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Into the New World

 

 

 

 

Today, February 21st, marks the first day of Black Women’s Blueprint’s pilgrimage to Africa – a journey that will take us to South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and Benin, during which we will be taking monumental steps towards establishing the Institute for Gender and Culture as a major force in calling forth global culture shift. In this moment we want to invite all of those who have supported us in the past, those who have shared their knowledge with us, those who have critiqued us and helped us grow, and all those who have become part of the BWB family over the years, to join us on this journey, witness our evolution and evolve along with us. And in extending this invitation to you, we also want to take some time to reintroduce ourselves as individuals and as a collective. Today’s post is an interview with BWB founders Farah Tanis and Sevonna Brown, in which they articulated their vision for a new world and a new paradigm. Conducting this interview was an immensely valuable experience and the insights contained therein were illuminating and extremely helpful for me as someone who wants to be an active contributor to the movement for black women’s liberation. We offer this look into the inner working of BWB to you, our readers, in the hopes that you too will find in it words of guidance and inspiration.

 

-Courtney Hunter

 

 


 

CH:

What was the initial inspiration for wanting to go to Ghana and build the IGC there?

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

I feel like there’s two answers to that. There is a short term, more recent motivation and then there’s the macro level. Our decision was in response not only to infrastructure but also to a mandate. And outside of just building an organization in Ghana there is the question of how do we bring this organization and its mission to a global stage? We’ve started doing that already inside of Black Women’s Blueprint by using a human rights framework that has been articulated in large part by white folks, by the mainstream culture, and by Western society. What we haven’t done, is we haven’t articulated what “human rights” means for us as black women and what it originally meant for us as people of African descent, people in the Global South, and people who are historically marginalized along the axis of gender. For all of us who have now been relegated to the margins, what was our articulation around what we are now calling human rights before the breaking up of Africa and our subsequent displacement? What was our articulation around human dignity and the value in every single person, the value in every single tree, the value in every single animal, and in every living breathing thing? And the value even in the earth, sky, and sun, and how all of this is interconnected? So, when I think about this question of “why start the organization in Ghana” the answer for me is it’s not just going to be Ghana – this global movement we are seeking is going to happen over the world and it’s about unearthing a new way of being, a new way of relating and really bringing about a new world - view on a global level. I believe that black women have the power to do that. So that’s the broader, macro answer.

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

I love that Farah and I think that things do start from a macro place with BWB, and the current state of affairs has prompted in some ways what has already been the visionary aspect of the organization. In this particular moment in time there is political unrest and also political fatigue for black people. After getting the right to vote and becoming civically engaged and doing the work to bring about the first black president, there’s now a backward energy that is requiring people to say OK instead of being thrust backwards we’re actually going to return. And so the Year of Return is upon us not just in response to the fact that we are now 400 years beyond the landing the first slave ship sent “Jamestown to Jamestown” but because we’re also seeking a return around the African diaspora. We are seeking a return to the idea of cultivating and giving back power, and regenerating where our power lives and where black people in particular understand it to come from. And so all of that happened to overlap with the mandate that BWB put forth in the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission during all of those shifts and political changes. And that is a mandate that calls forth a black led government to acknowledge black women, and women of all African descent. It calls forth an acknowledgement of our humanity, our economic power, our safety, our health, and in the midst of all of the political context and geographical context, BWB is charging forth a mandate that keeps the movement, our partners, and all of the people that have a stake in black women on their toes.  So when the opportunity for us to go to Ghana arose through The Year of Return, we saw it as a chance to realize the fulfillment of the Last Mandate, and to strategize around this mandate, which is about repair, restoration, and return. And in Ghana we wanted to continue centering black women by saying, even though the world feels like it is exploding at all times we can always call forth to where black women are and where we fit into the conversation. And of course when we arrived in Ghana, we were not surprised to find out that women were marginalized and that they were in the middle of a conversation about their own power and the need to be celebrated, seen, and witnessed. We also saw that those conversations weren’t happening in the U.S., they weren’t being brought up within the context of the Year of Return, they weren’t being properly situated within the dialogue around this new wave of Black Americans going back to Africa and specifically Ghana. And so in sitting down with Laila (Laila Yahaya, BWB’S partner in Ghana who will be running the Institute for Gender and Culture on the ground) and other feminists, again, not just in Ghana but all over the world, we are continuing to call for centering women in these conversations. And we’ve done that in amazing and layered ways here in the U.S. - so now we are asking ourselves, what does it look like for BWB to shift into this gender and culture mandate that calls for centering women and our power throughout the world.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

And through restoration!

