Let me start by saying I am writing this as an informational post and a caution to others. I do not want to disparage the BF& Fem conference, which is an important convening, but its organizers need to continue their work on creating safe spaces for women of color. This will not be a permanent post on my blog.
The Scene: Erica Morrell, a visiting Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Middlebury College, Sociology/Women’s Studies, is a danger and a threat to black women and their research, in my opinion. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine issued a correction for her article upon my insistence after she summarized my concepts and work, directly mentioning the cities where I worked, and findings from my research without proper citation or attribution. She misrepresented my ideas as her own. Even worse, I did not even receive a professional courtesy call –since she had been emailing me and calling for two years prior. Erica pursued me and my work, at times, offering to help me but in the end she only wanted to further her own book and academic interests. (You can read the full story in The Prequel section below.)
Act 1: Because of my experience with Erica, I was deeply concerned to see her on the Breastfeeding & Feminism agenda doing a panel entitled Circulating Black Feminist Thought Across the Color Line to Dismantle Breastfeeding Barriers, along with three black women academics. I was deeply concerned that Erica might do to them what she had already done to me. As I looked at her website and other work, it was clear that attaching herself to black women was her modus operandi. I immediately emailed the organizers and planning committee about my concern and I also clearly stated that Erica would not be allowed to be in the room during my presentation because I only share ideas in trusted spaces and she has proved herself untrustworthy.
To be fair, planning committee members, particularly Catherine Sullivan and Tina Sherman were immediately responsive and apologetic and sought to make immediate contact with the panelists and Morrell. I also reached out the black women on the panel. I felt huge regret that I had not publicly shared Erica Morell’s name as a warning to my community. These amazing young black women academics and researchers hold so much promise for our community and our work and were perhaps, trustingly, as I was, engaging with Morrell. I was concerned. And on the phone with one panelist from London at 2 am.
Act 2: After having several conversations with the panelists there were several abject failures: Erica Morrell needed to be removed from that panel. Period. Full stop. Instead, Erica was allowed to be an equal decision maker in the future of the panel and chose to center herself in the process saying, in effect, “I will leave, if you want me to.” This assumes power parity, when there is none, and put the black women in a very uncomfortable position. That was not their burden to carry–the organizers should have removed Erica from the process completely. Instead, when the black women did not feel empowered to tell Erica to kick rocks as I would have done, the whole panel was cancelled. Epic fail!
So the very important conversation of black feminist thought is derailed at at the only conference focused on breastfeeding and feminism because one white woman with a history of harmful behavior toward black women and their work was allowed to be a decision maker. Where was the support for my sisters? Where was the commitment to maintain the equity of the conference content by ensuring this important topic went on and was bigger than the one white woman? By the time I returned to the States and heard that the panel was cancelled (confirmed by Erica’s own smug email to me) I was fuming!!
Act 3: Another evening call with the panelists. I had to convince them that they had support in their decision. I had to reassure them that they were the most important voices in that panel and I would do everything in my power to make sure their voices were still heard. I listened to how the panel developed and heard multiple red flags about Erica’s tactics in attaching herself to black women to legitimize herself and then centering herself in decision making. The fact that I had to play this role is another failure of the conference organizers. Let me be clear, my young sisters have so much respect for me and the work I do –they hold me in high regard and that means the world to me. I am happy to always support them anyway that I can. However, by the time I got to the women, who were, in heart, ready to proceed with the panel with me promising to support them and be the go-between with the conference organizers (Why me??), one of the key members had already dismantled the arrangements she made to attend. She was unable to put them back together.
Act 4: On another note, I had already reached out to some white allies I respect and offered to have a facilitated conversation with Erica at BF & Fem to resolve this issue and help her see how she has caused harm. (I am always trying, always hopeful). However, apparently after others spoke with Erica about the panel issue, I was told that Erica was clearly not “ready” for that type of conversation (still not taking any accountability) and that engaging with her at this point would only cause me more harm. Wow!! I so appreciated that. But wondered if your conversations indicated that Erica could still cause harm, then why not actively protect my sisters who were directly involved with her. Why not buffer and protect them –knowing what you did about Erica’s resistance.
This is too much. Every year, this conference is disrespectful to black women in some way. Last year, there was an issue. And every year, I feel like I have to prove myself as a legitimate speaker and thought leader when my book is the only recent book directly and explicitly talking about breastfeeding and feminism!! It’s literally in the title!! (However, decades old writers on the subject, who are white women, are always invited and prominently supported!)
I will not show up where my sisters have been silenced. The three women are the reasons I did not attend the conference. I will not continue to step into spaces that don’t respect my work or protect black women when faced with white women behaving badly. I do not need to leave my house or my children to be triggered.
I apologize to those who were looking forward to hearing me speak. I will make it up to you. Also, I am working on giving the three black women–our rising, shining academic stars–a platform to share their thoughts because that platform was theirs and should have never been taken away from them. Please stay tuned and I hope you will support them.
The Prequel/Origin Story: For several years, Erica pursued me to learn about my “first food desert” work, my First Food Friendly Community Initiative in Detroit and my other projects. At one point, she suggested a joint paper and I shared unpublished documents about my projects that had only been shared with the funder. At another time, I wrote a recommendation letter for her for one of her projects as I thought we were developing a relationship. After a year of me being too busy to connect, she flew all the way to NYC just to meet with me for a few hours, where I shared many concepts and ideas about my past, present and future work. Later, she apparently spoke of my concepts and work and then turned that speech into a paper that was published in the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, without full and proper attribution. After years of emails and constant calls, Erica never notified me that she was writing about my work in this journal nor did she contact me to confirm what was publicly citable, she did not ask if she could share details that had only been shared with the project funder. And I only learned of the article because a program officer at the funder saw it and called me expressing concern that the article was talking about me and my work without proper credit.
When I called Erica immediately after the journal article was published, she immediately began crying telling me how much respect she has for me and she would never hurt me. Classic. I tried to talk to her about intent vs. impact but this is a concept she still struggles with.
After much back and forth with the journal editors and resistance from Erica, a correction was published. (The title itself, is the name of my Detroit presentation and event that I led and was my thesis theme for my time as an IATP Food and Community Fellow.)