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These Two Women Are Making Sure Melanin Is Relevant In the Art World

Human Interest

In a world that consistently tries to erase women of color in all aspects of society, representation matters.


Desiring to overcome a chronic void of women of color in the artistic realm, Amanda Figueroa, 28, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Harvard University and and Ravon Ruffin, 27, a Social Engagement Producer at the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC), are revolutionizing how women of color artists and professionals are represented in the museum field with their organization and consulting agency, Brown Girls Museum Blog (BGMB).

Photo: Ravon Ruffin (Left) and Amanda Figueroa (Right)Coe Sweet

Although BGMB is only three years old, the organization has quickly become a go-to scholarly, professional, and community hub for the artistic curiosities, liberatory messages, progressive imaginations and praxis, and feminist entanglements of women of color artists across borders and boundaries.

Radically intentional about the power of art and community, Amanda and Ravon are truly etching their marks in the museum world as two artistic powerhouses, who are ensuring that the diversity and dynamism of black, brown, and yellow hues are not forgotten in the field's historical white cishet-male dominated landscape.

Amanda Monroe Finn

Amanda told us, "In my mind, the biggest contribution in any arena is always resources, and so I think it's a void of material resources for women of color in these fields that we are trying to repair. The most important thing for me is to take the resources I have been given and funnel them back to my community."

Check out my interview with the two creatives and get to know more about BGMB, their perspectives on navigating the art and humanities fields as women of color, and their advice to women of color who want to start a business.

What was the inspiration that led to the creation of Brown Girls Museum Blog (BGMB)? In what ways is BGMB filling a much-needed void in the arts, culture, academic and humanities fields?

Amanda Monroe Finn

Amanda: I grew up in a predominantly Latinx community, but when I left for college, it was a very white space that I was entering. I was one of only a handful of Latina women throughout my higher education, and I kept noticing how often I had to explain things about Latinidad to other people. I realized how few opportunities there were that were specific to my experience or my goals. And when I realized these things weren't out there, I saw that I had to create them.

"I realized how few opportunities there were that were specific to my experience or my goals. And when I realized these things weren't out there, I saw that I had to create them."

Ravon: For me, it's similar to Amanda. I left my small town for college and grad school and hadn't thought much before that about the politics of representation. The first spark or moment for me was in college, seeing how the local black community in Richmond, Virginia, was so absent from the cultural institutions and that void just started me on the path of thinking about visibility. It became a natural path once I met Amanda to create something that centers our experiences as we both kept realizing that feeling never went away.

Why is it important that communities of color have safe spaces where they can support local artists but also catalyze collectivism and possibly activism?

www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com

Ravon: Long term, definitely to be a permanent fixture in the arts ecosystem of our communities, both cultural and local, and to provide avenues for artists of color and communities of color to see themselves in the art world. Art is approachable, and not far from them, whether in the streets or in galleries.

"This is important because it doesn't happen enough. When you take in enough images that negate your existence, it's violence. And we want to help put a stop to that."

www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com

Amanda: Ravon is completely right. Just like we talk about food deserts, we could also talk about art deserts, where people have little to no access to art in their local area and it has a real effect. Just like people need grocery stores and affordable rent, they need space for community organizing around community needs, and art spaces provide that. A lot of this comes down to money, finding another way for people to spend their money in the community so it stays in the community.

Ravon: This is our way of helping to remedy this cycle of exclusion.

As a thriving online platform and consulting agency, BGMB is a great example of an organization that can be created when there is a chronic void of inclusion in mainstream institutions. What advice would you give to women who want to create their own business?

www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com

Ravon: Stand firm in your idea, it came to you for a reason. Then, seek out resources––whether that's a mentor, or local business seminars. In the beginning, something I appreciated that Amanda and I did was take our time in figuring out who we were together in our business, and what our project was for ourselves. As people were excited about us, they would apply labels to the kind of work we do. It became so important that we had defined our work for ourselves so that we weren't restricted to the boxes others put around us. Even if that meant changing our website every week.

Amanda: Get a partner. I could not have done this by myself. Having each other to bounce ideas off of, keep each other accountable, and be supportive in a fledgling idea made all of this possible. I truly believe we work better together, in collaboration.

nkemlife.com

And then say "yes" as much as you can to opportunities, to new ideas, to changes in direction. Ravon and I were successful in part because we were willing to try out so many different things that came our way. We could do that because we had a clear idea ourselves of what we were, but we were willing to see how that could fit in with other people and their needs. Being flexible and having to do this work in a variety of settings really helped us to figure out what we were best at and what we most wanted to do.

For more information about Brown Girls Museum Blog, visit the website at http://www.browngirlsmuseumblog.com and you can follow the organization on Instagram at @brwngirlsmuseumblog and on Twitter at @2brwngirls.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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