Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force holds first conversation on issues of concern

Task force to hold series of conversations outlined in General Assembly report

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Kerri Allen addresses the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in St. Louis on Friday, June 22, 2018. (Photo by Michael Whitman)

LOUISVILLE — In a candid and perhaps long overdue online conversation, members of the  Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force presented “Telling Our Stories,” which provided a look at the major concerns of Black women and girls as outlined in its report to the 224th General Assembly (2020), which has been referred to the 225th General Assembly (2024).

Led by task force members the Rev. Dr. Kerri Allen, moderator of the task force; Samantha Davis, executive director of Black Swan Academy; the Rev. Ashley DeTar-Birt, co-moderator of the Board of Directors for More Light Presbyterians;  and the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, Associate for Gender & Racial Justice, of the Presbyterian Mission Agency  the presentation was the first in a five-part series during which concerns raised in the report will be discussed. The first event provided a general introduction to the report. Task force members unable to be present during the presentation included Kesha Bradshaw and Carmen Alexander.

The task force originated with the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concern (ACWC). Following the decision of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) to support a project on Black men and Black boys, ACWC expressed concern that Black women and girls were being left out of conversations related to the spiritual, emotional, and physical violence experienced by Black people and about the distinctive ways that Black women and Black girls experience those types of violence.

Allen went on to further explain that another really important part of the work of the task force was generated from a study by Georgetown University on the adultification of Black girls.  Allen says it was that study that drove the ACWC to ask the General Assembly to put together the task force to look at further action that could be taken by the PC(USA) to address the issue.

Samantha Davis is a member of the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force.  (Photo by Rich Copley)

Davis said the task force wanted to lift up the unique ways in which Black women and girls experience violence. “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about it both from an interpersonal perspective as well as an institutional perspective,” said Davis. “What I mean by that is acknowledging that every day, day to day, Black women and girls experience violence through our partnerships, through our relationships, through our day-to-day interactions with people.”

Davis says that gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and microaggressions are forms of interpersonal violence. Because the foundation of America is rooted both in racism and patriarchy, we encounter institutional violence.

She says institutional violence exists because America operates from the standpoint that lifts up men identifying as masculine and particularly cisgender males. “All others are treated differently,” said Davis.

“Our culture perpetuates the idea that the best person, the best leader has to be white, male and cisgender,” said Davis.  Davis says that schools, government and the church have created policies and practices that perpetuated these beliefs. That has harmed Black women, Black girls and transgender people.

Task force members have identified five areas they thought were most pressing and tie closely to the work of the church. Those five areas include the adultification of Black girls; gender equality for Black women in ministry, which also includes a look at toxic theology; reproductive justice; LGBTQ+ equality; and, more broadly, concerns including human rights violations and cash bail practices.

“The task force identified those issues as being intentional about naming both the interpersonal ways, as well as the institutional ways that we [Black women and girls] experienced violence,” said Davis.

Davis explained that the harm of racism and patriarchy starts very early in Black girls’ lives. “I can attest as a Black woman as someone who grew up as a Black girl in Pittsburgh, I often felt as if I was being silenced, as if I was too loud, as if I was too expressive,” she said.

“I also felt at times either hyper-sexualized, over-sexualized or not sexual enough. Often you have these feelings that are expressed through everyday interactions that are very isolating, and very harmful for young people. That’s not an individual experience. That’s a collective experience, Davis stated.

According to Davis, one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. While Black girls make up 23 percent of those enrolled in preschool, they represent more than 50 percent of those expelled from preschool. She went on to say that in middle and high school, Black girls are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers.

As an example, Davis highlighted a story that recently appeared in the national news. Police were called to the house of a nine-year-old girl to help her. Instead they forced the screaming girl into a police car and told her if she did not stop acting like a child, that they would pepper spray her.

“‘That Black girls said, ‘I am a child’,” said Davis. “In return, they pepper sprayed her. This what we were talking about when we say the adultification, as well as the dehumanization, of Black girls.”

The Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt is a member of the Disparities Experienced by Black Girls and Women Task Force.

Task force member DeTar-Birt says Black women and girls face the same kinds of racism that Black men and boys do. “We also get shot by the cops. We are also profiled. But in addition to that, we have to face the issues and the problems and the discrimination that comes with the intersection of race and gender, and quite frankly sexual orientation as well,” DeTar-Birt said.  “You have not only the specificity of the racism, but the specificity of all of these intersections coming together.”

“This is vital for today. This cannot wait because this is the church’s opportunity to do a few things,” said DeTar-Birt. “One, the church has an opportunity to be honest, to confess the harm that has been done to Black women and girls. And I don’t mean that just that it has only been Black women and girls. I do not mean to leave out my non-binary friends as well.”

DeTar-Birt explained that the task force’s particular forte is focusing on Black women and girls but says quite frankly, there needs to also be focus on Black non-binary and gender nonconforming folks as well. “That needs to get its own attention because there has been harmed there too,”DeTar-Birt said.

“This is the opportunity for the church to really be honest about the physiological and practical harm, the ignorance, the ignoring of Black women and girls and their issues; about the silencing and all of these things that the church has been complicit in both by being the church and simply by being a church within the society that is already working against those things, against us [Black women and girls].

DeTar-Birt says the report prepared by the task force gives a very practical approach to action items that can be done. “There are things that you can look at today and say, my church can do that. My presbytery can do that. And my synod can do that. I, as an individual, can look into that,” DeTar-Birt said. “There are some very practical steps that can be done on an individual level all the way up to a denominational level that can help Black women and girls, and quite frankly, interrupt this cycle of harm, abuse, neglect, and ignorance. But even more than that, this allows us to have an awakening spiritually, emotionally, and mentally to what is happening and what has been happening and to allow for a turning around of how and what we’ve done.”

A schedule of upcoming discussions

Task force Moderator Allen says the report is important to her because in her work in spiritual care and in healthcare she focuses on disparities in health care for Black women.

“I see situations where Black women are either hyper-visible or invisible,” Allen said. “I see situations like what happened to Serena Williams, where, being a celebrity and being wealthy, didn’t save her from almost dying because someone didn’t want to listen to her because they thought that she was too doped up on drugs that were given to her post C-section, that she wasn’t making sense when she knew that she had a pulmonary embolism that could have killed her. So it’s important to me because my mom was diagnosed and treated for cancer that she did not have, and that treatment it turns out was fatal.

“I have experienced spiritual and emotional violence in this denomination, and this denomination needs to account for that violence,” Allen said. “That violence is rooted in the history of how Black women and girls and Black people are treated. And it’s not OK. It’s not acceptable. I’m calling the denomination to repentance.

Allen points out that the issue goes beyond the denomination.  “A lot of times when I’ve written about my experiences as a Black woman in the Presbyterian church, I hear from other people,” Allen said, “people of color in mainline traditions that have had similar experiences throughout a lot of traditions. For Black women and for other women of color, the church needs to repent.”

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