Radical Brownies, a twist on the traditional Girl Scouts organization, hit the Oakland scene in 2014. The organization, according to its mission statement, aims to create a safe space for young girls of color “so that they step into their collective power, brilliance and leadership in order to make the world a more radical place.” Co-founders Marilyn Hollinquest and Anayvette Martinez sat down with The Weekender to discuss self-identity, womanhood and education.
The Daily Californian: I’m interested in how you each define “radical.”
Anayvette Martinez: When I thought about the name of this group, I wanted to use “radical” because I wanted (the group) to be edgy and politically charged — a space that’s focused on social justice. … I really envisioned a girls’ group that was charged on issues of social justice. That was really why I wanted to integrate this idea of radicalism. What does it mean to be radical? It means to be out of the box, edgy.
Marilyn Hollinquest: During our first meeting we had the girls do a word association to define the word “radical” so we could come up with a group definition that had authentic meaning. They came up with words like “fierce” and “advocate,” so we decided — as a group — that radical means “fierce community advocates.”
DC: You’ve both talked before about how you grappled with injustices in your community. Anayvette, you’ve mentioned that your daughter felt these societal pressures. Do you each feel like there was a pressure to be radical, when growing up, because you felt constrained by society?
MH: Not exactly. I’m a teacher, and so I talk a lot about that and think about that and talk to other teachers about that. There was a phase in education and parenting in general where children should be seen and not heard. That evolved to the mindset that children should be heard but not necessarily seen, because we want to protect them from the ills of the world. I think we are the next step in that evolution. We want our girls, our children, to be both seen and heard. I understand the notion of wanting to protect children from the -isms of the world. But they already know about them. They already talk about them with their peers. All people have a notion of fair and unfair; kids have that, too. So giving them a space where their experiences are central is what we’re aiming for.
AM: This group is very much informed by our own experiences as women of color. I think that a lot community work and a lot of youth work is centered around the things that would’ve helped us in our childhood: grappling with identity and our experiences based on sexism, racism, classism. But neither Marilyn nor I had the language to understand these things until we went to college. We wanted to bring those tools to young girls because they do experience it and they do see it.
DC: My understanding is that a lot of these -isms are based on divisions — and I find it interesting that your group is centered around young girls of color. Why uphold that division?
AM: I don’t think it’s division. I think it’s a specialization. I think the group is about centering young girls of (colors’) experiences. This is our pilot troop, and we recruited this pilot troop from our community. We’re rooted in East Oakland — that’s a black and brown community, so that’s what’s going to show up in the group. But the troop is always going to be open any child who identifies with our mission and vision. It’s not about exclusion, it’s about more than that. I think the more girl groups, the better. Young girls of color do have a unique experience and don’t see themselves reflected in many mainstream girl groups; it’s inherent in our background as women of color.
DC: Did your own daughter’s reality and her life experiences serve as an impetus to form your organization?
AM: Her reality is that she’s a brown girl. The reality is that we live in a world that’s brimming with media messages and societal pressures that don’t cater to young girls of color —
DC: Young girls in general.
AM: Absolutely. So I think for me this was very much a response to what a space that really spoke to all of who she is — her whole identity — would look like. This is not just about gender. It is about how she walks in this world as a young brown girl and providing that space for her.
DC: Did you two have very strong female figures growing up who urged you to be radical in the way that you previous defined?
MH: Absolutely — my grandmother and my mother. My mother wouldn’t call herself a feminist, but I would. My grandmother would never have called herself a feminist, but I would. They both were very much grounded in who they were and knew what they wanted. My grandmother wasn’t a person you could push around. She had a very strong backbone. And they each instilled in me this notion of knowing who I was and where I came from.
AM: My mom used to always say: Don’t forget where you come from. I came from a long, rich legacy of culture — that really helped me navigate moments when I questioned whether I was beautiful, simply because I didn’t always see people who looked like me. When I went to UCLA for my undergraduate education … the percentage of folks of color there is very small. I often didn’t feel like I belonged. But what helped me through those experiences was a strong sense of identity that I think my mother helped instill in me. This is super important for everyone across the board.
DC: I agree. But how do you reconcile the evolving image of the “modern woman” with personal identity?
MH: I’m paraphrasing an Audre Lorde quote, but you’re instilling self-determination when you define yourself. Regardless of what society attempts to tell you what you should be or who you are, you should be able to deconstruct it and criticize it and know what you want to say. Then you can decide what womanhood, what femininity, what girlhood looks like. From there, you can move in the world in a way that isn’t negatively affected by the pressures of what a girl should “be.”
AM: In our troop meetings, we have conversations that hit upon those points. These are high-level concepts and conversations that we understand as post-graduate women, but we can appreciate that we’re working with girl ages 8 to 12. So we simmer these concepts down into a conversation where they can really understand it. … I think it is incredibly powerful for these girls to be having these conversations at such a young age. How might this set them up for middle school and high school and beyond? That’s powerful.
DC: Middle school is such a tender time.
MH: I teach eighth-grade ethnic studies and am very familiar with the middle school scene. I see how the young girls that I teach damper their brilliance for fear of judgment from their peers, both girls and boys. There is so much pressure to conform.
AM: It’s all about conforming! We’re trying to arm the girls with the knowledge that being different is amazing and a good thing.
DC: That seems to be the conceit of your group — using radicalism as a platform to explore individuality. Are you hoping to expand?
MH: We’re incubating what we have and getting a strategic plan done that when we launch our other chapters we’ll have resources for parents to be armed with all that they need to replicate what we’re doing. … We didn’t expect this to go past the Bay Area. But we’ve heard from people in Canada and France and Bermuda.
AM: We had no idea.
HM: But we’re not the first, and we’re not the last. We stand in a legacy of social justice. Our ancestors, elders and contemporaries have been doing this work before and have been our influence for this. I’m just excited to be a part of the legacy.
Zoe Kleinfeld is an associate editor for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]