I Be Black Girl encourages black women to own their blackness, define their identity and change their narrative.
by Aisiri Amin
In the fall of 2017, when Ashlei Spivey asked on Facebook if any black women wanted to meet for brunch. She thought a couple of them might respond but never expected that 80 of them would actually show up!
For Ashlei it was the realisation of being the only black woman or person in many spaces that pushed her to do the brunch. The overwhelming turn up showed her that she wasn’t the only one feeling that way. It felt like a much-needed call to action.
From there the journey to change and define the narrative of what it means to exist as a black woman or girl began. Ashlei approached the Women’s Fund of Omaha who became their fiscal sponsor and I Be Black Girl was founded in Omaha, Nebraska. “The reason this cause has so much momentum is because black women really want this. They want a space that centres their identity and who they are,” Ashlei says.
I Be Black Girl is an initiative by black women for the empowerment of other black women. They create safe social places where they can engage with each other, build networks and access entrepreneurship and mentorship opportunities. “We act as an intermediary to connect resources and black women to things that are most important to them,” Ashlei explains.
Recently, Ashlei launched a birthday fundraiser on Facebook to raise funds for I Be Black Girl and raised almost $50,000 in just 72 hours!
We caught up with Ashlei to talk about I Be Black Girl, what empowerment means, the importance of intersectionality and what the future holds for her initiative.
INKLINE: I Be Black Girl is an interesting name. I almost feel like it’s a way of saying, “I exist and I own my identity.” Is that somewhere close to what you had in mind?
Ashlei Spivey: While deciding the framework and our approach, Bell Hooks was our guide. As a writer and a black intellectual her work, her ideas synced with our vision. There is a book by Bell Hooks called Be Boy Buzz. I have a son and I read that to my son. It says things like “I be boy running. I be boy jumping.” She uses the word “be” to talk about all the things black boys can be. They can exist in this world and have multiple definitions and that’s what we wanted when we thought about I Be Black Girl.
It’s saying you can exist, you can define your blackness, your womanhood how you want, there isn’t a single definition.
There are a lot of stereotypes about black women– about them being aggressive, not being team players or being single mothers. These stereotypes and narratives are preconceived ideas about what it means to be black women. So, through the name, we wanted to stress that I Be Black Girl is a space where we define our identity the way we want to.
I: Tell us about some of your core programmes and their impact.
A: As we act as an intermediary, we don’t necessarily do a lot of direct programming but we invest in people who can do that.
Through I Be Black Girl Gives we invested $36,000 in six programmes to support black women and girls. One of those is the Peace of Mind project which was youth-led, ran by kids between seven to 19 years. Many graduating seniors who are black women or women of colour said: ‘We want to be able to talk about self-care because college is scary and we know that we have additional barriers that other people may not have’.
They planned the sessions and held it for other young women. That’s a really good example of how we can invest in other people’s leadership. We didn’t come in and take charge. It was their idea and we asked them what kind of support they needed and then we invested in their leadership. It’s a great way to cultivate their leadership.
We do that for five other programmes. They range from breast care awareness and prevention, self-care retreat to piano lessons for young black girls. We believe in letting the community say what they want.
I: Girls empowering girls is an important initiative that’s picking up around the world. How important is it to also address intersectionality while talking about women empowerment? Do you feel if the different layers of identity are not acknowledged and respected, empowerment will be limited to the surface?
A: Absolutely! Along with understanding my identity as a black woman, it’s also important to acknowledge where I grew up, my education and other lived experiences and how they have shaped my identity.
So, it’s important to reflect on those identities and how they intersect. Today more people are trying to understand intersectionality. One of our core aims is to be truly inclusive and celebrate every aspect of people’s identity.
I: In the world that we live in, where othering is still a dominant part of our social fabrics, how important is a community such as I Be Black Girl?
A: It’s is super important. We want to live in a place where everyone can thrive and have a high quality of life. But we know that based on institutional inequalities such as racism and sexism that’s not the case. Othering is very much at play now and has created consequences for us that don’t allow us to be successful.
So for us, we know that if we create a space that honours and loves black women then that will create ripples. And so, we are intentional about being unapologetic about our blackness and womanhood.
I: What does the future look like for I Be Black Girl?
A: We want to create a stronger ecosystem for black women and girls for entrepreneurship especially because we know black women make 63 cents to a dollar compared to their white male counterparts. Here in Nebraska, 80 per cent of households are run by black women. So, it’s important to make sure that women have what they need to take care of their families.
Black women are actually the fastest growing entrepreneurs and many are running small businesses informally so we want to focus on how we can support that.
Also, we really want to expand what we are doing on the youth side. They are the ones who will get this right and can make sure our community and the world become more inclusive and equal. So, we really want to start investing more in young women.
I: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?
A: The connectedness. I never thought I Be Black Girl could be what it is now. When I made the Facebook post and got those women together, I never thought people would engage in it and validate ideas of what needs to exist. I’m always in awe of the magic and richness that black women can give when they create something. We have a great opportunity to create a huge impact.
I: If you could give a piece of advice or just say something to women of colour around the world what would that be?
A: A black woman said this to me two weeks ago as I was talking about I Be Black Woman “Stand in your power. You deserve to be here.”
That has really stuck with me. Understanding what is our power and influence. Most of the time people talk about identity as deficits like we don’t have power because we are women or because we are people of colour or because we are both.
It’s really recognising we do have power and a voice and we deserve to be in these spaces just as much as anyone else. So, how do we recognise that, affirm that in ourselves and in each other in order to do the work that we know needs to happen. So, I would encourage every woman of colour, every black woman to reflect on that and be confident in that.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).