GV Positive Black Women use ‘girl talk’ as campus-wide empowerment

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - The Cook Carillon Tower offers free tours while university carillonneur Julianne Vanden Wyngaard plays the instrument on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 in Allendale.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – The Cook Carillon Tower offers free tours while university carillonneur Julianne Vanden Wyngaard plays the instrument on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 in Allendale.

Riley Collins

The idea of “girl talk” has a reputation for a reason. While the idea is that women come together casually to discuss issues and situations they have in common, sometimes these commonalities can turn into something historic. This is the case with the Grand Valley State University student organization Positive Black Women (PBW).

PBW was created in 1994 by a group of GVSU faculty members casually meeting for lunch to discuss the issues they faced while working at a predominately white institution. At the time, support for women of color was more limited, resulting in PBW members filling many roles simply to support each other and the students.

“Who’s mentoring the mentees? That’s where Positive Black Women came in,” said Cassonya Carter, senior academic adviser for the Kirkhof College of Nursing. “It started to be more of a supportive environment for us.”

Carter, along with a growing number of faculty members at PBW meetings, recognized that underrepresented students needed people to relate with in positions of power. Thus, PBW structured itself into a support space that fosters ambition among women of color at GVSU. PBW does this by offering the perpetual “Trailblazer Award” during tributes. 

PBW hosted the annual event Tuesday, Feb. 14, called “A Tribute to Black Women: Strong, Fierce and Dynamic Divas,” which celebrates and honors women of color at GVSU, as well as prominent historical figures. The event took place in the Kirkhof Center’s Grand River Room at noon.

Last year’s honoree was Doris Rucks, the first coordinator of GVSU’s women’s studies program.

For 2017, the tribute celebrated the life work of Julieann Vanden Wyngaard, associate dean at of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Vanden Wyngaard also served as the GVSU music department chair for 12 years.

The tribute introduced poetry, song and dance, as well as an interactive “live museum” for guests to get a closer look at the histories of notable, unrecognized black women in history.

“It highlights black women who have made notable contributions but have had their work intentionally overlooked or left out,” said Ashley Guyton, PBW member. “Women that have carried the load and worked tirelessly with no honorable mentions.”

For decades, there were old, rigid systems in place that did not reward women of color for their historic contributions made to society. As a result, Guyton said much of their notable work was credited to other people.

“In order for their notable work to be acknowledged it had to presented in a different manner – rather, by someone that wasn’t an African American woman,” Guyton said.

This overlooked part of institutional and social history is precisely what PBW and the event strive to acknowledge and change. For members of PBW, it is a history bigger than just women of color at GVSU.

“Our history, as women, impacts what we all do,” Carter said. “Rosa Parks didn’t just change things for black women, she changed it for women. So did Hillary.”

The event credited women from all walks of life who have made contributions to society, and paved the way for other generations to come. However, Carter said the first step to ensuring a productive, growing history for black women and women in general is to acknowledge the hardships and injustices of their past.

“Our history is important whether it was nice, nasty, good, bad and different. Because history shapes your future,” Carter said.