By Gabrielle Wyatt, FastCompany
I still remember when the calls for racial equity began flooding in. I watched vigils and Black Lives Matter protests ripple through where I lived in NYC and across the country, as people mourned the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other Black people who lost their lives to police brutality. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, corporations and philanthropic organizations proclaimed “Black Lives Matter,” and pledged billions of dollars to invest in racial equality, created racial justice initiatives such as DEI programs, and tapped Black women to lead them.
For the first time in my lifetime, our country was finally having a collective conversation around what has always been true: Black communities deserve to be invested in, and Black women are the ones to lead this change.
Now, three years later, it’s disappointing to see that these pledges have not materialized. As a now entrepreneur who funded many Black leaders in her career, the slow and arguably standstill of capital moving into the hands of Black women mimics the inaction we see across systems and institutions to protect our communities. And while Black women and girls make up nearly 7% of the U.S. population, the funding does not match their share of the country. In fact, over the past few years, organizations focused on supporting Black women and girls have shockingly, and consistently, received less than 0.5% of philanthropic dollars.
These discouraging stats are reflective of the decades-long conversations that Black women have had around the kitchen table. We are tired, yet unsurprised and motivated to do as we have always done: to continue anchoring in our worth, our values, and our boundaries.
In other ways, we have seen the needle move. Spaces such as the Women’s March and Chief have grown to support women in their leadership, from civic engagement to the boardroom. But blanket investments in these spaces are not the only answer here—in fact, we’ve seen calls to action that many of these investments have hurt the inclusion and advancement of Black women and women of color.
When I look at conversations around this within my community, it is steeped in exhaustion—not because we don’t have anything to offer, but because we know and have seen this trend over and over again. It only underlines the importance that we need to also invest in spaces explicitly for women who have been furthest from the opportunity. Black women need spaces that recognize our lived experiences and our multitudes, and nurture the conditions we need to thrive. Spaces—both physical and virtual—that have been created for us, by us.
From my seat, every investment in women and girls is a smart investment. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take 132 years to reach gender parity, which means that our children, and our grandchildren, will be even further away from experiencing a life of liberation—one of equal pay, quality and affordable higher education, equitable access and quality in the healthcare we receive and the air that we breathe. And now, as we face increasing restrictions—from limiting our sexual and reproductive health and rights to the history we learn in classrooms, it is more important than ever that we deepen and prioritize investment in Black women and girls.
As the founder of The Highland Project, a nonprofit working to build a coalition of Black women dedicated to building new systems that create multigenerational wealth and change for Black communities, I meet with brilliant Black women leaders every day. And through our own lived experiences as Black women, we intentionally create the space and capital that empowers Black women leaders to thrive. Through an 18-month experience of curated gatherings anchored in rest, creativity, and imagination, leaders are also within a safe community of other Black women leaders across generations, sectors, and seats of power. As a result, we’ve seen them prioritize their well-being, and become more clear on the conditions needed to sustain themselves and in their work. By centering their humanity, leaders unlock and embark on a vision that illustrates all that can be possible, yielding the next wave of solutions and innovations.
As we look at the need to deepen our investment in Black women and girls, there are great opportunities for existing spaces to co-power with them. Too often, we fall into scarcity mindsets that have us subconsciously prioritizing the group that we have affinity towards, instead of realizing that when we invest in each other, we can achieve more progress. These are the ways that we can immediately prioritize women who have been intentionally marginalized by institutions and systems:
- Invest in our humanity. Often, we hear of the narrative of the Black Women Superhero, who is unbreakable and immune to obstacles and pain. But we aren’t showing up because we’re superheroes—we’re showing up because our lives are on the line. To truly co-power with Black women, our humanity must be seen and valued. This looks like listening to our needs, giving us space to breathe and do the work, or supporting restorative communities like Exhale, an emotional well-being app designed for Black and brown women, and created by Highland Leader Katara McCarty. And finally, turning words of commitment into real action, and investing dollars into our work.
- Acknowledge that Black women experience the compounding effects of sexism and centuries of racism and discrimination. According to our polling of Black women across America, a third of respondents expressed that they experienced discrimination and sexism every single day. Co-powering with Black women means being aware and conscious of the generational trauma that we have experienced under oppressive systems.
- Break down the “glass cliff.” In one of our recent Highland events, Highland Leader and founder of Beloved Community Rhonda Broussard shared the challenges of the “glass cliff”—when leaders, namely Black women, are moved into roles in times of chaos or crisis, and not equipped with adequate resources, staff, training, or support—and it’s at the cost of our mental and physical well-being. In fact, recent reports show that Black women are experiencing significant levels of burnout. Co-powering with Black women isn’t about tapping us to show representation across issues or extracting knowledge from us; there must be a willingness to set us up for success.
- Consider what you have to give up in order to truly center Black women at the table, understanding it’s not zero sum. When Black women win, we all win. Despite consistently having some of the highest labor force participation rates, Black women continue to face a substantially wide wage gap, making 36% less than white men, and 12% less than white women and the impact of this is felt across generations. To co-power with Black women, it isn’t about having representation for the issues or extracting knowledge from them, but intentionally thinking how you can relinquish your own power to them.
It has been incredible to see the growing number of spaces that support women and girls. But to make real progress, and put our country on a path toward true equity for all, we must invest in the spaces that support those furthest from opportunity: Black women and girls. There is space for us all.