Morgane Richardson is shaking it up. As a self-described “fourth-wave feminist” who takes on issues of race, gender, sexuality, sans the theory and terminology, Morgane is making an impact wherever she goes. As the founder of Refuse the Silence: Women of Color in Academia Speak Out, she has created a space that allows women who have experienced the isolation of liberal arts institutions to come and speak their truths. She has been featured in publications such as Bitch, More, Feministing, and numerous others. She has organized local campus communities as a Posse Scholar, created the social media firm Mixtape Media, and most recently created the conference series Ain’t I A Woman: Race in the Feminist Movement, which had its first panel in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is currently gearing up for a second series in Los Angeles, as well as a speaker for the upcoming SlutWalk in LA. She is a force of nature, speaking on her experiences as a woman of color, a queer woman, and a feminist, all with some serious chutzpah. Please welcome to Persephone the fabulous and amazing Morgane Richardson.
Persephone Magazine: You are the founder of ”Refuse the Silence: Women of Color in Academia Speak Out,” a site dedicated to collecting the stories of WOC students and alumni in elite liberal arts schools. What motivated you to start this space, and what was the process like?
Morgane Richardson: Refuse The Silence came into my mind and into my life about six months after my graduation from Middlebury College.
I was very active as the president of women of color on my campus, and I felt almost as though I was abandoning the women of color who were coming after me when I graduated. I knew that there were many things that still needed to happen in order for women of color to have a safe space, and I was seeking a way to do that as an alum.
The key was that I didn’t want someone else saying what the issues were for us. I wanted to provide women of color on these campuses with a space to share their own experiences. More than that, I wanted their stories to literally be the change, or create the change, in academia.
Once I had the idea in place, it was quite easy to put it all together. My partner and I have a digital media firm, so we were equipped to get Refuse The Silence up online and start spreading the news to others. The hardest part has been getting people outside of the feminist and academic worlds to know that this initiative exists, and that just requires more time and resources.
The process has been as rewarding as it is challenging. I think any organizer will tell you that it is difficult to be the head or founder of an initiative, especially when there is little funding, as is the case with Refuse The Silence. In a perfect world, Refuse The Silence would be my full-time job and I would be able to get basic healthcare and funding in order to support everyone involved. This would really allow us to dedicate all of our time to watching this project grow and reach out to all the women who need to know that we exist for them.
PM: What were the most obvious issues or obstacles that you confronted in your own academic experience? What were the reactions from your peers and administration?
MR: When I first graduated from college, I was most disappointed with the administration and what I thought was their inability to change the issues that so many students of color face; by that I mean Middlebury’s inabilities to not only speak on blatant issues of racism (swastikas on students’ doors, professors calling out students to explain the Black, Latino, Asian experience, etc.) but to create an environment on campus that did not tolerate such hate.
After almost four years out, my awareness has changed a little, and I think the hardest part was not the administration but living and working with the students that I went to college with. I now recognize that many of the students in these institutions held preconceived notions of who we were as people of color, and in some case students on scholarship. So the hardest part was combating those ideas, feeling unwanted and feeling as though we had to be the voice of all students of color on campus. There was very little time to just be a student and make stupid mistakesâ€¦ many of us felt that we had to put our activism first and collective identity first and lost the opportunity to be less uptight and a little more reckless.
The professors and heads of student organizations that I have worked with have been incredibly supportive of Refuse The Silence and have made sure their students are aware that it is available to them. I give them a lot of credit, because it takes courage to not only recognize that there is a problem but to research ways to help. I do wish that administrators were more involved, and yet I also recognize that I haven’t reached out to them as much. As one person, it is difficult to do all the things that require Refuse The Silence to be incredibly successful on all elite liberal arts colleges around the United States.
PM: Do you think Refuse the Silence can be translated for the experiences of women in, say, community colleges or state schools? What are the reasons for focusing specifically on “higher ed” private institutions?
MR: There are certainly issues that are specific to private schools of this nature, such as often being the only student of color in the classroom, and I wanted to make sure that those were addressed. Yet I recognize that many of the issues that we hear from women of color are not exclusive to elite liberal arts institutions. Hate crimes, sexual assault, eating disorders, and the like happen all over the world in colleges and universities.
My intention was not to separate the two but to speak on what I know and give voice to those in the community that I have been a part of. My hope is that one day so many people will want to be a part of Refuse The Silence that we can grow to be adopted on all college campuses across the United States, and even internationally. In fact, I am always thinking and dreaming about having Refuse The Silence for women in community colleges and state schools, but I also have learned to take it one step at a time, or else nothing will get done.
PM: You define yourself as a professional feminist, and on your site talk about the feeling of being “invited to their venue, even inviting us to speak, but being neglected to provide a microphone so we can be heard.” Can you talk about WOC’s representation or lack of in the larger feminist community, academic or otherwise, and how feminism can be better at including voices beyond the ones it has become easily accustomed with?
When I say that women of color aren’t given a microphone to be heard, I mean that people are often speaking for us. I was referring primarily to academic institutions, but I do think that this exists across the board, in the feminist community but also at home and in the workforce. People often feel comfortable speaking about race at a distance without asking for those directly affected to speak and share their stories and experiences. I think this largely exists because we live in a society that is still terrified of speaking on race, as many have never been given the vocabulary to do so. Unfortunately, many others simply think that race is no longer an issue.
