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By: Aimee Meredith Cox and Darnell L. Moore
An encounter with Tynesha and Thenjiwe McHarris is like experiencing the commanding and luminous presence of spirit, a double portion–that sense of metaphysical connection that escapes our understanding. One gives the other a look and without having uttered a word they would have communicated senses of joy, frustration, anger, and pain. They communicate through a type of love language that only souls intimately connected understand. And their presences animate every room, street, city, and institution their bodies move through. But the poetics that one can use to describe their relationship function also as a metaphor for their engagement with the world. In short, these sister-friend-comrades are a soul-force transforming the lives of Black and Brown folk regionally and globally. We met them in Newark, NJ several years ago while both were deeply involved in issues as broad as education reform, anti-police brutality, young women’s empowerment, Black women’s leadership within electoral politics, juvenile justice initiatives, and much else. Today, they continue to do “the work,” as Audre Lorde would aptly say. We are delighted to feature Thenjiwe and Tynesha, two sisters that we have the privilege of loving everyday, as this week’s Feminists We Love.
TFW: Beyond the transformative work you engage as individual forces in the world, you both have accomplished much together. Can you say a bit about your beginnings and context? What motivated you to lead and participate in community-building initiatives together?
Tynesha and Thenjiwe: First, we’d like to share how interesting it was to respond to this question. Although, my sister and I have talked at length about struggle, suffering, injustice, fear, and hope…. in our adult lives we haven’t spoken intimately with each other about our childhood. At least in a way that would force us to meaningfully reflect on a specific or a collection of experiences that led us both down paths where we would dedicate ourselves to addressing structural oppression and institutional violence.
So here is what we came up with – We were born and raised in the Bronx to a young mother who didn’t know she was having twin girls until a month before giving birth. We experienced life with our father for the first several years of our childhood and learned firsthand that too many children (regardless of their age) must fight to ensure that their bodies are respected and their spirits are cared for, loved properly. We were constantly surrounded by Black women (mom, grandma, great grandma and aunty) who poured over us as much warmth and love they could after hard days working in the city. It was hard to not notice how tired they were, the stories they would tell us of mistreatment and abuse by employers, systems and some times just people on the street. We knew early on, that we wanted to be a part of creating a new kind of world, a kind of world that came as a product of a people courageous enough to re-imagine love, partnerships, parenting, and sisterhood. The process of re-imagining the world led us to think radically about the systems, institutions and structures that build divisions, manifest violence and destroys bodies. We wanted to challenge all that and do it together.
TFW: Tynesha, you’ve worked across a range of fields. You were one of the youngest non-profit administrators in the city of Newark–having led a community-based organization at 21. You were a candidate for The Newark Public Schools District’s Advisory Board and were encouraged to run for political office. You launched the first Freedom School in Newark and the state of New Jersey as well as directed a leadership program for young Black and Brown girls in Newark. And we could go on with your accomplishments, but we are really interested in the challenges you’ve experienced as a Black woman leader within a city where women are still underrepresented in leadership roles? Who or what were your sources of inspiration? What lessons did you learn?
Tynesha: I was still enrolled in undergrad when I was hired as a small org’s first Executive Director. At the time the organization was providing services to hundreds of young people across the city – everything from services for young men serving sentences to activist-like summer programs for very young children. Managing the organization was exciting and fulfilling and some days it was heartbreaking. The work itself (like anything meaningful and transformative) was hard. I watched way too many brilliant and beautiful young people get caught up in systems that didn’t value their lives. Some of them lost their lives. So days when I felt unheard and unseen by funders, other nonprofit leaders and colleagues, made confronting the challenges of our work sometimes unbearable. I learned early that if I was going to lead and keep my sanity, I would have to create an intentionally loving and supportive community. I surrounded myself with people that would provide me with the space to scream and cry, people who shook their heads at stories of blatant (and sometimes not so blatant) racism/sexism/ageism I dealt with. My support system ultimately made me feel loved. I took some good advice from a friend and surrounded myself with affirmations. Quotes of of Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Marian Wright Edelman adorned my home, bedroom and journals. In order to continue the work, I needed constant reminders that I wasn’t alone. It’s easy for Black women in leadership (especially when their work is in community) to feel isolated. My friends, my sister, women I’ve never met, but have changed me through their words or work, reminded me every day that I wasn’t wrong in my thinking and I certainly wasn’t alone.
