For Black History Month, we honor and celebrate the fabulous black feminists and wonderful womanists who continue to build the feminist movement and bend the arc of history toward justice. Today’s Fantastic Black Feminist is Kwajelyn Jackson-Kwajelyn currently works as the Community Education and Advocacy Director at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Our Spring 2017 intern, Henrieta Muradzikwa, conducted the interview.
Your style and personality are both so bold, from your deep red lipstick to your unapologetic attitude, where do you draw your confidence from and what advice could you possibly lend to young black girls who might not be as daring as you?
I think it is important to be your whole self everywhere you go. It is hard work to try to manipulate yourself to fit others’ expectations, and ideals all of the time. I have found that if I am authentically myself in all the spaces I enter, others will adjust to me, to my presence, to the way I take up space. I don’t think everyone has to wear red lipstick, but finding the things that make you feel the most authentically you and never compromising on those things, refusing to shrink.
Your fashion sense is the bomb.com, who are your fashion icons and inspirations?
I think that I get most of my sense of style from my mother. I grew up in a house where appearance and uniqueness was valued and appreciated. I feel like I learned from a young age that standing out and looking good was valued and made me special. Some of that came from being the only Black girl in some spaces. So, to reiterate an earlier point, I chose to shine rather than shrink, and my clothes were a reflection of that. Now I spend way too much time obsessing about how I want to feel and what I want to project for the day through my clothes and it is an important part of my identity.
Who is your feminist icon?
I have always connected with the principles of feminism, even before I had a language for it, but I think it really solidified for me when I entered Spelman College. Prior to Spelman, I was trying to figure out how to be authentically me in a world that was telling me I was simultaneously too Black and not Black enough, as is the experience of many Black women. I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a black woman. And Spelman showed me that there were so many different ways for that to look and feel, that there were a multitude of ways to live in the world as a Black woman, each as genuine as the next, none invalidating another. That was where I started thinking more about systematic oppression, sexism, rape culture, and intersectionality. All of the pieces clicked together in a way that helped to set my future trajectory towards reproductive justice.
When did you begin to identify with feminism? Was there a moment that just turned on a light in a room for you?
Again, I am very influenced by my mother and grandmothers. All of them taught, all of them went to college, all of them were leaders. My maternal grandmother had a master’s degree in education, and was the principal of a 4-high school complex and active in the civil rights movement. My mother worked in social justice and anti-oppression movements, and ultimately reproductive health as well, and now works with me at Feminist Women’s Health Center. As far as public figures, I love Janelle Monae, Janet Mock, Monica Simpson, Yamani Hernandez, Kierra Johnson, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
Working as the Community Education and Advocacy Director for an Abortion Clinic must bear a world of pressure, but what has been your most rewarding moment in your career?
One of my proudest moments was in 2016 when we held an art exhibit inside the Georgia State Capitol called Typical American Families to highlight our first piece of proactive legislation, called the Strong Families Resolution. In order to elevate the voices of GA families, Strong Families and FWHC partnered with artists Carlton Mackey and Ross Oscar Grant to expand upon their photography project Typical American Families, and show the stories (with both portraits and testimonials) of our families and the challenges they face. We built upon their initial premise and explored the complex realities of families across metro Atlanta, exploring what their families need to thrive and the barriers they must overcome. The stories are centered on reproductive justice, healthcare access, economic challenges, discrimination, documentation status, age, incarceration, and other common challenges that are facing families. We also highlight how intersectional identities, like race, class, and gender, as well as family composition, affect a family’s ability to access the resources they need to thrive in a state like Georgia.
Our initial exhibition in February 2016 featured families selected by community partners SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, Racial Justice Action Center member groups Women on the Rise and LaGender, Forward Together’s Echoing Ida program, and FWHC’s Lifting Latina Voices Initiative, as well as portraits from the original artists collection. These were families with single parents, interracial, multiethnic, and interreligious families, chosen families, queer families, trans families, and families separated by incarceration. The photos were displayed in the State Capitol Rotunda for legislators and the general public to view. We held a brief press conference featuring legislators, speakers from the families, the artists and the host organizations. Though the resolution didn’t pass, we had an incredible day bringing voices into the State House that are not heard there often enough, speaking their truth.
As a black woman in today’s world, there are so many obstacles and barriers trying their best to stop you from going that extra mile, what or who has helped you smash down those walls and be a pioneer for women’s rights?
