The mission of the EcoWomanist Institute is to promote the inclusion, ecological awareness, and community leadership of African American women within the ecospirituality, ecojustice, and ethics narratives.
The Institute’s programs and services heal minds, bodies, and spirits from the social, economic, and environmental injustices that African American women face in their daily lives. It creates a safe space for “kitchen table talk,” so African American women can voice their joys, concerns, challenges, and visions for their work in the fields of ecological and social justice.
Twelve questions with Valerie Hill Rawls and Veronica Kyle, Co-founders
Where do ecology, culture, and spirituality connect in your work?
The EcoWomanist Institute’s (EWI) mission is to increase the inclusion, ecological awareness, and environmental leadership of African American women within the ecospirituality and ecojustice narratives. Comprised of women descendants of the African diaspora ancestors, EWI will be a rock in the water, its ripples connecting African American women and women of color to their respective eco-faith traditions and offering healing from the trilogy of oppression—race, class, and gender—through the “trilogy of wellness” in EWI ecology, culture, and spirituality programming.
What brought you to this work?
EWI was birthed out of the co-vision of two ecowomanists whose ancestors endured, survived, and thrived in spite of being enslaved in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, harsh southern states in the US known as the Black Belt. Our families “passed down,” through the oral tradition of storytelling, the ecomemories of men and women of past generations. The faith, strength, courage, and wisdom they possessed that helped them endure the inequities of the social and political systems forced upon them has enabled both of us to “lift as we climb,” in our own pursuit to heal as devalued, disrespected, and wounded African American women. Our personal and professional lives prepared us for such a time as this. As young girls we were exposed to family members who where faith leaders, community activists, business owners, advocates, and fighters for justice, education, and economic development in our communities.
What’s one thing you want people to know about your work?
EWI programing is designed to heal the “wounded healers”—African American women who are the descendants of the midwives of humanity in North America—by resurrecting, recognizing, and celebrating the spiritual, intellectual, political, and economic brilliance and accomplishments of past African American women, and informing the future brilliant women and girls to come.
What was the biggest accomplishment and challenge in your work last year?
First was the convening of nine accomplished (in their own right) African American women (from all parts of the country) representing the faith-based, public, private, philanthropic, and grassroots sectors to provide spiritual, intellectual, and emotional input to frame the EcoWomanist Institute. The convening took place off the coast of Savannah on Daufuskie Island, the location of 100 former plantations near the Georgia coast within the South Carolina County of Beaufort.
Our second biggest accomplishment was securing meeting, office, and gathering spaces in both the Midwest (Chicago) and the Southeast (Atlanta) to house the Institute’s offices and programming.
The biggest challenge has been the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposed EWI programming, meetings, and stakeholder engagements have all been either rescheduled or put on hold, and traditional gathering methods had to be held via digital technology platforms.
What do you see happening in your field or beyond in the world that you are really excited about?
Through acknowledging the value and power of ecowomanist theory and practices, there will be an awakening to the dynamics of African and African American women’s roles in healing not only ourselves, but our common home, Mother Earth. Shifting the culture for African American women through the renewed acknowledgment of self and the spiritual, cultural, and ecological contributions made made by women of African decent will usher in a new and renewed voice in spirtual ecology. EWI is excited about the collective voices of all women to bring about the healing our planet needs.
What matters most to you right now?
To see EWI be instrumental in creating a future for not only our children, their children, and the children of their children, but for generations to come. To bring about an acknowledgment and cultural understanding within African American communities that would inspire unheard voices not only to address the environmental issues that disproportionately impact them and other marginalized groups, but also to usher in the womanist wisdom inherited from our foremothers to heal our common home. EWI strives to lift up all of the members of the “beloved community.”
What does service mean to you?
To quote Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, Chairman of the History Committee of the National Association of Colored Women in 1921: “[to take our] place in this century of progress and prove to the world that [the African American woman], too, is finding her place in the sun.” That is what service means to the Co-Visionaries of EWI: “lifting as we climb,” as the nineteenth-century club women did before us. Uplifting our families, communities, culture, and humanity through service, soul care, and cultural relevance.
What keeps you going?
The spirits of our ancestors and all the modern-day ecowomanists, who are nurturing and challenging us to continue to “fight a good fight” of faith. Knowing the insurmountable challenges they overcame gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to persevere.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Being in nature, walking, hiking, and golfing. Listening to music, dancing, reading, exploring new ways of nurturing our minds, bodies, and spirits, and watching documentaries.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
VR: An artist. I was introduced to Johannes Gutenberg and the Gutenberg press, and began to understand the power of mass reproduction and mass messaging. I became a graphic designer and marketing communications professional. In another life I was an architect and social justice urban planner.
VK: A world traveler and journalist. I have also been intrigued by various cultures; their spiritual practices, family rituals, music, and the role women and girls play as keepers of cultural traditions to preserve community.
Do you have a favorite place in nature?
VR: Yes, the ocean. I love the peace, power, and vastness of the ocean. I’ve always been intrigued by how the Creator drew the boundaries of the bodies of water.
VK: Yes, anywhere there are trees and beautiful flora and fauna. I love lush mountains and dense, cool woods and the forest. Colorful gardens anywhere, especially when they adorn a once vacant city lot.
One thing you would like your grandparents—or grandchildren—to know about you that they probably wouldn’t if you didn’t tell them?
VR: I would like my grandparents to know the accomplishments I have achieved during my life and career. They would have been proud that I was the Art Director of Ebony magazine, a periodical founded in 1945 that depicted the life struggles and successes of Black America. My grandparents’ ecomemories and wisdom and the numerous books I’ve read have informed my commitment to serve humanity.
VK: I would like them to know that their once little known “colored girl,” born in the South, has been a sought-after voice in the ecojustice/womanist movement. I’ve been blessed to have had my thoughts published, and to have traveled and worked around the world; however, I never forgot my family’s teachings to have respect for humanity and community and to do my very best to make the world a better place.