In my hometown of Baltimore, I grew up surrounded by a household of educators who instilled in me a fundamental truth – that Black girls are brilliant. My sisters, the kids in my neighborhood and my peers at Carver Center for the Arts and Technology all held greatness within us.
It is also true that the headwinds of 400 years of structural racism blow strong. After schools were integrated across the state of Maryland, too many schools and neighborhoods saw the flight of Black talent and the decades of under-investment continue. A lack of pathways to the creation of generational wealth - the ability to afford a home or a quality higher education, to start and grow a business - put the brilliant futures of too many Black women and girls out of reach.
Shifting this reality has been the driving force of my life. At age 17, I won a seat on our local school board. After that, I worked for much of my career to break down the structural barriers to a great education. Throughout, I recognized that so many of the challenges our communities face always circle back to one major obstacle – a great education is not always enough to overcome a lack of generational wealth and social capital.
I began to think about what I could do to meaningfully move greater wealth and influence into the hands of incredible leaders who were under-resourced and deeply burnt out.
Black women leaders are impactful, intellectually powerful and politically engaged. So why do they have the highest amount of college debt? Why are their businesses undercapitalized and why are they denied seats at the decision-making table? Why is it that the median wealth of white males under 35 is $22,640, but for Black women is only $101?
Black women see racial discrimination as the key hurdle to economic success.
If we are serious about educational justice, we also must take seriously the barriers to economic mobility.
It’s why in 2020, I founded The Highland Project – an emerging national network of Black women leading education, communities, systems and institutions.
Eventually, the Highland Project will support a cohort of 15 women leaders each year through an 18-month experience focused on well-being and self-preservation, individual and collective power and pursuing legacies that result in multi-generational wealth and lasting, systemic change.
Each Highland Leader will receive $100,000 in unrestricted capital to build their vision and join a social network that can support them in creating power in all its forms – educational equity, political influence, strong, healthy families and generational wealth.
But first, we had to level-set. The Highland Project commissioned a survey, “Our Power, Our Legacy,” to center the very real and lived experiences of Black women in America.
The results were eye-opening.
Racial discrimination, voting rights and education were at the very top of their concerns. Across all age groups, there was a tremendous amount of hope attached to a great education, but an even deeper amount of worry over the lack of educational options and the cost of college.
Black women are defining success on their own terms - beyond a high salary, success equals living their lives ethically and honestly, being financially independent, having a rewarding job and a healthy lifestyle.
While the economy is technically in recovery, it is not yielding benefits for all Black women. They named racial discrimination as the number one barrier to wealth.
When it comes to politics, Black women plan to continue demonstrating their power and 90% plan to vote in the midterm elections. However, Black women are not a monolith. Their concerns, aspirations and values are as diverse as they are.
Finally, Black women are defining success on their own terms. Beyond a high salary, they define success as living their lives ethically and honestly, the relationship they have with family, being financially independent, having a rewarding job and healthy lifestyle.
Their answers provide a snapshot of the lived experiences of Black women in America. It’s what will guide our work at The Highland Project. Addressing these concerns will mean centering and investing in Black women, pursuing changes across sectors that address systemic racism, and redefining the wealth gap as more than just money, but power, leadership, social mobility, ownership and justice.
For centuries, the brilliance of Black girls and women has been the driving force behind our communities, institutions and systems -- from developing the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine to leading voter turnout in nearly every election. For the challenges we face today, it’s time to channel this brilliance into a pipeline of visible, well-resourced and powerful Black women leaders who can help shape a more equitable and just future for us all.
The Highland Project is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.