The work is hard. Fighting injustice is hard and feels unending. When you are an activist or an organizer in social justice, it is easy to burn out because you simply go so hard without stopping sometimes. Self-care is crucial! You will get weary and frustrated when faced with extreme opposition. Working for an abortion provider is challenging too, and I have to remind myself sometimes that it can be dangerous, that my safety might be at risk just walking into work. But being a Black woman, my safety is at risk just existing, so I roll with it.
I also think that some of the drive to keep pushing comes from a form of internalized racial inferiority that tells us that we have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good. The mediocrity is not acceptable for us and excellence is the only standard. We don’t often give ourselves permission to make mistakes, to try and fail, to just skate by. I try very hard to not let perfectionism infect my life, but it seeps in sometimes. I think my optimism helps me trust that ultimately we will win. I really believe that our efforts will not be for nothing, that even if the wins are small and incremental they matter, and that just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.
There is a stereotype that once you get tattoos done or piercing, you reduce your chances of employment. However, I noticed that you have a very detailed tattoo on your left arm – which I must say is beautiful, and you have a job which actually gives women more power over their bodies. From your experiences, has having body art in the work place ever honestly prevented you from being hired for a job or actually hiring a new employee?
I love tattoos and have more than I can count. This again goes back to the idea of being my whole self everywhere I go. So I made a decision that these were going to be a part of the way I exist in the world and decided that there are no inappropriate places to show my tattoos. I believe the same for others. One example of this experience with an employee was with my Public Affairs Coordinator, who has a septum piercing. She was turning it up every day for work and I only saw it when we were traveling. I told her that if it is important to you and reflect a part of who you are, then you should wear it. If it isn’t an important part of your identity, do what you want, but know that you have a right to be your whole self in this office, in the Capitol building, in every place you choose to go. If others can’t see past your piercing to listen to what you have to say, we need to push them to get over it rather than conforming to their standard. We decide what is appropriate. We set the tone for how we show up. That is my feminism.
In your Twitter bio, you describe yourself as “unapologetically intersectional”, do you mind elaborating more on what this means to you?
I believe that all forms of oppression are linked to one another and cannot be separated. I believe that the multiple identities that we hold complicate and compound the way we experience oppression and the world. I don’t think one can compartmentalize their identities or the identities of others in order to deal with oppression or get free. I think it is past time for us to work intersectionally on issues that are affecting the places where communities overlap. So for me I will never stop pressing for intersectionality in our movements above all else. That is the only way we can truly get free.
Definitions are more than stretched online; a man who spared a dollar and gave it to a homeless man might describe himself as a “human rights activist” on Instagram. Social media is flooded with young women describing themselves as “activists” but they truly have no idea what the word means. What experiences outside of your line of work have you had that might equate you to an activist?
I tend to think of an activist as someone who is ready to challenge and push the conventional and comfortable in order to achieve justice. An activist is justice centered above all else and willing to immediately respond to oppression. An activist is sensitive to injustice and provoked to act. I think it is different from an organizer who could be more vision-focused and strategic than immediately action oriented. Often an activist needs an organizer to plug them in to the place where they can be the most effective or to create the structure around an action. And some folks are both and can move seamlessly between roles. I most often think of myself more as an organizer, someone who works to both support and equip the activists. I am a talker and a planner, I like developing programs, thinking about impact, plugging people in places where they can shine and be their best selves, but I am also willing to just show up where I am needed.
In her TED talk and her book “We Should All Be Feminists”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the concern of one a Nigerian male acquaintance in regards to her identifying as a feminist. She wrote, how he asked if Chimamanda was worried about intimidating men and ending up unmarried. Her classical response was “I was not worried at all—it had not even occurred to me to be worried, because a man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in”. What message would you have for young feminists who look up to feminist leaders like Chimamanda and yourself, experience bullying and are taunted about demanding equal rights for women?
Feminism to me is about being recognized and seen and valued as your whole unapologetically authentic self. For me is about self-determination, bodily autonomy, and freedom. It is permission to be the multidimensional, complex, complete, evolving, changing, dynamic beings that we were always meant to be — Existing out loud without apology. And that also means that you get to determine how you show up for yourself and for others. I think that feminists should trust themselves and their truth and their experiences, and question and challenge what they are told to feel and believe, but also be willing to grow and evolve in their thinking when presented with new information. Be open to learning new perspectives and experiences that aren’t like their own, but also grounded in values and principles that can be used as a litmus test for new concepts.
We here at Feminist Campus extend many thanks to Kwajelyn for sharing her story and her work with us for Black Herstory Month! Keep checking back for more in the series this month!