People and Community Research

Graduate student focuses on racial messages between Black youth, families

Monique McKenny, a fourth-year counseling psychology doctoral candidate, explores cultural strengths of Black families and the communications between youth and caregivers about race and racial experiences.

Doctoral candidate Monique McKenny is focusing her work on race and racial experiences. Photo: Jenny Hudak/University of Miami

Growing up, Monique McKenny’s grandma conveyed and promoted positive culturally affirming messages throughout the graduate student’s young life. This instilled in her the significance of racial pride messaging and fueled her interest in studying cultural strengths in Black families.

“I got a lot of verbal, explicit messages from my family, where they would tell me about their own experiences,” said McKenny, a native of Philadelphia. “And also, nonverbal messages like my grandmother buying my sister and I Black Barbie dolls, Black Santa Claus figurines, and Black wall art. One year, she bought us a membership to the NAACP.” 

Today, McKenny is a fourth-year counseling psychology doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Human Development. Her main area of research focuses on the process of racial socialization, or the ways by which parents communicate issues of race and culture to their children. 

With a passion for empowering Black families, McKenny has been led on a unique path to help support the holistic health of youth as they cope with race-related stressors including discrimination, biases, and beyond. 

Professor Guerda Nicolas has been working closely with McKenny for the past four years. Prior to choosing to study at the University, McKenny searched far and wide for an institution where she could continue the research she was introduced to as an undergraduate student at George Washington University. The counseling psychology program, under the leadership of Nicolas, has given her the opportunity to focus on a career path she initially “didn’t realize” was possible as an undergraduate. 

“I was really enthusiastic about working with a professor who led culturally-relevant interventions in Black communities,” said McKenny, referring to Nicolas and her work publishing books and articles and delivering presentations around the globe about women’s issues, depression, cultural interventions, social support networks of racial minorities, and spirituality. 

During her graduate studies, McKenny traveled weekly to The Barnyard community center in Coconut Grove, a predominately Black community that is about three miles north of the Coral Gables Campus, to coordinate community-based intervention under Nicolas. 

“I’ve been able to focus on how to help identify what the protective factors are that support happy, healthy children of color,” McKenny said. “She’s been helpful in supporting my research interests and we’ve written book chapters together. We have weekly meetings where we think things through to develop different aspects of intervention for the community. Moving to a new place, it's hard to sometimes build community. But I feel like folks have received me really well here.” 

Nicolas said it’s been a joy to have McKenny in the program. 

“Since starting the program, Monique has been committed to the well-being of Black and brown communities,” said Nicolas. “These are shown in her involvement in the Kulula project promoting ethnic identity of youths and the Strong Roots project focusing on working with parents around raising children in context of racism and oppression.”

During the last year, with the recent attention to racial issues, McKenny’s interest in racial socialization has been really salient for parents, as they consider how to communicate racial incidents and racial issues generally to their children.

“Parents’ conversations and messages can prepare young people to enter a world where the race isn’t readily affirmed and can support healthy outcomes for them,” said McKenny, who has received clinical training with youth and families in the Mailman Center for Child Development at the Miller School of Medicine and Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. 

“It’s been really nice to be able to build a training experience for myself,” McKenny pointed out. “I’ve also had some really unique experiences—like my time in the teaching academy with professor Tatiana Perino at the graduate school, which was like a semester long seminar on aspects of teaching and professional development.” 

McKenny was recently selected to be the graduate assistant for the Office of the President’s Racial Justice Grant Program. In this role, she works collaboratively with the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and Butler Center for Leadership and Service.

In the future, she hopes to continue working with youth and families and contributing to the research being done by others at institutions across the nation. 

Her advice to parents who are considering how to talk with their children about race is to consider where your child is developmentally and also consider your own socialization experiences and feelings. 

“For younger children, many conversations on race start with instilling racial pride,” she said, just as her grandma did with her when she was a child. “Get them books that reflect their heritage, allow them to watch TV shows like Doc McStuffins with Black characters and diverse casts. As they become older, children become more aware of racial injustices around them, or things that aren’t fair. As they age and encounter more racial issues, parents may begin to discuss bias and discrimination with youth more. I encourage parents to be as proactive as they can in discussing race.” 

McKenny said some researchers have referred to racial protective factors as a form of “ordinary magic” because it buffers and protects children. 

“I love looking at looking at it like that, because I was always fascinated by how even in the face of these large inequitable systems, generation after generation, Black families and their cultural practices have been so protective for youth and support their development as happy, healthy, children.”