Tell me about the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice [SRBWI].
The women who formed SRBWI were historic civil rights leaders from the south who came together to fight poverty and injustice in some of America’s poorest counties by uplifting Black women and families. SRBWI organizes women in rural communities of the Mississippi Delta, southwest Georgia, and Alabama’s Black Belt.
SRBWI’s human rights commissions, led by Black women and elected officials in 11 communities across three states, provide training and guidance to women working to change policies and systems to fight for social and economic justice.
The past year has been tough for many, how has it been working with Black women in the rural South?
The pandemic did not really bring anything new to our table. What it did was lift up a lot of the disparities and inequities that we already deal with. So, Black women and girls have not had equal access to quality care, as far as their health needs. The closing of rural hospitals really started to make less sense to people when we entered into a global pandemic. But it took a pandemic for certain folks to say, “maybe we shouldn’t have done that.”
Or take the inequity in the Black women’s pay scale. When everything shut down, we were already barely able to make ends meet. Or having to move education out of schools and into homes in an area with no Wi-Fi.
Because we had been dealing with these issues for a long time, when people said we have to do something, we already had a strategy. We had numbers and data and a coalition.
What are you trying to change at this moment?
For me, if I was writing an article, I might call it how the pandemic saved our lives. We have been so entrenched in these issues and trying to figure out ways how to solve these issues on our own, that when resources become available because of the pandemic, and we can get media attention, we can get the work done.
And it has helped so much that people are recognizing that rural America exists. Before, people forgot that there are people living in those towns you drive past when you’re on a road trip.
Because people in rural areas have faced so much adversity already, they are not having as hard a time as other communities when it comes to adjusting to the pandemic. There’s isolation, but that’s easy for us because we were struggling for transportation. And food insecurity, we know how to grocery shop and cook for survival. We already know what to do.
How did the George Floyd protests affect your organization?
Again, we’ve already been living in these trenches. We’ve already been dealing with police brutality. This is a chance to push the agenda that we’ve already created.
Now, we do try to help the young women who don’t have the same amount of wisdom as the older women, as it pertains to strategy and organizing. For a lot of them, this was the largest scale protest they’ve seen that brought attention to Black Lives Matter, or what’s going on with Black people and the police. Of course they’re frustrated, they didn’t come up during the Civil Rights era. They know stories, but they think “that wouldn’t happen to me.” A lot of people say, “I am not my ancestors. They [the police] wouldn’t be able to do that to me, I would’ve fought back.” And we would say, “if you had the opportunity to fight back, what would that look like?”
They saw George Floyd and they were shaking in their boots. This was right outside their window. But then they think, how do I organize according to what I’ve been taught? And how does what I’ve been taught coincide with how I feel? We supported our younger people as they figured out who they wanted to be as organizers, activists, and advocates.
What do you do through the organization’s Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute program?
It’s a beautiful program, named after the first Black woman mayor in the state of Mississippi.
We bring close to 100 young women, including our staff and presenters and facilitators, to Mississippi to do a week-long intensive on the campus of Tougaloo College, which has a lot of meaning to the founders. [Tougaloo is a historically Black college with a history of social activism].
Community members identify young women, typically who are in grades 8-12, who would benefit from the organization and send them through an application process. We are currently taking up to 20 young women per state for each year.
We’re building off the legacy of women like Blackwell, who come from areas that people don’t even know exist but who change the world in a very huge way.
When you accept girls into the program, what do you teach them?
The curriculum has always been organizing, advocacy, and activism. How to do those things, how to recognize those things, and what they can achieve in our community. The rest of the curriculum is built around who we are as Black women and girls in the rural South, who we can be, and what we need as a group. We are always gathering information on what issues are affecting us.
When we realized reproductive justice was a major issue affecting Black women across all three states, we had a closed session called “day with a doctor.” We brought in doctors, senators, and legislators, people who knew it was important to hear from southern rural Black girls about their needs.
We talk about agriculture. A lot of the rural areas that we live in, we have farmers – Black women business owners – that we work with. They are trying to save their land or keep their land or find uses for land. We’ve created community and industrial kitchens for women who are farmers as well as chefs and food producers, so they can take ownership of what they produce for the community.
How did you get involved in organizing?
My parents, my grandfather, my great grandfather, they were all pastors and ministers. My grandparents were educators, my parents were nurses. So, I’ve always been deeply submerged in community and activism and organizing and advocacy.
What type of impact has your organization had?
Here in Mississippi, when I first started this job in 2017, lawmakers had proposed to overhaul the school funding formula in a way that would likely leave public schools even more underfunded. We joined a coalition of organizations and held a mass rally in support of equity in education. Hundreds of students, parents, and public school supporters crowded the Mississippi State Capitol to demand inclusion. In part because of our work, this proposed budget overhaul was stopped.
And of course, southern rural Black women have had a vital role in the civic engagement activities around the elections in Georgia and Alabama. Our Alabama constituents helped in the election of Doug Jones a couple of years ago. [Jones defeated senator Roy Moore, who opposed policies promoting the health and rights of Black women. The high-profile defeat happened, in part, because of massive African American voter turnout].
Additionally, some of the women of SRBWI’s human rights commission spoke to members of the United Nations at a human rights network in Alabama a few years ago.
Did anything change in how you chose this year’s group or what your programs will be about?
Our week-long 2021 institute will start June 20 and will be virtual.
Since its launch in 2005, the Unita Blackwell Young Women’s Leadership Institute has always built its programming around the current state of life in America, especially as it pertains to the experiences of Black women and girls across the rural South. This year, we are planning to discuss the mental health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, including situations that may be difficult for younger girls to discuss. As this year’s session requires a level of maturity that differs from past years, and also because the leg work that will take place in our communities following the institute should be led by our older young women, we are raising our age requirements for participants to 17-22 years old.
What has surprised you most during this past year?
This is the 16th year of the institution, and we use an intergenerational model to support each other, with older women helping guide the younger women. But with the pandemic and everything being virtual, the roles have kind of been flipped, where the young women are now teaching the older ones what organizing looks like in 2021.
I’m really surprised and encouraged by the young women and their ability to see opportunity in the events of the past year. Because it’s very easy to just feel hopeless, defeated, to feel frustrated. But our young women responded with optimism. Of course we have to deal with the pandemic and not being able to gather. People have lost loved ones, they didn’t get to have graduations, so many things. But their ability to adjust and strategize has been very impressive and very surprising. I’ve been in awe of what they’ve been able to do with what we had. They still serve their community. We still did voter registration, still passed out masks, still did vaccine registration. We just figure a way to do it the best way we can.