By Saida Agostini, Director of Capacity Building, YWCA USA
When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
— Audre Lorde
When I first read these words in Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, I just sat the book down and walked away. I was twenty-four years old, and a Black queer survivor of sexual and domestic violence. What did I know of “power,” other than the million-odd ways it had been used against me, and against those I loved? On a deep, personal level, “Power” and being “powerful” was not something that resonated with me.
For me, fear was my constant; a loved friend that sat with me in every room. In a life where I perpetually felt unsafe and powerless, fear was my tool to measure threats in my home, on the streets and at the borders of whiteness where my Black woman’s body became a site of transgression. How could I let that go? How could I shape myself into a person whose actions were not dictated by fear?
Audre Lorde helped me get there.
In her essays, Audre Lorde argues for a world where we speak up regardless of the threats. She issues a call to action, asking me to do my work, as she—a “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”—did hers.
It has taken thirteen years, but I have come to understand the work. Audre Lorde’s words are a mandate. A callback. A prayer. It is a risk, yes—and it is great love. It is Flint, Michigan fighting for clean drinking water in communities across the world, when they themselves have not been able to drink a glass of water from their own faucets for the past five years. It is Tarana Burke surviving sexual violence as a child, and launching the #MeToo movement to center the experiences of Black women and girl survivors throughout the United States. It is my mentor offering me a home after leaving an abusive relationship.
As I have come to realize and experience for myself, Audre Lorde’s power is radical love. As James Baldwin wrote in one of my favorite essays, “love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up.” Our work, our lives, and our purpose are a constant, dynamic practice of service and voice.
It is a tremendous risk to use your power. Yet greater risk still, to stay silent and pretend that there is not a world ready for your service. And we know there are risks for speaking up and taking a stand. Whether it is seeing your own church burned down by a white supremacist or walking hundreds of miles to cross a pretend border with your children only to be caged under a bridge, so many of us have been punished and endured immense trauma for simply seeking a life that is free, safe, dignified, and just. So many people are punished for even naming injustice, let alone fighting it. And still, we are asked to do the work of fighting for freedom. And it is something we ask of ourselves.
I believe that YWCA is a part of this deep, interconnected work. For the past century and a half, YWCA has been guided by the ethics of racial justice, peace and gender equity. Whether organizing services and housing for immigrants in the 19th century, or launching a community bail fund, we are committed to doing our work and realizing a vision of a world where our lives are no longer put at risk for speaking the truth, and for knowing our own power.
This year’s YWCA national conference theme, DARE TO BE POWERUL, honors our commitment and service to YWCA’s dream of a better world. Our work is forever our answer to Audre Lorde’s immortal question, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?”
As YWCAs from across the country gather together for our biennial national conference in June, let us hold Audre Lorde’s words close to our hearts, and let us center them in our conversations with each other, as we collectively use our sisterhood in service of others.