#SayHerName: The Women of the Witness Quilt

“We are all connected.
If we are not really invested in helping each other, there is no hope for us.
It’s about how our lives are all limited
without having deep conversations and interactions with one another.”
~ Melissa Blount

Women starting new lives in a new home or trying to get away from abuse. Young sisters killed by arson. Stray bullets hitting innocents at a wake. A baby left in the care of the wrong person. A woman walking her child in a park. The daughter of a police officer. The cousin of a basketball star. An accidental shooting.

Families are devastated because these women and children were in the line of fire, many through no provocation of their own.

The local news outlets have homicide trackers and timelines of how many people are killed on any given day in Chicago. It gets shrugged off as people being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that presumably they were walking around late at night, that somehow this was provoked. 

But in reviewing these stories, placing blame on the victim is utterly inappropriate. Melissa Blount, instigator of the Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt, gave me a list of the women on the quilt, with five more added since the quilt was completed. 

4 babies (some of whom lost their mothers in utero); 12 girls age 19 and under; 20 age 25 and under; 7 in their late 20s; 12 in their 30s; 3 in their 40s; 3 between 52 and 54 years old. These women and girls should be living out their lives. They are not statistics. They are human beings who loved, who lived, who danced, who had aspirations. Say their names. Click on the links and look at their faces.

  1. Sakinah Reed, 17, shot while standing on a corner
  2. Latania Anderson, 25, attempted peacemaking
  3. Tiana Brown, 20 , accidental shooting
  4. Shari Graham, 30, was sitting in a cab
  5. Daysha Wright, 21, was riding in a car
  6. Dejenaba A. Altman, 43, standing near an Elementary School  
  7. Babette Miller, 35, had just filed an abuse report
  8. Tiara M. Parks, 23, was getting out of a car 
  9. Kiara Kinard, 26, killed at home
  10. Makeesha Starks, 26, killed at home
  11. De’Kayla Dansberry, 16, stabbed 
  12. Camille C. Cooley, 36, murdered 
  13. Yvonne Nelson, 49, errant gunfire near Starbucks 
  14. Pamela Johnson, 32, struck by car while fleeing a robbery 
  15. Jessica Hampton, 25, stabbed on CTA red line 
  16. Chanda Foreman, 37, killed on her birthday 
  17. Shameka Heard 33, stabbed
  18. Katana (Greenlee) Hornbuckle, 2 months, child abuse by babysitter
  19. Africa Bass, 23, shot in front of her new home 
  20. Jessica Williams, 16, asthma attack after witnessing fatal shootings 
  21. Kayana Q. Armond, 33, shot at a memorial party 
  22. Madison Watson, 4, killed in arson fire of multi-unit building
  23. Melanie Watson, 3 months,killed in arson fire of multi-unit building
  24. Shaniyah Staples, 7, killed in arson fire of multi-unit building
  25. Tykina Ali, 20, killed while riding in a car 
  26. Nykea Aldridge,  32, killed while pushing her baby in a stroller 
  27. Othijah (Otha) M. Mooney, 35, killed at home 
  28. KeeKee Fleming 18, killed while attending a vigil 
  29. T.T. Saffore, 28, murdered
  30. Parasha M. Beard, 19, 8-months pregnant was sitting in a parked car 
  31. Adrianna Mayes, 21, killed in errant crossfire while holding her baby  
  32. Julia Martin, 28, stabbed after returning engagement ring 
  33. Marilyn Duffie 21, shot by roommate 
  34. Chiquita Ford, 30, shot while sitting in a car
  35. Emoni House, 20, killed at home with her brother 
  36. Cynthia Richardson, 54, shot on her front lawn 
  37. Nateyah Yahah Hines, 19, killed in attempted robbery 
  38. Shacora Jackson, 40, killed in attempted robbery (Nateyah’s mom)
  39. Sylvia Brice, 52, stabbed after attempting to move out on New Year’s Eve

