Black families affected by violence often become a talking point when the news breaks, but rarely do we ever hear directly from those who are actually impacted by this violence, which plagues their lives and community. In order to increase the voices of Black mothers, Shanelle Matthews and Mia Birdsong developed The Black Mama’s Storytelling Fellowship, a program that equips Black mothers with the tools and confidence to be a spokesperson, when it comes to matters pertaining to their own lives. This fellowship was launched via storytelling and media training organization Channel Black.
"The Black Mama’s Storytelling Fellowship is the second cohort of the media training program that I developed when I was the director of communications for Black Lives Matter," Matthews said. "We need to prepare impacted people to speak on the behalf of themselves."
Matthews and Birdsong initially connected through their social networks. In 2017, after realizing the gaps within how the media shares stereotypical narratives about Black motherhood, they set out to make a difference. By January 2018, the year-long fellowship launched out of Oakland, CA, with seven fellows. The fellowship brings together a diverse group of Black mothers, who have each experienced varying forms of violence.
"It's important for Black mamas to tell their stories, because we matter. Sometimes our stories get overlooked. In order for us to be free and liberate ourselves, we need to stand up and share our experiences and tell our stories," Fellow Kai Shateen said in a video by Channel Black on The Black Mama’s Storytelling Fellowship.
"What people need to know about Black mamas that they don't already know is that we are phenomenal," fellow Pecolia Manigo said in the same video. "One of the things I've learned over time is that no matter how hard the dynamics are for Black mamas, we thrive."
According to Birdsong, the program hosts four retreats. Throughout the year, fellows work on various projects and the mothers successfully undergo rigorous media training.They are challenged to craft a narrative, understand the political landscape and they learn different techniques for how to speak on their own behalf as they engage with the media. In addition, fellows also work with a personal transformation coach to help them believe in the value and worth of their lived experiences.
"You can give someone the skills and context to tell their story, but [they have to learn] to believe that their stories are vital and important," Birdsong told Blavity. "We are not just interested in them telling a story about the deficit in their lives, but really talking about what is amazing and powerful about being a Black mother — because we clearly don't hear that."
With years of experience between them as advocates for social justice, Birdsong and Matthews each felt motivated to cultivate this unique program for various reasons.
“I have two kids — eight and 13. It’s important for my children to witness me telling my own story, and working to create the world that I want them to live in," Birdsong said. "It helps positively shape their experience and their perception of what’s possible.”
“I don't have kids. I am a Black media trainer who goes where the people need me,” Matthews said.
As for the future of The Black Mama’s Storytelling Fellowship, they hope that it will create a network of women who are able to impact democracy by sharing their stories in either the boardroom or the press room.