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 Keri Gray-Keri is an organizer, activist and advocate working to build programming for youth that is centered on honoring the multiple intersections of the black experience. She currently works with the Harriet Tubman Collective-a group of disabled Black organizers working for radical inclusion in the Movement for Black Lives, serves as the Education Chair of the Black Youth Project 100’s D.C Chapter, and is currently the Manager of the US Business Leadership Network’s Rising Leaders Mentoring Program. Our Spring 2017 intern, Henrieta Muradzikwa, conducted the interview.
Besides the amazing color of your skin, what do you love most about being a brown skinned girl?
The natural texture of my hair. Over the last couple of years, I have been intentionally exploring the beauty of Blackness in its most natural forms. My hair being one of them, my hair is a testament of my journey, it is a radical statement, it is a struggle (lol), and it is just so beautiful.
Do you belong to the BeyHive or RihNavy?
BeyHive, 100%. I love me some Rihanna as well, but if I had to choose…I’m getting in formation.
What advice can you give to other brown skinned girls hoping to one day follow in your footsteps and get a college education in a world which stereotypes us all as being uneducated and bound to amount to very little?
College is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. In my undergraduate years, I spent a lot of time organizing people of color and black women, in particular, around social justice topics. I also engaged in a lot of organizing to simply create space for people of color at a predominately white institution. It was very rewarding, and very challenging. In my Master’s program I spent a lot of time trying to learn theories and become a “respected scholar” through my research. I learned a lot, but I seriously struggled to gain a scholarly education that was never designed for black women. I was not the only black person to enroll in my graduate program, but I was the only black person to graduate. I often felt isolated and misunderstood. Most of the black people that I talked to, never felt “smart” enough for college. I have found that black people often question their skills, such as in writing, grammar, and the ability to communicate effectively. I would advise black women to believe in their power, and establish unmovable standards. College is a constant test. Not just in your classes, but also a test of life lessons. When we, as black women, know the power and value of our knowledge (which includes our life experiences) then we will be extremely successful. Don’t let any doubts stop you from expressing yourself or pursuing your dreams.
Now onto the bigger fish, please tell us more about your program, The Rising Leaders Mentoring Program and how more students of all races can apply?
My work over the years has really focused on how can we create more access and opportunities for young people, and especially young people from underrepresented populations. One of the ways in which I do this is by managing the US Business Leadership Network’s Rising Leaders Mentoring Program. The Rising Leaders Mentoring Program is designed to connect college students and recent graduates with disabilities to a mentor who works for one of our corporate partners. Too many young people are never connected to a mentor, which is unfortunate because mentorship has a strong influence on employment. The programs that I work with build student’s self-confidence, connects them with mentors, expands their social and professional networks, and challenges their ability to deliver tangible and quality work. Transitioning from school to work can be a very challenging process, but there are many of us who work to ensure students have the resources and support they need to be successful.
Your Twitter bio shares how you “love your black disabled womanhood”, in some parts of the world all three defining characteristics are almost burdens, but you’ve made it empowering. Would you mind sharing more on how you turned the tables in your favor and hopefully inspire more to have your sass?
I really appreciate this question. I wish I had this grand response about the definite beauty of being a Black Disabled Woman. However, my journey of self-love has been just that…a journey. I have been actively silenced by many men over the years. I have experienced sexual abuse. I have been told that I do not do enough, and even that I am not enough. At the age of 8 years old I acquired my disabilities (my right leg is amputated and I have hearing loss). To this day, I am sensitive about inclusion because of the many times I was left behind as a child by both friends and family. Black women experience a lot of trauma. Yet despite all of these experiences, my Twitter bio shows that I am choosing to actively love my Black Disabled Womanhood. I have found, through experience, that if I do not love myself and all of my intersections then I will not fight for myself. And if I do not fight for myself then all of life’s circumstances will destroy the beauty, power, and absolute magic in being a Black Disabled Woman.
If you could, what improvements would you make to the Movement for Black Lives?
