A double threat. A troublemaker. A black female. Dr. Lynette Danley proudly and unapologetically claims all three and encourages her sisters of color to do the same. Growing up in a middle-class family in the Austin neighborhood, she attended Howe Elementary and Currie High school. Her neighborhood was surrounded by drugs, prostitutes and gangs. While in grade school Danley’s father started using drugs and with his drug use came abuse.
“There were times when I would come home and there would be bullet holes in the ceiling from him trying to kill my mom,” she recalls. Her father would eventually be diagnosed with depression and mental illness and never again be declared sane.
To escape her home life, she often ran away and admits she started having sex at an early age – looking for love, acceptance and a father figure. Her brother turned to gangs to find family and would lose his life in 1999 at the age of 27, murdered in front of the family’s home.
“The young man shot him fives times saying only, ‘because he disrespected me.'” Danley says.
In the third grade, a teacher gave her American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe to read, and to this day she knows all his works inside and out. The teacher, a white woman, would drive her home from school, with the promise that if she read the books that were given her, Big Macs from McDonald’s would be her reward.
“She helped me because she saw something in me. There was no savior cape like so many white people seem to wear.”
Danley graduated second in her class from elementary school. Choosing Currie, because it was a performing arts school, she danced and sang, was in plays and cheerleading. She was doing it all to escape.
“I was a horrible test-taker. I scored a 12 twice on the ACT” and was told she would be better off just going to a community college.
An academic odyssey
Accepted to Western Illinois University in Macomb on academic probation because of her test scores, she was forced to sit out her second year because of finances. She worked at different neighborhood fast food restaurants and grocery stores and pined to go back to school.
“I desperately wanted to be a part of something that was greater than me,” she says.
After securing a loan with the help of her uncle, she returned to WIU and began an academic journey that pioneered ways to educate others and inspire hard work.
Danley worked in the student union, as a resident assistant in food services, and in the dining hall. She was also a peer educator. She was named Ms. Black Western Illinois and served as president of the Black Student Association for two terms.
In 1993, she received her Bachelors of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, then attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for her graduate degree.
At Drake, she started a multicultural conference and developed a resource guide for African-American students, which included information on locations of businesses and events of particular concern to African-American students, such as restaurants, churches and beauty salons. It is still used in the Office of Admissions today. She received her M.S. in Higher Education Administration in 1996.
The next stop on her academic road was Iowa State. Entering on probation again because of test scores, she taught in the African American Studies Department and mentored black graduate students.
She graduated Phi Kappa Phi – the oldest and largest collegiate honor society dedicated to recognition and promotion of academic excellence in all disciplines. She co-founded People of Nia (Purpose), the first black graduation ceremony, which still takes place today. She earned her doctorate in 2003, with honors, in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
Following a post-doctoral appointment at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she accepted an assistant professorship in 2004 at the University of Utah, the first African American, male or female, to be hired by the university’s College of Education. There she founded Black Butterflies, mentoring secondary and middle school black girls and offering workshops on such topics as healthy relationships, black history, depression and teen pregnancy.
Dr. Danley’s goal is to look at all their areas of concerns. “I take a holistic approach to the life of a black girl – not just their mind, body and soul but culture, health and education.” She brought Black Butterflies to several schools in Chicago and has been the speaker at countless events. She was recently approached by Chicago Urban League to collaborate on initiatives for African-American girls. Pending the Metro Board’s approval, those programs will begin this fall.
She is a board member of Chicago Youth Initiating Change (CYIC), a student-led organization supported by adults. This summer she headed the first ever African-American Adolescent Female Summer Literacy Institute at the University of Illinois, where 16 girls, age 11-17, spent five weeks expressing themselves through writing. The institute focused on identity, resiliency, advocacy and solidarity to nurture the next generation of socially conscious writers. The girls were urged to use their pens to change the way black girls are portrayed in the media.
Danley hopes to take Black Butterflies nationwide. She believes everything from curriculum to providing safe environments for children is important. They need to be given opportunities and access, she says, citing her own test-taking experience. “Those tests that I took were not reflective of my community. We have to have curriculum that reflects our experiences.”
One of the biggest misconceptions is that a black girl who doesn’t live in the inner city is not as black.
“There is no one way to be a black girl,” she says. “Maybe the black girl in the suburbs isn’t facing gangs every day; maybe she has to deal with anorexia or depression. She still is a black girl. There is diversity within our diversity.”
Issues that these young girls face need to be addressed to prevent self-medicating with drugs and sex. Sometimes they don’t feel listened to.
“They are screaming for attention by the way they dress, talk and the way they treat each other.” She knows. She was once where they are. Having endured molestation, verbal and physical abuse, teen pregnancy, running away, being discouraged by teachers and having many unhealthy relationships, she is now ready to tell her story to help other young black girls.
In her Butterfly workshops, she stresses that they must not let others determine who they are. There is more to the black girl than baby-maker or video vixen.
“We have the power to present ourselves in a positive light. We must speak up and speak out for ourselves.” Danley urges black girls to be like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and trouble the waters. Like Shirley Chisholm and Ida B. Wells, they must advocate for themselves. Like Angela Davis and Afeni Shakur, they must mobilize collectively.
“Black girls today need to know where they have been to see how they have come from greatness,” she observes. “Black history does not start with slavery. They need to know that our ancestors fought and died for us to be here. We have a responsibility to them.”
She says everyone has a story and it is not necessary to be jealous of anyone; instead be inspired by whatever story you have to tell. More than anything, black girls need to learn to stop looking for love outside of themselves and turn within.
“I tell them all the time, ‘The love you seek is inside of you.'”
She hopes someday to open schools for African and African-American girls all over the country with the hub right here in Chicago.
“I have been where they are and I rose above it. I want to share how I survived and navigated, so their journey won’t be as hard as mine.”