2017

  1. Precious Land, 27, died after being paralyzed from a gunshot would 7 months prior 
  2. Jamayah Fields, 20, shot near an elementary school 
  3. Takiya Holmes 11, hit by stray bullet while running errands with family 
  4. Tenisha Mallet, 21, shot while in a group
  5. Kanari Gentry Bowers 12, shot while playing basketball at a school
  6. Tiara Richmond (KeKe Collier), 24, murdered 
  7. Wilteeah Jones, 20, shot in a parked car
  8. A’Miracle Jones, 5 months, Parasha M Beard’s baby died of prematurity 
  9. Janylah Mack, 4 months, born prematurely after her mom was abused
  10. Diamond Turner, 21, strangled 
  11. Tanisha Jackson, 30, shot during an argument 
  12. Patrice Calvin, 26, shot at home
  13. Dominque Victoria Scott, 23, shot while riding in a van
  14. Jacquetta Pearson, 22, shot while sitting in car
  15. Brittany Leflore, 22, killed while on her way home
  16. Tatyanna Lewis, 18, rammed into by a car 
  17. Naisha Weems, 27, struck by a car 
  18. Tashika Manuel-Dunbar, 35, shot while walking to her car
  19. Tina Brown, 53, shot in her home 
  20. Chastity Johnson, 18, shot while walking 
  21. Tiara Goodman, 25, murder-suicide
  22. Shantae Nevith, 22, shot 

I used the Sun Times link most often since this one systematically has photos of each victim. A google search will tell you more about each individual. These are our sisters.

Per Wikipedia: “#SayHerName is a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence in the United States. #SayHerName aims to change the public perception that victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence are predominantly male by highlighting the gender-specific ways in which black women, particularly black queer women and black transgender women, are disproportionately affected by fatal acts of racial injustice. In an effort to create a large social media presence alongside existing racial justice campaigns, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlsMatter, the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) coined the hashtag #SayHerName in February 2015.

Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt

“I see this quilt as an opportunity to create repair.
When you have empathy, it is hard to do damage.
We haven’t dealt with the idea of how we have dehumanized black folk.”
~ Melissa Blount

On June 25, Evanston residents gathered for the unveiling of the Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt at the Frances Willard House Museum. The Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt was created by Melissa Blount, Making Evanston Equitable Together (MEET) and community volunteers, to honor and draw attention to the lives of Black women and girls lost to violence in Chicago by incorporating their names into a community quilt.

Community Sewing Circles of all levels gathered over the last several months to create this unique and beautiful quilt. 50 participants received the names of 56 women killed in 2016 through May 2017 and hand-stitched quilt blocks based on the biographies of each person.

Then the Blounts collected all the squares and sewed them into proper quilt blocks. The colors blue, white and red reflect the Chicago flag. Evanston Stitchworks had provided advice on the pattern, and then print artist Ben Blount assisted with the pops of red within the quilt. One person focused on making the stars, which are purposely sewn on incorrectly to show that Chicago is ‘upside down’, said Melissa.

The final quilt was revealed at the Frances Willard Home. “It turned out amazing, much more than I ever thought,” Melissa Blount

The quilt came out of Ben Blount’s exhibit in February at 1100 Florence. Around Martin Luther King Day a colleague stated that if there was a day off for every black man killed, no work would be done. Ben took this comment to heart, and started researching the number of men killed in 2016. In Chicago alone, this made for 275 Holidays in 2016, which he documented as a calendar.

While he was focusing on the men, he felt he was dismissing the lives of the black women. So his wife Melissa Blount took up the torch to research the homicides of women. Using the DNAInfo Chicago Murder timeline, she collected the names and stories of 56 women and girls.

Inspired by Seneca artist Marie Watt and the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Melissa chose to create a quilt (which she had never done before). She started hosting social justice social circles. Using pink floss, the attendees set about sewing their squares after they were given names and stories of their individual. One mother brought her young son, who worked on the quilt block of an infant. The youngest name is of a 2-month old baby.

