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Feminist Movers Makers & Shakers: Katelyn Rivas and The Free Black Women's Library of Detroit

Feminist Movers Makers & Shakers: Katelyn Rivas and The Free Black Women's Library of Detroit

by Callie Garp

July 08, 2020

How would you describe your outreach work & what do you hope to accomplish?

My work with The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit is to center black women and femme writers and authors. We provide education, representation and liberation through community trading pop-up libraries and workshops in black feminism. I hope to bring a larger landscape to experience the prolific work of black women authors. I want the community to know that black women write everything from sci-fi, poetry, children’s books, romance novels to critical race theory. I want to diminish the barriers to reading work by black women and provide reads that grow consciousness on what it is to be black and women, trans or femme.

What do you hope people gain from experiencing your outreach?
I hope people get an opportunity to experience a new book that could be a new favorite. I hope people fall in love with reading. I hope people interact with the litany of literature by black women and femmes. I hope people gain awareness of all the complexities of black womanhood while also celebrating the many accolades and inventions black femmes have contributed to the world. I also want people to experience narratives that promote black joy and not just black trauma. One of our guiding principles is to acknowledge our society has an addiction to consuming black trauma and violence on black and brown bodies. We want to be a space that provides exit routes from intergenerational and experiential trauma and grief into radical self-care, self-love and deepens individual capacity to experience joy.

What is your background in feminism and/or social justice?

I have worked in community development and organizing for over ten years. I have worked in Chicago, Seattle, LA, Detroit, DC and Flint working with communities of color. I have also worked as a practicing poet and teaching artist, focusing on trauma-informed and anti-racist curriculum. My favorite and most proud work has been partnering with youth in Seattle through Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools. There I joined a team of wonderful organizers,  now WA-BLOC, who worked with high school students to empower activism through literacy and centering Young Adult (YA) books that have protagonists of color. I am so thankful for the few years I worked with this team and how they inspired my work with the library.  
I actually began specifically working in black feminism intentionally several years ago. I grew up in a white, homogenic community and bringing black women into my life was a process for me. It started with choosing to work with a black femme therapist actually. From there I experienced CRWN magazine, a beautiful manifestation of black womxn magic and joy. I was also deeply influenced by Black Girl in Om to work on my own holistic wellness as a black woman. After that I started creating intentions to create more within the QBIPOC community. All of this came into fruition when I began working on a graduate thesis last year, “From Manipulatable Objects to Self-Empowered Subjects: Radical Self-Care for African-American Women,” which launched this library project.

Is collaboration something you incorporate into your practice? Why or why not?

The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit practices radical collaboration. We center radical collaboration as an opportunity to receive and provide mutual aid with organizations who seek to center black women and femmes and want to give a platform to their work.

How do you make your work/outreach/project more inclusive and intersectional?

While my work with The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit focuses on centering black women and femme authors we are intentionally intersectional at the core. We believe that the truest and purest form of feminism is intersectional. Intersectional feminism allows us to identify as black and women or black and queer and gives space for us to explore the fullness of each part of ourselves. We just turned a year old and are still very young but we hope to collaborate with more organizations and groups that align with this. 

What feminist book are you reading right now & what do you think about it? Is there a particular quote or passage you found especially meaningful?

I am currently reading “Hood Feminism” by Mikki Kendall. It’s a lovely and powerful work. I love that it calls out the broader white and privileged feminist movement. Kendall has no problem calling out the women who are blatantly oppressing others, hello Lena Dunham. I love that it makes room for true feminists to demand basic rights such as “quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage and medical care.”

A quote that drives her accountability of white women home and reveals the racist history of feminism rooted in the suffrage movement, “The political power of white women in particular is rarely treated in the same way as that of other groups. Despite the expectation that Black or Latinx or Asian voters be treated as a monolith, no one really expects white women to vote as a unified bloc. This is especially obvious after all the elections that prove giving white women the right to vote has, in fact, worked to preserve wide swaths of white privilege. Why? Because white supremacist women have always existed and feel no allegiance to anything but racism.” (Kendall,p. 180)

How do you balance your mission of social justice with earning a living?

I have long worked in community work as a professional volunteer and under or unpaid intern or fellow. I have also worked in local non profit organizations that often struggle with financial stress that resulted in getting laid off. It can feel like this is my identity; to be an unpaid, community laborer. But no. I refuse that. I am the opposite. I am divinely supported and loved. I am hopeful that the library project will reach an income in the next few years that I can pay myself too. For now, I am looking for work in pandemic times while also working as a teaching artist and building a platform for anti-racist strategies. I am also in grad school, pursuing an MFA in Writing.

How do you enlist your community in shaping the goals and methods of your project?

Currently we are collaborating with several other organizations in Detroit to create projects like books  for black maternal health, a media club that provides intersectional opportunities to engage with  inclusive forms of media such as books, podcasts and zines and book drop-off programs for young readers.

How do you define community, and what communities do you work to engage with?

I define community as anyone who has a desire to collaborate, learn and create the revolution together. I love working with QBIPOC folx of any age and engage with communities that practice anti-racism, anti-capitalism and. intersectional feminism. Let’s work together to create a larger community. 

What are 5 ways our readers can support the work you’re doing?

  1. Readers can donate new or gently used books to us:
PO BOX 10446
Detroit, MI 48210
They can buy directly from local Detroit bookstore, Pages, or whatever they are inspired to give us.
  1. They can donate directly to us through our GoFundMe project or Venmo @Katelyn-Durst
  2. They can donate their time as volunteers, we especially need help with social media and graphic design content.
  3. Follow and share our work on Instagram, @thefreeblackwomenslibrary_det
  4. Decolonize your bookshelves and buy books written by black women and buy your books from black bookstores!

Katelyn Rivas is a poet, writer and community activist. She is the Executive Director and Chapter Founder of The Free Black Women’s Library-Detroit, a free, black feminist bicycle library centering black women and femme authors. We are an inspired project of The Free Black Women’s Library founded by OlaRonke Akinmowo five years ago in Brooklyn, NY. Follow along with us on Instagram. You can also engage with Katelyn’s poetry through her poetry zine published with local Detroit artbook press, Flower Press.

All images are provided courtesy of The Free Black Women's Library - Detroit.

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