Explore our latest report, Black Voices, Black Spaces: The Power of Black InnovationREAD THE REPORT

🎙 Podcast: Honoring Black Women’s Brilliance with Lori Robinson and Rachel Johnson-Farias

“We’re doing the same thing in different sectors and that’s to address the systemic issues that are causing the problems for Black women. And when we are addressing what Black women need, we are addressing what the entire Black community needs.” – Lori Robinson

Lori Robinson is a journalist, social entrepreneur, and the founder and executive director of VidaAfrolatina, an international women’s fund that mobilizes and connects resources with Black and Afro-descendant women’s groups addressing sexual violence in Latin America. Rachel Johnson-Farias is a lawyer and the founder of Esq. Apprentice, a nonprofit seeking to change legal education in California and eventually the nation by providing legal training to nontraditional law students of color.

Tune in to hear how Lori and Rachel are creating a world where Black women and girls are free to flourish, how they prioritize wellness and self-care as founders, and the ways the philanthropic sector can better support intersectional movements for social change.

Please note that this episode contains discussion of sexual assault (15:35). Listener discretion is advised.

Listen on Apple Podcasts   Listen on Google Podcasts   Listen on Spotify

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

LORI:
Rachel, can you tell me what you remember most clearly about the first time we met?

RACHEL:
I remember we were in Colombia and I remember more than anything thinking, “Wow, this is me,” as I was talking to you because I think you had just gotten the Echoing Green Fellowship. I was maybe a year or maybe I was about to start my second year. And when I first got Echoing Green, I remember it was an idea phase, which I think you came in with too. And I remember being surrounded by all these people who seem like they have been doing this their whole lives. Like they were natural-born directors of all these organizations. Like they already had all the connections, that they were already really comfortable getting this money.

And I felt so like, “Oh boy, this is going to be a steep learning curve. What’s going on here?” I was just in awe of everyone around me. And I think when we met, more than anything, I felt a synergy. And then to follow up to be like, “Let me save you some time.” Cause the journey I had to go through… It was like, “Go get this money, you got this, your idea’s awesome.” Like just the need to be like, You don’t have to go through the turmoil of figuring out how you fit in all of this. You fit. You’re awesome. This is daunting and the philanthropic world is not necessarily rising to meet the brilliance of Black women operating in movement spaces.
But what you went on to create in terms of the Black Women affinity group with Echoing Green has been nothing short of awesome, amazing. Like just creating spaces for Black women to love on each other, I think is what started in Colombia, yeah.

LORI:
Well, I think it’s just amazing that the place where we first met was Colombia. That we are African-American women who have learned to speak this other language. We both speak Spanish and that we both have just a deep awareness of, and connection to, you know, the diaspora and, you know, in a way that maybe isn’t average for African Americans. So I just knew you were a powerful person. And the last thing I will say is I definitely felt— I was feeling intimidated and when I met you, I instantly felt compassion and support. And it wasn’t necessarily what you said, but I just felt like, “Okay, I’m at home when I’m with this woman.”
Rachel, can you tell us about the people that you’re working with? Who does your organization serve and how are you connecting with them?

RACHEL:
So we help close the women’s wealth gap one apprentice layer at a time. In California, you can become a lawyer without going to law school and without debt via legal apprenticeship. You can study for four years part-time in a law office or judge’s chambers. And at the end of that study period, if you fulfilled a few other requisites, you can sit for the California bar and become a California lawyer for all intents and purposes or most intents and purposes.
So, I am working with low-income women of color. Zora Neale Hurston described Black women as the “mule of the earth,” for better or for worse, and I find that to be true in so many ways. I’m working with women who carry the whole world on their backs and don’t complain about it being a burden, heavy though it may be. I work with geniuses in a nutshell. I don’t think when I talk about the work we do, people understand that enough.

LORI:
I’m just fascinated and thrilled. Again, speaking to Black women’s resilience and ingenuity, and resourcefulness, that there’s this pathway that exists and you are leveraging it for low-income women of color who need it most. So just, I’m just so thrilled to know about your work.
I work with women of African descent in Latin America. Our organization partners with women in countries throughout the region that are leaders of all kinds of organizations. Some of them are anti-racism organizations, journalism organizations, working on specific issues in their countries and communities like the displacement of Black communities, traditional Black communities in Colombia. And because sexual violence impacts us in every aspect of our lives—housing, obviously health and health care, transportation. We are open to partnering with organizations that may or may not have ever addressed sexual violence but recognize the need to put forward solutions for healing and create initiatives to decrease and ultimately eliminate sexual violence.

