Nonprofit Spotlight: Defending Black Girlhood through the healing power of artwork and storytelling
by Samantha Haas
on Monday, November 16th, 2020 at 2:32pm.
Earlier this summer, some members of our team visited State Street to view the temporary Downtown Street Art and Mural Project by local artists -- including those who have been affected by racial injustice and violence. Of the 100 or so murals that covered storefront windows and sides of buildings, we started to notice a distinctive style featuring the silhouette of Black girls’ faces with pops of bright colors and words of affirmation among a few of the displays. Also featured on the beautiful artwork near Goodman’s Jewelers and the Overture Center for the Arts were the hashtag #DefendingBlackGirlhood and Instagram handle @LiladasArt.
These pieces of art were created by Lilada Gee, a lifelong Madison resident who has rediscovered the healing power of art. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Lilada has spent over 30 years working in the fields of education and social services -- particularly with Black girls who have also experienced trauma. Lilada said she remembers enjoying working on mandalas from the University Book Store as a child, and it wasn’t until about four years ago when the heaviness of her day-to-day work with girls in schools sunk in that she realized she needed to find a creative outlet. Her children, Alexandra and Christian, were also part of Lilada’s motivation for embarking on this healing journey to create a different reality for their lives going forward. “In that journey we gain our strength and we are empowered to become warriors for our girls. But if we don’t, we become conduits of their pain and of their demise. And then the cycle continues,” Lilada shared in one of her podcasts.
At first, Lilada thought her artwork of girls would be sad or dark, but she wanted the girls to feel empowered and see them smile through bright, positive imaging. “The beautiful thing is life came full circle working with the girls, because they gave me the gift of using artwork to heal,” Lilada said. Now, she hopes seeing her artwork helps them heal, too. Lilada’s first art show was canceled last July due to storms in Wisconsin Dells, so she decided to post some pictures on social media instead -- and it just took off. “The response has been overwhelming,” she said, citing her murals downtown, commissioned pieces in homes and banners outside schools as well as on a #MaskUpMadison selfie wall outside the Wisconsin Historical Museum, and being featured in Brava and UMOJA magazines. She has also been making lawn and window signs as well as cookies with similar designs for pop-up sales at Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison, where she serves on the Community Women’s Ministry Team of the church led by her brother, Rev. Dr. Alexander Gee.
Lilada, who describes herself as a “bold biographer, edgy preacher, and fierce advocate for Black girls,” has shared her story through the work of her nonprofit Black Women Heal, her book, “I Can’t Live Like This Anymore,” and as a speaker who does trainings for other educators and nonprofits. She recently started a new nonprofit called Defending Black Girlhood, which helps Black girls who have been sexually abused reclaim their spirits, minds, and bodies, and live girlhood uninterrupted. The nonprofit advocates for Black girls to be safe in their homes, schools, and communities, as well as helps them build a sense of self-esteem, belonging, and importance. In this way, Lilada explained, girls are empowered to use their voice “so that if things are going on in their lives they know what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to.” But are people listening?
Statistics show that Black women and girls comprise more than 65,000 people missing in the U.S. and over 40% of domestic sex trafficking victims, and a conservative estimate is that at least 40% of Black girls are sexually victimized before their 18th birthdays. In a recent interview with Channel 3000, Lilada said the news of Breonna Tayler, an African-American medical worker in Louisville, Kentucky, being shot and killed in her own home by police on March 13th was “devastating,” because she knows firsthand that “Black girls haven’t been safe at home for a long time in a lot of families, and now we have this other entity entering in. We are at a higher risk of violence from a number of different sources.” These topics are explored in Lilada’s new Defending Black Girlhood podcast series, which also launched in March when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and children have been spending more time at home -- potentially with their abuser -- instead of in school.
The first season is an audio documentary about a missing Black 15-year-old Fitchburg girl named Erika Hill, who was murdered in 2007 but whose identity was not discovered until 2015 (her adoptive mother was charged with reckless homicide), and how the systems and community failed her. Using this larger, global scale podcast platform, Lilada has been having strategic conversations with key players around these issues, from school educators and social workers to community members and pastors, and how to prevent them from happening again. The second season of the podcast began in November. “The conversations are meant to inform, inspire, and challenge listeners to take bold actions towards making this world a safer place for Black girls to live, learn, and be loved,” Lilada said. “The stories these girls have shared with me over the years pushed me to create art and start a conversation through this podcast to push the community as a whole to understand we all need to be concerned about defending black girlhood.”
To learn more about Defending Black Girlhood, visit lilada.org. If you suspect a child is experiencing abuse, call the confidential Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-442-4453.
We are always looking for more local nonprofits to highlight in our newsletter and blog -- particularly those focused on promoting social and racial justice, providing affordable housing, and protecting the environment. If you have an idea you would like us to consider, please contact marketing and community outreach specialist Samantha Haas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 920-248-2676.