US Human Rights Network Blog
Conversation: Natalie A. Collier, founder of The Lighthouse | Black Girl ProjectsNov 27, 2019
Q. How did you start The Lighthouse?
I was working at another organizations doing work with Black girls and women in rural areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. I was running a young women’s leadership institute that was focused primarily on a summer gathering. I quickly saw the need to expand that beyond what we were doing in the summer, to programming that was available year-round. I wanted to do more.
I started to learn when I was working with those girls that, one, there wasn’t necessarily anything in place for the girls once they transitioned or matriculated through the program and became young women and went off to college or technical school (or decided not to go to college and were becoming mothers) -- particularly if they became mothers. In a lot of ways, if young women were moms, that was seen as a failure.
There were some gaps in the programming, and there wasn’t a lot of flexibility to fill those gaps. While it’s really important, there’s only so much that programming itself can do. A funder heard about the work I was doing and asked to do a site visit, and they decided that they wanted to invest in my leadership. They asked, if you could be doing more, what would you be doing? I had an answer, and talked about the gaps and what I would like to see happen. That transitioned happened pretty quickly. So next spring, that will have been four years ago.
A lot of what we do depending on the project looks similar to the work I was doing before, but it takes a much more comprehensive approach. There’s policy analysis; creating policy tools; legislative tools; we’re working on a legislative report card; demystifying the political process. One of the things I would hear a lot from people who weren’t working alongside us was that there’s a sense of apathy; people don’t care. That was not what I experienced on the ground -- a lot of times it was that people didn’t quite understand the system or the vocabulary. It’s supposed to be inaccessible to you; that’s why legislative tools are so important.
Q. What is your ultimate vision? What do you want the world to be like for Black girls?
I want Black girls and women to be able to smile more often; to be less burdened and less labored; to be able to take a break and not be called lazy; to just be able to find joy. I want us to be able to live lives that aren’t as arduous. We share certain phrases so often, like “trust Black women,” “we need Black women,” “listen to Black women,” “Black women are the weight of the Democratic Party” -- things like that. I don’t want to do that. I just want to be.
The other thing -- and I think it’s an extension of that -- is to just have the opportunity to fail without as much consequence. So many decisions that Black girls and women are tasked to make are so dire. So many things that Black girls and women do are so weighted, that it isn’t just as simple as “do I turn left, or do I turn right?”. It turns out that turning right would have been the better decision, and I happened to turn left, and now it’s all over. I want you to just be able to turn around.
Q. How are you giving Black girls space and time? How do you define “safe space”?
Safe spaces have been co-opted. If we are real, there are very few if any spaces that are safe for women, period. Women of color even more so. Black women even more so. What I am working aggressively toward is a place where Black girls and women have spaces of solidarity and respite, providing occasions for us to take deep inhales and exhales with our eyes closed. Just for moments of our time I want us to be able to be vulnerable and not be concerned about being attacked.
I am a realist. On this journey to freedom and liberation that is fraught with white dominance, patriarchy, and multiple layers of oppression, I often wonder when I hear people talking about “getting to the point of freedom” or “getting to revolution” -- revolution in particular -- if we are not at any given moment actively living the revolution, I think it is naive at best to think that we will ever reach a destination where any of us, but particularly Black girls and women, will ever be able to shirt off our defenses.
So what is really important to me, is a safer space and a space of solidarity and respite -- solidarity with one another and whoever else wants to come along on this journey. Providing occasions for us to take deep inhales and exhales with our eyes closed. Just for moments of our time I want us to be able to be vulnerable and not be concerned about being attacked. That’s what it is for me.
Q. Why did you choose to name your projects after people? Can you tell me a little bit about one of those people in particular and why their story is so important for Black girls today to hear?
Any name that is one you don’t recognize are kin to me (my grandmother, my mom, my aunt), and there is one project -- the Quinisha project -- Quinisha is my best friend from high school. I think people need heroes, as much as we like to think we don’t. And a lot of our disappointment comes when the heroes we are drawn to are people who are distant from us, who we don’t get to realize are just human, regular people, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I have been fortunate in that I have never had to look very far for heroes and heroines -- I grew up in a family full of them.
My grandmother -- she was my girl -- a lot of the work I do, a lot of the way I view the world, which is also the way her children, my mom, view the world, is because of my grandmother. There would often be people who would come and either sit on my grandmother’s porch or come and sit in her kitchen, and in hindsight, a lot of these people were mentally ill, but she would just talk to them, it was like, you don’t get to complain about it. At some point, I was in around 6th grade, I asked, “why do you talk to these people?” And she said “I’m just like them.” I said, “Huh? You’re not just like them.” And she replied, “Yes I am. Who's to say that tomorrow I won’t wake up and need somebody to talk to me?”
I named them because people are bomb -- that’s why.
Q. On International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, why is it so important that we recognize and uplift your work with Black women and girls in the USA?
If there was not a focus on The Lighthouse or me and the work we are doing, it wouldn’t matter. I would do it anyway. A lot of this for me. One thing that I’ve learned as I continue on in this work is what brought me to the work and what keeps me in this work. When I started this kind of work, it was about addressing and healing parts of me that needed to be healed. Now, what keeps me here for now, is the onslaught of harm -- acute physical, emotional, psychic harm -- being done. I would be empty if I weren’t doing it.
To understand what has been done to Black girls and women in this country is to understand the depravity of this country. With that, we would be less inclined to demand so much emotional and physical work and labor of Black women, if we just understood what we have demanded of her for centuries.
Q. How can people tuning in contribute to your work?
If you’re interested in volunteering or working with The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects, whether you’re in the South or elsewhere in the country, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The team at Lighthouse will direct your enquiry and discuss possibilities for engaging locally or remotely.
Follow The Lighthouse on Twitter, IG, and FB @luvblkgrls
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