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Exploring the application of Black Feminist Theory within a Grassroots Community Organisation

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

By Caprice Bound

This essay will critically examine a grassroots community organisation, The Blesst Centre, through the lens of Black Feminist epistemology. It will explore the demonstration of Black Feminist theory present within the approach, structure and work of the Blesst Centre. Focusing on; The Political Philosophy of Ella Baker, Decentralised leadership, Popular and Visual Culture, Double Consciousness, The Oppositional Gaze and Controlling Images of Black Women. Whilst probing Hegemony and The Matrix of Domination. Alongside allowing room to critique where Black Feminist theory may be deficient within the Organisation. This critique will focus on Black Sexual Politics and utilising Grass Roots Media.


In order for the reader to grasp a full overstanding of this reflective essay, an introduction to the Blesst Centre is essential. Blesst was founded in 2018 by Richard Campbell. Campbell worked with young people with behavioural, mental and learning difficulties for over 12 years. Working intensively with the youth offending team, residential care homes and homelessness support teams. Dedicating his life to serving those who have been othered and disregarding by society. The Blesst team are a collective of individuals, that are committed to creating an environment centred around opportunities for learning, self-development and transitional change for all. Using alternate methods such as creative learning and data – verbalisation (Glynn, 2019) to support, teach & empower anyone who wants the Support of the Blesst Centre (Blesst.co.uk). Although Campbell is the founder of Blesst, he refrains from indulging in the patriarchal tradition of becoming the face of the movement. This correlates with the Political teachings of Black Feminist Ella Baker.


Tutashinda (2010) describes Ella Baker as one of the most effective, original and masterful organisers of the twentieth century. Often overlooked, Ms. Baker played an integral role within many influential Civil-Rights movements that still exist to this present day. Organisations such as, NAACP, Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later, working on an international level of freeing Angela Davis and fighting for Puerto Rican Independence. Demonstrating the global nature of Black Feminism long before the term had been coined. “Being a female in mostly male leadership cadres, she has a unique vantage point and could see people often jockeying for power or recognition.” (Tutashinda, 2010) This inspired Baker to take a more non – public / behind the scenes approach to her leadership style. Nonetheless, she was co – director of most of these grass root organisations. The sincerity of her leadership style surpassed avoiding ‘jockeying for power’. Bakers leadership was selfless, rarely about her own personal gain, although she did celebrate her achievements. Baker centred her political philosophy around group-centered leadership. Baker empowered the disempowered, developing leaders all throughout her organisations. Having observed Civil-Rights history, a failure of many powerful organisations such as; Malcom X’s Organisation of Afro – American Unity (OAAU) is the lack of group – centered leadership. The OAAU fell apart after the death of Malcom X. The death of a leader consequently equated to the death of the organisation. Baker’s philosophy on community organisation overcame that devastating reality by consistently developing future leaders. Moving forward, Ella Bakers Political Philosophy is embedded within Blesst model of practice.


Blessts’ Youth Leadership Advisory Board (YLAB) which I sit on, embodies Bakers progressive Black Feminist Approach. We are a collective of six 18-30-year olds, who have been trained within community politics and organisation; alongside attaining a range of leadership skills. We have been empowered, believed in and pushed out of our comfort zone, which has impacted us profoundly on a personal development level. However, more importantly, institutional development is at the core of what we do. YLAB have created an (age) 16-18 YLAB. Collectively developing the next generation of leaders. Resulting in a constant flow of new young leaders who will continue to mould, shape and grow the movement. YLAB resists ego and individualism; we are a family, community and collective that is always expanding. Blesst is situated on the outskirts of the City Centre. The central location means it serves as neutral ground, outside of post-code rivalry and ‘the ends.’ Blesst utilises its central location by creating interdependent links with other community organisations within different areas of Birmingham. This is to stay in the know of important community issues, sharing ideas, models of practise & to show solidarity to each other. An example of this would be the Huda Centre In Newtown whom YLAB work closely with. YLAB recently facilitated community organising workshops in Sheffield, working with practitioners and community leaders, advising and supporting issues within Sheffield’s communities. This was a power day that increased the Blessts impact and outreach. This ties in with the Black Feminist Approach of Baker “Developing community leadership in each area, neighbourhood, or region to empower people at the local level and establishes a precedent and template within the culture of that community” (Tutashinda, 2010). Unknowingly, the Blesst model of practise of is grounded in the Philosophy of Ella Baker. Proceeding to a critical analysis of Power Structures, we see evidence of Black Feminist Theory on Power present within The Blesst Organisation.