So just like you, I’m working with geniuses who are creating miracles out of next to nothing. Because of the context in Latin America, the way that race is defined differently, the way that the existence of racism is denied, which makes anti-racism work that much more difficult. We just have the opportunity to partner around sexual violence being not only a gender justice issue but a racial justice issue for Black women who have been disproportionately victimized since the transatlantic slave trade began 500 years ago. So that’s who we are.

RACHEL:
I love how whenever I talk to you, other Echoing Green Fellows too, there’s always like the, “So, we’re correcting a wrong, that’s about 600 years old and we’re going to do it in the next five, 10 years. So that’s just what I do.” I’m dealing with intersections that have been entrenched for generations, and we’re just going to turn it all around. That’s awesome.

In some ways as a Black woman, for me, it’s like, of course, it’s women of color that we’re working with. But I don’t think that that’s intuitive for everyone that if you’re trying to really reverse multi-generational issues, traumas, systemic abuse, and oppression, that you would choose low-income women, Black women to work with. Was that something you always knew, the population that you’d be working with?

LORI:
I am so Black focused, Black centered, Black everything. And as African-American, people often ask me, “Are you Afro Latina?” Because I’m doing this work, because I studied abroad, and because I learned Spanish. And I’m just like, well, “Can I, as a person of the African diaspora, feel very connected and be very interested to Black folks who had this parallel historic experience to the people in my immediate context?” Like, why do I have to be Afro-Latina? So, as an African-American, I feel very connected to Black people and people of African descent in Latin America. And, and that, yeah, that’s as a journalist, I just wanted to write about Black people, frankly.

LORI:
Rachel, can you tell me about the memorable events that led to your decision to start Esq. Apprentice?

RACHEL:
Yeah. In a word, failure is what led me to start Esq. apprentice. Both systemic and personal. So, the systemic failure I witnessed during my time running California’s first juvenile records sealing clinic. I had done adult reentry legal services and saw there was a gap that nobody was providing services in the state for people with juvenile records. So I started this program to help young people seal their records, and I thought, this is it. Did the work, sealed hundreds of records. And it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.

One example was a client I had—a young woman who had been put on the streets by a man she loved, a much older man she loved, at 12 and a half as a sex worker. And over the years from like 12 and a half to 18, she got a lot of the offenses that tend to come with that. Well, I worked with her after an unplanned pregnancy and miscarriage, she decided “I don’t, I don’t want this anymore.” And she told me that and I was like, all right, then we’re going to take care of it.
And I worked with her to get the record sealed and she was so geeked about it. She walked out of the courtroom and said, like, “I want to be a lawyer. I can do this for every girl like me out there. There’s so many women I know who need this work and I want to do it. How do I do it?” And I said, “Okay, well, we’re going to get your GED first. And then I’m going to have to go to undergrad. You might be able to do some community college, but consider a BA.” So, for at least two years, it’s going to cost you maybe like a hundred thousand dollars total, when you do the community college or undergrad and then go on to law school. But we’re going to help you get these loans, which I had taken on, I want to say like a hundred thousand dollars, $150,000 in debt to go to law school.

When I told her that, her head just kind of dropped, I watched her dream die and it was just like, oh, but you’re the lawyer we need. Don’t give up now, but how can I possibly in good conscience, tell you to take on the, make the decisions I had made really, knowing that there’s not really the ROI you’d expect, the return on investment you’d expect on that degree? So while I was doing that juvenile records sealing work, that was the systemic failure where I was like, “We gotta do something to change this system.” My personal failure was I did all the things I was quote unquote supposed to do, and I still failed the California Bar three times before I passed it on my fourth attempt. And over the course of failing again and again and again, there was no system that showed up to support me.

Esq. Apprentice was born out of that I was failing constantly and was unsupported. There was a system that was failing all my clients and wasn’t going to do anything to ease their path to becoming the attorneys we desperately need. So it was this like, well, we gotta do something here.