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

Right, through restoration. And we’re not just thinking through this very flat notion that “if women ruled the world the world would be a better place” but actually thinking about the possibilities of a world where women are seen, witnessed and understood, and recognized for the power that we already have. Not power that needs to be given back to us but power that we already have. If that was acknowledged, recognized and honored then we would see major shifts in the way the world interacts with women and how women interact with the world. And I think that that becomes a great potential for how we actually liberate gender, not just women, but the notions and concepts of gender. That to me is a true feminism, because black feminism has always been about this concept of our liberation being inextricably linked to the liberation of the world, and as Farah said, the liberation of people, animals, nature and everything else – all of that is linked to black women’s liberation. And so that is the pilgrimage that we’re on. Right now we are in a very proactive space where we’re saying let’s go everywhere we can go and seek knowledge and wisdom but also seed knowledge and seed wisdom, and be open to all the possibilities that we can generate through that. That’s where we’re at and that is why the trip is anchored in questions rather than answers.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

Yes and I think that there are questions about building an infrastructure that need to be raised as well. And for lack of better language we can say we need to build a community too. Community is infrastructure, or, it is what infrastructure means to us.

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

And also I think if we’re going to come from a place of critique in identifying the “why” behind this journey – that is also about identifying that the forces in the movement right now are not sufficient. The Women’s March and other interventions currently being used to respond to governmental powers and the political moment we are in – it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just have a Year of Return, it’s not enough to just have a Women’s March every January, it’s not enough to impeach Trump. It’s not enough. And I think the “why” is really about asking ourselves what does freedom and liberation require of us? What does it require around gender? What does it require around culture? What conversations does it require and what action does it require? I think that’s the big “why” – it’s in search of what is required of us to fulfill these mandates around truth, justice, healing, and reconciliation. And we’re uniquely positioned to answer those questions after ten years as an organization and after seeing through the mandates in the TRC.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

The Last Mandate is the one that I feel could really shift the world. We’ve spoken our truths, and justice and healing is occurring community by community as well as on an individual level. But while reparation, restoration, and reconciliation can happen between two people, it is even more meaningful if in this reconciliation between two groups, we are also talking about a reconciliation around the world. And in order to do that, we need the tools to start a new movement. We need the tools and community, or infrastructure, in order to do that. And by that we mean a community of elders, of ancestors, young people...all generations can speak to the future. So in order for us to shift the direction that our culture and world are going, we have to be able to speak and demonstrate that what we’re voicing is viable, that is has the power to change ideas, hearts, and minds, and that it does exist. We don’t need to recreate it because it already exists and we believe it exists within black women’s villages, within black women’s thought processes, their productions, their ideas, their analysis, their dreams…

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

Their technologies –

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

Their technologies. Because we’ve seen it. But it has been devalued. For example, if you sit with a priestess you know that there is something there. It’s there but the world has completely either buried it or has so drained it of its value on a cultural level that people don’t realize that this is what can heal us. That this way of being, walking through the world, and relating, and the tenets that these women live by – are bigger, broader, more compassionate, and more powerful than any human rights tenet that the West can give us. And so we start with Africa and we start with women of the Global South as a whole because they possess that. And if they have it and we are their descendants, cousins, sisters and so on that means we have it too – it is ancestral knowledge that we also carry. How we bring that forth is by going back. By being in mutuality, by learning, by unearthing, by documenting. Just like with Sankofa (a word from the Twi language spoken in Ghana) – you go back and bring it forward. And so that’s what we see ourselves doing which is apparent in BWB’s transformation and the establishment of the IGC. And so now the question is how do we put what we have to share together with what other people have to share. So if I’m seeking peace and you’re seeking peace, If I’m seeking non-violence and you’re seeking non-violence, how do we put both of these things, whatever they are, into conversation, so that we together can become even more powerful across our differences, in order to bring about this peace that we keep talking about. So it’s not really about starting an organization in Ghana, but about bringing Ghana into the organization. 

