“People often assume what is best for Black girls without directly asking us for our own input on the topic.”
Rosa Parks is a name known round the world—often dubbed the mother of the modern-day civil rights movement, and the inspiration for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But far fewer know the story of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, nine months before Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat, was arrested and jailed for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
Colvin was inspired by Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month) lessons about Harriet Tubman, abolition and women’s rights. The day she refused to give up her seat, she told reporter Phillip Hoose:
“My head was just too full of Black history, you know—the oppression that we went through.”
Colvin became one of four plaintiffs in Gayle v. Browder (1956), the ruling that concluded Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional (the case was decided in favor of the girls). It has been reported that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) considered using Colvin’s case to challenge segregation laws, but they decided against it because of her age.
The decision not to use Colvin’s case due to her age did not surprise many of the teen girls who participated in We REIGN Inc’s five-week advocacy, activism and organizing (AAO) internship this summer—particularly how Colvin’s age became a hindrance to her freedom of expression and advocacy.
Throughout the summer, the Philadelphia based non-profit led attendees in exploring the personal characteristics that impact their political views. Together, the teens concluded that gender, race and age are the most salient factors impacting not just their politics, but how they are perceived by the world.
“People often assume what is best for Black girls without directly asking us for our own input on the topic,” said one participant.
Black Girl Politics
Like Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a New York-based organization that launched the National Agenda for Black Girls, We REIGN Inc is on a mission to support Black girls’ advocacy and freedom of expression. So, they created a space where their voices and policy priorities matter.
During the five-week AAO internship, the group asked Black girls what they need to become advocates, and they said they need political education that is “relatable, understandable, with opportunities to be a part of the work”—not just for themselves now, but so they can support future generations of Black girls. Their work created the foundation for Black Girl Politics.
Participants described Black Girl Politics as discourse about “social issues and solutions that directly impact the lives of Black girls.”
“Black Girl Politics is extremely essential because we are often overlooked, but we have issues that affect us daily in health care, education, our communities and neighborhoods—issues that deeply impact us,” another explained.
“There are so many standards about how I should act, what I should wear, how I should look, how I should talk and so much more, but I believe that’s wrong,” a rising 10th grade student shared. “Black Girl Politics is important because it helps me to define me. It teaches me that I am important, and so is what I stand up for.”
For starters, Black girls want to be represented in government. Pennsylvania, a state poised to play a pivotal role in the 2020 presidential election, has no Black women in the state Senate, nor among the state cabinet and executive officials.
This lack of representation is also noted in state and local executive offices across the nation: Black women have yet to attain governorship in any state and just seven of the nation’s 100 largest cities have Black women mayors.
Limited representation means issues and experiences that impact the lives of Black girls and women may not be considered, because they are not represented.
As one of our interns explained, “Black Girl Politics is the opportunity to fight for representation and advocate for ourselves.”
Developing a Political Platform
Together, the group moved beyond what some described as the “boring” theory of politics to create the Black Girl Agenda—a space for interns to practice advocacy and activism in their community.
When asked why they signed up for the second session, several girls described the internship as relatable and interesting.
“These workshops [are] teaching me the stuff I need to know not in an easy way, but a more understandable way. … For me, politics isn’t really interesting—it doesn’t grab my attention, but doing this helps me get into politics a little bit more—without it being straight boring.”
During the internship, participants were invited to use the National Agenda for Black Girls ten-point plan to identify political issues that impact them and their community, then develop a message and campaign to raise awareness and organize.
While many issues were identified as critical, the top three were:
- The right to be safe and have our physical, emotional and mental health honored, protected, and nurtured.
- The right to real sex education, contraception, tampons and pads.
- The right to justice and reparations in response to harm and sexual assault; when police officers murder people of color.
Thr program was designed to develop public engagement and policy analysis skills. Girls formed community groups to discuss their areas of concern, and developed political planks and one-page policy briefs to be shared with legislators. Their policy recommendations included increasing funding for comprehensive sexual health education including consent, continuing the fight for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act until it is national law, and funding for counseling not criminalization of domestic violence survivors.
All of the girls engaged in healthy debates about defunding the police and reproductive justice. They practiced listening to the perspectives of others and using research and facts to justify recommended actions.
For one participant, these conversations were the highlight of the program: “The most useful aspect of the Black Girl Agenda internship was sharing my ideas and opinions with other Black girls.”
Another told us that having the opportunity to discuss issues with girls who all wanted to make a change made her want to try harder to understand the issues.
Eighteen Is Not the Magic Number
A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress reported that civic knowledge and public engagement are at an all-time low.
While schools would be the most likely place for students to gain knowledge of politics, government and civic engagement, few states require more than a half-year of instruction in these areas.
This creates a major barrier for Black girls and women who are already underrepresented at all levels of government and have limited opportunities to learn about their rights as citizens, who represents them, and the policies that impact their daily lives.
Black girls are regularly excluded from decision-making tables and rarely engaged by legislators and policy makers. We REIGN’s goal, then, is to fill an educational gap and support the development of a coalition of Black girls in Philadelphia who are politically astute and prepared to advocate and organize around issues that are important in their lives and communities. So far, the group are succeeding.
Combating apathy requires representation, access and knowledge—the right to vote alone does not create civic engagement. If we want Black girls to be involved and invested in shaping the future of this country, starting at 18 is simply too late. Political education and civic engagement must begin early and be, as one participant explained, “… relatable, and personal to us.” Black girls want to know about their herstory, Black women activists and the concept of people power.
All youth will benefit from early access and multiple opportunities to learn about the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. But, like Claudette Colvin, Black girls want to participate, not just observe the work of what they labeled the fourth branch of government: the people.
Black girls are poised to lead the change the United States is waiting for, and they are no longer bringing folding chairs; they are taking their seat at the table.