The Hegemonic order of the modern world puts White Men at the pinnacle of society. This is not a new reality, the British Empire alongside the European bourgeoise asserted their hegemonic ideology across the world via colonialism. Ultimately, disempowering any individual who did not live up to this Hegemonic criterion. White Feminism (19th & early 20th century) challenged this notion in the first wave of feminism. However, excluded Black Women’s rights, experiences & struggles from this ‘feminist’ movement. Hence the conception of Black Feminism otherwise known as Womanism. In Black Feminist Thought Collins breaks down Hegemony and the Matrix of Domination. “The Matrix of Domination is the overall organisation of hierarchical power relations for any society. Any specific matrix of domination has a particular arrangement of intersecting systems of oppression e.g. race, gender, social class… And a particular organisation of its domains of power e.g. structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, interpersonal.” (Collins 2000) Going on to scrutinise power on a national level as well as on a global level. Observing how globally most countries demonstrate intersections of oppression such as; race, class, gender and sexuality. Although, domination within individual countries is displayed differently. The Blesst centre challenges the Hegemonic Matrix of Domination in a plethora of ways.

Firstly, and most notably; by eliminating the patriarchal tradition of a top-down power hierarchy. This would sit the CEO / Founder at the top and work its way down in a structured fashion. The power structure at Blesst is decentralised, horizontal and demonstrates participatory based democracy. Meaning everyone’s input is vital and shapes the decisions made within the organisation. As a young Black woman, the experience of decentralised power, has empowered me on intangible levels, as for the first time within an ‘institution’ my thoughts and idea’s create tangible impact. Secondly, Blesst works on an intergenerational level. The team ranges from ages 16 to 62. Reviving the importance of sharing intergenerational knowledge, a once integral part of Black Consciousness. Elders guiding youngsters with knowledge / experience and youngsters challenging and questioning the elders. Thirdly, Blesst has an equal ratio of Women to Men. With women in fact leading forward in terms of running their own projects and mobilising their idea’s. Founder, Mr Campbell, presented the opportunity for Naomi Donald, Malieka Selassie & I (3 Black Women) to take on the role of Director. Managing and directing the sister company – Blesst Community Interest Company (CIC). Not because we are women and it looks ‘diverse’ but because he believes in the abilities we have demonstrated as leaders and community organisers. Proving Blesst to be organically intersectional, regardless of race, class, gender and so on. Not only does Blesst challenge power by rejecting the Matrix of Domination, it allows Black Women to take control of their narrative.

Kerisha Collins & Jade Butler alongside Marc Senior are Blessts’ Creative Directors. They have full control over Blessts’ media presence on all platforms. Through their innovation and passion for creative media, they have Launched a Digital Platform called ‘Blesst in Brum’ (Blesst.co.uk). A simple concept of creating 30-second-High Definition (HD) clips; allowing an individual to platform who they are and what they do. Building a community network within the digital space that is not confined by boarders. All videos are launched on the Blesst in Brum online Archive, alongside being dispatched on all social media platforms. Therefore, allowing the Black community to take control of their narrative via popular culture – social media. As mass media reflects hegemonic society, Black Women and Men continuously experience a double consciousness (Du Bois 1903). Meaning, Black people sub-consciously experience an internal duality within themselves. Not identifying with Hegemonic British society, nor totally identifying with being African or Blackness. Therefore, wearing a mask of whiteness to fit into society, which is often perpetuated in the media (Fanon 1986). Kanye West is an example of this. As a Black Feminist, Bell Hooks puts forth the theory of The Oppositional Gaze (Hooks 1982). That black women have a unique perspective, due to the inability to identify with the two positions of power; Patriarchy and Whiteness. Hooks (1982) argues, the more oppressed a group of people are, the further away they get from that gaze or that whole object. Collins (2000) goes on to re-in force this theory by illuminating the Controlling Images Black Women have become subject to. Images such as; the mammy, the angry Black Woman, the welfare queen, the jezebel, the hoe or as ratchet. The creative innovation of Blessts’ Black Women have enabled Blesst to own the means of production of how we display our stories. Hence, challenging the hegemonic domination of power with a counter narrative.


