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Book Review: Smart and Sassy: The Strengths of Inner-City Black Girls. By Joyce West Stevens.

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Book Review: Smart and Sassy: The Strengths of Inner-City Black Girls. By Joyce West Stevens.
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  BOOK REVIEW Smart and Sassy: The Strengths of Inner-City Black Girls. ByJoyce West Stevens.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 240 pages, US $23.95 (paper). For those of you who have tuned into day-time American televisionin recent years, you have probably caught one of the many talk showswhere “bad girls” are being “interviewed” about their “slutty” clothes,their “promiscuous” behavior and their “deviant” ways (dropping outof school, substance misuse, teen pregnancy, early parenthood and/orcriminal activity). Some of these “guests” are African American andmost come from economically deprived communities and families.Thesetroubledgirlsareusuallyaccompaniedonstagebyaconcerned—yet hostile—mother, sister, aunt, cousin or best friend, who is there tochronicle the girls’ “self centered, self-destructive ways.” Egged on bya host seeking to prop up the ratings, a cruel audience bombards theseyouth with insults who then attempt to defiantly defend themselvesby hurling back the abuse. When all else fails, they try to maintaintheir ground/dignity by raising a hand in a dismissive wave, saying,“whatever, whatever.” During one show that I watched, when someyoung women refused to cave to the criticism, a flustered and exasper-ated host had her own brand of “whatever”: she called them “sassy.”If Joyce West Stevens has not yet been an invited expert to one of these “troubled girls” shows, she should be. In  Smart and Sassy: TheStrengths of Inner-City Black Girls,  Stevens does not look at girlsthrough a deficit lens, but focuses on their strengths while taking intoaccount the risks that they encounter. In doing so, she depicts a morebalanced view of low-income urban adolescent black 1 girls, who despitepoverty, blocked opportunities and racial stigma, are resilient and ableto construct meaningful lives. According to Stevens, sassy-sassiness is: Willful forthrightness in demeanor that expresses a spirited behavioralexpressive style of boldness, independence, and courage, which blackadolescent girls learn early to deal with everyday hassles. Sassinesscan become a form of healthy social resistance that embodies the moralintegrity needed to deal with daily confrontations of social and racialinequities and indignities. During adolescence sassy behavior oftenemerges as an expressive function of identity exploration. (p. 189) Child & Youth Care Forum, 32(5), October 2003 ©  2003 Human Sciences Press, Inc.  305  Child & Youth Care Forum306 Stevens’ acknowledgments  discuss  the life of Sarah Vaughan, the jazzsinger who possessed an independence of spirit and whose nicknamewas Sassy. According to Stevens, this black woman’s sassiness wasattributed to her courage, her confidence in her enormous talent andher astute business sense in managing her career while experiencing the hardships of a segregated society and the sufferings of subjugation.Sassy became a term associated with a black woman who commandedabove all intelligence and competency.Building on earlier resilience theories, Stevens develops a culturallysensitive explanatory  person-process-context interactive  model, and inthis text, uses it to describe and analyze the successful management of adolescence in at risk environments. This text shows how girls developattributesofassertionrecognitionandself-efficacytomediateexposureto risk. Stevens defines this model as: an explanatory model of transactional psychosocial development func-tioningwithinsocialecologies.Theprocesscomponentofthemodelinfersintersubjective elements of empathy, assertion, and recognition throughwhich individual, group, family, and structural actions and operationsarecarriedout.Themodelalsotakesintoaccountthespontaneityofdailylife,suggestingthatthejazzmusicalidiomofimprovisationalresponsesisa likely metaphor for the model. (p. 188) Stevens’ work is based on 30 years of social work practice and herresearch with inner-city black girls.  Smart and Sassy  consists of eightchapters, divided into three parts. The first three chapters provide thetheoretical overview for the text: risk and resiliency in social contexts;adolescent development theories; and Stevens’ person-process-contextecological transactional model. Using this model, chapters 4 through7 examine the developmental domains: racial, ethnic and gender rolecommitment; care, protective sensibility and role model formulation;decision making, dating and mate selection expectations; and opportu-nity mobility and adulthood preparation. The final section, chapter8, discusses various clinical approaches, (including assessment andintervention) and specific practice principles. In this chapter, thestrengths derived from the developmental domains are reviewed, andafamily-collaborativeclinicalpreventionprogramisintroducedtoworkwith adolescent girls and their families. Throughout the text, Stevenpresentscasestudiesconstructedfromactualpracticewithadolescentsand their families. She then provides study questions for each one.These cases aim to have students reflect on intervention practices andthe contextual meaning of adolescent girls’ lives. The book concludeswith an epilogue that briefly summarizes lessons learned from clinicalpractice and the findings of research about the resiliency of black girls.Stevensassertsthatpractitionersaremoreeffectivewhenthosethey  Book Review 307 serve are seen from a model of health and strength. Stevens hopes thatthis text will contribute to the knowledge building of future socialworkers who will be dedicated to helping poor and under-served minor-ityyouthleadproductiveandsuccessfullives.Inthisshehassucceeded.Stevens’ work is important because it provides a culturally sensitiveand innovative framework for understanding the strengths of innercity black adolescent women and how their families, neighbours andcommunities contribute to building these strengths.The one drawback of this book is that though its intended audienceisstudentsandpractitioners,Stevens’in-depth,theoreticallygroundedwork may prove difficult for students who are not advanced or special-ized in this field. This text requires a good background and for the not-fully-initiated scholar/practitioner, it requires discipline to read.Despite the academic rigor that makes this book a challenging read,it is a must read for talk show hosts like Sally Jessy Raphael, MauryPovich, and Jenny Jones. If only they could understand that: Plainly, healthy resistance is dependent on positive understanding, andreassuring responses from significant others. African American girls’genuine predicament is the parallel need for resistance and connectionand the social need to develop bicultural competence. They must capital-ize on the strengths of sassiness while preserving kinship ties and devel-oping and sustaining connections to social ecologies (e.g., schools,churches). The inherent tension here is that outspokenness and boldnessmay not be seen as strengths. Consequently, negative contextual re-sponsestosuchbehaviormaycauseblackgirls’disconnectionfromother-wise supportive systems. (p. 86) Monica Blais monic @ ii.ca Note 1. The reviewer has used the term “black” to reflect the author’s use and the fact thatwhile the author has studied and worked with African-American girls, she has alsoworked with a minority of girls whose heritage is not African, but Jamaican, Haitian,and other.
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