Mwende Katwiwa (center) and program participants.
In a time when pop culture is finally amplifying the voices and stories of more black women, participants in a Young Women with a Vision
after-school program are finding heroes closer to home.
At a New Orleans Public Library presentation Thursday, they'll present a zine-style sample of their work so far on a book that ultimately will profile as many as 30 notable black women from New Orleans. The book, created almost entirely by the program's middle and high school students, will be published when the program concludes this academic year.
"We're living in this era of black girl magic
, and if you're a millennial of my age it hits you at the perfect time, but I realized ... a lot of that has not actually trickled down to young people," says program coordinator Mwende Katwiwa. "I was getting a lot of feedback from [the students] in school that they don't have access to a lot of black women who look like them. ... A lot of the people people that they see in places that are not home don't look like them and don't share similar experiences."
The book will include profiles of historical women (think Oretha Castle Haley or Ruby Bridges), but also features contemporary community members, some of whom were nominated by students. Program participants will write short biographies of their profile subjects, but also will include personal reflections on what this woman's work means for their conception of womanhood or blackness.
Katwiwa modeled the project on a book called Rad American Women A-Z
, but wanted to localize its contents to the city where the students grew up.
"There are just certain experiences that locations and place give you," she says. "[I wanted them] to feel like they know and have ownership of this place called New Orleans."
In addition to highlighting notable individuals, Katwiwa hopes the program will encourage participants' engagement with community leaders and also their peers. Many students said that they haven't had the most positive relationships with other black women of their own age, and the program has helped them work on sharing space and "redefining and expanding the definition of sisterhood," Katwiwa says.
Though the project, which is funded by a Ms. Foundation
grant, concludes at the end of the year, Katwiwa says it has the potential to return next year — and to foster the beginnings of early community involvement and activism.
"All the work that we're doing ... is centered around building a political foundation for yourself," she says. "I really wanted to help [students] develop their own voice."
The presentation takes place from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 30 at the library's main branch
. It's free to attend.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the foundation that funds this program. It is the Ms. Foundation, not the MISS Foundation.