One baby on the quilt was born prematurely after her mother was shot, and died later. Another baby died after a woman in her 8th month of pregnancy was beaten. Three sisters are also memorialized on the quilt, who were killed in an aunt’s multi-unit house fire set by arson. One name is the daughter of a Chicago Police officer another the cousin of a basketball athlete.

When Frances Willard House curator Lori Osborne heard of the event, she offered the museum up as a venue to unveil the quilt. The Frances Willard House served as headquarters for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an initiative to defend women’s rights by curbing domestic violence which was linked to men’s alcohol abuse.

“It was this blending of the past and the present in such a special way that made this venue so appropriate,” said Lori.

The women’s temperance movement used quilts as an expression to add their voices to political statements, Lori explained. A Victorian quilt was on display that held signatures of women from Illinois, Iowa and Colorado.

“It [quilting] was giving them back a voice in the power they lost,” said Lori. A petition at the Frances Willard House was sewn together after individual signatures were collected in various parts of the US.

Melissa pointed out that Frances Willard is criticized for not helping Ida B. Wells with the anti-lynching movement. Ida had asked Frances to participate, and she was originally on board. However, when she approached southern women about the initiative, she was told that these men were ‘rightfully’ being lynched, and that Frances would not be given funding for her initiatives if she became part of the anti-lynching campaign. So Frances backed off.

“Frances was about helping women deal with domestic violence and substance abuse,” said Melissa. “Frances was a badass for her time. She raised the marriageable age for women, she worked on prison reform, she wanted to empower women with Gladys (her bicycle) and movement.”

“The history of America is so complicated and nuanced. I don’t want to erase her contribution because she was a woman of her time,” Melissa said.

Nonetheless, today we should be bolder, especially in Evanston. Quoting a conversation with a younger woman, Melissa said: “If your feminism is not intersectional, it is not feminism.”

Melissa’s aim is to act as allies and collaborators in the idea of peace building and creating a beloved community. She believes Evanstonians can serve as an example to the rest of the country. Niles North School was involved in the project as well after one staff member participated in an early sewing circle.

“What we have here in Evanston can be solved if we are really intentional about doing this work”, said Melissa. “There is a cognitive dissonance between what we think Evanston is [in terms of diversity and equity] than what it actually is.”

How does this quilt relate to Black Lives Matter? Melissa had an answer to that: Black Lives Matter has become equivalent to police brutality in the news. However, this brutality is as a result of the trauma of white supremacy. The underfunding of schools and resources in certain communities is an intentional state sanctioned act of discrimination, which creates space for violence, Melissa said: “Violence happens when you are proximate. “

The quilt encouraged the conversation about the issue of racism and oppression, and humanizes the lives of babies and women. The stitchers were asked to hold these women in their hearts as they sewed.

“We are all connected,” Melissa said. “If we are not really invested in helping each other, there is no hope for us. It’s about how our lives are all limited without having deep conversations and interactions with one another.”

MEET wants to continue gathering the community to engage in social justice handwork activities. Melissa and MEET plan to create a second quilt based on the lives lost from June 2017, because they know there will be more deaths.

Another quilt in the shape of the American Flag will focus on national violence against women, also with an eye on mental health issues based on the recent death of Charleena Lyles.

 

Lastly, the misgendering of two people in the media gave rise to the idea of researching transgender violence and creating a quilt for those losses.

The quilt traveled to the Evanston Art Center for public viewing and an additional talk at the end of June. This quilt is intended to travel, and initiatives are underway to move the quilt to other places. The names and stories of these women will also be bound into a book. “The stories of their deaths are so varied,” said Melissa. “It’s just been a transformative experience.”

As part of the local Black Lives Matters Movement, the Blounts are selling their remaining 281 Black Lives Matter yard signs for $10 each (via email) to raise funds for Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration.  The funds will go toward chartering buses that will take the children of incarcerated mothers to their prisons for visitation, a 4-hour ride for many. Selling out of these signs will ensure funding for these buses until the end of the year. BLM Shirts are available at www.blountobjects.com.

