Welcoming the Central Missouri Chapter of Jack and Jill of America.
It takes a village. Black mothers in Central Missouri were searching for a network of women just like them — raising their sons and daughters in predominantly white areas.
Through extracurricular activities, kids have the chance to expand their knowledge and experiences beyond the classroom. But what happens when you’re the only one there who looks like you?
When Tiffany McGee and her family of four moved to Columbia, unpleasant experiences showed her a negative side of central Missouri.
“My children experienced some of the more difficult, racially charged experiences during their little lives in these small towns, and that says a lot because we lived in Alabama and Arkansas,” Tiffany says. “My son would come home saying he didn’t want to be Black anymore and [wanted me to] help him wash the brown off.”
Her children were called racial slurs and treated differently by school faculty and other students in Columbia, she says. During a school lesson, her son, the only Black student in class, witnessed his classmates debate pro-slavery sentiments. The school later said they would consider taking the lesson out the next school year, but the damage was already done.
An organization that offers educational and social resources has come to the Mid-Missouri community as a safe place for family support.
Jack and Jill of America, Inc. was founded by Marion Stubbs Thomas in 1938 for mothers with Black children ages 2 through 19. What started 83 years ago with 20 mothers in Philadelphia has grown to 252 chapters that share the same mission: to nurture Black youth and provide social, cultural, and educational opportunities. Before Tiffany moved, there was not a Central Missouri Jack and Jill chapter that she could seek guidance from regarding neighborhoods to live in or schools her children, Cameron and Grant, could attend. Craving that community of like-minded mothers, she began the process of founding a local chapter in 2019, hoping others would jump on board.
“Finding a community of other families raising African American children and bringing them all together would be a really great service to helping them feel safe and creating a cultural incubator for our children to learn about the beauty and brilliance of their culture,” says Tiffany, who also founded the Jack and Jill chapter for greater Champaign-Urbana in Illinois in 2018.
The organization serves as a sub-community where mothers connect, children learn, and families create bonds. Tiffany, along with founders Deon Barnes and Anecia Davis, searched the area to find mothers interested in what the organization promises — an environment where their children can be embraced, nourished, and esteemed.
About 35 area mothers met at the Cooperstone Clubhouse in Columbia for the initial interest meeting. Tiffany still remembers the emotions of the room.
“I remember how teary-eyed they all were,” Tiffany says. “Tears of joy [and], ‘Oh my gosh I cannot believe I found you guys. I found you.’”
In the founding year, a charter group is required to meet strict metrics from the national organization for things including chapter bylaws, budget, and monthly activities for the represented grade groups that touch the “five thrusts” — culture, education, health, civic life, and social life. The initial engagement from the mothers makes Tiffany proud. Approximately 20 moms helped found the Central Missouri chapter. The national organization recognized their efforts, and October 11, 2020, the Central Missouri chapter was installed, with members voting Tiffany as president.
Not only has she seen the benefits of the organization through her children, but Tiffany also reaped the benefits of the community she is passionate about. Her mother joined the Baltimore chapter of Jack and Jill when Tiffany was in high school. Tiffany’s mother had high expectations for her child’s success and a desire for top-tier education. The experience also put Tiffany into a space she had never experienced.
“It was just powerful for me as a child to walk into a room filled with brilliant African American children across my town who were often like me — the only African American child in their classrooms,” she says.
Tiffany also found herself surrounded by a network of supportive Black professionals. After attending the IllinoisInstitute of Technology, Chicago Kent College of Law, she called on a Jack and Jill parent, who was a district court judge in Philadelphia, for help getting into a judicial externship. That useful networking helped Tiffany land a job that she says helped jump-start her career.
As a member of a historically Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Inc., Tiffany says she sees that Jack and Jill is a similar network. She wanted to give that to more families.
“I just feel like for me and my family, Jack and Jill has served as a sorority or fraternity for all of our children, for all of our mothers, and for all of our fathers,” she says. “Nowhere have I been able to find almost like a family type of brotherhood or sisterhood where we all get fed.”
