The Next 400: What does it mean to #DefendBlackWomen?

Two Cleveland women are leading the movement through art and activism
Updated: Oct. 23, 2020 at 7:35 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - All over the country, people have been talking about hashtag #DefendBlackWomen, including right here in Cleveland.

One community activist is mapping out a blueprint that she’s hoping will lead to real change.

Alana Garrett-Ferguson is a 28-year old community activist who’s leading a movement here in Cleveland.

Defend Black Women is a campaign to bring awareness, activate and empower Black women, Black transwomen, and Black non-binary folks to create systemic change in Northeast Ohio.

Hundreds showed up for the #DefendBlackWomen march in Cleveland
Hundreds showed up for the #DefendBlackWomen march in Cleveland(WOIO)

“When you think of Defend Black Women, document it, and make the art visible in a way that speaks to you. Because what it means to defend Black women for you is not the same for me," said Garrett-Ferguson

Garrett-Ferguson has been on the ground for years, shaking things up and trying to hold those in power accountable.

She’s a community organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice.

It is a human rights organization dedicated to the health & complete well-being of Black women, femmes, and girls in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

She told 19 News she felt even more compelled this year after the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmad Aburry when people all over the world took to the streets to protest police brutality in communities of color and systematic racism.

But, she noticed the conversations rarely focused on Black women.

According to a Washington Post database, since 2015, nearly 250 women in total have been killed by police officers, 48 of those women, a fifth, were Black.

Research shows, the conviction rate is low in those cases.

In that time frame, there have been only two cases where officers were charged.

One police officer was acquitted while the other case is still pending.

In comparison, there have been five cases since 2015 where police officers were charged in the shootings of white women, three of which resulted in a conviction.

Garrett-Ferguson said it’s disheartening.

“We don’t have the privilege of being fragile, we don’t have the privilege of being graceful or anyone really seeing us as victims, we are always seen as survivors and that is harmful because at the same time, that’s stripping away a part of our humanity," she said.

So she organized a call to action: a march to #DefendBlackWomen.

Women and men from all backgrounds showed up for the #DefendBlackWomen march in Cleveland
Women and men from all backgrounds showed up for the #DefendBlackWomen march in Cleveland(WOIO)

“What does it mean to defend Black women?” asked 19 News reporter, Sia Nyorkor.

“To defend Black Women means to allow them to have their complete autonomy, to exist in a world that is free of state-sanctioned and gender-based violence, for them to be able to receive quality health care, for them to be able to have children and have their children live past the age of one, to have their children grow up and not have to be worried about them being gunned down in the street by law enforcement or anyone else. It is allowing black women to make more than $0.62 to that of a white man than actually paying them for their worth and all of their time, it is allowing black women to live in an environment that is free of toxins,” said Garrett-Ferguson.

The list goes on. But she started planning, designing a series of events that would focus solely on Black women, addressing some of the issues and providing solutions using art, activism and a call to action.

Garrett-Ferguson knows there’s much work to be done but believes united, Black women can make real changes.

“We listen to different sides of the story. That we use different tools. We use the election tools, we use the tools of artistry, we use of the tools of grassroots activism, we use all of these tools, together,” she said. “We have to work together, we have to hear everybody. That is the only way that we can truly have the liberation of black women," said Garrett-Ferguson.

19 News Reporter Sia Nyorkor and Photographer Al Taylor on the scene at the #DefendBlackWomen...
19 News Reporter Sia Nyorkor and Photographer Al Taylor on the scene at the #DefendBlackWomen march in Cleveland(WOIO)

Samantha Pierce agrees. She says enough is enough: it’s time to talk about some of the “taboo” topics that plague Black women.

“It’s like the biggest club that nobody wants to admit that they’re a part of. But why? We’re not going to cure this and we are not going to heal until we actually start to have the conversations that needs to be had,” said Pierce.

In 2009, she and her husband were pregnant with twins. She tells 19 News that around 21 weeks, she started leaking so doctors hospitalized and put her on bed rest.

A few days later, she went into labor and spontaneously delivered twin boys, Christyan and Jayden.

Pierce family talks about child loss and infant mortality as part of their healing
Pierce family talks about child loss and infant mortality as part of their healing(Samantha Pierce)

The babies were too premature and didn’t survive. Samantha said she was stunned and left with more questions than answers from her doctors.

“They kept asking me but nobody told me even in any of those conversations did anyone say we’re asking because you’re at high risk of pre-term birth simply because you walked in here as a Black woman pregnant with twins. Nobody ever had that conversation with me," said Pierce.

Sadly, she’s not alone. According to First Year Cleveland: racism is a contributing and underlying factor to why Black babies are dying.

The numbers are staggering. In the United States, Black babies die at twice the rate of white babies, before they are one year old. It’s three times that here in the state of Ohio. Here in Cuyahoga county Black babies die at a rate four times higher than white babies and in the city that number is seven times higher.

Samantha says we need to talk about it in public and at home. Sometimes family members have information they could pass down and save lives.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s a generational curse, that we need to break,” she said.

“There’s 10 women in my family that would come forth years later that would say, hey, I lost too," said Pierce.

Just one of the reasons why she’s leading by example. Samantha says her 3 living children know their siblings that passed on.

“We need to have more of these conversations that happened to us. Like my children, they know everything that happened. They have participated in “Wave of Light” every year. They know who Christyan and Jayden are, they are our older twins, my oldest son knows. We talk about it all the time. They will not come up saying that didn’t know there was an issue," she said

Now, she’s an advocate. She runs her own non-profit named after her twin boys, she serves on several committees at First Year Cleveland and leads “Wave of Light" every year.”

The event remembers babies who were lost through miscarriage and infant death.

Christyan and Jayden Pierce born at 21 weeks, died in 2009
Christyan and Jayden Pierce born at 21 weeks, died in 2009(Samantha Pierce)

“Over the years, has it gotten easier for you to discuss?" asked 19 News reporter Sia Nyorkor

"It’s therapy and I’ve gone through therapy and its continuous therapy. Is it easy to discuss, it’s never really easy but it’s absolutely necessary,“ said Pierce.

“Even the smallest things add up to child loss. It just keeps compounding and compounding and compounding until the next thing you know, you have an avalanche with you losing babies, in the end, it’s not okay and it’s all because we think we gotta keep pressing in this life and we really we need to unpack, we need to deal with the things that’s happened to us or for us. We need to change the narrative just a little bit,” she said.

Pierce is a Licensed & Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist. She’s a part of a wellness network of black therapists that help with child loss therapy.

Pierce also produces a podcast called: The Truth About Child Loss available on Spotify.

To learn more the Cleveland Public Library has the following resources.

Margaret Smith Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife

Dennis Brown Mama’s Little Baby: The Black Woman’s Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby’s First Year

Hilda Hutcherson Having Your Baby: For the Special Needs of Black Mothers-to-be, From Conception to Newborn Care

**Julia Oparah, ed. Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth

**Julia Oparah and others Battling Over Birth: Black Women and the Maternal Health Care Crisis

**Cleveland Public Library is currently ordering listed titles by Julia Oparah

Need a library card? Visit here to apply for one today.

Cleveland Public Library is open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Got a question? ASK CPL to live chat with a Librarian.

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