“On Her Hustle” is a series of interviews with women of color artists, entrepreneurs, healers and activists who hustle hard for our communities. Colored Girls Hustle uses this series to amplify the work, talent, and passions of other women and girls of color. Click here to read more about our series and to nominate someone to be interviewed.
This month we’re featuring Aiesha Turman, a scholar, mother, and the Executive Director of the Black Girl Project. Read her full interview below to learn more about how she hustles hard for Black women and girls.
Colored Girls Hustle: Tell us about the “Black Girl Project.” How and why did you create the organization? What is the Black Girl Project up to? How does your identity as a Black woman shape your work?
Aiesha Turman: I was an educator, then coordinator of a high school cultural arts and academic internship program in Brooklyn and I found the young women in the program were coming to me with their issues. I had let it be known that I was a soft place to land and that I would do my best to assist them whether it was pointing them in the direction of resources, or physically showing up somewhere. What grabbed my attention was the fact that so many of them were telling me the same things that my friends and I had gone through in high school and college. There hadn’t really been any advancement in the arena of allowing them the room to speak out, or go seek intervention for their issues. The adage “don’t put our business in the streets” came up a lot during conversations. This inspired me to first make the documentary, The Black Girl Project. It was my goal (and still is) to spark intergenerational conversation across ethnicities, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. A lot of our young women and girls feel as though they are traversing a path on their own, living in a vacuum; but they aren’t and it’s important to hear their stories. I created the organization to help facilitate outreach for the film, but it has grown to take on a life of its own. As a Black woman, who was once a Black girl, all of who I was, am, and am growing to be shapes the work that I do. Our young folks need to be equipped emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually in order to become the self-actualized people they deserve to be. I hope that BGP can be of service in that capacity.
Colored Girls Hustle: What does the word “hustle” mean to you and how does it apply to your daily life?
Aiesha Turman: To hustle means to get it done, get on your purpose, and do your work. I think a lot of folks make “hustle” out to be synonymous with having every iron in the fire and doing whatever it is to get money, and it can be that for those who choose. But for me, it’s about being on purpose, showing up, and following up. Before you can truly hustle you have to know yourself and be comfortable being vulnerable and transparent. Hustling is about love – for yourself and your work.
Colored Girls Hustle: What are three words that you would use to describe yourself?
Aiesha Turman: Fiery, loving, playful.
Colored Girls Hustle: You identify as a cultural producer. What does that mean and how do you see the role of cultural production in movement building work?
Aiesha Turman: Basically, a cultural producer is a creative artist and thinker who can push an idea from inception to manifestation of a completed project. I’ve been able to do this with the BGP film, organization, as well as other youth-centered projects I have completed. In terms of movement building work, particularly with young people, collaborative efforts are really important and within collaboration, there needs to be a plan that allows each organization/group to benefit in some way. A cultural producer helps to shape what that is and what that it can mean.
Colored Girls Hustle: As a cultural producer, you work a lot with storytelling. What advice would you give to girls or women who don’t feel comfortable sharing their stories?
Aiesha Turman: There are always parts of stories that people are uncomfortable sharing, so while they may not be ready to lay it all out on the table, a little snippet is fine. I do believe that discomfort is a good thing in situations like this, because it begins the process of people stretching themselves and going beyond who they thought they were. This is part of the reason why I am as transparent as I am; it shows people that you can change your story at any moment. People tend not to believe me when I tell them that I dropped out of college twice, or that I was sexually assaulted at 18, because the picture they have in their head of someone who has had those experiences does not look like me. As I was able to tell my stories I became free, and the more you press up on your comfort zone, the freer you become. It can take awhile, but that’s OK.
Aiesha filming HIV PSA
Colored Girls Hustle: When you created the “Black Girl Project Film” you dedicated it to 15-year-old Shannon Braithwaite. Who was she and how did she inspire your current body of work?
