International Women’s Day: womanism, activism and higher education

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, convened the recent Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education: the politics of representation and community activism conference – the first of its kind at Birkbeck.

Over 200 women attended Birkbeck’s first Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education conference, which drew together black women activists and academics from various parts of the United Kingdom, across Europe, South Africa and the United States. A further 210 women, who were unable to be allocated tickets, were invited to watch the live stream of the keynote speeches.

At Birkbeck, we already know about the ‘feminist emergency,’ but our conference demonstrates a burning ‘womanist emergency’! The scale of interest in the black woman’s desire to take charge of a lost agenda cannot be underestimated. Such a desire has reached fever levels. Quite frankly, as black women, we are fed up with other’s speaking on our behalf. We are hungry for genuine representation. Finally, we are seeing black sisters speaking our language, standing up for us, taking charge and ownership of our agenda for change.

This conference of black women activists working alongside their black sisters in HE is long overdue and I am happy that Birkbeck is the first higher education establishment to allow this Womanist platform to emerge.  We have a lot to say and a great deal to achieve.

On the day of the conference, a clear message emerged for the urgent need for the black woman in HE to play her part in promoting collaborative, activists’ links in order to prioritise the movement for a free, decolonised education system. The lively, vociferous workshops revealed the reasons for such high levels of interest in the conference.

In a platform presentation entitled: ‘Young womanist voices: our mother’s legacy’, young black feminists: Nombuso Methibela, Dolly Ogunrinde and Jenna Davis spoke on ‘the silencing of black women’s activist’s voices; the power of language to promote activism and the significance of passing on experience steeped in activist’s struggle’.

Nombuso Methibela, an activist and educational researcher from South Africa, talked passionately on the silencing of the voices of black women activists, like African nationalist and grassroots political organiser Hannah Kudjoe, who played a formidable role in Ghana’s struggle for independence.  She stressed: “In the recollection of Ghana’s independence history we rarely hear of her contributions. Kudjoe’s disappearance from public memory and her un-naming have been a focal point of the anti-colonial movement.”

Through her South African experience, Nombuso suggested that: “Black women’s political representation has come out of the collective desire to recognise the experiences of Black women who fought against marginalisation in national liberation movements and black consciousness movements despite their collective disappearance from popular history”.

Dolly Ogunrinde, an outreach worker for an educational charity, highlighted the importance of language and how we share concepts and ideas across generations.

She said: “As an educator, I find my students are very much aware of issues surrounding race and the notion of an intersectional struggle that occurs between race and gender. However, what they don’t have is the language to express that. With the concept of womanism, I was able to finally find a word which encapsulates the ideas that my mother had passed down to me.

“‘Womanism’ is a concept that is now engaging young black women all over the country. And I don’t necessarily think the answer lies in teaching young people about womanism in the sphere of formal education. Instead, I think the answer lies in informal education. We, all of us in this room are informal educators to the young women in our lives.  It is important we share oral histories and popularise terms like ‘womanism’ to provide the next generation of womanist activists the power in language to express their ideas.”

Jenna Davis, a parliamentary assistant, politics student and community worker spoke on the legacy of black women activists, trade unionist and elected officials. “They have left us young black women like me, a huge legacy. Their achievements and sacrifices have made it possible for my generation to believe it’s possible to enter the political sector. They have prepared us for the fight ahead and have shown us how to confront and deal with misogynoir, colourism, oppression and so much else. They have shown us that Black women can come from different walks of life and educational backgrounds and achieve.

“As a young black woman in the political field, my mother has taught me that education is a key that opens many doors. She wasn’t just talking about academia. She was also talking about the power of life experiences. That is why I use my story and experiences to empower other young people about the importance of community activism and encourage them to participate and work for change”.

One participant said: “This day is a cause for celebration because we can see positive role models from across the Higher Education sector who are committed to working with us.  These black sisters are demonstrating their potential to change our lives, remove the oppressive white curriculums and speak to our history.”

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