And then the universe sent me a random sign— a student at the firm I had been working at, who told me, you know, “Oh, I’m so excited about your work and I want to be a lawyer like you.” I said, okay, “What law school you go to?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t go to law school.” I said, “Well, how are you going to be a lawyer then?” And she was like, “Oh, I’m apprenticing.” Stop the phone! And that night, the night I bumped into her, I was already in this space of like, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And then when I bumped into her, I was like, that’s it. That’s Esq. Apprentice.

RACHEL:
What about you? What led to you starting VidaAfrolatina?

LORI:
It’s really interesting. I mean, when I reflect on this, it’s not like there was like a moment or two, but it was a journey of following my passions or following what was… felt compelling or urgent to me.

I think it started with just growing up in a house with parents who were born in the deep south during Jim Crow. My father was from Louisiana. My mother was from Arkansas. And just, particularly on the part of my father, just the anger and the pain, the trauma of the experiences they had navigating and surviving Jim Crow. Then I would say my brother joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Honduras when I was in college. And I had not been aware that there are all these Black people in Latin America. Come to find out that they’re one-third of the population of the region. And as soon as I found that out, I was like, I got to know who these people are and started studying abroad and learning Spanish.

Another big change for me was that I was raped. I was working in my first job in journalism and was accosted at gunpoint and raped by two strangers and was blessed to have incredible support. You know, the healing journey never ends, but a very intense and deliberate pathway toward my, getting started on my healing journey. And part of that was being a journalist.

And so I was working at a magazine called emerge, which was an African-American news magazine published in the 1990s by BET. Believe it or not, BET used to own a news magazine. That definitely seems like ancient history, but I had the opportunity there to write an article about my assault, the assault of a student at my alma mater, historically Black college Spelman College. And because of that, I had the opportunity to report on sexual violence and how it has uniquely been experienced and uniquely traumatized people of African descent in a U.S. context. And that was such an important part of my healing journey because I could really place what happened to me in this historic context of Black women to be able to be safe.

So I ended up writing a book about sexual violence, “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual assault and Abuse,” and did a lot of public speaking, and then was introduced to another Spelmanite, Vita Bird Perez who founded When and Where I Enter, which was a grassroots organization that was doing grantmaking. We didn’t call ourselves an international women’s fund, but that’s what we were doing, grantmaking with Black women in Latin America. I was on her board for 10 years when she decided to close that organization down.

I have to shout out my sister, Lucy Reyes, who is a Dominicana in New York who encouraged me to apply for Echoing Green. And, I just was kind of in a— I felt pretty lost professionally. I wasn’t clear about where I was fitting into journalism. And this has become clearly a good fit for what I want to be doing with my time and energy in my life at this stage.

RACHEL:
Thank you for that, Lori, for sharing that for being where you are both personally, and with your organization. You’re helping to heal the things that I know the law doesn’t. Like, this legal system was not designed to protect Black women at all and so I’m so glad your healing journey is continuing and that you’re spreading the healing, and helping so many more. I really appreciate you.

LORI:
Oh, thank you, Rachel. I definitely see that in philanthropy as well. It’s not. It was never designed to stop the transgressions, the obstacles, the traumas really. I think we’re doing the same thing in different sectors and that is to address the systemic issues that are causing the problems for Black women. And when we are addressing what Black women need, of course, you know, we’re Black feminists, so we’re addressing what the entire Black community needs.

RACHEL:
Right. Exactly.

LORI:
How is the community you’re serving involved in shaping your work?

RACHEL:
In just about every way. We are serving low-income women of color. We include our apprentices on our board as an accountability measure. Our ideas for the program are constantly being honed based on the feedback that they give us. I think it’s necessary for the people we’re serving to shape the work we do because otherwise we risk getting lost in that kind of nonprofit cycle that I’ve witnessed that replicates the corporate one, right? It’s still a nonprofit corporation. So we’re always trying to make sure that the voices of those impacted are the ones centered and that’s kind of our guiding light when it comes to whether we’re successful or not. There’s the metrics, you know, we tell funders all the time and the stats they want to see and the quantitative. But really if it’s not, if it’s not working for our program participants, then why are we doing it?

