In this podcast, which was produced as part of Project SAFE, Afua Addo is joined by Farah Tanis, co-founder and executive director of Black Women’s Blueprint. Tanis discusses the creation of the Blueprint and highlights its work organizing with black women on issues that impact their daily lives. She points to the high rate of domestic violence and sexual assault and exploitation confronting black women and the importance of continued advocacy for criminalized and incarcerated black women.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2016-TA-AX-K022 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program/exhibition are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Afua ADDO: This is Afua Addo, coordinator of gender justice initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. I’m being joined today by Farah Tanis, co-founder and executive director of the Black Women’s Blueprint. Together, along with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and Reverend Dr. Cheryl Dudley at American Baptist Churches Metropolitan New York, we operate Project SAFE, an Office on Violence Against Women-funded initiative geared towards addressing the hyper-criminalization of black women with histories of domestic violence and sexual assault and providing ongoing training and technical assistance for those agencies and direct service providers engaging criminalized black women with histories of domestic violence and sexual assault. [This is] the first time that a federal administration has highlighted money specifically for this marginalized population.
So, Farah, before we jump into the nuts and bolts of why we work together and how we work, I think I mentioned to you that I wanted to highlight Black Women’s Blueprint (BWB) vis-à-vis your Facebook, your illustrious Facebook page, and all of the love that you’ve received from the many lives that you touch. And, no doubt, anyone who is interested in learning more about BWB can visit the website, but I just wanted to share that Black Women’s Blueprint envisions a world where women and girls of African descent are fully empowered and where gender, race, and other disparities are erased. So Black Women's Blueprint really centers the experiences of women marginalized within the margins, and, then, so on and so forth.
And this comes from someone whose life BWB has touched: “Black Women’s Blueprint does the work to help the various forms of race and gender-based violence in our lives, from economic, to domestic, to judicial. Then, on top of the policy work, Black Women’s Blueprint outdoes itself and provides a safe healing space to come home to. No words to express how much I love BWB.” And then, “Coming into this space I felt sacred. The co-founders of BWB approach this work with humility, and I honor their courage. I would be remiss if I don’t take the time to publicly give my respect.” And then that quote ends with “#iamnotmysisterskeeperiammysister.” So, I welcome you, Farah, and invite you to respond to that wonderful praise.
Farah TANIS: Wow, well, I mean we are in constant, constant gratitude, and that is all we can be in, in humility. We’re in constant gratitude because it is an extreme privilege to be able to do this work. It’s an extreme privilege to be able to do this work as a survivor, and to be able to do this work in partnership, in locked arms with other survivors. So, I honor and accept everything that is said about us when it is positive [and] when it is a critique. This is what helps us grow; this is why we exist. Movements don’t progress, and they don’t grow, and we don’t grow individually and on every level and aspect of society, without that type of feedback.
So, I am so grateful, and I am just always in awe of every single person that comes in touch and in communication with Black Women’s Blueprint because we wouldn’t exist without every single person and every single survivor that says, “I want to be part of this organization. I want to be in mutual relationship and mutual, radical love, and organizing, and empowerment with the organization.” So, when we see something like that on Facebook or we get that type of feedback, we know that we are in mutuality with everyone, and so we feel the same way about every single person who touches the organization and feels that the organization has had the opportunity to touch their lives.
ADDO: Absolutely. You definitely, no doubt, have because Black Women’s Blueprint has taken on an amazing feat of approaching the subject of interpersonal, systemic, and structural trauma and bias, as well as advocating [for] and generating policy reform. So, you all started out—many people may not know this—in response to the 2008 Democratic primaries: the focus on the blueprints presented by the two administrations and the elections where black women, you say, were being asked whether they were voting our race or our gender, right? For Obama or for Clinton.
So, from that, you have responded to gender-based violence, poverty, the hyper-criminalization of black women and girls. So, out of a political lens, you’ve opened up to more of a societal response to the marginalization of these voices. What do you think has been missing over the course of the years in the discourse of activism and advocacy for this population?
TANIS: I think what’s been missing is even more of an expansion of a space for that voice. And I say this, and then I sort of take two steps back, because one of the things that we always say is, “We shouldn't have to ask for space. We should take space.” Right? Building power and deploying our own power is about taking space, because space is a right. It is our right to have as much space as any other human being on this planet. So, there’s no need to ask for permission. Right? We should just take space without asking for permission and without being challenged on being able to take space to address issues that are our real lived experiences, to fight for our rights and the rights of our families and the rights of our children, and to fight for our bodies—for bodily integrity, and bodily autonomy, and the right to shelter, to housing, the basic human right to food, to safety, to security, and to freedom, right?
