Project Noir: the voices of Black women in Cleveland

Project Noir Founders

Chinenye (ChiChi) Nkemere and Bethany Studenic are no strangers to inequities when it comes to systems of power in Cleveland; it’s the whole reason the pair co-founded Enlightened Solutions in 2017. The nonprofit’s mission is to “center the lived experiences of diverse individuals who have experienced workplace abuse and inequity.”

“Throughout our careers, we’ve both experienced a lot of stagnation, a lot of glass ceilings, a lot of barriers,” Studenic says. “We’ve experienced harassment, we’ve experienced disclusion, and we decided that there was nowhere to turn when navigating systems that simply weren’t designed for you.”

The organization started as a way to help individuals navigate corporate and organizational systems where they felt any sense of discomfort, disclusion, or workplace issues; it has since expanded to advocacy and research efforts and organization-wide development work.

Early this year, when urban sociologist and University of Pittsburgh professor Junia Howell partnered with Bloomberg’s CityLab to study metropolitan areas with a population of at least 100,000 Black women on key metrics of economic, health, and educational outcomes. Cleveland did not fare well.

In fact, the CityLab results placed Cleveland at the bottom of every section of the study — ranking the city the worst place for Black women to live, work, and thrive in America.

While these metrics and charts were telling, the perspective and voices of the women represented in them were non-existent in the research publication, giving the city and its Black female residents no way to move forward.

Until Project Noir was born.

When Howell’s research was published, it quickly circulated amongst Nkemere’s and Studenic’s’ professional and social circles.

“When we read the [research] article, one of the first things we noticed was that Black women were not interviewed at all in this process,” Nkemere says, adding that “a lot of our friends were talking about it, a lot of organizations were talking about it, but no one really knew what to do about it except to host open forums. We’re not really forum type people; we like to research.”

With their experience in research and community outreach, Nkeme quickly began to reach out to community members and partners about the study as Studenic created an interactive survey for Black female residents of Cleveland to make their voices heard.

Launched in August 2020, the Project Noir survey collected the lived experiences of 470 Black women in greater Cleveland.

“It really explored the lived experiences of Black women and femmes —  from their mouths and their experiences,” Nkemere notes.

The pair expanded the survey to include private interviews with women, collecting freeform stories that delved deeper into the lived experiences of Black women around the city.

Nkemere explains, “we looked at it as, ‘your experience is the key, we are trying to figure out what are the patterns. And we found a lot of them. Black women from all different walks of life, different generations, different industries…all had very, very similar, if not the same experiences in workplaces and healthcare. Education was a mixed bag.”

This data began to add shape and color to the black-and-white charts seen in Howell’s research, with Black women and femmes in Cleveland sharing stories of staple institutions that have not served them while living in the city.

“There is internal validity to this. These are women that don’t know each other, that are taking the survey alone, in all different parts of our community, and they are detailing story after story with eerily similar themes,” Studenic notes.

The results of this data, which is scheduled to be published in early 2021, will be used to help not only the respondents of the survey, but all Black women in Cleveland and the city at large.

The experiences of these women will shape two research papers. The first will offer resources and support to Black women in the city, helping them navigate the systems that have held them back in Cleveland. The second will be an urgency campaign for local nonprofits and Cleveland institutions, urging them to integrate these findings and experiences into their policies, procedures, and systems.

“We are really trying to be a trust building bridge and work to protect Black women from any retaliation they may experience from a given industry,” Nkemere says. “Taking these vignettes, these stories, this data and going to these organizations and publishing this in media, we will be illustrating that these are the things happening to Black women and asking ‘now that you know, what will you actually be doing about it to make changes?’”

Nkemere and Studenic are still sorting through data and interviewing Black women – but the data is currently clear that Cleveland needs to better serve Black women. If the city doesn’t, more would be at stake than just bad headlines.

“It is important and necessary for Black women, meaning Black families, to be safe, healthy, and well in this region.” Nkemere says. “If we do not provide for that here in Cleveland…Black women will leave…. they will take all of that intelligence, that talent, that tax money, and go to another city that has been enriched and is more welcoming. That’s really all Black women are asking for… the basics. Just the basics.”

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