I love the Movement for Black Lives. The struggle with the Movement is that we do not have enough time or resources. We are actively fighting for Black freedom and liberation while also working full-time, facing financial burdens, dealing with abuse, homelessness and the list goes on. I think the question is less about how can we improve the Movement for Black Lives, especially since the sacrifices for this Movement have been extremely high, and more about how can we get more time and resources to re-imagine a world filled with Black freedom and liberation.
Do you mind sharing a strongest and inspiring of one of the strongest disabled students/clients you have had the honor of working with?
There are so many stories that stick out to me. I was talking to a young Black Disabled Woman, and she told me that she wanted to be like me. She then asked for advice on how she could do what I do. This conversation stood out to me because I’ve asked that same question to other women I have admired. When you’re young, you admire someone from a distance and you think you want their life. The student I was talking to had a lot going on for her, and she had already done things that I have never done. I want to encourage Black Disabled Women to learn as much as they can from the people they admire. However, you must then take this information to create a pathway of work that makes sense based upon your own dreams.
If you could go for a margarita with one historical feminist figure, who would it be and what makes you want to pick her?
O it’s so hard to choose just one! I don’t think that Kimberlé Crenshaw would consider herself a historical feminist figure, but to me she is already classic and timeless. Kimberlé Crenshaw is an intersectional feminist, and she coined the term “intersectionality.” When I was in graduate school, I was actively looking for literature that discussed the conflicting dynamics of being Black and being a Woman. When I had this conversation with certain professors in college they did not understand or believe that this was a modern day issue. Then I found Kimberlé Crenshaw’s research…Her work speaks to the beauty and horror of being a Black Women in America. I dream of the day I can grab a drink with Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Having grown up with a physical disability, how would you better shape our communities to support others?
First, it’s important that we de-stigmatize people with disabilities in our communities. Stigma has created non-productive programs, increased barriers, and cultivated a fear of people with disabilities. It’s not helpful to assume the needs of a disabled person and then never uplift their actual voices or experiences. Secondly, the community should re-construct our activities/interactions through a universal design approach. Most of my life, I was isolated from other disabled youth. Part of this was because many people with disabilities don’t openly identify with their disability, and part of this was because the community did not cultivate environments where disabled bodies were naturally included. Community is critical, but we must re-design the ways in which we love and support all bodies within our community.
There are many people who have all sorts of disabilities and are trying to make it in life but are weighed down by fear, what advice would you give to them?
I obtained my disabilities at the age of 8 years old, but I did not start openly discussing these experiences until I was 20 years old. There is a lot of fear around disability. Even after the age of 20, it took me awhile to consistently acknowledge my disabilities. However, I have never felt more happy, free, and at peace with myself than I do now. I’m more comfortable with romance and relationships now. When I’m in a relationship I no longer hide my physical scars, instead my partner and I will discuss and honor them as a testament to my survival. I wear shorts now. I let people touch my prosthetic limb. I can take my prosthesis off and swim in the ocean. I deprived myself of these beautiful experiences when I was afraid to show my disability. Now I boldly explore my own beauty and I get to share these experiences with others. I pray that other disabled people choose confidence over fear.
Lastly, what doors were you told would be closed for you and which doors did you break down?
I have found that many people believe in me, but only to a certain extent. They want to see a young Black Disabled Woman, but they don’t want to hear me speak. Or I am invited to events to talk about the aspirations of young people, but not about barriers such as many organizations, businesses, and agencies being dominated by older white heterosexual men. I’ve also worked and collaborated with many spaces that are dominated by Black men and white women. These spaces are unacceptable to me, but they are often my reality. Despite these realities, I find myself in a position of influence and power. Not just because of the jobs that I work, but because I have been outspoken about who I am and what I stand for. I have also backed my words up through action, organizing, and by creating innovative and empowering spaces. As a Black Disabled Woman from the south side of Longview, TX who had zero connections to people with big money and big names, I have managed to be in a position to do the exact type of work that I desire to do. I boldly discuss topics about youth organizing, intersectionality, police brutality, employment, and Black women. That’s a blessing. That’s also me shattering people’s low expectations of me.
We here at Feminist Campus extend many thanks to Keri for sharing her story and her work with us for Black Herstory Month! Keep checking back for more in the series this month!