TAMPA — She spoke about incest and promiscuity, about teens raising themselves for lack of a suitable parent. She spoke of a cousin who lived down to the T-shirt slogan, "I know what boys like."
One thing Talitha Anyabwele did not speak about during a high school appearance Wednesday was controversy about her contracts with the Hillsborough County School District.
An investigation, requested by School Board member Susan Valdes, concluded that Anyabwele lived up to those agreements to help girls with self-esteem.
Appearing at Middleton High School, Anyabwele used music, characters and well-honed oratory skills to deliver an hour-long message of empowerment and self-respect.
"Stop listening to the dictation that says black girls have to be mamas before wives," she said, three times, for emphasis.
"I want you to hear from me that you are beautiful so that the next time Tyrone tells you, you won't think you have to give him something in return."
While Anyabwele's program is in the clear, some board members are looking for more consistency in how such contracts are executed and monitored. They are scheduled to discuss the issue this morning.
Anyabwele's Black Girl Speaks, recently approved for $35,000, is funded with federal Title 1 dollars intended to support academic goals in lower-income schools. The idea behind using the money to address social issues is that students will not apply themselves at school unless their emotional needs are met.
"They get so much out of it," said Cathy Waters, student intervention specialist at Middleton, where the program is in high demand. Sometimes, she said, the sessions prompt students to bring important issues to the attention of school officials.
They also work on writing and speaking skills, with Anyabwele acting as a tutor and advocate.
To Anyabwele, a 1998 Leto High School graduate, the venture follows stints as an educator and performance artist. She got involved with Middleton as a volunteer and signed her first of three contracts in 2009.
Girls are referred to Black Girl Speaks if their teachers feel they are not working up to their potential, or if they are getting good grades but appear distracted or distressed, Waters said. Eighty girls from Blake and Middleton high schools are now enrolled.
The audience at her appearance earlier this week, drawn from four schools, was all female and predominantly but not exclusively black.
Anyabwele had the girls shout "speak" when she hit upon a familiar subject and "ouch" if it elicited a painful memory.
They became unruly once. Anyabwele stood stoically. "I'll wait," she said, "but not for long."
Judging by the shouts of "speak" and "ouch," some girls could relate to Anyabwele's descriptions of unhealthy relationships that begin as young as age 12.
Kenyata Francis, 18, enjoyed a depiction of a 5-year-old girl praying for the silky blond hair of a Barbie doll. The girl hopes her baby's father will have better hair, and that when she has a child, "she won't look nothing like me."
Kathiana Thannis, 17, was moved by "Touch," a story Anyabwele told in character about a girl describing her first sexual encounter. "It was sad," she said. Anyabwele's delivery was giggly until the end, when her character soberly stated, "I was only 7 then."
Valdes, the School Board member, was also in the audience. While still concerned about contracts in general, she enjoyed the presentation.
"I thought it was really good," she said. "If it helps girls overcome some of these hurdles that they face, that's phenomenal."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.