Cultivating New Models of Sisterhood

Cultivating New Models of Sisterhood June 28, 2016

aljonesOver the next 12 months, the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions and universities. You can find the full series, here.

By Alisha Jones
Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, Indiana University

My journey to display a beloved community stems from transforming the societal tensions that haunt me into a theological question that guides my ministry and research. My discernment began with stereotypes in popular culture — the depiction of angry Black women on television and the objectification of Black women in music videos – which present Black women as unlovable, un-sisterly, and insatiable characters, which is simply not true.

Sensing a zeitgeist for Black women’s empowerment, many of my African-American sisters in ministry launched beautiful women’s ministries that fostered bonds among women. While I share my sisters’ passion for women’s empowerment and witnessed the need for these services, I wanted to go beyond talking among ourselves. I was drawn to the cultivation of healthy interactions with our Black brothers, but I didn’t know what that would look like.

Fall 2007 was a pivotal year for the formation of my ministry. I had graduated from Yale Divinity and was pursing my doctorate at the University of Chicago in ethnomusicology, the study of people who create music. Shortly after I enrolled in the program, Amadou Cisse, a Senegalese doctoral student who had just defended his dissertation and was a few weeks shy of graduation, was tragically murdered near campus. But there was a delayed notification to the student body that a Black man was murdered nearby, suggesting he was presumed to be “another murdered African American male” on the South side of Chicago. There was talk of increasing the police presence around the campus.

Cisse’s murder was the culmination of a series of events that helped me realize that I, a Black sister, was being socialized to fear my Black brothers. Following Cisse’s murder, I decided that I must question my own negative perceptions of Black men and develop models to help people of African descent see each other differently. I launched InSight Initiative, to examine the inner-workings of popular culture.

InSight Initiative resembles a parachurch ministry model in that it is not church or denominationally affiliated. Focusing on low-income, high-minority communities, we use the performing arts plus faith to re-teach people their loveliness through interactions with everyday people who model sisterly and brotherly love in their communities.

My sister Angela Jones and I convened InSight’s signature event in 2009, the annual Genius for Men conference (GFM) that brings together women and men to learn about men’s issues in a safe space. I admit, at first, I was reluctant about doing male-focused programming, but then realized that such a bodacious endeavor is consistent with my womanist and Black feminist inclinations. Though some are discomforted by the idea of women convening a men’s conference, we have found that attendees’ assumptions about men, and our capacity to support each other, have been challenged – for the better.

Following the first GFM event, I hoped that my Black brothers would be inspired to reciprocate and support a safe space for Black sisters. After about three years of GFM, our male participants began to reach out to us and ask how they might return the favor. My Cultivating New Models of Sisterhood GFM programming positioned me for a unique perspective in developing a culturally relevant women’s ministry.

I recognized that I also needed a safe space, one where I could share my challenges as a twenty-something, female founder of an organization, and first generation doctoral student at a predominantly White institution. After several conversations with friends with shared profiles, I started a virtual peer-mentoring forum on Facebook for women of color called Move and Shake Women.

Over 1500 participants from around the world have characterized Move and Shake as a safe space where they can discuss the highs and lows of standing out or being the only one in their field. Following a servant-leadership model, Move and Shake women is a virtual community where dynamic women are encouraged to be brilliant, sisterly, and develop life- work balance skills. We include women who range in profile from high school student to first-generation college student to doctoral student to college administrators.

From the community that has been established in the Move and Shake forum, we developed a retreat, weekly inspirational conference calls, conference meet ups, and excursions around the world.

I incorporate the insights I have gained from Insight Initiative programming into my research. Now as an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Indiana University, I research Black men’s performance of gender and sexuality in gospel music and worship. At a glance, my specialization may appear to re-inscribe longstanding male-centered research interests, but as I enact an oppositional gaze upon men I analyze the inner-workings of patriarchy in African American religiosity that have oppressed women and men for far too long. What a joy it is when the people who I have served or taught return to say, “What must I do to love my sisters and/or brothers differently?”

Alisha Jones is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology in Indiana University’s Bloomington’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology within the College of Arts and Sciences. Jones specializes in the study of music and religion in the African diaspora, and teaches courses such as “Music & Mysticism” and “Popular Music in African American Music Performance.”

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