What Are Best Practices For Black Girls?
After a day of tackling Black girl invisibility and writing and researching Black girls, the Black Girl Movement Conference rounded out its second day of discussion with a third panel on “Best Practices for Black Girls.” Moderated by Joanne N. Smith, founder of Girls for Gender Equality, featured speakers included: Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA; Marilyn Hollinquest, co-founder of Radical Monarchs; Octavia Lewis, trans health activist; Raven Ali, East Coast program director at Black Girls CODE; and Neveah Kelly, member of Radical Monarchs.
The panel centered on tools to assist Black girls in finding their voice and sense of self. In introducing the Radical Monarchs, an organization that works with girls from third to fifth grade, co-founder Hollinquest said, “We are still babies. We started December of 2014. Yet people always think we’ve been around a lot longer. I think a lot of that comes from the ancestral wisdom that we have always had as Black women.”
The organization began when Hollinquest’s friend and founding partner expressed a desire to create something for her daughter. Radical Monarchs seeks to help young girls of color feel a sense of empowerment through the tenets of collective power, fierce sisterhood, and brilliance. The tenets are meant to contrast with media portrayals of Black girls through shows such as: Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip-Hop, and more.
“It is frequently put upon girls to be divisive. In these shows, you get inundated with ways to damper your fierceness and brilliance,” Hollinquest said. Instead, the Radical Monarchs seek to cultivate conversations on social justice that its young members can take with them as they grow and move forward in life.
As a techie, Ali expressed her distress in how few black girls feel capable of entering the field of technology. “It’s sad; I wrote my college essay on the digital divide and we’re still talking about it,” Ali commented. “I believe Black Girls CODE is changing the conversation about closing the divide. Now corporations and large foundations are coming to us to figure out how to solve the problem whereas years ago they were independently theorizing about ways of making sure Black girls and Black people had access to technology and were aware of STEM careers.”
Black Girls CODE works with girls 7 – 17 to introduce them to one of the most in-demand tech careers around and Ali explained the organization intentionally works with such a wide age range. “We recognize the need for exposure to STEM and the huge financial opportunities that exist in STEM careers early on. At 17, it’s not too late for girls to get excited, or to decide that they want to major in computer science.” In speaking about the age range, Ali also noted how young girls were so much more expressive and interactive, leaning forward to help one another, while the older girls were more reticent, kept to themselves, and took longer to warm up. This observation centered the need to get to girls while they are still young and open to new ideas.
Kaba spring-boarded off of the difference between young girls and their older counterparts saying:
“What I’ve learned during my many years working with Black girls is their self-definition through negation. These girls often knew what they were not. They could come up with long lists of what they were not. They were not hoes, let’s say. And we had to work, in terms of building identity, to have self-definition through affirmation.”
To this end, Kaba’s girls started every session by listing three things they were. “We wanted to change the ‘I am not’ to ‘I am,’” Kaba stated. The Project NIA founder also worked on breaking down internalized misogyny through making Black girls understand what they were messaging when they said, “I don’t hang out with girls,” proudly declaring their lack of girlfriends. “It was important for us to break down internalized misogyny by connecting it to the larger issues of oppression so they understood where it came from and why it mattered that we were collectively going to work together in this room to build power for one another.”
Speaking to the issues of the LGBT experience, Lewis began by pointing out “The life expectancy of a trans woman is only 34 years of age,” adding “There are some 42 states that do not have protection for people like myself. It is important that we begin unlearning the hetero-normative stereotypes when we dive into the trans experience.” Lewis wanted it to be abundantly clear that trans and cis women are not in competition, saying “I respect your experience.” For her, every day that a trans person gets up and goes forth into the world, in the face of such difficult odds, is an act of resistance in itself. Still, Lewis believes women must acknowledge that what it means to be a woman was defined by cis-gendered men and this system is then pushed on to trans women by society, and sometimes even cis women. “The system has become the oppressor,” Lewis commented. “The average trans person makes less than 11 thousand dollars yearly.” From her point of view, the inability of trans women to thrive must not only be discussed in LGBT circles or even conversations about Black girls, but in discussions about issues facing women in general.