Redefining Progress - The Role of Decolonial and Intersectional Black Feminist Perspectives in Shaping the Future

Illustration of Martha Dark

Makda Isak (M.A. Sociology) is active in various self-organised contexts as a Black Feminist educator and researcher. Thematic focuses include Critical Race Theory, Black Feminist theory, and decoloniality. She has been working as an educational consultant at Each One Teach One e.V. since 2020, where she currently co-leads the Competence Network Anti-Black Racism (KomPAD).

SUPERRR: Makda, what do our futures hold?

Makda: I would say our futures hold a lot of work and commitment towards liberation and justice. Because I think of the everyday practice, I'm involved in - we're working for our futures, but are already practising our futures by being in the present.

SUPERRR: How have decolonial and intersectional Black feminist perspectives shaped the way you envision liberated futures?

Makda: I would say that both frameworks have heavily shaped my visions and consequently my everyday work - I don‘t view them as separate frameworks, but rather as interconnected frameworks, that have always informed each other. I believe that a decolonial perspective must be a Black feminist perspective; otherwise, we cannot truly talk about decolonisation. I think about Black feminists like the Combahee River Collective and how their statement has shaped so many movements since the late 70s. With their statement, you can see how political ideas from the past are still very relevant today. On one hand, this can be seen as a very sad fact, because we are still fighting for the same things people have fought for before us. But at the same time, it also gives me kind of perspective, knowing that we are basically following or trying to follow trajectories which have been created for centuries by now.

SUPERRR: Your work is truly inspiring, especially with projects like the "Black Empowerment Academy" and the various initiatives under KomPAD. We can see that you have a clear vision for empowering Black communities. Can you tell us more about how this vision guides your work, and what exactly inspired you to start the projects like the “Black History Class” and “Black Empowerment Academy”?

Makda: I often come up against my limitations when thinking about doing project work in a country like Germany, where it's mainly state-funded. I wonder how empowering these projects can really be for our communities, as it seems somewhat contradictory. While it is true that projects can be helpful and progressive, it is important to also consider the circumstances under which they are executed, as well as the way they are funded. I also want to make one thing clear: I can not solely take credit for the ideas of the “Black Empowerment Academy” and “Black History Class” - because other people with whom I have been working created these projects, meaning that, according to project logic, they wrote the proposals. What I tried to do with both projects is to envision in how far, for example, the “Black History Class” can use history to address present-day questions around Blackness in Germany, instead of treating it [history] as as an abstract time frame.

Working with young people, in this context during the Black History Classes, for example, highlighted how history can be very helpful in shaping liberatory futures. Over the past two years, the “Black History Class” has taught me that a wealth of knowledge already exists, but we need more spaces for exchanging knowledge and envisioning ourselves. Spaces, where our knowledge is valued, shared and being viewed as such.

We had a similar process with the “Black Empowerment Academy” - a project that initially started as a programme for Black political educators in Germany, where political education (politische Bildung), is a very rigid and inflexible framework. We tried to reinterpret this framework. What was so empowering about this project was realising that our communities have been always involved in political education, but didn't explicitly name it as such. Black political education has been taking place on the streets, in churches and mosques, in small community spaces, which are not recognised as such by the state, for example. So the question is not whether empowerment and envisioning liberatory futures is possible, but rather how far it is possible under the framework of state-led project funding.

SUPERRR: I mean, building upon what you said earlier, you talked about how a lot of Black political educational initiatives happened in community spaces, yet they were not recognised as such by the German state nor white-majority society.
And I think a lot of what you've describing before plays into this Malcolm X quote, who once said: “The future belongs to those who prepare it for today.” I’m curious to know how this quote resonates with you, and how you ensure that your efforts are not only visionary, but also actionable and impactful in the present moment? From listening to you, and observing other Black folks trying to push Black projects forward, it sounds like a big challenge. In other words, how do you balance your long-term vision with the immediate needs of Black and Afro-diasporic communities?

Makda: That's a very challenging question. I believe it's crucial not to lose sight of your long-term vision. In my opinion, the question should be framed from that perspective, rather than focusing on balancing immediate needs. When working in a project logic, such as dividing a project into quarter steps, it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks and lose track of the bigger picture. It has become somewhat of a syndrome in the NGO context, where many grassroots movements transform into NGOs. The greatest challenge, and danger, for movements is to not remain committed to their long-term vision or co-opting them in the NGO-landscape.
I'm a person who maybe annoys other colleagues by always suggesting that we stop before writing another proposal or planning another event. Instead, let's first think about what the main purpose is. If we think 10 or 20 years ahead, what material and general effects do we want to achieve through the work we're doing? Unfortunately, this is not done enough in the context where we work because NGOs often operate in a precarious environment. You can't think beyond the end of the year when your contract only goes until then. So for me, it's a crucial question because how can you think about creating liberated futures in your work when your contract may end by the end of the year? This is why we need to detach ourselves from connecting certain people to ideas and focus on how these ideas can flourish even without us.

