By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer
Since immigrating to Canada, SFU alumni Itse Hesse has struggled with the lack of safe spaces for Black women to connect with and support each other. Recalling these unmet needs, Hesse officially founded the Black Girl Collective (BGC) in July 2020. What began on a whim as an Instagram page grew into a vibrant and inclusive community of Black women and non-binary people.
The Peak interviewed Hesse to learn more about the organization and their work.
She remembered facing barriers accessing community support at SFU as an immigrant and international student. “It’s just been a struggle for me after school trying to find a Black mentor because I wanted a mentor that was not only Black, but also understood my struggles of being an immigrant and navigating the system here,” said Hesse.
BGC focuses on “advocating for Black girls through events,” and Hesse identified its three pillars: Black joy, Black futures, and community engagement. These are based on the unmet needs of her community which she experienced firsthand.
“I really wanted to focus on bringing joy to Black women because it’s just so stressful for us with the title of being a strong Black woman. Everybody feels like they have to be a strong Black woman but not really, we also deserve a space to feel soft, and taken care of, and just feel pampered,” said Hesse. “That was very important for me so I focus on Black joy.”
Hesse explained many of their events centre on Black joy, and they’ve put on over 10 sold-out events throughout the pandemic. A key event is the now-annual Black Girl Brunch in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery Bistro. “It was such a huge success to just see more than 50–60 Black girls just at that space, having fun, just eating, drinking, making connections,” said Hesse.
Another example of BGC centring Black joy is seen in the outdoor events they host throughout the seasons, in collaboration with Color the Trails. Hesse said this is to show Black girls outdoor activities such as hiking and skiing are not just white spaces.
The second pillar of Black futures focuses on giving talks and offering workshops to younger Black girls to teach them their future potentials and possibilities are limitless. Hesse reflected on her conversations with other Black women at SFU. She found most of them studying to be nurses and asked why.
“One of the replies we got was ‘that was what the counsellors at school told them to do,’” said Hesse. “As a Black woman, they’re always encouraging you to go into nursing and as a Black man, they’re always encouraging you to go into trades.”
Hesse and her group decided to address this issue starting with younger Black students. BGC reached out to the Vancouver School Board and to give talks to middle school students about their limitless future potential. Hesse also said BGC is finalizing a program called “Black Girls in Tech,” set to launch this Fall.
Their third pillar of community engagement includes providing resources, volunteering, and facilitating book clubs centring Black women authors.
“One of the biggest things for me is being able to eventually provide financial assistance to our community members that are in need but for the meantime we do what we can. If they reach out to us, if they need anything, we can reference them to somebody who can help them,” said Hesse.
Hesse explained BGC has a strict community code of conduct that encompasses their values: behaviours such as misgendering other community members are not tolerated. To ensure that every single member of the community feels comfortable at their events, Hesse said the community code of conduct is a live document open to additions and revisions. She said BGC values learning and consultation from the trans and non-binary people in their community.
“My goal is to have Black Girl Collective Canada-wide,” said Hesse. “I want international Black girls to come and know that they have a safe space, they have somebody they can rely on, they have a big sister that can help them navigate this strange land that they’re in.”