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

And the idea is also that we’re fostering space for those in the country to continue doing the work that they’ve already been doing. We’re fostering collaborative space. And I think it’s really important that when we’re articulating what we’re doing we emphasize that we’re not coming in to be a savior but that we’re actually coming in to build on the assets of that community and to grow with them.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

We’re not going in to bring BWB into Ghana but to bring Ghana into BWB. Ghana is enriching us and there is a value in Ghana as home for us. And so the question becomes how to bring all these pieces of home together so that we are one and there is a wholeness. That’s the thing with black communities is that we’re constantly seeking wholeness.

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

It’s very interesting and it makes me think of a dissertation I read on the meaning of diaspora and how the breaking up of Africa impacts our very experiences of ourselves as black humans. And how our understanding of wholeness is deeply connected to the ways historical traumas have impacted the wholeness of the diaspora. A fragmentation has occurred but we can still see it as whole even though we understand the histories and why the countries are set apart from each other and what that looks like. We can still honor and respect this wholeness, which I think is reflective of the human condition.

 

 

CH:

 

How would you define wholeness in your own terms?

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

For me, I would define wholeness as finally bringing into myself, all of the pieces of me that either have been ripped from me or exist somewhere else. That’s the most obvious answer.

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

That’s very powerful though.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

To me that’s the easiest answer. Because in doing that there is healing.

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

It’s what we mean when we talk about reconciliation of the self. And if you think about what reconciliation means and you talk about it in literal terms – you’re making sense of pieces that are not in perfection anymore in the way that we understand perfection. And I think that’s powerful. I also feel like there’s something about wholeness that is like a resolve. What we witnessed when we saw black people in Ghana, specifically in the slave castles, was people finally and fully understanding and connecting to a historical narrative that they weren’t connecting with before. I saw that as a way of coming into a wholeness because there were some things they finally understood that previously they had not been in confrontation with in terms of their own history. I think that knowledge and wisdom around the self, around our histories, around trauma and all of that – it creates wholeness. That to me is really important. Wholeness is created in the levels of self - awareness that come with healing and bearing witness.

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

And what that will mean for us? So for example when you of the IGC, which is bringing everyone in and has this potential to be very expansive and very open, it requires that we reconcile with ourselves and that we feel whole – and to have done enough of the healing to then say how do we now reconcile with all of these other realities. So how we reconcile with the planet, how do we reconcile with our neighbors, how do we reconcile with people who don’t look like us, who are not from the same culture as us. Because we can do it and we’ve journeyed to a place where we know that without being more expansive and more open we’re not going to be able to move forward. And without bringing forth and unearthing black women’s technologies, our methods of building peace and our spirituality, we’re not going to be able to move past this toxic energy that we continue to operate in. At least not within the context of the United States, which is where we live and pay rent. We have to exist here, so what can we do and what power can we wield in shifting and creating the culture that we want for ourselves. Who needs to be shifted so that we can have place here and we can be at peace here, inside our communities and outside our communities. And we can start with gender and culture. It’s a good place to start because you can’t transform the economy, education, healthcare or any of these things unless you transform culture.

 

 

CH:

 

Earlier you mentioned that within the BWB you had been using a human rights framework that had been articulated by white activists and white led organizations, and that through the IGC, you are now trying to evaluate concepts of human worth on your own terms, and in doing so essentially creating a new world - view that centers black women’s knowledge and capabilities. Do you mind expanding on that and also speaking on innovations that BWB has made that have allowed us to expand beyond this framework?

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

That is interesting and kind of a tough question. For me it’s about going beyond certain paradigms. The way we innovate and where we’re seeking to get is beyond certain conversations that I feel limit us to thinking within a Western context. There’s a particular context and line of thought that we have engaged in that keeps the conversation in this box.