Those at the forefront of the feminist community can greatly assist women of color’s voices being included in the movement by creating a space for us to speak out. We can organize more events with women of color activists and scholars, and we can have more conversations on race, class, and identity. We can also support organizations and initiatives founded and run by fellow women of color feminists. I think if we had any more specific answers than that, we really wouldn’t be where we are today. We must continue to figure out how to help by first acknowledging that there is an issue. Not enough people believe that there is a dire problem for women of color, even within the progressive feminist movement.
I, personally, have broached this issue by refusing to wait for someone else to give me a space or permission to organize on the topics that I deem important.
PM: What do you think are the largest obstacles facing young feminist are right now? What about the positives?
MR: Though it may sound clichÃ©, I think every obstacle that we face as young feminists is a positive one. How can you learn if you have nothing to fight for and/or against? But for a solid answer, I think that the feminist community is working hard on creating an environment where all people can feel comfortable in finding a space to take action on the injustices they see in the world.
Some of the biggest things that are hindering us are the history of feminism and the notion that it is a middle class, white woman’s movement from the ’60s. Once we move away from that idea, we can start to organize as a collective and address the issues that are present today, largely immigration rights and combating the (naive) belief that we live in a post-racial society.
PM: What do you feel that we have learned from those who came before us?
MR: There is a huge debate in the feminist community as to whether or not younger generations appreciate all that those who came before us have done. I don’t think it’s fair for one person to speak on behalf of everyone, but I personally think a lot of what we know as people, as activists, comes from those who have lived before us. That being said, there is even more that must be learned on our own through experience. For example, I was trained to deal with racism on college campuses as a posse scholar, but I didn’t know what that meant or how to deal with it until I experienced it myself.
In terms of what we have learned, that’s different for everyone and is incredibly difficult to answer.
PM: You and your partner also did something that most people are scared or seemingly unable to do â€“ you both hopped into a car and lived off very little, mostly the support and help of people. Can you talk about why you both made that decision and what it was like?
MR: It sounds more poetic to say that choosing to pick up and leave was an easy decision, but the reality is it wasn’t at all for me. While I was ready for more adventures and control than my job at the time was giving me, I was afraid of the repercussions that came with not being able to pay off my student loans and lose my healthcare. I was also afraid of what my mother would think. Yet, I didn’t see a future for myself sitting at a front desk answering phones and not making enough to pay for my own housing (I was making less than $20,000 a year). Luckily, I had a partner who saw that it was slowly eating away at me, and she helped me find the strength to get up and leave.
Once we were on the road, it was much easier. You would be surprised at how many people are willing to help two young women living out of their car. We had random strangers offer up their time, really good traveling tips, showers in their hotel rooms, and even blankets to keep us warm as we drove in the dead of winter. We also got our then-puppy on the road, which was a great way for us to focus our (sometimes nervous) energy.
I think the hardest part of the entire journey was when we realized that, eventually, we had to go back home. Coming home was when things got toughâ€¦ when we suddenly had to be a part of society again. But we have learned that we are, indeed, wanderers at heart and have created a life for ourselves that allows us to do that by starting our own company and learning to let go a little. In fact, we are moving to Costa Rica in the fall to continue on our journey!
PM: Now you are living in L.A. and organizing your own feminist community, creating events like Young Feminist Speak Out: Los Angeles and the Ain’t I A Woman Conference that took place in Brooklyn. Can you talk about how you are reframing these discussions in a way that are more inclusive and what it’s like to organize these events?
MR: Despite what people think, the feminist community closely reflects the energies that you find in a corporation or even at the United Nations. People are striving to be at the top of the ladder and are so involved in making policy changes that I think we often forget to reach out to those who have little to no understanding of what feminism means.
I love the fast-paced, get-it-done energy that New York feminism has, but I strongly appreciate the laid back vibe that Californians have on life. So when I started organizing events on a large scale, I wanted to create a space where we could have the conversations that needed to be had but also have fun while doing it. I think there are some people who can learn in an academic setting, but many more who can appreciate good music, dancing, and socializing all the while talking about ways we can change the world for women. Ain’t I A Woman in Brooklyn and Young Feminist Speak Out in Los Angeles reached out to not only the feminist community but to artists, musicians, and many other people who may have never known about feminism and felt ostracized by the term.
In terms of the discussions that we have, I try to keep it very simple with minimal heady questions. I have found it works to have shorter panels so that people are only given enough time to answer a question but not delve too deep into it; this way, the audience is encouraged to come back to more events but also engage in a conversation with panelists in a beautiful space and over good music once the panel itself is over.
When organizing, I am very anal and require that every single detail is planned out and thought of. I am all about having the right flow and having events look so effortless, so organizing them takes a lot of time. I often feel bad for my co-organizers, but so far all of the events have turned out to be a success, so we must be doing something right!
PM: What other awesome work can we look forward from you in the future?
MR: For one, it’s time Refuse The Silence turns into book form, and I am working extremely hard at that. I have sat down with a few different publishing houses and agents in the past few months to really push this project into print from. Let’s cross our fingers that you will all be holding a copy of Refuse The Silence, The Book this time next year.
I am also in the process of organizing another Ain’t I A Woman: Race in the feminist movement panel. It will be in Los Angeles this time and with my Los Angeles co-organizers, Myra Duran and Miranda Peterson. We are hoping to have the event in June, but you can stay up to date by checking back to my website, www.morganerichardson.com/events or the Ain’t I A Woman site, aiaw.tumblr.com.