SUPERRR: While I was listening to you, I noticed that a lot of people do not envision sustainability as a key aspect for creating liberatory futures -

Makda: - that's where I would like to expand on Malcolm X's quote, which has influenced much of the work I've been involved in. However, I'm not entirely sure that the future belongs solely to those who prepare for it today. When we consider the various political catastrophes we are living through, such as climate justice and ongoing wars, my hope is that we do not have complete ownership over what our futures hold. Instead, we can take ownership over the present while acknowledging that we may not be the ones who survive in the future. The future belongs not only to those who prepared for it today but especially to those who will continue the practices we have been involved in.

SUPERRR: Achieving “true justice” and equity requires recognising and addressing the ways in which intersecting forms of oppression shape our world today and in the past. This is where intersectionality comes in. So how can the intersectional lens help us to dismantle oppressive systems? And how can we use intersectionality to centre the experiences and the needs of those who are most impacted by systemic oppression?

Makda: I think intersectionality, as a framework, helps us to understand our own complicity in various systems of power. With regards to the question you raised on how we can ensure that those who are most impacted by systemic oppression are not harmed and are centred, I believe that the constant work of decentring ourselves is crucial. This is one of the main tasks when we are involved in organising because what often disappoints me in the spaces I have been part of is that people often centre themselves in debates, discussions, and movements, leading to the danger of co-option.

Intersectionality, as shaped by those who live it, serves as a constant reminder for us all to put our ego aside. The question shouldn't be how we can centre the needs of those who are most impacted by systemic oppression because they are already at the centre of the struggle, and we must realise that they are the ones who will necessarily have to fight the whole world, us partly included. So, what does it mean for our own complicity to be central to the struggle for liberatory futures? Slogans like "we have to pass the mic" or "we have to let people speak" are not enough if we are not really hearing them. We must ask ourselves if those who are most impacted are even part of the spaces we are in. Do they want to be part of the NGO complex, for example, or do they have their own spaces where they are trying to effect change?

I see my role as sharing material resources because the problem often lies in unequal material conditions that are not being adequately addressed even in movement contexts. Intersectionality also leads me to an anti-capitalist lens of how we do our work.

SUPERRR: Makda, it's essential to shed light on the fact that people should not only put the voices of more marginalised communities in the centre by merely checking it off as a list, but more importantly, as you stated, people must be heard, not just performatively listened to. So, I have a big question for you. How do you think we can work to create more solidarity and collaboration between different marginalised communities in our efforts to create more just futures? For example, even within Black communities, there's not a single community, but rather a composition of various people sharing different identities, such as class, gender, ideas, and life experiences - it's not one single category. What challenges might arise when building these bridges, and how can we address them to create more collaborative movements for change?

Makda: I would say when we look at the everyday lives of our [migrant] communities, who are living in certain segregated neighbourhoods, attending certain schools and so on, we can see that the bridges are already there. For us as people who hold a certain type of power, we need to ask ourselves how we can learn from these existing bridges and be honest about the fact that it is not the most marginalised people who need us, but rather, it is us who need them. We must be truthful with ourselves in order to do the work we are striving towards, because without the involvement or acknowledgement of our various communities, liberatory futures cannot truly be achieved. However, while I am often pessimistic or realistic, I am also optimistic. I often think of Mariame Kaba’s words, who says "Hope is a discipline." When we consider the question at hand, we must realise that we are already practising the future by doing the work at hand. We must acknowledge the work that has been done before our time and recognise that we are walking in the footsteps of those who came before us. My goal is to acknowledge the path we are following and to focus on making the bridges that already exist stronger, rather than asking how to build new ones. As someone involved in organising, I cannot say for certain whether it is our place to strengthen those bridges in contexts such as the NGO world. However, as an organiser, I am hopeful for a future where those of us who hold power can support and foster the bridges that already exist.

SUPERRR: You were mentioning how people before us, were already walking the walk, talking the talk and doing the work. I was struck by the fact that even though we are committed to learning from all kinds of perspectives, we still speak from a westernised perspective. As I was reflecting on our discussion about people who were doing the work before us, I began to wonder about the connections that exist between the struggles of Black people here and in the so-called Global South. So, how can decolonial and intersectional Black feminist perspectives account for these connections?

Makda: The connections between the struggles of Black people in the Global North and the Global South manifest themselves in the recognition that both spaces are sites of power and empire. I believe that many of us do not acknowledge that the Global North is not the only space that embodies this power imbalance. By connecting struggles between people in the Northern Hemisphere and Black people in the so-called Global South, we can learn so much from one another. Although many of us based in the Global North have been socialised here, we are also part of the periphery. As a result, it can be helpful to connect struggles of peripheries around the world to recognise the many ways power manifests itself. The Global South is not a singular space where only marginalised people exist. There are many power structures that are partly even more complex than those in the Global North. However, connecting these struggles and movements that have already been done also requires us to revisit our histories, as us being in the Global North is a result of the colonisation of the so-called Global South.

SUPERRR: Makda, to sum our conversation up, please fill in the gaps: “I know we’re one step closer to liberated futures, when we...”

Makda: “... collectively realise and acknowledge that resistance is not an option, but a must.”

SUPERRR: Wow, thank you, Makda, for this eye-opening and revitalising interview. We have learned so much and wish you all the best for your future endeavours!

Illustration: Anna Niedhart, Rainbow Unicorn.