I met Hope during our time together in a program called Public Allies, the only social justice-specific AmeriCorps program. It’s clear to anyone that meets Hope that she has a special drive and passion for the work she does. I always joke with her that she reminds me of the Blue Scholars’ song, “No Rest for the Weary.” She’s an artist in every aspect of the word–she paints, draws, does theatre and dances to name a few of her talents. More importantly, however, she makes sure to bring all these sides of her to the youth work she does.
Currently a second year Public Ally and placed at BUILD in East Oakland, Hope works with high school students around entrepreneurship. According to BUILD’s website:
Nationwide, about 30% of high school students drop out, and about 50% of these students leave school before their sophomore year. For underserved, low-income students, the drop out rate is even higher.
Hope absolutely knows a thing or two about the subject. She was made for youth development: the oldest of 13 siblings, she was forced to take on a mentor/caregiver role from a very early age. Born in South Sacramento and later moving to Davis, California where she was raised in one of the only two Section 8 housing units, Hope went on to graduate from UC Santa Cruz where she majored in Feminist Studies, one of the only feminist undergraduate programs in the country. It takes a lot of bravery to openly correlate the personal with the political especially when it touches on some intensely deep, troubling and intimate parts of your family’s history. But she continues to share her story demonstrating her belief that her healing process is her community’s healing process.
Hope and I got the chance to catch up and talk about alarming statistics (did you know that there are the same number of black men in prison as there are in college in the U.S.?!), silence around sexual assault in her own family, how service as selfless is a historically white and privileged concept, her love of Star Trek and how the feminist she would bring to a desert island depends on consent (how amazing is she!?).
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Hope Lehman.
Anna Sterling: Tell me about your work and some of the biggest challenges facing young women in entrepreneurship today.
Hope Lehman: BUILD uses entrepreneurship in the sense that the youth are running their own businesses and making money the first two-three years in the program and then they have 100% college-going rate for their students. We’re mostly working with Black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander youth in East Oakland. There’s definitely something to be said for young women of color in high school who are learning business. They learn how to finance and how to figure out a break point in budget. It’s amazing, especially when women in general are a minority in the business sector and for women of color there’s even more challenges.
There’s still a disparity in how much women make versus men but there’s this phenomenon where women and young girls of color are going to college at a higher rate than Latino and Black young men. There’s essentially two different forms of education going on: half the black male population is being educated in prison. Is true gender equity getting into college or holding the same degree or making the same amount of money? In terms of non-profits, there’s a huge amount of women doing work on the ground. It gets into the feminization of labor; the minute women take up a field the value of it goes down, meaning your pay is not much as it would be if it was all men. What does that mean for the non-profit sphere? You’re already not making much and I’m wondering if someone could argue the reason why people in non-profit don’t get paid much is because its majority women in the field.
AS: What brings you to this work?
HL: The main thing is my background and my family. Public Allies always poses this question: is service really selfless? For me, there’s no way it can ever be selfless. I’m connected to it personally and I know that I come to the work that I do because my background and my family. The idea of service as selfless is a privileged way of thinking. It’s historically coming from a white, upper middle class perspective. [From that perspective] it’s like “I’m going to do community service in a community that’s less-than or poor and I’m not from this community. I can go back home so for me it’s selfless because I have no connection.”
I had a really specific experience of growing up low income in a very privileged area and having to try to compete with really well-off folks. I didn’t get to Davis till 4th grade and by then I had gone on to 5 different elementary schools so I was at a different level than the rest of the students. One of my first lessons in Davis was about hierarchy and power and how some people are smarter than others and how I wasn’t able to be in that group because I came in late and/or I was different. In particular what really attracts me is I’m also the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. I’ve seen a lot of youth in my family struggling with trying to compete and create a place for themselves in this world with little parent support. All of this brings me wholeheartedly to the work I do with the youth. For me, its about being with [youth] on their path. I don’t want to tell them what to do because they know already. They’re intelligent and have all the answers but having an adult there to believe in and support them is something I needed so much and that if I had more of I’d be in a different place.
AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
HL: One of my favorite books is Kindred by Octavia Butler. She’s one of the few black women to write science fiction novels. The main character is a Black woman who travels in time to the plantation of her great-great-great grandpa who is a white slave owner. For some reason she’s pulled back in time and she has to save his life essentially for her to exist even though he was the slave owner that raped her great-great-great grandma. I like her character a lot because the way its written by Octavia Butler she has a lot of humanity and bravery. In the book she definitely carries a weapon on her and attacked the master because he was trying to sexually assault her. I remember her character was like– I will not be assaulted. She fought back.
Octavia Butler is kind of a heroine too. I’ve read most of her books. I really appreciate Butler because people say science fiction and fantasy is imaginary so it transcends racism, sexism, homophobia and classism. Butler explicitly brings in race and these other issues. It’s more real.
My mother is also a heroine. I love her to death. She’s one of the strongest women I know. She has a lot of strength and a free spirit. She’s willing to be unapologetically herself. She’s taught me that if folks don’t get it, it isn’t really about them. I really appreciate her for that.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
HL: Troy Davis’ execution. The first thing that popped into my mind was actually a prayer. Lord save our souls and save the American souls. We have our souls on the line as Americans. The U.S. has a lot of bad karma. Does that mean as a U.S. citizen I have to pay for it too? I don’t know. How many people is it going to take for things to get really bad here?
Lately NPR has been talking a lot about the Republican candidates for President and the debates. There was this one candidate who essentially recited “small government, tax cuts to business and free trade.” I was imagining myself as a transplant in that [Tea Party debate] audience and asking “What is your solution?” Republicans’ campaign is one of negation. There’s no solutions offered. [They say] small government, free trade and the economy will figure itself out. When they say stuff like that it drives me crazy because that’s such an elementary understanding that anyone can learn and say out loud. How do I know you actually know what you’re talking about? The scary thing is that the majority of the nation buys into that. There’s no reading between the lines or questioning. When are we going to demand more from our politicians? I’d love to be that random ass brown woman in the room though.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
HL: First thing comes to mind is the definition of feminism itself. There’s still a lot of misguided notions of what it is. People still associate it with white women and man-haters. As far as gender equity goes the biggest thing is validation. People don’t believe that sexual assault, rape, molestation and abuse against women happens at the rate that it does. People still use language like “Well, men get beat! Haven’t you heard about all the times when men are beat on by women and no one ever talks about that?” I get it, yes. But its an invalidation [of women's struggles] and as long as the U.S. and the world is not appalled at the rate at which female-bodied individuals are assaulted, true gender equity is not going to happen.
A lot of folks think they’re disconnected from it. I’m guilty of that. I interviewed my mother for a class about her life and I find out that my mother left Philadelphia because she was being assaulted by her stepfather. My entire upbringing had everything to do with sexual assault and I had no idea. After, I learned that my grandmother was abused by my stepdad’s father. And then I learned that my aunt was molested by men growing up. It came in a rush. I hope that’s not what it takes for folks to care or to see its an epidemic or that it has to be that personal but there has to be a way in which people see themselves connected to others. And in reality, because of the epidemic rate at which assault is happening most people are connected to it, unfortunately. They probably met someone or have a friend or a family member who have had something go down, but no one’s talking about.
AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
HL: I would bring a platter of soul food: greens, mac and cheese, cornbread, okra and yams. For my drink I’d take a dark and stormy. The feminist I would bring is Angela Davis but I wouldn’t want to bring her to an island without her consent. So I’d probably end up bringing my bestie and my housemate Lisa Evans.