It all started with a simple yet great idea to design a T-shirt filled with all of the names of Black women in the world who rocked. But when Black Girls Rock! founder Beverly Bond realized she’d run out of space on the T-shirts to include every name, she had an epiphany. That aha moment led to the creation of a mentoring program that would soon turn into one of the most-anticipated awards show BET Networks would broadcast. Four years later, Black Girls Rock! is bigger, better and inspiring young Black girls everywhere.
EBONY: Beverly, can you let our readers in on the real background of Black Girls Rock!?
Beverly Bond: It was an idea I had for a T-shirt to include the names of Black girls that rocked, and I had this big epiphany all at one moment. I knew the T-shirt could be really dope, and as I was writing down all of these Black girls that rock, I ran out of space for all the names to be included on the T-shirt. As I’m looking at the list, I’m thinking, ‘How come this is missing? How come our young girls don’t know about these great women and where we come from? And how come these messages aren’t out there in the world? That was back in 2006. There was, and still is, this very one-sided message to women of color. It’s an alarming situation that needed to be dealt with.
EBONY: Have you known all along that a part of your purpose was to help young women and girls?
BB: I think BGR was just a continuation of what my place in this world is and what I’ve been paying attention to. I’ve been able to use my platform to be able to make a difference. I think that everybody has their own thing that they get to see, and I think that being a DJ was my platform. This whole thing came to me through music. Even the messages of women came to me through music. Being a DJ, I was paying more attention to the negative messages. A lot of people hum along to most of the degrading songs in the world, not realizing that those messages are there. Sometimes people don’t even know the messages are there.
EBONY: I’m guilty of that. I have to admit that.
BB: You know, me too. I mean as a DJ I pay more attention, but there are songs that are definitely more degrading than others. And not in judgment, but there has got to be some care and concern about what’s hitting the minds of the youth.
EBONY: And balance. I just feel like there is no balance. I can remember growing up hearing a little bit of raunchy music here and there, but it was a little more positivity. What happened?
BB: Right, and to have a lack of balance within our community and then an absence [of positive images of ourselves] outside of our community sends a dangerous message to our girls that they don’t matter. And they start to feel that the only way that they are valuable is if they compromise their integrity and their dignity. That’s a very dangerous message to send to young girls and young boys.
EBONY: What kind of pushback did you receive when you first began BGR?
BB: When I first started it, I initially went to women in the industry who I thought would actually speak out on this kind of thing. I never approached with this “holier than thou” attitude, though. You know I’m a DJ, so I can’t even come from that position. But what I found was that a lot of women didn’t want to be involved because at the time; it seemed to be that “speaking up” wasn’t the popular thing to do. So I did it myself. I turned the press on to the work I was doing, and that’s how I got the ball rolling on BGR. But what I found was that the press would interview me, and they would always ask about what I’m wearing and who’s at my party! And I’m like, “OK, but I’m doing this.” Soon, everybody was like, “Oh my gosh! What can I do to help?” A lot of Black women, all around the world, have felt the injustice toward them. It’s like we’ve kind of sat there for a long time being picked on. You know what I mean? It’s like anytime we spoke up against the injustices, we were “angry” or we had “problems.” I knew to approach this in a way where I wasn’t pointing the finger at someone.
EBONY: I think there are a lot of women in the world doing something like this, but you had a special way of making it a big deal.
BB: I made it cool on purpose. I knew what I was doing. I knew it had to be attractive. We use the arts to empower our girls, but we don’t just use it for the sake of creativity by itself. We also use if for work ethic in business and integrity. I love these girls. I love being able to empower them through excellence and to make them love being at the top of their game.
EBONY: I believe that when you dedicate your life to making someone else’s better, you really do feel that joy in return. But how do you refill your cup after giving so much?
BB: When I speak to people, I always tell them that service should be your joy and not be a burden to you. You have to make sure you’re in a place that you’re doing what you can do and where you can give. Sometimes people will try to take on more than they can actually handle. We found a niche with our girls. We mentor them; we have a extensive application process. We need to see that they are on the road to making themselves better. We have girls from different economic backgrounds, social backgrounds and from different regions. Sometimes people will want to know why we won’t take on a girl who is a troubled teen and who has behavioral issues. But I’m like, “I don’t have the bandwidth or education for that.” When we tried to open our doors and do it for everyone, without an application process, many of those girls would not commit. We just realized they were taking it for granted. So what we learned was that we needed to create a standard. I think it’s important for anyone trying to make a difference to know your limitations. We’ve grown from mentoring to summer camps, and sometimes it can become disheartening to have to exclude others. I had to have a conference with one of the parents of a mentee. She was mad that her daughter wasn’t featured in the awards show. I had to tell that lady that every Saturday since 2006, I’m a mentor. Secondly, we are not here to make your kid a star; we are here to make your kid great. This is the kind of stuff you have to deal with. Her daughter got it, and she apologized. We’re mission-driven here. We know what we’re doing. There’s no way I’m going to let someone take me off of God’s work. I’m good.
EBONY:Some Black women have actually criticized BGR on its initiative. How have you dealt with this?
BB: There are a lot of people who do that. We are in a state of constant healing. I don’t even blame those people who have been down the negative road. I hope they come back and they see something that empowers them and makes them better.
We’ve had girls tell us from their own mouths that they were in a place where they felt like they didn’t matter. They put bleach on their skin and were suicidal because they didn’t feel there was a place for the Black girl in the world. That was until they came to BGR. When I get letters like that, I don’t care what people have to say. Because you obviously don’t understand the positive affect this is having on someone. Mind you, the criticism comes from within a lot of the time; 90 percent of it comes from within our community, and it’s very sad. It just shows you the amount of damage that has been done.
EBONY: With BGR, how are you working to untangle the damage that has been done, starting with the young women?
BB: We have a curriculum, and within our DJ and writing and poetry program, we always try to address the subject of ourselves in media. That’s the focus. So these are conversations that we are constantly engaging in with our youth and their parents. I think the BGR awards itself is one of the bigger ways that we’re trying to untangle the damage that has been done. And having this broadcast on BET, it really takes that message to a huger level.
EBONY: How can someone like me get involved?
BB: I think everybody can do something. We have an application process for mentors and tutors. It really depends on what volunteers we need. We need help in all kinds areas. We look for people who specifically have great ideas. We also say [you should] start where you are. There’s so many mentoring programs out here that need the help and need the volunteers. A lot of times, people think all we do is the awards show. They don’t see the mentoring we do all year around. But certainly, there is always some place to mentor. I just tell people to start where they are, and don’t let it be a burden. We all as humans have to contribute, especially when you see damage. You just can’t turn a blind eye.