Black women student leaders often feel unsupported in their roles
The geography of growth Black women must navigate is a difficult one.
Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we will be exploring Education & Schooling, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What are the implications of charter and private schools in communities of color? How do we counteract anti-Black textbooks and teachers in our childrens’ education? How did you heal from bullying or other school-based trauma? What tactics are most effective in deconstructing the school to prison pipeline? What role do alternative schooling methods play in Black liberation?
by Rachel K. Godfrey
Black women are not superheroes. We are not superhuman, and we are not from somewhere other than this planet that we share. It is this reality—the actualities of our collective and individual resilience—that makes us so powerful. It is our everyday resistance that shocks the world, mainly because the world has never had to drudge through the trenches in the same capacity that we have.
When stepping up to be leaders in positions with and without “distinguished” titles, Black women have been treated as both sub- and super- human, often at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive—both stem from a perceived and pushed lack of humanity, which often translates to the absence of proud whiteness and/or the insidiousness of white supremacy.
Treating folks as something other than what they actually are is the main key to stifling their growth. And so I wonder what sustainable support for Black women leaders in student leadership positions, particularly in higher education, actually looks like.
The role of the university is not necessarily to produce folks who want to completely re-create our systems of learning, leadership, and more. The role of the university is to produce folks who are interested in making historically hostile spaces into more “hospitable” ones. As Black historian and academic Robin D.G. Kelley posed in his poignant forum post to the Boston Review’s digital publication following post-Ferguson college protests, “The fully racialized social and epistemological architecture upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically transformed by ‘simply’ adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions.”
If the university, then, is more about exposure and access to undeniably meaningful resources then what does that mean for Black women who sign up or are urged to be student leaders? What does it mean to be a community leader and community giver in this situation? And how do we support their efforts in ways that help them grow healthy relationships with themselves and the communities with which they are looking to work with and for?
Black feminist praxis beckons us to understand the rise of powerful people as being possible only because of the work of those who came before them. Not only that, the generative energy fueling movements, businesses, and communities would not be possible without understanding the intrinsic value of every being involved. When regarded as never needing help, as able to juggle an excessive amount of tasks, and sometimes not getting credit for all of the work they do, how can Black women interested in being student leaders work with what they are given?
I was able to speak to some Black women in different student leadership positions—all of whom were fundamental to their respective school’s growth, marketing, and community building.
Wesleyan University, New York
Did you feel supported in your role?
“The only time I felt supported was when I wanted to ask the administrators for money. Like I would ask the head of the African American Studies department for supplies and money for the House.”
Did you ever feel far from supported?
“I felt far from supported when I had to plan and execute the Students of Color (SOC) BBQ, a schoolwide event for all people of color on campus.”
What kind of support did you/do you need from other people for your position?
“I just wish I had more guidance. I wish they would’ve helped me knowing that I didn’t know what to do for the position and it was literally my first month at the job.
This is tea, but there were some internal issues happening amongst the people that were above me. I wanted no parts because I was just trying to make my coins and go about my life. One of the women wanted me to say something to back her up that I didn’t feel comfortable saying. I told her no. Then she removed me from the email chain.”
Wesleyan University, Massachusetts
Communications Liaison for Black Student Union and Co-President for Wesleyan’s Mulit-Ethnic/Cross-Cultural Student Collective
How did you enter your leadership position?
“At the end of my freshman year I recognized a lack in SOC unity on campus and I joined Ujamaa to not only remedy this disparity, but I really wanted Black students, particularly Black womxn, to feel supported (academically and socially) in this predominantly white institution. I wanted to facilitate conversations on Black love and explore the ways in which Black joy can manifest on campus.
Long story short, I volunteered to be on the board after I noticed a lack of participation and a lack of unity from SOC.”
Can you talk about a time you felt supported in your role? And a time you felt far from supported in your role?
“In honor of Black History Month, and in an effort to support black students with an interest in Greek letter collegiate fraternities and sororities, Ujamaa designed a panel/informational session that included representatives from each of the NPHC-affiliated organizational chapters in the area. This panel was devised in response to students saying that they wanted to bring these organizations back to Wesleyan.
I was in charge of facilitating this event and contacted each of the panel participants individually, as well as got gifts for the panel participants, purchased table cloths, and prepared the catering services. Unfortunately, this was one of our lowest attended events during the 2019 Black History Month, despite many students personally indicating to me that they would be interested in such a professional growth and networking opportunity. The few students there were affiliated with the Ujamaa Board for the most part. This is a time when I felt least supported by our student body. On the other hand, this also was a moment that the Ujamaa board utilized to build solidarity with Black folk across Connecticut and it really revealed which of Wesleyan’s faculty and alumni feel that they have a vested interest in Ujamaa’s success and the growth of the SOC at Wesleyan. In this way I felt very supported because this ended up becoming more of a discussion about engaging Wesleyan’s Black student body, as well as started a conversation about the distribution of labor in the SOC community.”
