Centering Black Women’s Work: A proFile of Brittany M. Williams Doctoral Candidate, College Students
During one of proFmagazine’s live Twitter chats, someone suggested that we connect with #CiteASista to develop new and exciting ways to engage with Campus Women. Brittany Williams, co-founder of #CiteASista, responded to the tweet and pretty soon we were chatting my email and phone. The first step in our collaboration, we thought, would be to highlight Brittany’s work with a proFmagazine proFile. What follows is our initial conversation – one that we hope will evolve into potential projects and collaborative activities as we collectively seek to amplify and magnify the role of women in higher education.
proF: Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you are from and what you have studied?
BW: I'm originally from Atlanta, which is weird to say because no one is ever from Atlanta anymore in my age range; they're all transplants or moved to the city with various hopes and dreams. I love Atlanta and all that it represents to and for many Black American people. I attribute my informal education to social media, particularly Black feminists and feminist outlets (e.g. Feminista Jones). But I completed my formal education at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I obtained my BA in Interdisciplinary Arts, and my MA [is from] Teachers College, Columbia University, where I studied Sociology of Education with an emphasis in policy. I am now a PhD candidate in College Student Affairs Administration at the University of Georgia.
proF: What led you down your educational path?
BW: I came to student affairs non-traditionally. I originally wanted to be a lawyer until I did law internships and realized I disliked most of the people and hated all of the work. Back then I was focused on money rather than meaning. Undergrad was all about going to a place where I could truly make my education and passions my own and where I wouldn't be spoon-fed a curriculum that was predetermined for me. Hampshire is one of few schools in the country that offers this. From there, it was a matter of thinking strategically about skills that could help me draw inferences about issues that mattered to me – naturally this was Sociology. But being the overachieving student I was – before and at Hampshire and since then – student affairs was a natural pathway because it allowed me to blend my loves of policy, practice, people and learning in one.
BW: #CiteASista and #SisterPhD are labors of love. #SisterPhD was actually put together by my friend Laila McCloud, a doctoral student at the University of Iowa, as a means of facilitating support and encouragement for each other as we moved through our doctoral processes. #SisterPhD is made up of five Black women doctoral students at various schools: Laila McCloud (Iowa), Brittany Williams (Georgia), Mika Karikari (Miami-OH), DaVida Anderson (Iowa), and Shetina Jones (Indiana State). Throughout our burgeoning friendship, I’ve helped to propel Laila’s vision through my work on our website and managing content, and through introducing Black women academic aspirants to our work. #SisterPhD is mostly us as friends being of support and showing people how to build a community of practice model with other Black women or women of color to ensure doctoral success, whereas #CiteASista is a whole different beast.
I co-founded #CiteASista with Dr. Joan Collier as an opportunity to encourage dialogue around the literal citing of Black women, but also the centering of Black women's work, ways of knowing and ideas. I have turned #CiteASista from simply a once monthly chat into an online community where information sharing is a regular occurrence, where ideas and information exist and live on the website and where Joan and I can engage our community of #CiteASista women and allies in monthly discussions about all things pertinent to Black women (within and beyond the academy).
proF: What inspired you to create these communities?
BW: I was inspired to be a part of #SisterPhD and to help start #CiteASista because I noticed there's a gap between what we say in the academy and in life and what we do. Black women are often wanted for labor, support and love but seldom receive a solid return on that investment. #CiteASista works to make this discrepancy visible and to provide support for and encouragement to Black women at various stages in life. #SisterPhD is about literally kicking down the doors of the academy by introducing a model where Black women can not only start but finish doctoral programs. Black women hold the most advanced degrees as compared to Black men, but Black men hold significantly more influence and titles. These projects are also a way of smashing that patriarchal double standard. But we all do it differently.
BW: We’ve presented about #SisterPhD several times and we’ve had folks reach out and are helping them to construct their own versions or models of #SisterPhD. For some, it’s a community of master’s students, and for others it’s still doctoral level. We’re in the process of writing up the formation, dreams and eventual realizations of #SisterPhD as a manuscript now. We also have quite a bit of online engagement.
#CiteASista, on the other hand, is a beast. Because I do so much more of #CiteASista – I manage the website content entirely – things show up different. We have folks who tweet, call, and message us about how they love what we're doing, how we’ve inspired them; some folks share how the monthly chats have decreased their sense of isolation as the only or one of the only Black women in their work and schooling spaces. #CiteASista is a much bigger project, so the contributions we’re making are ongoing. We were lucky enough to have Dr. Stephen Quaye, past president of the American College Personnel Association, mention our work and propel it to a bigger audience as an inspiration for ways to engage the association’s membership through social media. It's kind of surreal, actually.
proF: What are your future goals with these projects?
BW: I have no idea what’s next explicitly. But I envision that Joan and I will write up some research around the data and analytics of #CiteASista engagement and the #SisterPhD crew, working to pass on the torch of a model for doctoral support and engagement, because we’re all on our way out of the door. We are hoping to get some sustainable funding for #CiteASista to have someone help ease my web responsibilities (I'm trying to dissertate and Joan is being a good faculty member), but we will see what happens. I'd love to grow into an offshoot podcast about all things Black women in the diaspora, though. There are still debates to be had about Black Panther, LOL.
proF: What advice do you have for women of color in higher education? And what advice do you have for white women who are (or who should be) allies?
BW: My broadest advice is to encourage folks to be their most authentic selves but to also remember your success doesn't depend on someone's failure. I've done a lot in my graduate career and I'm proud of it – but I am not the sum of my accolades and publications. I do this stuff because I love it. I love the work, but not to the point of allowing it to cause me physical illness or cost me connections and relationships with other people, especially women. I would advise Black women to be okay with taking up space as Black women as well as being in community with non-Black people of color. The pervasive nature of anti-Blackness makes it where we have to even trouble the notion of women of color as an umbrella term or coalescing identity.
For non-Black women of color, I'd suggest building up intra and inter-communal bonds with other women. Do the work of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy, which automatically positions some of us differently than others. For white women – get your people. We exist in this space where we like to pretend that the current state of this country is not also tied to the ways in which white women traded on the sisterhood on account of whiteness. We don't have to share a political identity by any means, but this current presidential administration is horrible for working women, families and children (I say this as someone who has no intentions of ever having them). White women need to do self and collective work because it’s what needs to be done, not because it looks good. It’s hard to wrap that in a neat bow, but the reality is we all have some things to figure out, me included. My status as a Black cis woman doesn't make me automatically a good person to Black trans women – the work is ever-changing and must be done.