Professor wins fellowship for empowering young black women


Portrait of Ruth Brown, PH.D Courtesy of Getu Workenhe

By Rebecca Wood, Staff Writer

University professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, Ruth Brown, received the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship of $50,000 to advance Black Girl Genius Week, a program impacting Black women from central Illinois, Chicago, San Diego and Columbia, South Carolina.

Black Girl Genius Week was designed to promote discussion and to celebrate black girlhood through events such as art projects, discussions, speakers, concerts and dance parties throughout the week.

“Black Girl Genius Week allows for organic knowledge to emerge and amplifies the power Black girls possess to name, critique and transform social conditions,” Brown said in an email.

Brown said in 2006, she created another project called Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths, a research-based project developed to better under–stand how power and identity influence the lives and experiences of black girls.

Black women in SOLHOT over the age of 18 are considered “homegirls,” who collectively organized with other girls to facilitate after-school sessions and weekend activities. Black women in middle and high school were considered “girls,” according to Brown.

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Brown said SOLHOT has engaged over 1,000 Black girls, funded five graduate students, partnered with over 50 homegirls and adult volunteers, and collaborated with public schools, museums and libraries across the United States.

According to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Black girls and young Black women make up 14 percent of the general youth population, yet they comprise one-third of all girls and young women that are detained and committed to the juvenile justice system.

Black Girl Genius Week emerged directly from SOLHOT, and the two projects remain intertwined.

“SOLHOT has grown beyond its local origins and BGGW is one way to trace the work and its impact, strengthen relationships with homegirls who now live in different places, and to collaborate with others also wholly dedicated to Black girls, for the purpose of sharing power and expanding our imaginations,” Brown said.

Siobhan Somerville, professor in Gender and Women’s Studies, said she feels inspired to work with Brown, as she is passionate about her students, work and the community.

“Whether she is teaching, researching, or making connections with the local community, she provides a model for the best kind of work that Gender and Women’s Studies scholars do,” Somerville said.

Brown said funds from the fellowship will go toward supporting Black Girl Genius Week programming, events and relationship building.

Daniel Reid, executive director of the Whiting Foundation, said Brown’s project impressed their judges because the project builds on the long-standing program that she founded and has been leading for a long time.

“I think that helps because the judges could see a track record of success,” Reid said. “Her description of how she would be reaching the public was very compelling.”

Reid said this has been their third cycle of Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship awards and they are eager to see how Brown uses her fellowship.

“It is a tremendous honor to receive the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship because for me, it means meeting, organizing and working with Black girls and women in various locales to dream up and create more creative spaces where Black girlhood is freedom and everything else we need it to mean,” Brown said.

Somerville said she and her colleagues benefit daily from Brown’s leadership and vision in developing new ways for thinking about Black girlhood and fostering a model of collective interdisciplinary work.  

“I’m thrilled that she has received the Whiting Fellowship, a very prestigious award and very exciting to all of us in Gender and Women’s Studies because it brings national recognition for the amazing work Professor Brown has been doing for years,” Somerville said.

Brown said she hopes this award inspires those who have participated in SOLHOT and Black Girl Genius Week previously to keep growing their work, themselves and the love they have for one another.

“This award will also bring greater attention to the work we’ve been doing for the last decade to celebrate Black girls, and my hope is that it will allow those who are similarly motivated by Black girls’ creative genius to see us, connect and collaborate,” Brown said.

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