Investments, not Just Funding, Create Change for Black Girls in the South

People invite me places to talk to them. Sometimes the crowds are large; other times, they’re more intimate. But every time, they listen. I made the decision a while ago that I’d start saying what I wanted to say in case the invitations stopped.

So today when the indomitable Deon Haywood from Women with a Vision in New Orleans, always stylish Cassandra Welchlin of Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative and I, with our southern selves, took time and space this afternoon for ourselves and our people — black, southern girls and womyn — at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Southern Progress’ gathering, we left little unsaid. You know, in case they don’t ask us back again.

It is never my intention to apologize for the south or try to justify her. She’s a product of the same America that discovered land that was already occupied, interred Japanese brothers and sisters in the mid-1940s, decided Irish folks would go from being inferior to white in the 1900s and elected Donald Trump president after Barack Obama. Pendulum swings.

In addition to the other things I said, I left the group with reasons they should invest in the south. Here they are.

1. A lot of things that happen in the south aren’t new by the time they reach other regions and communities. In a lot of ways, we’re political trailblazers. We, southerners, are the testing ground for policies — state and federal — that land at your front door. We may not be the most progressive politically, but don’t mistake that for a lack of astuteness, ambition or agility, when necessary.

2. We’ve seen and been living in hostile conditions. Those of us who’ve been countering, surviving and thriving in these environments, especially women are girls, are, quite frankly, master teachers of resistance. What some call slow, our southern selves call deliberate, long lasting.

3. It’s a challenge. Any change work is. You will be challenged and stretched beyond what is comfortable for you. You’ll hear unfamiliar voices but recognize the stories are the same with nuance. You’ll see that landscape matters; you’ll feel that infrastructure (or lack thereof) makes a difference; in addition to good food, you’ll smell that distinct scent of raw opposition mixed with refreshed hope in the air.

4. There’s a need. About 5 percent of philanthropic dollars go to the south and less than 1 percent of that to work focused specifically on black women and girls. And most of that, in either case, goes to universities before it reaches people who will be directly impacted.

If you believe in reparations, it’s because we’re owed it. We southerners, particularly people of color (especially native and black folks) made this land of the free and brave possible. If you believe in economic justice, because equity in that context hasn’t ever been a thing and free labor and indentured servitude set that up. If you believe in people, we have them. Everywhere. And lastly, if you believe in self-aggrandizement, you’ll feel better, and we’ll all be better off for it. … even listen to you brag. For a little while.

It’s also important to note there’s a difference between funding and investing in the south. Funding is giving money. We all know that, and if you have money, you can do that. But it’s an outdated model. Investing is knowing real change is slow but lasts. It requires relationship building, a commitment to people and place, and reciprocal accountability, in addition to dollars.

You can take a lot of the reasons I laid out for investing in the south and substitute south for black girls and women and the reasons and math still add up. There are a couple other germane considerations, however.

1. On just about every indices, black girls and women fair the worst, except in the few instances where other women of color (or impoverished white people who think they’re “regular” white because things are rarely nuanced and people in this population rarely see themselves as the one or two steps from sociopolitical blackness they actually are) do. We must raise the floor, if you will. If we do, everyone fairs better. Of course, this rationale assumes those who are doing well can either imagine doing better or are open to the idea of those who are “less than” having opportunities and access.

2. Black girls and women, too, deserve the blue skies of wide open windows, the luxury of mistakes that become ultimately inconsequential and girlhoods that don’t rush them out of double dutch ropes. The girls I’ve worked with and have walked alongside deserve more than the vocabulary of success but the tools for it. These are … entitlements. Audre Lorde said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and you don’t argue with Audre Lorde. But I do want to add something: We must also be mindful to not let the master bastardize truth and goodness. An entitlement is a human right. How did we become ashamed to say we have a right to a quality of life? Entitled to health care? Play? Food? To wear our hair the way we choose? Black girls deserve investments — financial and otherwise.

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