Black Girl Collective is leading the way for community and opportunity for Black women
The Burnaby-based organization is helping Black women in Metro Vancouver find career mentors, financial advice, and each other.
When Itse Hesse graduated from her communication and media studies program at SFU a few years ago, transitioning to a career was more challenging than expected.
Having arrived in Canada from Nigeria shortly before beginning her studies, Hesse says she found it difficult to find a career mentor, particularly one that understood her experience as a Black immigrant woman. Despite community and connections being so important to building a career, Hesse found that others like her were having similar challenges building their network.
“I had a couple of friends who also grew up here, and some also came here like me. We were all talking about our experience as Black women, and it was pretty similar,” said Hesse.
So in the spirit of forging her own path and uplifting others like her along the way, Hesse decided to found Black Girl Collective, a Burnaby-based community organization that offers resources and events by and for Black women in Metro Vancouver.
“Instead of complaining, I just decided to do something about it,” said Hesse. “That was how Black Girl Collective was founded: To create a safe space or community support.”
BGC has since expanded to facilitate a number of other workshops, such as financial literacy programs on budgeting and investing. But Hesse says finding a mentor is still a key piece of maximizing finances, especially for many Black women entering the workforce.
“Black women make less because they don’t have mentors that can tell them, ‘OK, this is what you should be asking for in your first year,’” said Hesse.
“As an immigrant, you get lowballed so much in your first year because most companies are like, ‘You need the job, you know, you need to work for me.’ But a mentor that understands the corporate world will tell you, ‘This is what you should be asking for.’”
Another way Black Girl Collective has been helpful, especially for newcomers, is through its community events programming.
While finding a mentor can be helpful for developing one’s career and work life, the collective also hosts social events and gatherings, like sports days, paddle boarding lessons, and Black Girl Brunches to help develop a sense of community, friendship, and belonging.
“It all goes back to [knowing] where I need to go if I want to get Nigerian food, or I want to get my hair braided,” said Hesse. “Having that community where, once we get to Canada or Burnaby, they say, ‘OK, I know I can reach out to these people, there’s a community here for what I need,’ that is very important.”
Many of these social outings and activities are called Black Joy Events, which the Black Girl Collective website says is a “radical form of resistance.”
Hesse explains that in Canada, cities like Vancouver and Burnaby can feel unwelcoming towards Black women and especially immigrants, so celebrating Black joy is not just valuable in and of itself—it’s also a subversive way to make space for Black women’s happiness, and subvert stereotypes.
“Black women are seen as always strong, but we are not supposed to be always strong,” said Hesse. “We should always just be able to be happy, and be vulnerable, and just be ourselves in a space, and not feel like [we] have to act in certain way, or have to dress in a certain way, or ‘be’ in a certain way.”
Hesse says there’s plenty more on the horizon for the future of Black Girl Collective, with a kayaking event and another large-scale Black Girl Brunch slated within the next few months.
In the meantime, Hesse is happy to see the continuing value of previous events, workshops and get-togethers, as the value of building community continues to pay dividends.
“They reach out to us every day, even just to talk,” said Hesse. “I’ve met so many [more] Black women in these past three years than the eight years I’ve been in Canada. It’s just great.”
“We’re just happy to be able to build that community where they know it’s always a good time.”