 

 

 

Sevonna Brown: 

 

The word that you used was “transcendence”. The other thing is, whereas there has been a lot of consciousness-raising, we’ve been trying to create a new consciousness.  Which is actually about having a lot of foresight and prophetic visioning. So there’s also the spiritual layer to the work, the spiritual anchoring to the work, that’s about asking feminist ideological questions but also asking feminist theological questions.  I think that there’s a way in which the interventions that have been made often leave people in a very different place than what they expected coming in. It’s often because they see the name BWB or they see the experience of BWB and I think that there is an expectation around what our argument will be or what our intervention will look like, or how it’s going to feel, or what words we will use.  And it’s often, again, more macro. It’s much more about what is the new consciousness that people are already trying to be inside of. People are already trying to be inside of a world that is beyond gender, but we are not beyond gender. These same paradigms get reified every time someone makes that argument. The same binaries and frameworks get reinforced and re-inscribed. We are in bumper cars up against old ideologies we want to break down so badly.  For example, in meeting spaces now people police gender pronouns. We aren’t liberating anybody’s gender by policing gender pronouns. We are lost. Where is the liberation compass? There are ways that each of us as individuals have to undo our own patriarchy, misogyny, racism. We have to all do the work daily because it shows up, it really does. 

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

We have to work on our own insecurities about these things.  We are always on high alert, we’re in a state of fight or flight constantly.  

 

 

Sevonna Brown: 

 

There are ways in which the movement itself is so narcissistic.  It believes it is right, it believes it has the keys, it has the tools.  It believes it knows how to be politically correct and it believes it so much that it is actually doing the opposite at times. I think for us, we’re constantly walking out of spaces trying to figure out “why are we in this space?”  “Why didn’t we create a space?” The intervention is around us, and we’re asking ourselves what are the spaces we can create that are not existing but that people are running towards. There’s a reason we all showed up to this meeting, because we’re looking for an answer to something that has everything to do with who we truly are in our humanness. But, there’s no space or ideology now that truly honors that and truly sees that.  So, I think it really is that new world template that Farah was sharing earlier, that new consciousness. Even raising up a new consciousness that would actually have our human dignity and capacity be reflected.  

 

 

Farah Tanis: 

 

The human rights frame that we’ve been using, that has served us - what it articulates is incredibly valuable.  If done correctly! But only to a certain degree, because it says what people’s rights are but it doesn’t really offer how we should be and live to bring about those rights. Not even to ensure them, but for all of us to enjoy those rights no matter who we are.  Even the fact that you have to articulate rights, I think there’s something problematic about that. It’s like a bandaid for something that is already broken. So that they can “feel” that they have rights. And as Sevonna was saying, we want to transcend that. (And we may need some more time to articulate what it means to transcend that)  I have a sense and a knowledge, and I have borne witness to where communities and societies have existed where you don’t need to continue to articulate rights because people are living in it.  Their connections to everything around them, their sense of wholeness, makes it so.  Effortlessly. I’m not talking about a utopia, I’m talking about the world before something cataclysmic happened.  I think that’s why we’re stuck in talking about oppression in this framework of patriarchy, of capitalism, of all these things that are really relatively new.  Of racism, which is even newer, the stratification of races, it’s super new. It’s really just beginning to inject into the way things are in this current culture a remembering of what could exist.  Of what has existed before, reintroducing it into the current state.   

 

 

CH: 

 

The reason I brought it up is because earlier in the conversation you expressed a sentiment that I’ve heard before among other black organizers and people who don’t organize, people who are just living in the world.  This kind of frustration, for example, some candidates will promise healthcare or universal basic income but there’s an understanding that these reforms will not be enough in the long run. There’s an understanding, as you two have said before, that a total shift needs to occur.

 

 

Farah Tanis: 

 

That’s right.  It’s a tough place to be because it’s something that we’ve always felt.  At least for me, I’ve always wanted to engage with this whole notion that there’s something better than this, this can’t be all there is.  (These debates about basic shit, sorry to say.) There’s got to be something more to aspire to, and where is it? Did it exist before? What happened before racism and patriarchy and capitalism and all these other things.  What happened? How were we living? And I can’t say that we were all just running around with clubs, clubbing each other over the head, I don’t believe that.  

 

 

CH:

 

It’s the not knowing that is difficult.