ADDO: Right, right.
TANIS: So there really should be no permission to ask, and I feel what’s missing in the conversation and what’s missing in the movement today—and this is from my perspective, from my vantage point—is that there isn’t an acceptance and a sitting with the fact that we each have these basic inalienable, universal, human rights to take space, to be okay and sit, and celebrate, and revel in our triumphs over struggle and in our identities, the various identities that we all possess.
So, there's a lot of conversation missing, and I didn’t answer that question by saying, “Well you know, we need more services for black women. We need more advocacy for black women.” I think that what we need—or what I know, as a black woman, as a survivor, I need—is to be able to continue to deploy my power, the power I know already exists within me, without just being someone’s client and feeling like I have to come to a space to become empowered. But there is power that can be tapped into each and every one of us.
So, I think that that’s the conversation. We’re coming from a space of deficit when we think about black women, when we think about the most vulnerable among us, instead of coming from a space where we are fully already in possession of what we need to step out there and claim our freedom—whether it’s personal, whether it’s social, or even political. So, I think there’s a deeper conversation that we need to have around power. There’s a deeper conversation we need to have around identity. And there's a much deeper conversation we need to have about how we end oppression in mutuality and individually as well.
ADDO: Wow, Farah, you just hit the nail on the head. I don’t like to surprise people in interviews, but someone sent me a tweet, retweeted from someone this weekend, and it reads—and this is just in line with everything you just talked about: power, space, and identity, and reclaiming, not re-appropriating, but re-devising how we approach that identity. She wrote, “Being a black woman is people claiming hating you was a stage in their development they’ve now unlearned.” Now that is interesting when you talk about mutual work towards dismantling those perceptions of us, right, and those expectations of us. So, it definitely lends to how we heal, the perceptions of how we heal, and what it means to be either strong, either to thrive, or just to be—that it doesn’t have to be mired in this negativity.
TANIS: I think it’s an interesting thing because… in Brittney Cooper’s new book entitled Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Super Power, right—
TANIS: —she talks a lot about that. And I say this all the time, so this resonated with me, and I’m like, “Brittney, it’s like we have been communicating telepathically on this particular issue.” [Laughter] because so many of us understand and have this particular analysis, but we don’t necessarily have the opportunity to sit with each other and be in conversation about that analysis and to share it with everyone else. And, so, when Brittney says, in her book, that she doesn’t judge herself, or that she is resisting this notion that we have to judge ourselves and we have to internalize, or see ourselves, or operate, or show up in the world in response to how other people feel, and see, and experience us—that to me is the most powerful statement. And when she talks about discovering your superpower, to me, that is the superpower: it is undoing and dismantling that crooked room, the crooked room that Melissa Harris-Perry talked about in her book Sister Citizen.
It’s undoing those crooked images, those crooked ideologies that have existed ever since they brought us to the American shores from the continent, whether it’s North, or Central, or South America. So it’s incredibly important to me to hear that and know that a lot of black women—especially black women who are already doubly, triply, quadrupl[y] marginalized and oppressed—to hear that there is this sense, [this] understanding [that] there’s a confrontation, daily confrontation, and a daily challenge of knowing how people are perceiving us and knowing how [when] we walk in the world, we are misrepresented, we are misperceived, we are… And we talked about being misnamed.
ADDO: Yes, yes.
TANIS: And misidentified—
TANIS: And misdiagnosed. It exists—it exists. And it’s real, and for some of us, it’s a real lived experience. But when Brittney Cooper talks about discovering her superpower in Eloquent Rage, it’s really a testament to this idea and to other lived experiences—and to where we can be, and to the potential of walking in the world with self-assurance, and really knowing and acknowledging who we are and discovering who we are, regardless of what the outside perceptions are about us. So that when oppression occurs, we understand that there is no way, there is no right to attack, to abuse, to imprison, to brutalize us in the way that we’ve been brutalized in this past few centuries in this country and everywhere else.
ADDO: Wow, well, you talk about the superpower, and I’m wondering if that would be more personal. And then I think about your work as a superwoman. You’re definitely wearing many, many hats. And then also just being yourself at the same time. That’s a job in and of itself, and a vocation. And then BWB has stepped up and claimed its own superpower in a sense, as an organization, as activists. So, a few weeks ago I sat down with Reverend Dudley, and she addressed the reluctant leadership of student survivors of gun violence growing on the heels of years and years of activism by students and youth of color. Then she shared that there were many reluctant leaders out of the ashes of trauma that find themselves the voice and face of many.
