To our beloved Black girls:
I love you. From the creative ways that you think and talk, to your style, smile, and joy. I see you, beyond your flaws, anger and hurt. Beyond the trauma that you’ve experienced, that makes you cry silently – you deserve to be protected, seen, heard, and loved.
Despite the deep understanding I have of how sexism, racism, power and patriarchy function in this country, our collective failure to protect you time and time again leaves me stunned.
I did not expect that yet another generation of young women would experience the very same degradation that Tiffany Hawkins felt in 1991 when she sued R. Kelly for sexual abuse that started when she was 15 years old. That same year, during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing to the United States Supreme Court, an African-American woman named Anita Hill testified about her experiences with the judge who was chosen to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall – of all people. Sixteen-year-old me was completely consumed by the theatrics of the ordeal and enamored by this young, brilliant professor who painstakingly detailed sexual harassment that she experienced while working for the nominee.
I could only imagine the courage that it took for these Black women to publicly accuse powerful Black women of violations that were not yet widely recognized as a violation in the first place. How brave they both were to recount what may have been some of the most traumatic experiences of their life in public. How scared they must have been.
We are at a moment when history is once again repeating itself. Earlier this month, Lifetime aired the six-episode docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning, a follow-up to last year’s groundbreaking Part I. GGE was proud to partner with Lifetime TV for this release, put out our own Community Viewing Guide for those watching at home, and I was honored to serve as one of many activists featured alongside the brave survivors.
Watching Part II: The Reckoning on live television, I can only imagine the courage that it took for these Black women to publicly accuse a man as powerful and beloved as R. Kelly for violations that no one wanted to recognize. I was right back where I was in 1991, in quiet awe of these survivors’ bravery, while my heart hurt when I thought about how scared they must have been.
I’ve devoted my life to young women, particularly Black girls, to help them advocate for themselves and develop ways to reshape the worlds in which they live. Young people have always been at the forefront of movements for social change, and 2020 is no different. From the young leaders who sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, to the survivors of the tragic Parkland shooting, to the countless young people have raised their hands and said, “me too,” our world is changing because young people that believe that a better, more equitable world is possible.
I am not yet an elder, but I am not a young person anymore. I sit squarely in the middle of our newest, most energized young doers and dreamers, and the seasoned activists and advocates who have witnessed more devastating lows and inspiring victories than most of us can imagine. From this place, I can see how watching “Surviving R. Kelly – Part II” could inspire someone to fight with all her might – and also, how it can trigger survivors to shut down as they grapple with their own experience of sexual violence.
I am here to tell all of you that it was not your fault, that there is support, that healing is possible, and to encourage all of you to push through the disappointment and channel your righteous indignation into righteous action.
At GGE, we recently launched A National Agenda for Black Girls to center the needs of Black girls in the 2020 presidential election. We’re also working with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Dr. Monique Morris to pass the #PushoutAct and end the systemic patterns that keep Black girls from finishing their education. Over the next year, we will engage in multiple strategies to make sure that Black girls are front and center as our political waters are tested, perhaps like never before.
Activism isn’t for everyone – and there is no one way to do it. Regardless of how you engage, know that we are here, linked arm-in-arm with countless organizations, activists and survivors – and we are on the right side of justice. Onward!
Joanne N. Smith is the founding President and CEO of Girls for Gender Equity, an intergenerational advocacy organization centering girls of color in the movement to end gender-based violence. Smith’s leadership helped to secure a $30M commitment from government and philanthropy to invest in for girls and gender non-conforming youth of color ages 12-24. To get involved with Girls for Gender Equity, sign up here.