Mia Daugherty, 36, is directing vendors where to set up free books and snacks, explaining how she ended up co-leading a volunteer organization, and rattling off the elementary school test scores and infant mortality rates of various impoverished St. Louis neighborhoods -- from memory.
One thing she knows for sure: Her 4-year-old daughter, Zara, running around the YMCA in a black tutu with sparkly bows in her hair, was not going to be one of the statistics.
Daugherty, who lives in one of the highest-poverty neighborhoods in St. Louis, joined forces last year with a handful of other moms from similar city neighborhoods to give other parents the same vision she has for her baby girl.
They call themselves Village of Moms.
Last weekend, they were attempting their biggest event yet. The O’Fallon Park YMCA Recreation Complex was bustling with activity. Nonprofit organizations filled the gym with tables to connect families with resources. A storyteller was set to perform. Free books and boxes of food would be given away. Their mission is simple: Tackle the city’s literacy challenges and set up more children to succeed in school.
Daugherty, who was raised by her father, has a single-minded belief in the power of education. She graduated from Jennings High School, then Lindenwood University. She’s raising Zara by herself and knows the challenges that single parenthood brings.
When she found out she was pregnant, she started reading to her unborn baby. She played Mozart for her. The day she brought her home from the hospital, alone in her home, she sang the ABCs to her. She did that every day until Zara could sing it back to her. She decided she would only expose her to characters in books and shows who looked like her and who were portrayed as positively as the white characters. Everything has been focused on learning.
“I didn’t let her watch ‘entertainment TV,’“ she says. She put her into an early Head Start program. She met with different preschool directors, asking about their curriculum and teaching approach.
They faced their biggest test -- literally -- last fall, when Zara took an IQ test to see if she could attend preschool at a gifted elementary school across town.
“I had to groom my daughter from the womb to pass that test,” Daugherty said. When she got the email results, she cried and called her father: Zara had passed.
He knew his granddaughter would, he said.
Before her daughter starts preschool in the fall, Daugherty met with the principal, her future teacher, the cafeteria workers and bus drivers.
“I wanted to talk to everyone who will be in contact with my child,” she said. Her daughter runs track and takes gymnastics and swimming lessons. Daugherty wants this for other children in her neighborhood, as well. Very few children from their part of the city will attend a gifted magnet school.
Daugherty understands that generational trauma plagues many people living in underserved neighborhoods. The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown shook her and led her to study the systemic and historical conditions that have led to such inequities in the black community. She took a tour with Generate Health, a local nonprofit, that highlighted the routes used for redlining, the practice of denying services and housing loans to poor, predominantly black areas.
She knows part of raising a strong black daughter also means building her confidence and equipping her to deal with racism. So as soon as Zara could talk, her mom had her repeat these words back to her: I am beautiful. I am black. I am smart.
That’s the message Daugherty and her Village of Moms want to share with the hundreds of children who will visit the YMCA for their free event. The test scores, which she rattles off so easily, for her local school break her heart. She wants more neighborhood kids on that long bus ride with Zara to her diverse, gifted school.
There a lot of organizations that come in to serve high-poverty areas, she said. But the community responds differently when it’s their own residents trying to make a change.
“We are the community,” she said.