When Chiquita Chanay moved to Columbia, she wanted her youngest daughter, MacKenzie, to experience Jack and Jill. She held a previous membership in the Little Rock, Arkansas, chapter with her firstborn daughter and attended the Central Missouri interest meeting with her mind partially made up.
“I knew that it represented family cohesion,” she says. “I understood it would give my child an opportunity to get to know other children like herself. What I did know from my prior experience was that it becomes an extension of your family.”
With no family or connections in the area, a city can get lonely, Chiquita says. Columbia has diversity, but it has limited inclusion, making it harder to find a sense of belonging, she added.
“Diversity is one word. Inclusion is another word. But belonging is what we needed,” she says. “I think we needed each other to build that sense of belonging that you can only find once you build the types of relationships that we have.”
Chiquita attributes the sense of community to Tiffany for creating a history that will extend beyond the program years.
“I’m so incredibly thankful and grateful for her having the foresight to think that we needed a chapter here and to take the lead on that because now we’re creating memories and we’re creating history,” Chiquita says.
Remembering the organization’s history, Tiffany says the need for the community remains true. In 1938, the nation was feeling the financial impact of the Great Depression. The Black community was targeted and segregated under Jim Crow laws that denied equal opportunities.
“So there was a need for a sense of community in 1938 that would welcome the development of African American children then just as much as there is that need now,” McGee says. “It is important to notice and recognize the history and the necessity for organizations like this to still exist today, but also to understand the need and the origin of the organization.”
One of the organization’s mottos is, “let’s work, let’s play, let’s live together,” and that rings true in the deep bond the members attempt to describe.
Charter member Natalee Thornton was born and raised in Columbia. She met Tiffany through Delta Sigma Theta and knew that Jack and Jill would strongly benefit the area.
“It’s one of those organizations you’ve heard about, but living here in Columbia . . . having organizations like this is very limited to Black and brown people, so I said, ‘Count me in. I want to be part of this,’” Natalee says.
Her daughter, Sasha, an aspiring orthodontist, spoke with several medical professionals during a health care worker program through Jack and Jill. As a member of the teen program, Sasha helps choose the activities that she and her fellow members participate in.
“It reminds her that she can pursue her goals and dreams and accomplish anything,” Natalee says.
Having diverse activities for the entire family sets the organization apart from basic extracurriculars or a playdate, although families do fellowship outside of programming.
Youth participate in monthly activities surrounding leadership development, cultural heritage, and community service. The experiences, such as a trip to the Challenger Learning Center in St. Louis, help keep the kids excited. And other experiences keep the parents on their toes, like when chapter vice president and middle school teacher Jasmine Bourdeau led the students in a hands-on chemical reaction experiment. Previous activities include grassroots voter registration, mock trials, and a discussion on police brutality and how to stay safe in the presence of law enforcement with the Jefferson City Police Department.
The organization has a fathers auxiliary, where the men come together to discuss topics of interest ranging from raising their children in racially charged environments to finances. Outside of running the organization, the mothers meet quarterly for social activities like dance classes and wine tasting. Collectively, the families enjoy community gatherings like seeing local plays and going on bike rides.
“It helps that it’s that one group where I feel like I don’t have to spread myself because I’m trying to find something else for all the other members of my family to do, so I can step away,” Tiffany says. “It’s a family organization. It’s the mother’s membership, but it really is a family organization to me.”
The parents who join often want their students to be exposed to more than their immediate environment. Youth are given the opportunity to reach for the stars. With only 20 members, the financial contributions of members are higher than some larger cities, Tiffany says. The Central Missouri fees currently range from $500 to $800 a year, not including new member fees.
Memberships generally open in the spring and kick off with National Black Family Day, a big outdoor event for the entire family.
Members agree the investment is worth it for the difference it makes in their families and their children’s future.
If a central Missouri mother is on the fence about joining Jack and Jill, Tiffany and Chaquita encourage her to try it out. The mothers are the organization members and every woman brings their perspective to the table, and at the end of the day, they feel like sisters. The chapter has room to grow, and interested moms may be invited to feel out activities and see if the program is a good fit.
“It would be one of the most rewarding experiences for her child,” Chaquita says. “It’s hard to articulate in words the experience and the fulfillment that her child will have through being a member in Jack and Jill.”