Millennial Womanism: Liz and Melanie

Earlier this year, a forum emerged that highlighted the work of millennial Black women from across the country. Curated by two of my close friends and colleagues, the Millennial Womanism forum illuminated various praxes of scholarship and ministry, all of which centralized Black women and communities. Inspired by the foundational principles of Womanist Theology, the contributors’ work reflected creativity and fire, eviscerating the common ideas that millennials are faithless, self-centered and detached from communities of hope and faith. From this forum, a greater work was born: The Millennial Womanism Project.

Liz Alexander and Melanie Jones are the founders of The Millennial Womanism Project. I wanted to feature these two women, and their work, because of the natural alignment of the missions of TMWP and shepreaches. It is another outlet for our voices, another network for connection and another platform for our work to be celebrated. It is spearheaded by two formidable Black women who are embodying boldness and faith that are required to make change and to say ‘yes’ to the Call.

    Please read more about TMWP, Liz and Mel here, in their own words. 

Please introduce yourselves, in the terms most fitting for you.

Liz: I am a visionary, healer, public servant, entrepreneur, change agent and womanist practitioner. As a Black millennial woman of faith and social justice advocate, my work involves providing support to and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized populations. More specifically, my purpose is to improve the outcomes of young women and girls in the criminal and juvenile justice system between the ages of 13- 24. I have the privilege of doing this work through my company She Dreams of Freedom Consulting Group (SDGCG). Given my work, i have come to embrace my power and God-ordained call unapologetically. And because of this, i am empowered to move through the world with confidence and self-assurance. I am clear, like my mother and the women before her, i am a force to be reckoned with.

Melanie: As a thinking woman of faith embodying radical love and revolutionary justice in the academy, Church, and global community, I identify as a womanist ethicist, millennial preacher, and intellectual activist. My scholarship interrogates intersections of the sacred, social, and sensual in Black women’s moral formation and how the political complexities of this crossway entrap and empower Black women’s bodies and lives. In the classroom, I teach students to discern carefully interlocking systems of oppression and the prevailing theologies, ideologies, and practices that sustain these systems. Though the Black Baptist Church lags behind in fully embracing Black women in ministry, I am humbled to serve as an ordained, Baptist, millennial clergywoman. My call to preach the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ is at the core of my work and witness. From the podium to the pulpit to digital platforms, I am committed to truth-telling and justice-seeking that resists all manners of oppression and enriches local and global communities.

Please tell us the story of your call to TMWP. what is the purpose of the work, and what is the void you're attempting to fill with it?

Liz: The story of The Millennial Womanism Project (TMWP) begins with the story of Millennial Womanism (MW). MW developed out of a need to draw upon a unique womanist epistemological and methodological framework that centers the voices of Black women of faith and justice born between the years of 1980-2000. The purpose of MW is to make space intentionally for doing womanist work in the age of social media, Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements, trap music, mass incarceration, Afrofuturism, religious pluralism, a kaleidoscope of gender and sexual identities, and multidimensional realities of oppression (i.e., at the crossways of race, gender, sexuality, class, abilities, religion, etc.), to name a few.

For me, a few experiences prompted the development of millennial womanism. The first was the fact that i knew several millennial women who identified as womanists and were doing amazing work in several disciplines (Including Neichelle and her work with shepreaches).

As i continued to meet more sistahz, i was inspired to create a space to highlight our work. As i continued to explore the possibilities, i reached out to my inner circle and a couple of my womanist mentors to get their insight. One day during a regular check-in with Melanie, i shared this idea with her and during our discussion she said and i quote "oh you mean like MW." My response was "OMG Melanie, yes! - like, MW." So, Melanie, in all her brilliance, coined the term MW. After our conversation, i began to get more clarity about my vision and the potentiality of MW. After some thought, i took a page from The Feminist Wire (TFW), which at the time was a popular website founded by Tamura Lomax, a Black Feminist and Religious Scholar, that showcased feminist scholarship and explored critical themes through online forums. i had the privilege of contributing to two TFW forums before. So, i reached out to my brother Jamye Wooten, Founder of Kinetics live and .Base - The Black Theology Project and pitched the forum to him. Once he agreed to host it, Melanie and i forged a partnership and co-developed the MW forum and later TMWP.