 

 

Farah Tanis: 

 

Exactly! And that’s what we are seeking, that is what we are seeking in this transnational model. That’s what we are seeking in going back to ancestry, this inter-generational model.  Who knows, who can give us the answer. How do we find it? We all know we have the capacity to be better than we are now. Where does that come from? If we all have the capacity to be better, was there a time when we were better?  It seems really huge as I’m talking about it but I believe it’s possible. Even if it’s just a city block. If we were to accomplish this in a city block -  this higher self, would be significant. I think that through the Institute for Gender and Culture we can at least begin to engage people in a conversation that transcends the current conversations that continue to leave us dependent on the very forces that we’re supposed to be struggling against - that brought about this world, this society, and this level of oppression. The Institute for Gender and Culture wants to engage people in that, and we say gender and culture because to me those are really fundamental to our humanness.  Even though gender is a construct, and so is culture to a certain degree - it’s accessible language that we can use as a starting point. Even if it ultimately leads us to undoing gender and creating one culture. What is the one human culture, what is it we want to create to ensure the survival of our future generations and ourselves. We want to be able to articulate that in a theory of change. Or if we wanted to put it in even more basic terms, for me it is really about returning to our higher self, our most sacred levels.  

 

 

CH: 

 

You talked earlier about the macro “why” of this journey. For people who are thinking more on a micro level, how would you reframe your answer in their terms?

 

 

Farah Tanis:

 

We talk about influencing movements and that's very measurable.  Not just people, but organizations can influence a movement. Like, the NAACP with the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights movement created the NAACP, and the NAACP continues to influence the Civil Rights movement and continues to define it and be a huge player within it. If you want to look at it in terms of what is measurable, the NAACP is an example.  BWB was born out of this movement and now we want to get to a place where we can influence various other movements that are fragmented.

 

 

CH: 

 

How do you feel like the things you are already doing fit into that?  For example, with Sistas Van.

 

 

Farah Tanis:  

 

With the trainings for example, we speak to and engage people in conversations they have not had or have been afraid to have.  Even though the people are in front of them, the numbers are there, the experiences are there. But they are boxing it into this framework where in order to confront an issue you have to have a certain level of research, there are so many rules to be followed before we can address a certain level or type of oppression that we have observed or experienced for ourselves.  With the IGC, which is right now living inside BWB as its flagship initiative, that is the goal, to help people make connections between different areas and experiences that converge in people’s lives. To influence not just their lives but their communities. And it's the same thing when we go abroad. With the van, a van by Black women is saying that we need to be mobile.  We need to go to people. It would be amazing ideally to go to different communities and talk about these ways of being and to meet people where they are at to do this consciousness raising. It’s really starting person by person, community by community, movement by movement. The van allows us to do that level of consciousness raising and be in that space.  The van also being reflective of who we are informs people’s thoughts. Like “wow, there’s a van by Black women rolling around town, doing healing work and giving out free stuff.  Making sure people have food and making sure people have pregnancy tests and they have an altar in the back and essential oils.” It transforms a perception or vision in terms of what is possible.

 

 

CH:

 

Any closing statements?

 

 

Sevonna Brown:

 

Something we’ve been talking about is how this work calls us up to be different and really requires that we make the shifts and changes in our own lives. And in being called in, and up, to do this work there is so much responsibility regarding the fact that it can’t just be conceptual. A lot of what we want to articulate to people we actually have to show them. It has to be felt, it has to be experienced. It has to be felt when they walk into our space. It has to be felt when we walk into our space. We're being called up to actually live the lives we are trying to articulate. I think I would love to continue to see us do that and invite other people into it as we grow the organization and as we grow the staff. As we meet people around the world we’re finding so many ways to be and do that really is freeing. Moment by moment, that the liberation and the freedom is being felt. Moment by moment we’re doing mass systems change and culture change. And there are times where we actually get the privilege and the honor of experiencing freedom even in the small moments. We need to keep feeling into those moments and let them be lessons for how we actually sustain freedom and liberation when we get there. That’s also going to be the work, the “what’s next?”, once we free up a particular part of culture or society.  What do we do to preserve that, and keep it sacred? To keep teaching generations forward and forward and forward to be inside of that with us. The way we do that is in how we show up and actually be different.  

 

Farah Tanis: 

 

If something can be suppressed it can be unearthed.] And it feels like there’s been a suppression of, in particular, Black women’s energies and of their authentic technologies and spiritualities. The ancestral spirituality. We’ve suppressed it in ourselves, we’ve suppressed our gifts, our legacies. And it’s been suppressed in us. We’ve been taught to suppress it so that the powers that be, mainstream culture, doesn’t even need to do it anymore, we do it to ourselves and to each other. Our goal, the charge right now for us in going to Africa, in interacting with these women is to unearth all of that.  To uncover it, to allow it to emerge again. To unbury it. It’s a very profoundly spiritual process. 

        

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