And, without a doubt, Black Women’s Blueprint has stepped to the forefront of activism and advocated for space within which to be heard and seen. So, I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what Black Women’s Blueprint does, what you say you do, and then the additional activism. Even just last weekend, you all were down in Philadelphia, and I’m hoping you can share with our audience a little bit about your responses to current events, as well as your response to a local matter we had last week that BWB was able to step up and hold space for. So, if you don’t mind…
TANIS: Absolutely. Well, Black Women’s Blueprint, as you talked about…the idea came out of the 2007/2008 Presidential election. Again, around a very political time for us where Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were vying for the Democratic Party nomination. And we, as black women, were being asked whether we were voting our race or gender. So, we decided to come together as we followed these two candidates very closely, and they were each debating their blueprints for change and their blueprints for fixing the economy, for fixing healthcare. But no one, really, was debating any blueprint for fixing the issues, or for addressing the issues, that are specifically impacting black women: the high rates of intimate partner homicides, the high rates of sexual assault, the high rates of poverty, the high rates of incarceration, the high rates of involvement with the child welfare system with our children being taken away, and the high rates of health—the specific health issues. At the time, young black women were the fastest group being infected with HIV.
And, so, we really wanted to focus on these issues and create our own blueprint. We wanted to preserve, as well, a blueprint that we knew had already existed, had already been given to us by activists who came before us, by feminists, and by womanists who came before us and just build on that.
It was nothing new. Black women have been advocating and building communities for centuries, so we wanted to continue that legacy, and to preserve that legacy, and to build on that. So, our work really has been focused on the issues and challenges spoken by our communities, spoken by black women themselves in some of these meetings. And the number one issue that came up, the number one commonality that we all had, was the fact that we were, each and every single one of us, a survivor of either rape, or sexual assault, or sexual abuse, or sexual exploitation, or human trafficking. There had been some form of harm done to us, and that harm, in contemporary terms, was happening in our communities, in our bedrooms, in our backyards, in our churches. And, so, it was those we loved and those we trust who were hurting us.
So, we wanted to address those issues, which is why… when you think about Black Women’s Blueprint and the work that we do, we focus a great deal on bodily autonomy. And we focus a great deal on safety, and security, and ending sexual violence in all its forms and across the spectrum. And we focus on that by looking at how the criminal justice system makes it even more difficult and makes it even more unsafe for black women when they’re sexually assaulted or experience intimate partner violence. And then we focused on economic justice because many of us had also been experiencing, at the moment, either homelessness, the inability to eat, living paycheck to paycheck, or having been homeless in the past, or having been court-involved or in prison in the past, or having lived and grown up in poverty where some of us knew that sometimes it would be days before we would have a meal—or a family member, or a parent, or parents, could have a meal on the table for us.
So, we all knew what those experiences were like, and we wanted to build a blueprint out of that to be able to address that in mutuality and build a community where we could organize on the issues that impact our lives. So, we’re involved in many, many different initiatives; however, they all fall really within four categories. We have four mandates: truth, justice, healing, and reconciliation. In the four categories that we work on really are: prevention, advocacy, healing, and then that historical preservation, which is through art and culture, which really, really connects with that healing work for us. And, so, that’s the work that we do. We have worked with the Office on Violence Against Women in several ways, including with black colleges and universities across the nation, training faculty and students. We have organized with students, 100% student survivor-led campaigns around Title IX and other policies that impact their lives on campuses.
We have served survivors. We’ve engaged survivors in healing work and counseling work. We engage in very powerful community and solidarity building in national campaigns, like our Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which took approximately six to seven years to manifest. It was survivor-led, it was focused on the United States. It was focused on both the historical and contemporary experiences with black women and girls, not only with sexual assault, but also with forced reproduction when we think about the plantations. So, when we focus on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, through that Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we collected and listened, we cried, we cheered, as over 1,000 of us shared our stories online and in person, speaking truth to power, to hold our harm doers accountable.
Our human rights organizing has impacted the United Nations, the Office on Violence Against Women, the Center for Disease Control, federal and local lawmakers, members of the State Department, as well as a funding community, which is incredibly important. And more so, I would say, even more important to us, those we feel could be our most powerful allies. And it is those who live with us or in community with us: our black brothers, our black sons, our black fathers, who really should be our biggest allies in terms of eliminating violence against women and other genders in our black communities. So, that is really the work that we do in, you know, I want to say in a nutshell, but it wasn’t so much in a nutshell. [Laughter] that’s really who we are. That’s how we show up in the world.