Melanie and i were deliberate in framing MW as a counter-narrative to the dominant and stereotypical narratives of who and what a millennial is. Given my experience, including watching and working with Neichelle in various capacities - and being inspired by the groundbreaking work of shepreaches - as well as witnessing the fiasco that happened at the 2017 Proctor Conference during the discussion about millennials in the church, it was important to reclaim the millennial identifier in the faith-based space. We were clear that we wanted to uplift emerging voices specifically in the womanist community. Although our point of departure is Womanist theology, we are committed to highlighting the voices of MW across disciplines who are engaged in social justice work, the academy and ministry.

Even though the story of TMWP begins with MW, there is a difference between the two. Similar to womanism, MW is a framework that can be claimed by anyone. TMWP is a joint venture that Melanie and I co-founded to build a sustainable structure to house initiatives and programs, as well as provide supportive resources to the MW community specifically and the larger Womanist community. TMWP plans to develop an intergenerational womanist board and pursue incorporation in 2018.

Melanie: During a sister-girl Sunday check-in, Liz and I shared dis-ease with the over-generalized catchphrase that “millennials are leaving religion” and desired to create space to engage Black millennial religious experiences in living color. As Black millennial women trained in theological education, we held a particular interest in highlighting emerging voices of Black millennials doing Spirit work who were also informed by womanist theory and praxis. Our initial inquiry was simple, “What does it mean to be a millennial and employ womanist ways of being, doing, and thinking in one’s work and witness?” Millennial womanism answered this inquiry as a corrective to the dominant narrative that millennials are no longer concerned with issues of faith and justice and affirmation of Black millennial women, particularly, as heralds of a liberating gospel in this kairos moment.

The launch of the #millennialwomanism forum on .Base - The Black Theology Project in June 2017 gave a platform to Black millennial voices and experiences in the academy, faith institutions, and social justice advocacy. We invited sixteen Black millennial women of diverse backgrounds and social locations who self-identify as womanist or claim womanism as an approach to their work, two Black millennial men who collaborate with womanists toward communal wellness, and two seasoned womanist respondents who affirm the ongoing need for intergenerational womanist dialogue as a way forward. Responses to the two-week forum filled with transparent testimonies and critical engagement motivated our energies to organize The Millennial Womanism Project (TMWP) and develop sustainable initiatives for faith leaders and justice advocates of today and tomorrow.

What is the foundation of Womanism that you're building upon, and why is this generationally-specific work important? 

Liz and Melanie: We envision a world where Black women and girls are whole and free.

For more than thirty years, the womanist theological enterprise continues to take seriously the struggle and survival of Black women against multiple forces of oppression in religion and society. Womanist theology, in its initial emergence, confronted the missing experiences of Black women in Black liberation and feminist theological constructions. Employing and expanding Alice Walker’s four-part definition of the term “womanist,” self-identified womanist scholars in the academy of religion initiated a prophetic discourse that affirms Black women as human beings made in the image of God and calls for the eradication of oppression in the African American community, Black religious traditions and ecclesial institutions, and the broader America. Womanist is a confessional identity that cannot be imposed; thus, those who claim “womanist” self-determine a holistic path that is committed to the survival and liberation of oppressed peoples and the environment.

Millennial womanism is descriptive in its efforts to recognize Black millennial women who understand womanism (#ifnot4womanism) as an audacious endeavor that refines our work, convicts our witness, and compels our wisdom. The gift of the womanist paradigm is the ability to name ourselves and look to ourselves for liberation. The millennial modifier is a critical move to interrogate the empirical realities facing Black millennial women from a womanist lens that oppress, restrict, and confine our freedom and flourishing.

