A conversation with STRANDS, the group promoting “black girl magic”

A+conversation+with+STRANDS%2C+the+group+promoting+%22black+girl+magic%22

Amanda Nwaba

Visibility, intersectionality and self-care are some of the terms that circulated around the table when the executive board of Students Transitioning, Relaxed, and Natural Developing Sisterhood (STRANDS) met with the Hustler.

STRANDS was founded in 2014 by Adrianna Swift, Jordan McNary and Sierra Davis, who initially wanted to promote healthy haircare for black women, but has since branched out to support other needs of black women on Vanderbilt’s campus, according to co-presidents Kyla Stevens and Jaila Johnson.

The club’s community service, mental health, health and beauty and physical health committees also contribute to larger scale conversations that STRANDS is looking to promote. Each committee’s members plan the events and programs that relate to their focus. Mentorship and service activities, for example, are handled by the community service committee.

Vanderbilt never had a place for intersectionality on this campus.

The health and beauty committee has taken on the initial role of the club and STRANDS still holds hair-specific events, such as “Hair care for a hectic week,” an event held during finals week to provide girls with a variety of quick hairstyles and healthy hair tips for different hair types. The club also receives questions about hair tips from students.

The club focuses on the experiences that black women have and issues that they face. Through their programming, mentorship and community-building efforts, they are working to diminish the prevalent monolithic view of black women while celebrating and affirming the unique women on Vanderbilt’s campus.

Intersectionality

“Yes, Black people have a space on this campus, but black women never necessarily did,“ Stevens said. “Vanderbilt never had a place for intersectionality on this campus.”

Black women have always been asked to choose, particularly by our feminist allies.

According to the members of STRANDS, one of the biggest challenges of black womanhood is that black women are often expected to focus on their identities separately, effectively putting some aspect of their identity on hold to further other people’s causes.

“We shouldn’t be forced to hierarchize our identities,” said Johnson.

Nicole Malveaux, the club’s advisor, explained how intersectionality, the intersection of personal identities and thus forms of oppression, is not well understood or acknowledged, which is especially burdensome in instances where people have expectations of others due to only one of their social identities.

“Black women have always been asked to choose, particularly by our feminist allies,” Malveaux said. “They don’t understand the complexities of intersectionality–that as a black woman you can’t separate the two. You’re telling me to choose my gender identity over my racial identity to further your cause, but are you going to further my cause?”

The women on the executive board were then asked about the ways in which they internalize the burdens that they themselves take on and how they feel about the parts of their identity that they are asked to overlook.

Because people didn’t see me.

“What is the image when you think of mental wellness and mental health that pops up in your mind?” Malveaux asked. “What has been communicated to black women about this whole idea of self care? Is that communicated across color lines of gender? And who is complicit in all this? We constantly circle the wagon, but who does this for black women?”

Once Malveaux asked these questions, the room took on a somber tone as the women took a moment to reflect on the questions laid out before them.

Why is STRANDS necessary on this campus?

“Because people didn’t see me,” said sophomore Amber Payne.

Malveaux echoed Payne’s sentiment.

“Too many times, just in the context of everyday life on Vanderbilt’s campus, are black people walked past and not seen,” said Malveaux. “We’re interchangeable.”

The members explained that on a larger scale, leadership roles in black organizations are many times overlooked, in part because the community that they cater to is smaller, but also because they are generally seen as “less important,” according to Johnson.

STRANDS is working on a new program called “inVISIBLE” to showcase and affirm black women and also to draw more attention to their presence at Vanderbilt. During the event, STRANDS split up those present into small groups and invited them to develop ideas that promote black women on Vanderbilt’s campus.

A lot of times it’s easy to forget about Black joy.

A conversation about “unadulterated black girlhood” was one of the goals that senior Akaninyene Ruffin had in mind when she also spoke with the women of STRANDS during the meeting.

The women of STRANDS explained that they are working to give black girls the avenue to be carefree and really enjoy themselves without having the burden of trying to educate constantly, whether about their identity or the struggles they face.

“They expect you to teach them about your struggle but they don’t want to go out there and learn,” said Johnson.

Sophomore Elizabeth Fashakin expressed her feeling of relief of having black role models on campus when she first learned about STRANDS.

“I was so happy when I saw the STRANDS table at the org fair,” she said. “Mentorship goes beyond grades.”

The women of STRANDS agreed that they are most proud of their mentorship program, which pairs black freshmen and upperclass female-identifying students every fall. They expressed the importance of providing mentors that are both black and female-identifying since many other mentoring programs cater to one’s major but don’t focus on identity. STRANDS accepts as mentors anyone who identifies as female and is willing to devote time to the club’s freshmen.

“It gives you a chance to connect with someone who looks like you and has gone through some of the things on this campus that you’re going to have to go through,” Stevens said.

Co-presidents Stevens and Johnson also volunteer with EmbrACE, a club that mentors middle school girls in Nashville. They said that it is necessary to have black women as mentors in order to discuss topics including body positivity, hair type and colorism.

“All the mentors were white and all the girls are black, so they weren’t having these conversations because they didn’t know how to navigate those conversations,” said Johnson.

The shared identity that black women have not only provides them the opportunity to have deep conversations, but also makes way for many bonding experiences and ways to cultivate, as Malveaux stated, “Black joy.”

“A lot of times it’s easy to forget about Black joy,” Malveaux said. “Our blackness seems so, for some, intrusive, that we forget about it.”

Malveaux spoke of how the strong bonds among the members of STRANDS allow them to cultivate that sense of Black joy, whether through music, TV or food. She mentioned Beyoncé and Maya Angelou to make the point that black culture is another point of connection that every woman in STRANDS can identity with.

STRANDS started out with the intention of teaching Vanderbilt’s black women more about their hair, but has expanded with the intention of making its mark on campus by working to improve the  overall experience of black girls at Vanderbilt.