Blog Entry Narrative Change

CBMA July Spotlight: Monique Liston, Ubuntu Research and Evaluation

by Janet Dickerson

In mid-June, the Campaign for Black Male Achievement gathered 24 emerging leaders in Greensboro, North Carolina for the first-ever convening of 2017 Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellows (BBCLF). Coming from all across the country, these individuals are each transforming their cities and communities in different ways, and are particularly helping to advance life outcomes and opportunities on behalf of Black men and boys.

For our July member spotlight, CBMA spoke with BBCLF Fellow and Milwaukee native Monique Liston, a Ph.D Candidate in the Urban Education Doctoral Program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and Owner of Ubuntu Research and Evaluation, about her experience at the retreat, what motivates her, and why dignity is so important to Black Male Achievement.

CBMA: Can you share some background about the work that you're doing on behalf of black communities and communities of color?
 
MONIQUE LISTON: I got into the Black Male Achievement work right around President Obama's My Brother's Keeper announcement, while I was in graduate school, and my first question was “What about the girls?” And while I was researching around that, I kind of fell into really understanding Black Male Achievement more, particularly because Milwaukee has this history of really focusing on how do we improve the lives and outcomes of boys and men of color, particularly Black males.

For my dissertation research I focused on this idea of dignity. How do we protect, respect, and fulfill the dignity of Black males? And that's been sort of my sermon, and I've been preaching it across the city for the last two years, of how important the dignity of Black males is. What does it look like? How do we protect it? And how do we show ourselves our deep-seated, often unchecked, biases, connections to racism, sexism and homophobia by the way that we treat the Black males in our communities.

That work is also connected to a lot of the community work that I do, being unapologetically here for Black people.

I often tell people, "I show up in the world as a Black woman." I don't show up as an employee of any organization. I don't show up as a graduate student. I don't show up as any of the degrees I've obtained. I show up as a Black woman.

Connecting that to a lot of the community work, I do a lot of cooperative building. Right now I'm working with two groups: one that's building a cooperative home school. We're starting with the real young, so we have early childhood age children involved in this co-op. And meeting with one another, focusing on this culture role kind of Afro-indigenous component that we don't really get in our traditional school settings.

And then also a birth work cooperative, which is focusing on everything related to birth from conception all the way through the first year of life; how we support mothers, and that often comes in or is tied to our Black Male Achievement work when we're dealing with single mothers who are still processing healing from a lot of their relationships. What does it mean for them to bring a Black son in the world considering everything that's happening. All of that is connected to working to restore, protect, respect, and fulfill that sense of dignity amongst the Black community here locally.

 
CBMA: What motivates and inspires you to do the work that you do?
 

LISTON: Waking up as Black woman everyday is what motivates me to do what I do for my community. It's how I'm showing up in the world. I want other people to connect with that. I want to connect with other people who understand that identity, who want to embrace that identity. That’s the large motivator. 

I talk a lot about being a woman who really does a lot of male-focused work; what does that look like and what are the challenges within it. It’s also motivating: I grew up with four younger brothers. I have no sisters. On my Dad's side of the family, I was the only girl, and it wasn't even like I was separated like, "Oh you're the girl." I was nurtured by males.

I was around Black males all the time and understand their differences. Understanding their uniqueness, their quirkiness, talent, humanity and seeing them as full human beings was something that was natural for me because I grew up like that. And also understanding that the world around me doesn't see them that way was troublesome, and a little bothersome. 

I think my connection to dive in deep in that work myself is to try to share, in that big picture, that sense of dignity; but in that smaller picture, I've experienced this world that was created for me as a young person in which young Black males were living their lives abundantly and not bound by any expectation of them to be a certain type of young Black boy.

CBMA: What impact do you feel that media narratives and portrayals have on the ability of Black men and boys, and (black women and girls) to thrive and succeed?

LISTON: The narrative piece is so crucially important because it's not only what narrative is being perpetuated. It's the idea of which ones we put value in, and which ones we accept as true. What I talk a lot about in my work is that power dynamic, and how power works within us understanding ourselves.
We realize that people have power to push something towards us and then we also accept it, and that can continually be promoted. The words that we share, the way that we use language, it reflects so much about how we feel about ourselves in the world, that it's important for us to think about where our voices are coming from. 

How am I using my voice? What is my voice promoting, what is it not promoting? How do we understand ourselves within the system of oppression? How do we use our voice within in it, and what power does our particular voice have when we're in a certain space?

I think that kind of power consciousness is critical for us to really get to the depth of changing the narrative on the grand scale and then also what we consume in our daily dialogue with family members, people on the street, people that we see in church or in small community based groups. How do we make sure our narratives match what we're trying to attain in the grand scheme of things.

CBMA: Given your research background, how important would you say data is to the strength of an organization, particularly those that are committed to racial justice and Black empowerment?

LISTON: I think it's so very critical, but I also think it can be a dangerous game, because we get focused on what are the outcomes that we're trying to push ourselves to, instead of the process that we're embarking upon and where we're trying to go in terms of the large goals of eradicating some of the systemic oppression that people face. The challenge of organizations doing this work (particularly race equity work) is that having the data actually speaks to the work that they do, and the systems they're trying to address.

The research work that I do with the dignity focus is about creating the framework for organizations to understand that when they're doing their work around race, your objective can't just be attendance, participation, number of programs held; that's not enough to talk about the narrative that we're trying to change. Do the students, the young people, the adults that you're working with have a renewed sense of purpose? Do they understand who they are and why they're moving in the world? Do they see themselves dignified by the work experience at every facet?

The ability to look at data around what are the racial equity outcomes that we're looking for that can't be simply quantified by the number of people, but also the experiences and processes that these young people or adults are going through, and how that contributes to their sense of dignity, and to us addressing these larger systemic oppression issues.

CBMA: Coming off of the Building Beloved Community Leadership Fellowship (BBCLF) retreat in Greensboro, in what ways would you say that you're an emerging leader?

LISTON: The Fellowship retreat was probably one of the most enlightening 72 hours of my adult life. It was just absolutely amazing, and I've gained so much in the week since about understanding myself, and the work that I am doing. It was an unparalleled experience in my life so far.

In terms of seeing myself as an emerging leader, I've been working on the front lines and doing work in education for a long time. So I'm used to going to programs to do work, and understanding that I'm also visionary, and what it means for me to start investing in my vision, as opposed to just investing in the programs that I have been a part of, and continue to push forward without disconnecting myself from what that on the ground work means.

Being an emerging leader puts me in this position to learn from the people who have gone through this transition and can tell me about what choices they made, and understanding myself even being in that position. It's just understanding that that's where I currently am, and there's definitely room to grow and develop so I can understand myself in that space.

Learn more about Monique here, and follow her on Twitter @modupeliston.

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