Aiesha Turman: Shannon was a high school student in an academic and cultural arts internship program I spoke about earlier who was viciously murdered by her cousin, a 15 year year-old girl with a very troubled past. Shannon had just turned 16 and had been a participant in the program for a little over a year. She was a wonderful young woman – bright, energetic, and she treated other people with kindness and respect. I’m not only inspired by Shannon, but her cousin Tiana who may never see life outside of prison. I am a big believer in informal mentoring and meeting youth where they are, and if someone had taken the time to listen to Tiana, or get involved in her life without judgment, perhaps both she and Shannon would be living freely today.
Colored Girls Hustle: You are a PhD student at Union Institute and University. What are you studying? What does it mean for you to be a scholar? And how do you plan to use the academy and your scholarship to impact Black girls?
Aiesha Turman: I am enrolled in an interdisciplinary humanities PhD program and am part of the Martin Luther King Specialization where we explore his work and apply it to our own – both within and outside of the academy. Right now, I am in my second term and it’s a lot of theory, but my ultimate goal is to explore motherhood and mothering practices across the African Diaspora and how they mediate cultural trauma and historical grief. There’s been a lot of talk recently about epigenetic memory – how characteristics are passed on from generation to generation – and I am excited about exploring how this transpires in the everyday lived experiences of Black mothers via inherent cultural and learned practices. I absolutely love learning, both formally and informally. To be able to explore my interests, particularly in a program that is rooted in social justice, allows me the ability to do the work at a level that I might not have been able to had I not. It also allows me to disrupt the traditional narrative of scholarship as I bring my real-life work to the academy. In marrying my scholarship and practice to form a practice that is community accountable and self-reflective, I hope to impact Black women and girls in a way that helps navigate paths to personal and communal liberation.
Collage workshop at the Black Girl Sisterhood Summit
Colored Girls Hustle: You have developed a personal philosophy on teaching. Please share! What is at stake in our pedagogical approaches with young women, particularly young women of color?
Aiesha Turman: In short, my teaching philosophy posits that while I may be the person leading a class or workshop, I am not the gatekeeper of knowledge. My teaching environment is built on mutual respect. I really do consider myself as a guide helping whatever group I am working with (and I have worked with every age from kindergarteners through adults in both formal and informal settings) create and understand connections between themselves and the world around them. In terms of our pedagogical approaches, particularly within formal learning communities, we are still having students bank information and regurgitate it. I find that it’s vitally important to have learners as producers of knowledge. My training in education has come through museums and is inquiry based; we ask lots of questions. I find that this works wonders at any age. It fosters the ability to think critically and analytically, and for young women this is vitally important because in understanding the world around them, they come to better understand themselves. And in understanding themselves, they tend to have more agency, focus, and direction in their lives.
Black Girl Project Sisterhood Summit Participants
Colored Girls Hustle: You are a director many projects, a student and you also home school your daughter. What motivates you to take all of it on? How are you exercising self-care in the process?
Aiesha Turman: I no longer homeschool my daughter, but she’s very active and has special needs, so I’m still pretty busy with her. I also have a great support system that includes her father and our parents. In terms of motivation, it would have to be my daughter. She inspires me daily as she is faced with challenges that I’ve never had and manages to rise to the occasion most often with a smile on her face. I want to leave the world a better place for her and her friends, and subsequent generations, or at least leave some tools behind to help create the beloved community that Dr. King wrote and spoke of. As for self-care, I have several practices, which include meditation, journaling, spending time alone/with my partner, treating myself, and unplugging/not making myself so accessible. It’s vitally important that we are able to recharge so that we can continue to hustle.
Aiesha Turman is an educator, writer, filmmaker, advocate, artist, and parent who is passionate about the health, well-being and wholeness of Black women and girls across the diaspora. Her work is personal and political, and grounded in creating and supporting healing, affirming and empowering spaces for women and girls. She is an Interdisciplinary PhD student at Union Institute and University where her research interests include cultural production as a way to mediate inter-generational trauma and historical grief among African Diasporan women. She is also the founder of Super Hussy Media (SHM), Producer and Director of The Black Girl Project documentary, and Executive Director of The Black Girl Project organization (BGP).