LORI:
Exactly

RACHEL:
So I think it’s really interesting

LORI:
The point I think that, hopefully, funders will see is that the people who are the experts in what needs to be done are the apprentices themselves. They know the context, they know the challenges, they know the issues better than the funders ever will. So we have to trust the people that we are working with to just be partners with them and be guided by them.

We are participatory grantmakers, so it’s intrinsic in our way of being that the women that we partner with are not just shaping but guiding the work. And it’s done in different ways, but the thread is throughout this, you know, new slash ancient way of working is that the people who, again, are most impacted by the problem, the people who are living in the context of the problem—who know the culture, who know the society, who know it better than any outsider ever will—they are guiding the funding decisions.

I mean, this will always evolve, like figuring out how can we create this structure for this process and, and still be guided by the community of organizations we’re partnering with. And so we have had online convenings where we have them talk amongst themselves to determine selection criteria for grants. Just continuing to pull in their guidance and leadership as we create the container for the process.

RACHEL:
That’s awesome. Are there any trends that you’re seeing that are working and that you hope to see replicated? Any trends that you’re seeing that aren’t quite so working that you hope to eradicate? Tell us about that. The trends in your field.

LORI:
Well, trends that I’m seeing in philanthropy, it’s hard for me to have a really good sense of how widespread this is… But there’s clearly a movement toward more participatory grantmaking. There are progressive funders and certainly, in the feminist funding sector, folks are recognizing the value and importance of being guided by the communities that we’re partnering with.

Another really positive thing that I see happening is that there are more Black women creating funding mechanisms. There’s a new fund called the Black Feminist Fund. This is a global fund. They are raising a ton of money and will be doing grantmaking around the world. There are a couple of funds. I think at least two based in the U.S. that I’m aware of that are focusing on funding for Black girls. So that’s a really positive and exciting development.

I would say what troubles me are just the numbers, that less than 3%—probably less than that—of U.S. foundations that are doing grantmaking in Latin America, less than 3% of funds are explicitly earmarked for people of African descent. But we know that people of African descent are one-third of the population, and we know that people of African descent are disproportionately living in poverty and disadvantaged, considering any standard of living indicator. And the same for human rights funders globally that are doing grantmaking in Latin America. So it remains to be seen if the needle is going to move. But that’s why, you know, that’s why it’s so exciting that more Black funders are coming online.

Rachel, what trends are you seeing as well in your work?

RACHEL:
Yeah, I share the troubled feeling when I think about just the size of the problems, and not whether the solutions are there because it’s so clear. Like the redistribution of wealth we need to do, the… I mean, if we’re going to have anything that looks like equity, it’s going to be a radical restructuring of how we do business currently. And so it’s clear what needs to be done but the will to get there seems to be lacking by people who have the power.

What I’m excited about is I know that Black women are uniquely capable of doing this work at the intersections. The bird’s eye view that you get from the margins really helps to strategize and rethink the system as a whole. Because privilege kind of makes the margins invisible, right? But Black women have been pushed so far to the margins. There’s power actually coming from that place and the view that we have of the whole system. So I’m really excited about the energy, especially among Black women to change, to make the changes we need.

I worry about burnout. And I’m trying to do with Esq. Apprentice, not only the movement work, the work we need, but to do it in a way that sustains and doesn’t just burn us out.

LORI:
How are you applying that to yourself?

RACHEL:
Well, one way I was working two jobs and now I’m working one, so I just quit a job. And it’s the two jobs professionally. You know, when I’m home with the kids, that’s like four jobs every day.

Really, I’m getting to know myself better. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety as long as I can remember and wasn’t diagnosed until last month. That’s when I finally got to talk to someone and they were like—when we finished talking, I was like, “I’m wondering if I’m depressed.” And they were like, “I’m going to go ahead and give you that diagnosis.” Cause they definitely, I was like, that’s a no-brainer clinically.

And so what that, what that means is like I have become an expert in suppressing everything and just keeping going and like just, “Keep going, keep going, keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t deal with the emotion. Don’t deal with the feeling.” So I’m finding ways to stop. I am incorporating sabbatical into my life– a four day work week at Esq. Apprentice is one way I’m doing that. Fridays are for family. I don’t work those days. I’m getting in nature. I moved near the beach because I just need it. The ocean.

