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By Jan Etienne 

Support networks for black women in higher education makes perfect sense, yet we have been meeting together for decades with no signs of significant improvements to our educational lives. Today, however, there is a growing shift in the way that black women in Higher Education are responding to the demands from black activist sisters working on the front line of fighting social injustice.

Communities of Activism shows how black women educators are actively working together with activists outside higher education institutions, working as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ In new joined-up thinking, black women are enriching their lives and at the same time securing solutions to meeting the needs of black communities.

For those of us working inside the academy, our role in improving black attainment levels matters greatly and the connections we make between these important considerations and police brutality towards black bodies are undeniable and horrifying.

Who hears the pleas of the black activist educator sister and teaching assistant working to expose the merciless rapes and killings of black women during Covid 19 lockdowns in South Africa?  Who hears the yearnings of the black postgraduate grandmother who boldly challenges the weaknesses in voluntary sector strategies by promoting new ways to tackle knife crime among black youth?

As global tensions heighten in Black Lives Matter protests provoked by the killing of George Floyd, where do the contemplations of the black female senior university lecturer go, as she confronts racism in today’s police diversity training?

When the British education system is, as ever, disproportionately failing black boys, who blames the single black mother and student of Criminology,  when she decides to seek alternative early years education for her child? In our intergenerational conversations we ask: What can a young black female graduate, youth worker and blogger tell us about the creation of drill music and the misrepresentation of the anger in the lyrics?

Such are the deliberations and reflections of black women educators, researchers, and community activists at an urgent time in the history of black lives. Today, we black women are bolder and stronger in our collaborative efforts with our activist sisters in our search of sustaining strategies that deliver effective communities of activism. We are demanding change and pushing boundaries in both our insider and outsider activist roles.

However, conducting critical black feminist research matters greatly, and we are strongly grounded in our commitment to black feminist epistemology and strive to expose the usefulness of Womanist evidence-based research so our voices will be heard.

‘We are aware that maintaining the invisibility of we black women and our ideas in not only the United States but in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and wherever black women live, has been critical in ensuring that social inequalities are maintained (Collins: 2000).

Black women in higher education are bringing new energy to activist work. We feel liberated as we come together to reclaim our sisterhood now that black people, and black youth in particular, are under siege. Our energy comes from a united and determined effort to withdraw from agonizing over discrimination and take charge of our destiny. We demand a new conversation about black lives and black academic success. As black women, we reject the derisory measures we are generally offered, disguised as significant steps towards progress. Such measures include the forums that inappropriately speak in our name but ignore our contributions when they are most needed. Activist sisters, both black and white, are collaborating with us and confronting the demons of structural racism that haunt every aspect of our social, economic and educational lives and impede our work in inspiring a new generation. In fostering a Womanist approach to education and learning, we are resolute in our pursuit of new opportunities for collaboration.

Mirza and Gunaratnam (2014: 3) assert that black women activists have long drawn on their collective social and cultural knowledge to form strategic spaces of radical opposition and struggle for new forms of gendered citizenship in their communities. Coalitions have been, and continue to be, vital for black British feminist activism to thrive.

As black women in the various activist roles and educational spaces we occupy, we have never felt a more urgent pressure to represent. In this volume we share experiences of pain and suffering – of invisibility – but also of solidarity, challenge and success. We reveal the strategies that have enriched our lives as we find ways to support one another and have our say on initiatives to empower our community. Our desire for separate spaces of thought where we recover ourselves (hooks, 1990), is even more relevant today.

As well as navigating structural racism inside the academy in times of horrifying attacks on black lives, our determination to shatter glass ceilings and work alongside our activist sisters has never been stronger. In our insider roles, we are focusing our teaching, research and strategies to decolonise the curriculum.

Collaborative teams of activist sisters continue to rise in new and exciting social media platforms.

Black women are collaborating across the African diaspora and confronting change globally. We are listening to our activist sisters worldwide and together we become stronger. There are positive ways forward in a collective struggle for lasting change which now appear to be getting close at last.

Dr Jan Etienne is Honorary Research Fellow and Chair of the Womanism, Activism Higher Education Research Network At Birkbeck, University of London.

More by this author: Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of first-generation African Caribbean women  (2016)


Charles, E (2019) Decolonising the Curriculum, Insights 32 (1)

Collins, P.H (1990) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

hooks, b. (1990) ‘Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness’. In hooks, b. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Mirza, H.S. and Gunaratnam, Y. (2014) ‘“The branch on which I sit”: Reflections on black British feminism’. Feminist Review, 108, 125–33.

Patterson, A. (2016) Black Feminist Thought as Methodology: Examining Intergenerational Lived Experiences of Black Women, Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, University of California Press

Richardson, A.(2019) ‘Dismantling respectability:  The rise of new womanist communication models in the era of black lives matter (2019) Journal of Communication. Vol 69 (2)

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