What kind of support did you/do you need from other people when you are?
“The Ujamaa Logistics Board is such a supportive space and pretty much molded many of my positive memories during sophomore year. That being said, the board’s support isn’t the only thing that will make Ujamaa successful in reaching our mission as an organization.
Ujamaa needs financial and participatory support. Many individuals, whether they realize it or not, want Ujamaa to achieve its mission in creating a more unified SOC community, but few are actually willing to assist and put in the labor to make this happen. We need support from faculty, students AND alums. The administration needs to recognize that without Ujamaa, Black History Month at Wesleyan would have zero panels, speakers, parties, formals, etc., so adequate funding is very necessary. In addition, more broadly than Ujamaa, SOC need to get adequate financial aid and academic support, so that we have the capacity to make Wesleyan more vibrant beyond the formal classroom setting.”
Any wild stories to share?
“The Black History Month niggatry was unreal.
During Black History Month we partnered with Omega Psi Phi Inc. to bring about the Black ExQUEllence party hosted in Beckham Hall. This was a celebration aimed to unify Wesleyan’s SOC community with SOC across New England, so to do that we had entered into a deal with the Hartford chapter of Omega Psi Phi for advertising promising them a certain percentage of revenue from the event.
Although we have an Ujamaa group chat with the Ques, while planning, these guys decided it was fine to slide into board members’ DMs and when rejected, cut off communication despite this event having not been executed yet.
There was a point where I literally had to play telephone and had to relay information to an Ujamaa board member from a representative from the frat because he was butthurt she rejected him.
In addition, leading up to the event they barely advertised and we had a low turnout.
I believe that they didn’t take Ujamaa seriously as an organization primarily because they primarily saw Black womxn leaders and took that as a signal to behave inappropriately and unprofessionally.”
Wesleyan University, New Jersey
Former president of WestCo (Wesleyan’s West College dormitory), Marketing Intern at The Resource Center, Protest Organizer
How did you enter your leadership position?
“By volunteering myself for it, and in the case of WestCo I was also elected. I feel like I need to be as active a participant as I can healthily be in order to see the changes I want made, done.”
A time you felt supported in your role? A time you felt far from supported in your role?
When other people begin to mobilize with me to reach a common goal — especially when working against people in power.
I’ve definitely had a few breaking points along the way. Those arose because too much work was being put on my shoulders and I felt like others weren’t helping me bear the labor.
Over the course of the semester, I saw a few more of my SOC friends get wrongfully fired from their work-study jobs. Because of this, I learned that we have absolutely no job security, no rights, and a loose list of employee/employer relationship recommendations. All of which leaves working students without any institutional support for their employment at all!”
Any wild stories to share?
“I worked in [Wesleyan’s] Digital Design Studio since my very first semester at Wesleyan. The Digital Design Technologist was ‘trying to support minorities in design,’ and since I already knew Illustrator, InDesign, & 3D printing & 3D modeling from high school, I worked there. I loved it, got better in design & got to teach others for 2 years, went abroad, came back & suddenly all tenured SOC had been fired —including myself— and replaced by white male students with less experience.
That had me fucked up. But what really had me fucked up was that when I confronted the technologist about it, he greeted me with multiple micro-aggressions, then proceeded to lie to my face about my “misconduct” during the job which he never once confronted me about ever, because it simply wasn’t true. He also told me ‘sometimes we just HAVE to cut work-study jobs for teacher-recommended students.’
After that, he reported himself to Title IX and I went off trying to find ways to get my job back or get him yelled at. This is when I learned that Wesleyan’s Student Employment Office is a sham. It does absolutely nothing, in fact it doesn’t even have a dedicated staff member. It’s an ‘office’ split between the minds of a few administrators. Some students apparently recognized this and started PAWS (Peer Advocates for Working Students) but it’s a student coalition of like 3 people run out of The Resource Center.
On top of that, because the technologist reported himself to TitleIX (the office that’s supposedly supposed to help me), I was asked to come into multiple meetings to share my story, write letters to various faculty members, and basically bear the brunt of the labor for this case that I hadn’t even launched and didnt for that exact reason.”
From these interviews with my peers, I’ve learned that the geography of growth Black women must navigate is a difficult one. But understanding their journeys as ones that do not have to be linear or perfect to be successful is necessary.
As our climate continues to shift and we are asking more and more Black women to lead, stepping back and letting us do all of the work on our own will do more harm than good. We must always be prepared to help lessen the burdens that true, genuine leadership is fighting to relieve.
Rachel K. Godfrey is a writer, blogger, and curator interested in all things art, culture, and sex – especially how they all relate to Blackness. She uses her writing, music curation, and interviews with emerging creatives of color to explore how people of color use the arts to build a more intimate, more thoughtful, more safe, and more accountable world.