“When you incarcerate a mother, you are creating a ripple effect,” said Melissa. With 80% of incarcerated mothers having children under age 18, these children will experience incarceration themselves. Foster care has a criminalization effect on these children. “Segregation hurts us all and limits us all,” she said.

When a listener at the Evanston Art Center discussion expressed a sense of powerlessness at the current state of the world, Melissa quoted Bryan Stevenson in addressing our problems:
1. Get proximate
2. Change the narrative
3. Protect your hopefulness
4. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

“Officers are not lying when this say they feel threatened. The narrative of who black people are, that’s what we need to change,” she said.

While Melissa is lauded for the quilt effort, she is aware many other movements preceded the quilt. “There are people who have been in the trenches long before me,” she said, citing Chicago Freedom School, Black Youth Project and other names I didn’t catch.

In keeping with #SayHerName, here are the names on the quilt, by age:
Babies under 1 year old: Katana (Greenlee) Hornbuckle, Melanie Watson, Janylah Mack, A’Miracle Jones
Children under 10: Madison Watson, Shaniyah Staples
Tweens and Teens: Takiya Holmes, Kanari Gentry Bowers, Jessica Williams, De’Kayla Dansberry, Sakinah Reed, KeeKee Fleming, Tatyanna Lewis, Nateyah Yahah Hines, Parasha M. Beard
Women in their 20s: Tykina Ali, Jamayah Fields, Wilteeah Jones, Tiana Brown, Emoni House, Tenisha Mallet, Adrianna Mayes, Daysha Wright, Marilyn Duffie, Diamond Turner, Jacquetta Pearson, Brittany Leflore, Dominque Victoria Scott, Tiara M. Parks, Africa Bass, Tiara Richmond (KeKe Collier), Jessica Hampton, Latania Anderson, Makeesha Starks, Patrice Calvin, Kiara Kinard, Precious Land, Naisha Weems, T.T. Saffore, Julia Martin
Women in their 30s: Tanisha Jackson, Shari Graham, Chiquita Ford, Pamela Johnson, Nykea Aldridge, Shameka Heard, Kayana Q. Armond, Othijah (Otha) M. Mooney, Babette Miller, Camille C. Cooley, Chanda Foreman
Women in their 40s: Shacora Jackson, Dejenaba A. Altman, Yvonne Nelson
Women in their 50s: Sylvia Brice, Cynthia Richardson

International Women’s Day

“… it’s important to remember that all of us
are a crucial part of the environment influencing
our world’s future women.
Our ambition, our work, our efforts to obliterate the gender gap,
and our relentless refusal to give up
are paving the way for the next generation,
just as our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers did for us.
And that’s a pretty big deal.”
~ Jennifer Winter 

Yesterday I attended the Union League’s International Women’s Day luncheon. Per their website: “International Women’s Day is a day that is observed annually at the United Nations and is designated by many countries as a national holiday. It began as a remembrance and celebration of the struggle faced by women around the world in the name of equality, justice, peace and development.

Though the role of women around the world has continued to evolve in the nine decades since the inception of International Women’s Day, women in the 21st century still face many obstacles in the advancement of their status worldwide. Regardless of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, the desire and need for progressive change is universal.”

The luncheon was preceded by a trade fair showcasing numerous organizations to help in the advancement of business women, assisting women in developing countries by promoting and selling their handmade crafts, an organization researching women’s leadership in Chicago, and a few international representatives. The Women’s Innovation Network table drew those with a sweet tooth as we offered fudge by Kilwin’s Chocolates and cupcakes by The Sugar Path.

Keynote speaker Sarah Robb O’Hagan, Chief Marketing Officer of Gatorade (and named #10 most powerful women in sports by Forbes) gave the following tips, after noting that she was always ‘average’ when growing up:

1. Know your strengths and play to them

She related trying to fit into a company culture she didn’t belong in (Atari), in a field she wasn’t passionate about, and being laid off as a result. “Play to who you are and be authentic,” was her lesson.