We’ve engaged in several other activities as well, as you know. We were the conveners of the March for Black Women. We partnered with [the] Trans Sistas of Color project in Detroit, the Black Youth Project in Chicago, and Sister Song came in, in the last few days in Atlanta. But we did the March for Black Women in Washington, D.C., which really... it was not only a mass mobilization centered on black women’s lives, but it was a reminder to every single one of us that so long as black women are killed, whether by the police, or by an intimate partner… so long as black women are taken or go missing, so long as we are raped by friends, or by strangers, or by nationally renowned predators, right?—we’re seeing that a lot— there can be no justice.
So, we wanted to organize a march that focuses on black women for a change. So that was one of our most recent and amazing accomplishments, in addition to the work we’ve done with groups around the country. Mute R. Kelly, and, of course, Cosby Watch, and really… what a backlash we’ve gotten because of that work because we are addressing issues of sexual violence and just blatant sexual exploitation that we, as a community, have a very, very difficult time admitting to— and a very, very difficult time challenging and holding harm doers accountable for.
ADDO: Wow, Farah. This is a remarkable undertaking for Black Women’s Blueprint and for yourself and your staff. I am always left speechless after listening to the diversity among your programming, and your outreach, and your activism. I would ask if you could tell us how someone might get involved with BWB and what possible opportunities there are for engagement.
TANIS: There are several opportunities for engagement. I think that folks who are looking for a way to become active in advocacy can join us as we fight for the Violence Against Women Act, as we are doing work. We are the anchoring organization for Cities for CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination) which is really a women’s bill of rights across gender. It’s cis and trans women coming together and really talking about how do we get a women’s bill of rights that covers every single one of us that considers every woman and girl across identity in the city? We’re also working on Emerging Girls, so really working with youth this weekend. Our Museum of Women’s Resistance is incredibly inspiring and a creative space to come in, and talk about, and engage in art—to be able to dialogue and use that art to dialogue with others.
Connect with us on www.blackwomensblueprint.org. Connect with us via our blog as well, which is mamablack.org. Again, to connect with us at our organization, it’s www.blackwomensblueprint.org or mamablack.org, which is our blog. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org as well. We check that all day, every day. So please do become involved. Become involved in Emerging Girls. Become involved in Cities for CEDAW, which is a multi-city advocacy project— and where, in New York, we are making it specific that it needs to center trans women and all women. Connect with us as we do our direct action and we hold Cosby accountable, or Kelly accountable, and the many other harm doers in our community. Connect with us as we seek restoration and reparation, and as we seek healing, and as we also seek reconciliation, which is a process of transforming the ways in which we regard each other, or disregard each other in our communities, starting from our children on up. So please do connect with us, yes.
ADDO: Wonderful, Farah. Thank you so much for sharing how much you all do for the wholeness and oneness of our community all at once, for inviting everyone in, holding space for all experiences and a diversity of histories, and stories, and narratives. And I look forward to working with Black Women’s Blueprint. If anyone is interested in learning more about how we work together to implement Project SAFE, you can visit us at the Center for Court Innovation’s website, courtinnovation.org, as well as blackwomensblueprint.org. So, thank you, Farah, for your time today.
TANIS: Thank you so much.
ADDO: And thank [you] everyone out there. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we head on out?
TANIS: I would call on community to not forget our sisters in prison.
TANIS: And to not forget our sisters who are being brutalized by the police, as our brothers are being brutalized by the police. Take to the streets for our sisters. Advocate for our sisters. Write your op-eds around the experiences of women in prison, women who are court-involved, women who are at risk for losing their children, women who are vulnerable economically and have to engage in all forms of strategies to survive. So, please, keep the most vulnerable in our thoughts. It is not out of sight, out of mind. Because somebody is locked up does not mean that they should not be on our minds. So, on behalf of all of our sisters, I ask you to hold them in your hearts, and advocate where you can, and give where you can to organizations who are working towards their freedom and towards dignity for our most vulnerable. Thank you.
ADDO: Thank you, Farah. Farah Tanis, the co-founder and executive director of the Black Women’s Blueprint was joined by me, Afua Addo, the coordinator with Gender Justice Initiatives at the Center for Court Innovation. And we both, along with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and American Baptist Churches provide ongoing insight and support to Project SAFE through the Office on Violence Against Women. So, I thank you again today for your time, Farah. Have a wonderful week, everyone.