The founder and Executive Director of Black Women in International Affairs (BWINTAF), Ayona Riley, grounds her work for the non-profit at the intersection of her lived experience and international affairs expertise. Specifically, her scholarly interest focuses on Latin American politics and US immigration. Raised on the northside of Milwaukee, WI she had distinct knowledge on the ways that systemic power structures work to limit and confine marginalized populations in real ways be it through housing, income, job opportunities, or education. As Ayona matriculated through Marquette University and then Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs, she often experienced being “the only one” or one of few in multiple ways. Her identity as a Black American woman from an urban midwestern city was not well represented, if at all.
Many times when Ayona would interact with people outside of her hometown, they knew very little about Milwaukee and had false assumptions about the lives of the people who lived there. Oftentimes, people would be surprised that there was a community of Black people who lived in urban parts of Wisconsin. If one looks at the demographics of the state, they find that only 6.1% of the population are identified as Black/African American. However, 70% of the state’s Black residents live in Metro Milwaukee and comprise 40% of the city’s population. Due to practices of systemized residential segregation, the majority of Black people live on the northside of the city. However, as recent reports have shown, Milwaukee constantly ranks in the top 5 worst cities for Black people as its residents make half of the annual income of their white counterparts. Furthermore, Black people are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of white people which is twice the national average. Looking back, histories of colonization, the institution of slavery, and Jim Crow legislation all impact why and how Black people found their way to cities in the Midwest. Escaping the grip of codified racism, Black migrators from the south settled in places like Milwaukee for a chance to improve their lot in life by working in new burgeoning industries and creating cultural enclaves.
Understanding how seemingly intangible forces have patterned the life of not only Ayona but others she cares deeply for, she began to understand how her lived experience and family trajectory impacted by systemic institutions of racism, sexism, and classism created a gap in the international affairs field. Simply stated, Black people like her were not in the room and if they were, they were few and far between. Furthermore, she did not find people like her reflected in the work of international affairs be it the literature or fields of study. She also noticed issues pertaining to Black people throughout The Americas and Caribbean were not being centered for advocacy, outreach or programming, there was not a concerted effort to understand, raise awareness, and effectively address their needs on an international level, and when there was programming or advocacy it was oftentimes not being led by Black people. She rejected narratives of Black exceptionalism or the over-investment in pipeline programs which only supported colorblind perspectives of individual success while ignoring the very real impact of hundreds of years of systematic racism that frame the lives of Black folks today. Instead, she embraced the opportunity to create greater access for children from under-served and under-resourced urban areas, create a collective space and network for Black women in international affairs, and implement programming so that Black people are active and engaged stakeholders in the international political arena.
Black Women in International Affairs is founded by a Black woman and therefore takes a Black feminist approach as the foundation of the organization. The tenants of Black feminism frame the context in which BWINTAF operates.
Interlocking oppression: BWINTAF takes an intersectional approach to account for the ways in which Black women’s bodies are marked by stigmatized identities of race, class, gender, color, and history. These oppressions are not additive or hierarchical, but rather intersectional and operate simultaneously to pattern the lives of Black women.
Standpoint epistemology: Those who understand the issues and experiences of Black women (i.e. Black women) are best positioned to study and evaluate its meaning. BWINTAF embraces a standpoint epistemology when dealing with questions of power, stigma, and stereotypes that victimize Black women.
Everyday knowledge: BWINTAF draws on the collective consciousness and wisdom of Black women. This everyday knowledge is drawn from Black women’s shared experiences. The expertise we seek on these issues must come from those who experience the circumstances, not those who generate, contribute to, and benefit from them.
Dialectical images of Black Women: BWINTAF acknowledges how images of Black women are almost always positioned in direct opposition to notions of hegemonic womanhood. The Black woman’s image has been constructed as incompetent to perform at a high level and disinterested in professional careers like those in international affairs, which directly contributes to the experience of marginalization and a lack of visibility in the field. BWINTAF addresses these false narratives by centering Black women in The Americas and Caribbean and creating programming directed at this group.
Human Rights praxis: BWINTAF endorses and incorporates a human rights agenda to its efforts around programming and networking. We do this by challenging dominant power structures, transforming the spaces we enter, instituting a specific and new organizational and leadership style, and focusing our programs on grassroots mobilization efforts for effective international social change. BWINTAF believes that international affairs cannot become more accessible, inclusive, and representative and responsive to the needs of Black people throughout The Americas and Caribbean until the conditions that subordinate Black people and their communities are acknowledged by the international community and met with effective global solutions.
Ayona’s lived experience, professional interests, and an identified gap in the field grounds the work of Black Women in International Affairs. These factors also directly impact the lives of those she intends to reach through the organization. It is for this reason that the Board of Directors must reflect this specific demographic. This shared interest, coupled with the diverse personal and professional backgrounds of the board members, creates a symbiotic relationship that allows BWINTAF to thrive. BWINTAF wholeheartedly and unapologetically advocates for and centers Black women in The Americas and Caribbean as we share a similar history that is inextricably linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, chattel slavery, systematic racism and systemic oppression. BWINTAF aims to create a space where a specific set of experiences can merge and produce the network, advocacy, and programming that will impact Black people who have been consistently underrepresented for far too long.
We invite others who reflect our mission and share our goals to submit materials by August 31st to be considered for board membership. Black women from The Americas and Caribbean should submit a short biography, resume/CV, and statement on how your lived experiences, interests, and professional competencies can help advance the mission of BWINTAF. If you have any specific questions please do not hesitate to submit a contact form on the website here.
Sources to credit:
Comen, E. (2020, January 15). The Worst Cities for Black Americans. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://247wallst.com/special-report/2019/11/05/the-worst-cities-for-black-americans-5/4/
Richie, B. (2012). Arrested Justice: Black women, violence, and America's prison nation. New York: New York University Press.