2. Know when to pass the ball

Citing the Businessweek article “Behind Every Great Woman” Robb O’Hagan advocated letting others share in the balancing act of life. “Let them play to their strengths,” she said, “When you’re doing it all you’re not playing to the things you are best at.”

3. Playing to win is better than playing not to lose

Gatorade partner Serena Williams has seen both sides of the coin, and Robb O’Hagan said that when Serena stopped listening to what others were saying about her and got back to being true to herself, her game improved again.

4. Play like a girl

With this fabulous slide, Robb O’Hagan said that Lego conducted studies on how boys and girls play. Per Brad Wiener in “Lego is for Girls”: “Whereas boys tend to be ‘linear’—building rapidly, even against the clock, to finish a kit so it looks just like what’s on the box—girls prefer ‘stops along the way,’ and to begin storytelling and rearranging.”

“They (girls) look for meaning in play.”
~ Sarah Robb O’Hagan

Recommending Ann Doyle’s book “Power Up”, Robb O’Hagan stated that “We haven’t been able to usher in a new style of leadership,” because we downplay feminism and therefore a feminine leadership style. Women are “more thoughtful about the outcome of a decision,” she said.

5. Do not be afraid to change the game

Gatorade started as a sports drink, then became a popular consumer purchase, and then plateaud. Realizing the company was losing its core customer — athletes — but still had a strong brand power with that group, it is now introducing the G-Series which focuses on providing nutrient-rich products to athletes with a “Win from Within” campaign. Relating that to women, Robb O’Hagan said “We actually have to figure out to be proud of who we are and to play to who we are. … We have the opportunity to lean in and make a difference.”

“Everybody in this room is leading by their lives.”
~ Sarah Robb O’Hagan

We were surrounded by beautiful paintings and sculptures at both the fair and the luncheon. The Union League has an extensive art collection and I look forward to taking one of their monthly tours in the future.

Interestingly, a fellow attendee noted that her mother still had to enter the Union League by the back door just a few decades ago. That men-only era still held remnants as a men’s room had a makeshift paper sign on the door that said “Ladies room” right next to the sign by the stairwell instructing: “Ladies restroom downstairs.”

Citing this type of exclusion in Palestine, and noting that both storms and liberty are given feminine pronouns, cultural speaker Roxane Asaf said: “What is powerful causes fear. When order is challenged, we are degraded; we must be stripped.”

While women in Palestine do celebrate International Women’s Day with a march and by presenting issues to the legislature, promises to create committees on those issues may not be followed through in action by leaders. “There is hope, if not a lot of action,” said Asaf.

“Liberty and respect are at issue for women.”
Roxane Asaf

Cultural speaker Avirama Golan remembered her Israeli grandmother as a ‘strong woman’ even though she might be considered a ‘simple woman.’ The primary breadwinner after her husband was imprisoned during World War I while raising her 6 children, she didn’t see herself as a role model or the head of the family. She “was putting bread on her childrens’ table, that’s all,” said Golan.

“Yes, we’ve come a long way.
Feminism is the most successful revolution of all time
without bloodshed.
But are my daughters really free?”
~ Avirama Golan 

“Women work hard, sometimes harder than men but make much less than men to survive in a merciless, almost inhuman labor market and they’re expected to be even better mothers and wives than their ancestors,” Golan said.

Golan said men are also burdened with having to maintain their gender-biased roles. This is touched on by the article Robb O’Hagan mentioned. Carol Hymowitz wrote: “Even as the trend becomes more widespread, stigmas persist. At-home dads are sometimes perceived as freeloaders, even if they’ve lost jobs. Or they’re considered frivolous kept men—gentlemen who golf.”

The consensus was that we need to continue to break down the gender-barriers and advocate true equality.

“I remember my grandmother singing loud and clear:
‘What are you waiting for, there is so much work to be done.’”

~ Avirama Golan