When Will the Lives of Black Women and Girls Matter?
By: Ola Ojewumi
When I was a freshman in high school, I witnessed violence firsthand as I walked over my teacher’s blood to get to the school bus. As the months went on, I saw students arrested for assaulting teachers and others entering juvenile detention. My alma mater was often referred to as “Knife Point or “Gun Point.” Turmoil was a regular fixture in our lives.
And yet, I went on to graduate high school while many of my female peers went on to become statistics — as high school dropouts, as teen moms and as women who now spend their lives battling abject poverty.
I told this story at a leadership convening recently hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, where we talked about some of the biggest challenges in education and learned more about the Building a Grad Nation report, which outlines strategies for increasing the nation’s high school graduate rate to 90 percent by 2020.
Nonprofit, government and industry leaders dedicated to enhancing the lives of children in America filled the room. I sat inches away from General Colin Powell as he talked about how we can band together to make necessary repairs to a broken system. He set the agenda: “We want to focus on the equality of opportunity.”
And that’s exactly what we did.
We talked about the zero tolerance policies and harsh school disciplinary practices that are removing mostly male students of color from school and effectively placing them in prison.
We listened to men — Robert Murphy, Revered Dr. Wilson Goode, Deon Jones and Tony Hopson — who overcame many of the blockades of institutional racism, only to see these same trends continue for the current and future generation.
It was powerful, but it was also a little disappointing. Throughout the discussion, I felt like a crucial piece was missing: the voices and struggles of black women.
New studies show that African American young women face the same challenges with school suspensions and criminalization as their male peers. While the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled structural racism against black males into the national dialogue, it continues to disregard the current crisis for young black women in America who are a fighting the double-headed monster of racism and sexism.
The rise of the recent #SayHerName campaign is forcing people to consider the same question I ultimately asked the men on this panel: “When will the lives of Black women begin to matter in this movement?”
Whether they fall victim to police violence, higher rates of school suspension, teenage parenthood or assault on their college campuses, the voices of women of color are not being heard.
Nowhere was this more evident for me than in Baltimore. The day after the riots, I went to Baltimore to help clean up the city. I tore down the police tape in front of the accessible entrance to the CVS and rolled through in my wheelchair. And what I saw was black women fighting for black men.
Two days later, when I went to a vigil for Rekia Boyd, a female victim of police brutality, I saw just a few dozen people. When black men die, hundreds will gather. But if a black woman dies, few will even hear of her name.
I don’t know when the voices of black women and girls will finally be heard, but I know that it must start with more women and girls raising them. This is mine.
Where is yours?
Ola Ojewumi, 24, is an activist, journalist, and a community organizer based in Washington, DC. She founded two nonprofits, Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Foundation and the Project ASCEND College Scholarship Program. Ola was elected as an America’s Promise Alliance trustee last year.