In a contemporary era, womanism loses its prophetic edge when its deconstructive, critical, and constructive pathways to confront oppressive structures happen only in academic circles. Millennial womanism intentionally highlights scholars, faith leaders, practitioners and justice advocates who are engaged in this work across multiple sectors and disciplines. With full recognition that millennials are digital natives, millennial womanism seeks to expand the womanist discourse to the public square in ways that are accessible to millennial populations online and on the line. Millennial womanism also unearths digital platforms and technologies, especially social media, as mediums for truth-telling and redemption for Black millennial women.

Millennial womanism talks back to religious and social institutions that fail to value the voices, vision, and innovation of Black millennial women. Millennial womanism recognizes and resources the sacred wisdom of Black millennial women who exist on the frontlines of the movement toward Black liberation. It is necessary that Black women and girls transfer and translate survival tools and strategies across generations. Millennial womanism promotes transgenerational dialogue while uplifting the unique epistemologies and methodologies that millennials bring to the conversation.

Please tell us two stories:

   a. Please tell the story of a "win" in your work. 

Liz and Melanie: The #millennialwomanism forum was a leap of faith. We are grateful to Jamye for making space for this work and executing the graphic design layout of our vision beautifully. We are still amazed by the contributors who said “Yes” to include their stories and experiences in the forum. Within three weeks, an idea actualized into a dialogue that extends far beyond our expectations. Although millennial womanism is still evolving, a major win is encountering Black millennial women of faith who resonate with the concept because it centers their experiences, affirms their voice, and provides space for their work.

This upcoming February 2018, TMWP is excited to partner with The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) to host a Millennial Womanist Track for Black millennial women, born between 1980s-2000. The goals of the Millennial Womanism track include: employ curriculum that centers millennial issues and concerns at the crossway of faith and justice; nurture discernment through sharing stories and herstories of womanist trailblazers who have paved the way; establish a mentoring network; build relationships; encourage collaborative partnerships and transgenerational dialogue; support millennial creatives in digital and ecumenical engagement; and cultivate self-care disciplines and practices for healing and wholeness. Register today and join us in Memphis!

   b. Please tell the story of a setback and how you bounced back from it.

Liz and Melanie: TMWP is purpose work that we do beyond our professional careers. For every new business or project, there is always the challenge of finding resources to help fund ideas. Most startups rely on established organizations for development and support. We are grateful for partnerships with .Base -The Black Theology Project, United Church of Christ Ministry for Racial Justice, United Methodist Church Global Ministries, and The Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference that have invested in the vision of TMWP in its startup stages.

You created TMWP from the ground up. What word(s) would you pass on to other young Black women in ministry about ministry and entrepreneurship?

Liz: To my fellow sistahz in ministry, entrepreneurship is a pathway to take control of your life and future. Zora Neale Hurston said it best when she said, “Black women are the mules of the earth.” I have personally experienced and witnessed too many Black women facing exploitation for their brilliance and advanced skill sets especially in ministry and faith-based work. As an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship allows me to use my intellectual capital, skills, cetera, to do justice work and have an impact while deciding my schedule and rate of compensation. For me, there is no greater joy and freedom than living out my purpose work on my terms. I will add that entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart and requires vision, a confident personality, persistence, and hard work. But, with consistency and determination, i find it to be extremely fun and rewarding. If you are considering entrepreneurship, i encourage you to research your interest area, reach out to other entrepreneurs, get still, listen to your spirit, pray, and consult God. If after doing this, you realize entrepreneurship is for you, trust yourself and go for it. I strongly believe we need more Black women founding CEO's and Executive Directors, especially in ministry.

Melanie: Hell No! to building faith or corporate institutions that overwork and underpay Black women. The declining realities of available pulpits and salaried staff positions at faith institutions necessitate Black women in ministry create businesses that lead the efforts of social change in a quest to, borrowing from the womanist canon, “do the work our soul must have” and thrive. I encourage Black millennial women in ministry entering entrepreneurship to COLLABORATE. The lone ranger model of entrepreneurship is exhausting and taxing to our bodies and selves. Find colleagues, partners or a team with a shared vision who bring skill sets and abilities that complement your efforts and build together. Both ministry and entrepreneurship require vision and faith to ask tough questions and execute solutions with vulnerability and courage. Take the leap!