I’ve worked at a bunch of organizations since then and still the most salient lesson was discovering that I was just as important as every child, young person, parent, student, teacher I encountered. I’m thankful for all of the work I’ve committed to creating spaces for myself and others to challenge systems that don’t respect the value of men and boys. My work now is more focused on creating spaces to have honest conversation about what is happening in the lives of women and girls. What has happened in my life? I’ve spend the past few years in conversations with communities in Newark, Brooklyn, Lil Bay Jamaica, Mexico City talking about how we can confront sexual violence in our lives and in our communities. This work has made me incredibly happy. Once I realized I was just as important, it changed everything. The kind of love and support we all are so unapologetically willing to give everyone else….I was worthy of too.
TFW: Thenjiwe, you have been a pivotal voice in many contemporary organizing efforts including, but not limited to, Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, Occupy, anti-death penalty, and anti-police brutality movements in NYC and elsewhere. Most national and global movements tend to be organized in response to the violences that men experience. In addition, women’s voices tend to be silenced. What are your thoughts regarding the lack of attention given to violence against women as well as the pushback often received by women within social movements?
Thenjiwe: Because our community has yet to address and seek to destroy the patriarchy, misogyny that renders Black women and girls invisible, we allow for only one narrative of injustice. That narrative, the one that depicts the ways in which this country has attacked and continues to target Black men and boys (although accurate) doesn’t allow for the stories and suffering of Black women, who are also attacked and targeted, to surface. As a community we are uncomfortable with stories of women whose bodies are attacked and violated by their partners, boyfriends, lovers. Stories of women, who like men are seen as a threat and thus shot, killed on porches in places like Detroit because they are seen as a threat are not stories that fit how we have come to understand injustice in our community. As a result, our suffering is ignored and our struggles silenced. It should be our goal as women engaged in this work to not just change the narrative, but call it what it is. A manifestation of patriarchy, of sexism within our community, within our movements. We must as women, engaged in addressing injustice, find spaces that allow us to heal. Heal in a way that allows us to continue to fight for our brothers while combating sexism in our movement (and in our community) as well as resist the internalization of sexism. The kind that allows for us to cry tears of anger and sadness at the loss of one life and sit in our own silence after the loss of one of our sisters.
TFW: Individuals who are highly visible in popular media, such as performing artists and celebrities, are often used as barometers for where we are as a society in terms of our movement towards or retreat from a more progressive and/or inclusive and humanizing politics. In particular, the on and off stage actions, vocalized statements, ways of presenting themselves, artistic choices, and real and imagined lifestyles of women and girls are dissected for how they may or may not demonstrate alignment with feminism or what may be defined as feminist practices.
The evaluations and critiques come from a variety of spaces that are rarely mutually exclusive: social media platforms, industries that co-create and fund public images, the academy, and social institutions such as churches and schools. A recent obvious example is the attention paid to Beyonce’s latest album and corresponding videos. What do you see as potentially generative in using these exceptional, individualized and highly visible narratives to better understand how gender functions with race, sexuality, sexual expression, and class, for example? Can these conversations productively intervene in the structures of power that operate very differently in the lives of women and girls not protected by wealth and popularity? And, where, perhaps, do you locate the dangers in a hyper-focus on public figures and their actions?
Thenjiwe and Tynesha: Recent conversations about Beyonce being a feminist or not has created conversations within various communities about who we let in or not. And who has the power to say someone else has the “right” kind of politics. In the end, though, I think we spend way too much time debating these public figures and not enough time talking about the women and girls who live every day having gone unseen and unacknowledged. If we want to learn more about how gender functions in all of these constructs, we can talk about our own lives and the people whose stories may not be covered by TMZ but are undoubtedly more powerful.
TFW: The two of you are involved in the intense multi-year process of shooting a documentary film, or to be clearer, a documentary film is being made about your lives and work. Can you talk a bit about what the documentary specifically explores and what you hope to leave with those who view the film? Is there an intervention you foresee the film making in the world that may not be possible through the ways you have already been organizing across multiple communities?
At the end of Sing Your Song, a film documenting Harry Belafonte’s life as an activist and artist, he asked the question “What’s Next?” Suzanne Rostock, filmmaker and director of Sing Your Song, and Gina Belafonte, producer, invited us to be subjects in a film they hope will answer that question. Another Night in the Free World, has followed our lives and Carmen Perez (Executive Director of The Gathering for Justice, an organization founded by “Mr. B”) for the past year and will continue to document our stories for another year. It’s exciting to have the film answering the question of such an incredible, powerful, world-known leader like Harry Belafonte and to tell the stories of three young women. Our work to confront sexual violence, abolish the death penalty, empower young people and create space for ourselves and other activists/ leaders will be on display for the world to see pretty soon. We both hope to bring to the center the stories, movements and people who we believe are already changing the world. Its also is no coincidence that we will be talking a lot about the challenges that women and girls face – and the kinds of racism/sexism that women leaders/ organizers confront every day.