Seyi: Why I set up a mentoring organisation for Black women
TRiBE is a UK-based organisation that aims to empower and improve the professional and social experiences of Black women, by running a mentorship programme, events and workshops. As TRiBE turns three this month, we caught
TRiBE is a UK-based organisation that aims to empower and improve the professional and social experiences of Black women, by running a mentorship programme, events and workshops. As TRiBE turns three this month, we caught up with founder Seyi Newell to talk about why she set it up, and what drives her to keep working towards better visibility for Black women.
At the time that I set up TRiBE, I was working for a charity as a Communications Manager. I went to a charity seminar; there were 190 people in the room and I was the only Black woman. This was in London. I was born in London and I’ve always lived in London, so being the only Black woman in a room of almost 200 people is very strange to me. On that day, I stood up, looked around and thought, ‘I don’t understand how this can be’. There were only four other people of any colour there.
Black girls are the biggest group of graduates in this country, but they’re the most underemployed. We’re not visible in business; in the FTSE 100, there are no Black women on boards. There are only 17 Black female British professors in the UK. I’ve always been the only Black woman in the places that I’ve worked, or the only person of colour, period.
I did some research on why we seem to not be visible in these spaces, and I realised it was down to lack of networks, lack of access to opportunity, and lack of visible role models. Not only that, but there seemed to be no mentoring opportunities for just Black girls. There are organisations who mentor girls in general, or Black boys. Those are obviously two groups that need attention, but Black girls have very specific needs that must be addressed. I got angry and frustrated, and thought, ‘If it doesn’t exist then I’m going to create it.’ That’s where TRiBE came from.
Why Black women need mentors
When I started TRiBE, I didn’t realise how much it was needed. People started coming back to me saying, ‘we’ve been waiting for something like this.’ Initially we started off to help young Black girls be more visible in the workplace, and then navigate those spaces, particularly those that are mostly white. We pair young women with older Black women who work in the industry of their choice, for example if you want to be a journalist, you’d be paired with a journalist.
We currently have about 40 girls under our mentorship programme, each paired with a mentor for a year. It’s a lot easier to navigate those spaces when you have a kind of flashlight, someone who has already walked that path who can give you tips, tell you the pitfalls to look out for, and just tell you their experiences. It’s easier to be something that you can see. The mentors are also supposed to open up their contacts to them, so really help get these girls into the career they’re aiming for.
A lot of people feel particularly lonely. When you are the only Black girl in 500 people at Oxford, that’s a very isolating experience. You can start to think, ‘Is this actually real? Am I being too sensitive?’ We feel responsible for the whole community, which is a massive burden to have on your shoulders; the idea that you always represent being Black. So you have to be on your best behaviour, especially if you’re the only one, because you’re their only reference to ‘blackness’. That creates a lot of pressure, so many of these girls are dealing with anxiety and depression, feelings of rejection.
TRiBE is about having a space to talk about those things without being told that you’re being too sensitive, or ‘you just don’t know how to work hard’. How do I navigate this space as a Black woman without feeling like I have to somehow dim down my ‘black woman-ness’?
Reaching out to older Black women
We also do events, which range from the age of 16 upwards. Before we just worked with girls aged 16-24, but we found a lot of older women over the age of 30 or 40 were coming too. They were getting so much from it, but they’d also say, ‘there isn’t anything for us.’ If younger Black girls are feeling like they’re not being heard, then older women definitely are feeling invisible.
I think with older Black women, we’re really trying to get them to put themselves first. A lot of our events talk about self-love, because we know from our mums and aunties that they always come last, when it comes to their careers, their lives, everything. A lot of the time they just want to put food on the table.
Because of the sacrifices that the older generation have made, we now have certain things that we can do. We have a certain amount of courage because of what they’ve done. We’re not starting from scratch. I know that my mum worked very hard so that I wouldn’t have to work as hard as she had to, so that I can follow through things that I want to do, not that I need to do. It’s not about surviving with our generation, it’s about thriving.
The advances we’re making
TRiBE is about creating that network that we can fit into, whether it’s for resources or for emotional support. We do know that we have to work twice as hard, or ten times as hard- it’s depressing and it’s exhausting but if there are certain strides that we want to make personally and as a community, then there are certain things that you have to do. It’s difficult, which is why having a mentor or having a community in which you can say, ‘this is tiring,’ and they can say, ‘it is tiring! But here’s what I do to make it better or just to get through the day. Or I’m here if you need to talk.’ It makes a big difference.
The girls, really inspire me to keep doing what I’m doing. Since creating TRiBE, I’ve also met some of the most phenomenal women, who are creating their own spaces for Black women on a day to day basis. There are some brilliant women in the UK who are creating spaces for us- just look at Black Ballad, gal-dem and Media Diversified. There are so many of us really making waves, making a way for us, and the black women who come after us.
I don’t think visibility and access for Black women is becoming better in the UK just yet. I think there are rumblings in the foundation of it, and it hasn’t quite made it’s way up into visibility within the mainstream media. I do think the media is important because a girl who’s living in the valleys in Wales who isn’t surrounded by this, being able to see black people doing these things, is important. It’s very difficult to be what you can’t see. So much is being done at the grassroots level though, and I think it just needs time to make it’s way up.