Whilst in conversation with Kerisha, one of the talented Creative Directors, we were able to critique ‘Blesst in Brum’ as it exists today. Blesst intentions are to be wholly inclusive, being a creative learning space for all people irrespective of the oppressive intersections. Having conducted a critical analyse of the narratives portrayed on Blesst in Brum, a contribution to Black Visual Culture and Popular Culture. It is evident that Blesst is yet to include a variety of cultures, abilities/disabilities and sexualities. The Black community has a history of Homophobia and a lack of understanding when it comes to Trans-Gender identities. Ignorance exists amongst every demographic. Several Black Feminist excluded Queer and Trans Black people from the movement. Resulting in the oppressed becoming the oppressor. Allowing the rights, survival and voices of the LGBTQ+ community to be silenced. This has had devastating effects, with the life expectancy of US Black Transgender Women sitting around age 35 (TheGlowUp.com). So, what can Blesst do to challenge this notion? Ashlee Marie Preston, a very successful Black Transgender Woman pioneered a movement that begun with a hashtag #ThriveOver35. Demonstrating how, via popular culture, social media we can create space, whether virtual or reality, to have the uncomfortable conversations that need to be had. In the words of Feminista Jones (2019) “We have a responsibility to change the narrative, minimise the harm, and shift our culture and communities towards appreciation and respect for Black women and girls everywhere.” Blesst in Brum is essentially producing Grass Roots media; therefore, we need to ensure we are utilising this tool to challenge the failed mechanisms of institutional oppression. Ultimately, extending Blessts’ activism within the digital realm. Blesst needs to take full advantage of the new mechanisms of political participation, an example from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The protests in the streets where documented online, and the online protests calling attention to events in the streets represents… the use of participatory media technologies for civic participation in protests far beyond those physically present.” By Any Media Necessary Collective (2016). Meaning, our reach and impact can be magnified through participatory social media alongside physical participation.


Having critically analysed The Blesst Centre, this essay provides confirmation of Black Feminist Theory being evident within this Grass roots community organisation. Through the constant development of future leaders, limiting the possibility of stagnation within the movement. Staying relevant to the needs of the Youth as they’re often disregarded from leadership roles. The Blesst Centre demonstrated Black Feminist Theory in the power structure. Rather than adopting the traditional patriarchal hierarchy structure, Blesst works on a Decentralised, participatory democracy model of power. This has provided Black Women and Men with equal opportunities and mutual respect, which can have endless opportunities. The Blesst Model carries out solidarity with other communities within Birmingham and throughout the U.K. With goals of flourishing on an international level to contribute and strengthen collective consciousness. Briefly exploring the limitations of Patriarchy, hegemony & The Matrix of Domination. Observing how they’re in a sense intertwined into each other, restraining organisations from reaching their fullest intersectional potential. Critiquing Blessts lack of inclusion of LGBTQ+ Identities and different cultures. And how Blesst can extract the most out of focusing on building up and expanding their Grass roots media. In conclusion, this reflective essay has motivated and sparked new initiative that may have been neglected within the organisation. To add, Mr Campbell never knowingly applied Black Feminist Theory to the Blesst organisation. It was through his life time work of supporting, fighting for and empowering those who have been ‘othered’ and forgotten about by Hegemonic Society. Hence why building an organisation built on family values, collectively and group participatory democracy occurred habitually. “The underlying message of Blesst is the power of community, the power of togetherness, the power of equal opportunity, which aligns with unlimited possibilities.” – Mr Campbell (2019)



Bibliography

· Blesst (2018) About – YLAB. Available at: https://www.blesst.co.uk [Accessed: 05.05.19]

· Collins, P. H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, second edition, Routledge - New York and London.

· Collins, P.H. (2004) Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender, and the new racism. Routledge – New York and London.

· Dickson D. Bruce Jr. American Literature (1992) W.E.B Du Bois and the idea of Double Consciousness, Vol. 64. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2927837?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents[Accessed on: 19th April 2019]

· Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Mask. Pluto Press - U.K.

· Glynn, M. (2019) Speaking Data and Telling Stories: Data Verbalisation for Researchers. Routledge – U.K.

· Hooks, B. (1982). Black Looks: Race and Representation South End Press: Boston.

· Jones, F. (2019) Reclaiming our Space: How Black Feminists are changing the world from the tweets to the streets. Beacon Press – Boston.

· Tutashinda, K.D.C. (2010) The Grassroots Political Philosophy of Ella Baker: Oakland California Applicability




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