June 6, 2017

BRN GRL SPK: The NYC Collective Empowering Women of Color to Speak Up

By: Elizabeth Roberts

“Who does the Women’s March truly represent?” Ugonna Okpalaoka thought.  

After the demonstration in January 2017, Okpalaoka – who works in media in New York – felt like there was a controversy over what issues were covered.

“I just found that a lot of people had things to say but nowhere to say it,” Okpalaoka said. “I also felt like I had some things I wanted to get off my chest. When I talked to my friends (Mariah Chinchilla, Alessandra Hickson and Ranjani Chakraborty) I found that they felt the same way and I thought, why don’t we start an open mic night?”

That conversation evolved into a mission of community building that became BRN GRL SPK (Brown Girl Speak), a collective supporting women of color through inclusive empowerment and education.  

 Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler
Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler

Okpalaoka notes that BRN GRL SPK is often mistaken for a sentence.

“It’s supposed to be more of a command. Like BRN GRL, SPK,” Okpalaoka said. “A lot of times we’re pushed into the corner or to be cliché, we’re not given a seat at the table. Or sometimes we have to elbow our way in to be heard.”

Five minutes on stage is a way to reclaim some of those missed opportunities. Attendees at BRN GRL SPK’s first open mic event on March 28 could hold space for their opinions through music, spoken word or comedy. What mattered most to Okpalaoka is that it was a place for honest discourse.

“Safe space is such a buzz word right now and I think that’s for a reason,” Okpalaoka said. “People are starting to feel like they’re being pushed out of politics and public conversations. I think when it comes to building a community, you’re trying to build a space where people can come together and see what’s important.”

The education comes from the “hyperlocal” organizations that are supported by BRN GRL SPK. Each event’s proceeds are donated to a different NYC non-profit. The March event raised $2,500 for Black Girls CODE, an organization encouraging minority girls’ leadership and technical skills in STEM – particularly computer science and technology.

But aside from feeling good about donating, the BRN GRL SPK founders wanted prospective attendees to care about why Black Girls CODE should matter to women. On the BRN GRL SPK Facebook group, a post included an article from The Atlantic called “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women?” with the caption “THIS is why we’re raising money for BlackGirlsCode at our first event.”

The article chronicles women who work in the technology field and find that their work day includes hurdles of harassment and condescension. One example is Bethanye Blount, co-founder and CEO of Cathy Labs, who found herself disheartened at a tech conference. “She couldn’t believe that women still had to worry about such things; that they still got asked to fetch coffee; that she still heard talk about how hiring women or people of color entailed ‘lowering the bar’; that women still, often, felt silenced or attacked when expressing opinions online,” The Atlantic detailed.

With the office culture for women in tech painted in such dismal terms, there isn’t one answer to combat sexism. However, one option is to empower women in STEM from an early age: a mission that aligns with Black Girls CODE.  

 Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler
Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler

Female-focused community building is about empowering women and girls through a common goal, whether that’s supporting an interest in technology with Black Girls CODE, creating a space for productive networking like Six Degrees Society or creating a collective to match the arts with hyperlocal philanthropy like BRN GRL SPK.

BRN GRL SPK’s upcoming event on Wednesday, June 7 is an open mic fundraiser for WE ACT, an environmental justice organization that works toward decreasing pollution in low-income communities.  

Six Degrees Society spoke to two of the BRN GRL SPK founders, Okpalaoka and Chinchilla, about BRN GRL SPK’s upcoming open mic night, the collective’s impact in the NYC community and advice for women who want to start similar movements.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Six Degrees Society (SDS): Do you feel like your events are having an impact on the community?

Ugonna Okpalaoka (UO): It’s still too early to tell what the impact on the community has been but I feel like it seemed to be really resonate with them, [to] have a place to commune and come together and get to know each other. Having a vein of community flowing through it.

Mariah Chinchilla (MC): I think what blew us away was how much support came in. We never had experience locking in sponsors or booking a venue with literally no budget. Once we described what we wanted to do and what we wanted to create, people came knocking at our doors and asking how they could contribute. For our next event, we’re going to have volunteers because so many people asked how they could help.

