994-98; Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Achievement in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University, 1995; Yale University African and African-American Studies Department Research Grant, 1999; Yale University Dissertation Fellowship, 1999-2000; Irvine Minority Scholar Dissertation Fellowship, 2002-03.
Addresses: Office—Sociology Department, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117.
The success of this early project had piqued Sears' interest. "I just wanted to learn more," Sears said. "I wanted to get a better grasp of poverty and public education and the relationship between the two. I felt like the knowledge I had couldn't explain what I was seeing anymore. I went back to school to get that larger framework to help me explain what I was experiencing when we were trying to set up the Girls After School Academy (GASA) in a public housing development. I realized that I needed a better understanding of larger structural issues, how class works on a deeper level." Sears would later become the first chairperson on the board of directors for GASA.
In 2004 Sears earned a joint Ph.D. in African and African-American studies and sociology from Yale. Sears describes her Ph D. dissertation, "Imagining Black Womanhood," as "a case study of the identity work within an Afrocentric womanist after-school program for low-income black girls." In her dissertation Sears examines "what happens when women with vision and good intentions go into low income neighborhoods to work with girls."
Along the way to her Ph.D. Sears earned a Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Achievement in ethnic studies from San Francisco State in 1995. In 1997 she was nominated for the Yale University's Prize Teaching Fellowship. Sears worked as lead researcher for the California Association for the Education of Young Children's (CAEYC) Diversity and Equity Project, as a consultant for California Tomorrow's Diversity in Health Care Project, and was a director of Programs for the Girls After School Academy.
To get beyond adversity and the rigors of academia Sears said, "One has to deal with their fears and understand that fear is natural, it is not only paralyzing but also very motivating. My friends and family helped me. I just needed to be able to voice my fears and say how challenging it was for me. Once I did that they pushed me to remember the reasons for my goals and to ask for what I needed."
"Africentric Womanism Meets The Urban Girl," Yale's Department of Sociology Works in Progress Conference, 1999.
"The Included Excludeds: African American Women & the Million Man March," Yale's Department of Sociology Works in Progress Conference, 1995.
"Constructing Safe Space: The Organizational Power Matrix and the Facilitation of Empowerment within the Girls Empowerment Project," Pacific Sociological Association, 76th Annual Meeting, 2005.
"Sociology of Gender," University of San Francisco, http://artsci.usfca.edu/servlet/ShowEmployee?empID=239 (April 1, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. Stephanie Sears on April 9, 2005.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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