BET ON BLACK
By Jennifer Wells
As we close out the “official” and public celebration of Black History Month, I reflect on the rich, profound contribution of Black brilliance to organizing and paving a path to authentic power that transforms spaces for our political and economic liberation. Black folks have organized, resisted, and innovated for over 400 years in America. The effectiveness of Black organizing is without question. The reliance on Black women every election cycle speaks clearly to this. But while they are called on to save democracy every election year, Black women and their strategic leadership are too often placed on a proverbial shelf until needed again. The call to trust us appears limited to only certain spaces. If our movement truly wants to win, we must fully bet on Black women.
As a Black woman raised in the deep South, I have been surrounded by the evidence of Black women’s leadership, strategic thinking, tenacity, and organizing prowess continuously and consistently. I need only look within my own family. At her kitchen table, my grandmother and her sisters’ circle developed neighborhood mutual aid strategies along with joy-centered activities to alleviate some of the devastating impacts of the Great Depression and Jim Crow. With a deep, personal connection to Black women organizing their immediate community to meet their needs — and my Power 50 experience as a member of the inaugural cohort! — I first began to touch the root of my leadership and the space I could occupy.
Black women bring a natural intuitive leadership to organizing spaces. We are as astute and strategic as we are bold in action — a powerful combination that is hard to ignore. On the first evening of our Power 50 retreat, Community Change Co-President Dorian Warren dropped the data to support this truth: When women of color lead labor organizing efforts, they have a win rate of 89 percent. The power to transform and win is innate within the Black organizing sisterhood.
Black women are simply the surest bet in the movement. Is the movement ready to win?
For the bulk of 2021, I supported coalition building and organizing in West Virginia, where I have lived for close to two decades. Yes, Black women are everywhere. Yes, there is beautiful Black leadership in the hills of Appalachia, and I have had the privilege to witness and organize alongside some of the fiercest Black organizers. When Senator Manchin signaled his opposition to vital economic relief, WV Black folks, especially Black women organizers, began strategizing. It was the WV Black community led by a fiery squad of Black women — Takeiya Smith (Young WV), Loretta Young (Race Matters WV), Katonya Hart (Call to Action for Racial Equality), Crystal Good, and more — that demanded affordable and accessible child care, an expanded, fully refundable child tax credit, a pathway to citizenship, health care for all, and full voting rights.
Did you witness the power of the kayakers’ confrontation? Thank the Black West Virginia women who organized and turned out the WV contingency. And the protest and federal policy work are just one aspect of the organizing they lead. I’ve seen first-hand the impact of their year-round leadership: establishing the only WV Black newspaper (Black By God), organizing Black businesses to obtain ARPA funds, organizing WV churches to provide pandemic relief, and registering WV voters. They are strategists, campaigners, activists, and coalition-builders.
Yet, Black women still must fight to be at the table and for full autonomy to lead the work.
The question remains, when will we accept that Black women know the truth and the way? It is easy to repeat the phrases and sentiments to trust us. It is easy to wear the t-shirts with the legendary ancestors’ quotes: Thank you, Rosa, Ella, and Fannie Lou. What is not always easy is to step out of the way and away from the table to allow the fullness, complexity, beauty, and fierceness of Black women’s leadership to light the way. Yet, it is what we must do to win.