By Jon Caroulis | Photo by Tommy Leonardi
"I LAUGHED, it was the most precious thing they said," recalls Loretta Sweet Jemmott, GNu'82, Gr'87, of being described as an "around-the-way girl" by the woman living in the Philadelphia
housing project where Dr. Sweet Jemmott was conducting a workshop on mothers and sons talking about teen pregnancy and HIV prevention. "An around-the-way girl is a girl from the 'hood, from the community -- who grew up poor, just like they did," she explains. "One of the mothers said to me, 'You're real cool. You're just like us. You're an around-the-way girl with a brain. You used it to get out of here, and you did good, and you've come back to help us.'"
This pattern of "getting out" and "coming back" has marked Sweet Jemmott's life at least since 1965, when she was an 11-year-old girl who didn't want to be bussed from her West Philadelphia neighborhood to a previously all-white elementary school. She hated the angry looks. The school wouldn't let her run for class president. She and her black classmates weren't allowed to use the cafeteria and had to be shipped back to their neighborhood to eat lunch. But her mother -- who had grown up in the segregated South before moving to Philadelphia -- insisted. "This is important," she told her daughter.
So Loretta returned to Lamberton Elementary in Overbrook Park, one of Philadelphia's first public schools to be integrated. After she graduated two years later, she went on to Beaver Junior School in the same neighborhood -- her parents made a choice for her to continue attending an integrated school. But this time, the atmosphere was different. Sweet ran for class president in seventh grade. She won. She ran in eighth grade. And won. She ran in ninth. And won.
After middle school, Sweet Jemmott returned to her West Philadelphia neighborhood to finish high school at Overbrook High, then went on to Hampton Institute (now University), a historically black college in Virginia, where she earned her undergraduate degree in nursing in 1978. Later, after she had applied to Penn's master's degree program in nursing, she cried for joy on receiving her acceptance letter. "The only way kids in my neighborhood went to Penn was for the relays," she says.
Today, Sweet Jemmott is an associate professor at the School of Nursing and director of the Center for Urban Health Research, working at the place she didn't think she could get into and working to help the people she did not leave behind. The program in Philadelphia's housing projects -- the largest of its kind ever attempted -- comes out of her conviction that if mothers were trained and encouraged to talk to their sons about sex, both would learn about birth control and safe sex -- and start communicating more generally.
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/13/97