LORI:
That’s my favorite. That’s my absolute, absolute favorite way to take care of yourself.

RACHEL:
Yes. It’s to just be— even the smell of the air around here activates something different with me. I imagine the shores my people came from and that I’m touching the waters they touched. So I’ve just been getting in touch with that, trying to talk to my ancestors, trying to rest more, trying to be present and not worry. Oooh not worry is the hardest one about, especially with the nation on fire.

LORI:
When you get that figured out, please share. That’s breathtaking. I feel that sometimes when we’re doing the work and living, just moving forward with family, who has the time to sit back and reflect? So that in and of itself is tremendous.

LORI:
How has COVID 19 and just the economic devastation and its aftermath, in addition to the racial violence— and you know, that is trauma multiplied over and over again. How is that impacting the way in which you do your work at this moment in history?

RACHEL:
Yeah, it’s definitely making the work more urgent. It has made me less apologetic about anything that I’m doing. Our apprentices often find themselves, especially when they start the program, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The gig economy jobs that were kind of like, “Okay, this is going to be the little money I need to just, you know, to do a trip with my kid,” or “This is what I’m going to need for groceries on the table,” in addition to paying all the bills. Those all fell through. And there was an urgent need to get more money to the apprentices in our program.

We already provide stipends for their time spent with us. We upped those. We’re going to up them more in the coming year, now that we’ve got some more funding. But the need for steadiness and that we have to rely on each other and help each other stay steady because our government isn’t really showing up to do what it should be doing. That became, it was clear when I started the work. It became crystal clear and emboldened me with COVID-19.

COVID has really inspired me to call back to the old ways. To ask the elders, what got you through? The elders we still have, cause we lost so many. We lost so many. The need to record. The need to document struggle— and not the struggle itself but how we overcame it. We’re going to need the power of the old strong.

LORI:
I hear you about the old strong and the need to really, I think take care of each other, like watch out for each other, care for each other. And I think that’s what our intention was— you said that I founded the Black Women Fellows affinity group, but you know, we really did that together along with some other Fellows.

You know, it’s hard to get each other on a call once a quarter, but that time is really sacred, I feel. To just be inspired by… I mean, we’re all rock stars, but some of us are much further advanced in our rock stardom. So to be inspired by what other folks are accomplishing and just to be learning about what Black women are doing around the globe, we have we’re meeting with Fellows that are based in various African countries, as well as in the U.S. I definitely think connecting to the ancestors and connecting with each other is going to be the way forward, the way we not just survive but thrive.

RACHEL:
Yeah. And when we get to that place, Lori, when we get to the thriving place, when your work is done and your mission has been achieved, what will the world look like?

LORI:
VidaAfrolatina’s mission or vision is that we are creating a world where Black women and girls are free to flourish because safety and wellness is their everyday reality. That’s what it’s going to look like. We won’t need to exist because sexual violence will not be happening. And for those that perhaps were victimized, we’ll have every single possible resource at their fingertips that they could possibly need for their healing journey.

RACHEL:
I share that sentiment so much. When the world, when I’m successful, there will be no need for me anymore. I will have written myself out of, I would have set up a system that does not require me where everyone who wants to be a lawyer can be, or it doesn’t break the bank.

I think it’s funny. It looks a lot like the world we’re in. It looks like just people being healthy, it looks like us living longer. It looks like our children not being afraid. You know, so much of the mental health journey I’ve been on has been in response to systemic attacks, just a system that’s so violent against us.

LORI:
I just feel that if there’s any people that can forge a way forward, it’s our people.

LORI:
Rachel, can you let folks know where people can learn more about Esq. Apprentice?

RACHEL:
You can visit our website, www.esqapprentice.org. We’re on Twitter and Instagram. And Lori, where can we find you?

LORI:
Likewise, folks can visit our website, www.vidafrolatina.org. People can sign up for our newsletter and we’d love to be in touch and be in community with whoever wants to join us.

Forever grateful to Echoing Green and just really grateful also to be in community with Rachel and other Fellows who are just examples, inspirations, sisters, and brothers, and it’s just a family. I love y’all.

RACHEL:
Love you sis.

Tagged

Leave a reply

Your comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval.

GET OUR BIG BOLD IDEAS IN YOUR INBOX