Features, Long-term Features, Long-form Features, 2024 Celebrating Black Voices

Black Women Matter Initiative Cultivates Black Joy and Community at Boston College

Since its founding in 1973, the Women’s Center (WC) has aimed to foster an inclusive and empowering environment for Boston College students of all gender identities, with programming on topics such as sexual assault awareness, body image, and gender inclusivity.

But in 2018, former WC staff member Courtney Wright, BC ’16 and ’20, and WC Director Katie Dalton, recognized a consistently low traffic of Black female students coming through the center’s doors.

While considering the weight of past anti-Black incidents on campus, Wright—who worked as a resident assistant on a floor in Welch Hall that was graffitied with racial epithets—was motivated to create a space for Black women to find solace in an environment that can feel unforgiving, she said. 

“One of the newly renovated study rooms was defaced with spray paint with anti Black names written in there,” Wright recalled. “Anytime something like this happens on campus—you know, that was not the first time—campus gets really heavy, and especially for certain students.”

With a desire to finally fill this gap of support for Black women at BC, Wright founded The Black Women Matter Initiative (BWM).

(Photo Courtesy of Courtney Wright)

“I spent time interviewing current students … to understand their experience at BC as Black women,” Wright said. “And then asked them, ‘Okay, well what would you want in a program, in a service—especially if it’s coming from the Women’s Center—and how can we use that information to create their dream?”

Today, the BWM Retreat is a weekend of comfort and joy away from Chestnut Hill, allowing participants to reflect far from the stressors of academia, according to Christie Louis, a current student leader of the BWM Retreat and MCAS ’24.

Louis shared that participants indulge in a few days surrounded by fellow Black female students, alumnae, and faculty who understand the heightened sense of othering that comes with studying at a PWI. Only 4.31% of undergraduate students at BC identify as Black or African American according to BC’s 2021-2022 Common Set Data

“It’s really about cultivating self-care and also sisterhood,” Louis said. “We don’t get to have that in any other space because we’re always in a predominantly white space. You’re always kind of going ‘go, go, go,’ in school, especially as Black women.”

Upon their arrival at the retreat at the Connors Center in Dover, Mass., participants are greeted with gifts centered around nurturing themselves. This past October, the retreat offered participants bonnets made in and imported from Nigeria.

“We understand what you need to nourish your body and to feel good and to rejuvenate during the school year, and here we are providing upon entry,” Louis said.

According to Louis, the group of about 60 retreat participants are divided into “sisterhoods,” each directed by a select group of student leaders with assistance from faculty and alumnae.

When building the BWM program, Wright knew that inviting Black female alumnae and faculty would be an important tool to help participants navigate the complications of undergraduate life, she said.

“We wanted to make sure that it was a mixture of the types of adults who work at BC,” Wright said. 

As part of the retreat, faculty and alumnae lead discussions on whatever subject is most pertinent to the group at that moment. Past topics range from friendship, to love and relationships, to general life as Black women at a PWI. 

Alexis Silva, MCAS ’24, said it was beneficial to meet and speak with older people who understood the struggles young Black female college students face.  

“I always love to see that the students are continuing to meet with the [professional] staff, no matter what department they’re in,” Silva explained. “Whether they’re working in athletics, whether they’re working in UCS, whether they’re part of the Women’s Center, financial aid—whether they need them through the resources they provide at BC or not.”

Outside of guided discussions, participants are given unstructured free time to get to know the other people in their “sisterhoods” on their own terms while making use of culturally centered activities offered by the retreat, Louis said.

“We always tell students, ‘Go relax,’” said Louis. “But students stay and make waist beads or play in the game room, they’ll learn Zumba. We’ve done head wrapping, we did sugar-scrub making, all those types of things.”

(Photo Courtesy of Victoria Adegboyega)

This past year, the BWM Retreat expanded beyond a traditional weekend getaway and launched a new year-long mentorship program titled Lele’s Keeper. 

Named after the Swahili word for Black beauty, the program retains the “sisterhood” small groups element of the retreat to give participants and student leaders the opportunity to grow their relationships even further, Silva said. 

“We really just want to have a time to bring everyone together to just sit, relax, and continue what we’ve been doing,” Silva explained.

Lashawnna Mullins, another current BWM student leader, said the program is vital in creating representation for the Black female community at BC.

“Representation matters, seeing people who are like you matters, and being in spaces with them matters when you’re constantly in a sea of white students,” current BWM student leader Lashawnna Mullins, MCAS ’25, said.

Mullins is far from alone in this feeling. According to a University of South Carolina study, Black students studying at PWIs are consistently impacted by both subtle and overt racial discrimination from students, faculty, staff, and campus police alike. 

“When you’re walking into a class and you’re the only Black female, it kind of does something to your confidence, it does something to the way you interact with the class,” Mullins said. “But seeing these girls really come to life on this retreat is what I love the most.”

Johany Jeune’s, CSON ’25, experience parallels Mullins’. 

“My class was predominantly white through [CSON], and so are my professors,” Jeune said. “So being able to find somebody I could like, talk to and connect with … I think it just served as a ground to meet people outside of my class here.”

Past participant Esther Olojede, CSON ’26, said she encouraged all Black female students to become involved in the initiative and that it was a transformative part of her time at BC.

“Honestly I can’t imagine a great BC experience without it,” Olojede said. “I think you have to do it at least once. It impacts you in a way where it reminds you that there is a group of people who know exactly what you have experienced and that is not something you get to come across very often.”

Mullins echoed Olojede’s sentiment, and said the program brought her out of her shell. 

“It’s helped me get connected to the Black community so much more,” Mullins explained. “And honestly, I feel like it helped me take the jump freshman year from being a scared little freshman who still didn’t know how to get involved, to joining an African dance team my sophomore year.”

Mullins emphasized the importance of the connections made in the program, and the retreat’s ability to foster meaningful relationships.

“It’s so lovely just to see how people become such good friends,” she said. “I’ve seen best friends come out of this retreat every single year that I’ve been a part of it, and we’re allowing them to have that space to do so. Because honestly, you never know if these Black women would have met each other without the retreat.”

Though she is no longer involved in the WC’s coordination of the BWM Initiative, Wright said she is proud of how the program has expanded and hopes it continues to grow on BC’s campus.

“It’s great to have this retreat to go on, but, you know, we are students or employees here, we cannot just retreat, right?” Wright said. “We need to have our space here too.”

Louis said she hopes that in the future, other cultural groups on campus will start their own programs mirroring the BWM Initiative.

“This was someone’s big idea … and now it’s become something that’s tangible and possible,” Louis said. “BC has incredible resources—use those resources. Come up with the idea and make the plan.”

February 19, 2024