UO: I think it’s just a sign of the times. There’s a need for it. If you can identify a need and find the way to approach it, when the two meet like Mariah said, you see that the results are there.

MC: I think what we did really well was that we’re already in a city that celebrates the arts and nightlife. The minute you leave your door you know you’re spending money but you don’t know where it’s going. Wouldn’t it be great if it went to the artists in your community; learn more and feel enriched and know exactly where that money is going? That’s what we wanted to provide.

 Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler
Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler

SDS: BRN GRL SPK posts news about issues like the environment, technology and healthcare, connecting it with organizations that you’re donating to. As founders, is that important to do since you all work in media and are constantly surrounded by information?

MC: I do, and I think that’s something we’re still developing. Do we want to start putting out content and info we think is relevant to our community? I think so. The whole collective title is BRN GRL SPK so why wouldn’t we give information that’s relevant to our community and sisters? Some people outside of media don’t read the news because they don’t trust it anymore. Communities like this need to have each other’s backs so you know what’s going on in the news around you.

UO: I think there’s kind of a fatigue there. Last year you saw people being more – I don’t want to use the word “woke” because I think it’s overused – but you saw more people getting active in society [followed by] a lot of burnout. BRN GRL SPK gives them a way to start caring again.

MC: I’ve been volunteering for a long time but organizations made it so that you had to dedicate six hours a day here or get your own travel. We found a better way to give back. We wanted to have fun; we wanted to keep what we loved alive and celebrate it in a new way.

SDS: How do you see BRN GRL SPK growing as an organization?

UO: I want it to become a community that grows organically. As we think about what it happens to be next, I want to teach women of color how to access their own emotions and wants and needs and how to express that. In the future, we want to do self-care workshops where women listen to themselves and then get confidence in whatever field they’re in so they can speak up. So that’s how I see us growing within the next year, more issues that address self-expression.

 Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler
Photo by: Andrew C. Fowler

SDS: What advice would you give for other women who want to start similar movements in their own communities?

UO: Just listen. If you want to start something similar, listen to the community around you. Before BRN GRL SPK started, I talked to my friends and asked if I was the only one who felt this way or if other people felt that way too, and it was the latter so that’s how this came together. I think all of us were on the same page about how we felt about our place in society.

MC: And we didn’t have a desire to be famous or anything. We just had time and weren’t using it wisely. We had to think how can we be the best people we can and stand up for the things that we love. A lot of people were feeling helpless and we wanted to be our best selves and inspire people to do the same.

SDS: You guys have a suggested donation of $10, why is it suggested instead of required?

UO: We don’t want to feel like there’s a barrier to our events, we want to keep it open to everyone. It allows people who have the resources to be a lot more generous if they can be. We got a couple of messages from our last event saying “I can’t afford to do the $10, is it okay if I still come?” Of course. You can still benefit from a night like this without paying the $10 fee.

MC: Arts and entertainment, why would you put a price tag on that? You want to support the artists but it should be accessible to everyone. We even had people who couldn’t come but they donated anyways.

UO: Ultimately it’s just about going back to our community, we choose organizations that help women of color whether it’s through the lens of immigration or environment or technology.

SDS: Do either of you have female mentors who helped you with this experience?

UO: I think a lot of it was us encouraging each other. If it had been up to me to plan BRN GRL SPK it would have been me and two other people talking in a room. But the four of us pushed each other to go big or go home. But we definitely had many women encourage us, it was a collective: brand new, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Ultimately it’s just getting across that BRN GRL SPK is giving women a chance to express themselves in whatever form that takes that they can sew back into their community and support their sisters, through technology, immigration, etc. It’s important that this space exists.

For more information on tickets to BRN GRL SPK’s June 7 event in Brooklyn, visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/brn-grl-spk-an-open-mic-fundraiser-for-we-act-tickets-34801358801

Elizabeth Roberts works at CNN Digital and obtained her master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her previous work experience includes NBC’s Content Innovation Agency, Vanity Fair and the TODAY Show. She is an alumna of the NBCU Page Program. Elizabeth lives in New York but is proudly from the Washington, D.C. area. When she’s not writing, you’ll see her gasping through a half marathon or avoiding tell you the shameful number of hours she spends watching both good and bad TV. 

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