By Sadia Haque
When I sat down with Makeen Zachery, BC ’22, her jocund attitude made it easy to forget her intimidatingly impressive resume. Zachery created Blk Girl Culture, a publication that highlights the voices of Black women; started the Four Women Fund, which helped Black women involved with the BLM protests last summer; and interned for the journalist Elaine Welteroth. This laundry list of accomplishments should render her unapproachable, but it doesn’t. Even through the awkwardness of Zoom, she maintained her easy humor, jokingly apologizing for the unfortunate train noises in the background on her end.
Zachery started Blk Girl Culture in high school as an outlet for Black women to talk about the issues plaguing their lives—and the lives of their communities across the country—without feeling the need to disclaim or justify themselves. “Most other places in the world that Black women find ourselves in, we’re under some sort of speculation,” said Zachery. “There's always some other gaze that you have to consider and how you talk and how and what you say and how you say it, for fear that there’s some assumption that’s going to be made out of you.”
Zachery also had a very personal motivation for starting Blk Girl Culture: She was the only Black girl in her graduating high school class, which meant there were few channels available for voicing her experiences as a Black woman. This lack of community became particularly isolating as the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and countless other Black people at the hands of police officers in the 2010s highlighted the sickening prevalence of racist anti-Black violence in the United States. For Zachery, this made the desire to exchange stories with other Black women without the white gaze more urgent, driving her to build that community herself.
Zachery knew that to accomplish her goals, Blk Girl Culture needed to be more than an exchange of Tweets. “While Twitter is where everything else that you can really talk about with your peers was happening, I really wanted to have a space for Black girls that I just longed for—that did not exist in my school,” said Zachery. “I made [Blk Girl Culture] into a website, beyond a Twitter page. That’s when I also started to hire writers who would contribute and who would write pieces on different subjects for the website, anything from politics to fashion. I felt like there was just such a broad range of conversations that we could have that just weren’t being had elsewhere.”
Moving to New York and getting access to the resources of an Ivy League institution allowed Zachery to transcend the digital platform and plan in-person events for Blk Girl Culture. Through Barnard, Zachery was able to expand the community she had begun to build in high school. She planned her first Blk Girl Culture event in the spring of her first year: a collaboration with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a legendary performing arts space on the Lower East Side, where people could showcase their talents and build community.
Zachery wasn’t exactly sure what kind of response to expect when she “put out a call for performers of all sorts,” but this first foray into in-person events attracted a wide variety of artists.“Like, a woman did a one-woman play. People sang, people did poetry. People I had never known signed up and reached out and applied. I mean, I don’t even want to call it applied, but just, like, offered their time to this event. That was really something that symbolized how it’s really grown over my four years of Barnard and being in New York City.”
These new resources not only advanced her publication but also helped her transition into other aspects of social activism. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Zachery wanted to find a tangible way to give back to the movement. Looking through social media and into her personal life, she decided the best way for her to contribute was through donations. This led to the creation of the Four Women Fund, which gave back to Black women involved in and affected by the BLM protests.
As Zachery wanted to give to these women directly without strings attached, she decided to receive and redistribute these donations on a single platform. The Four Women Fund focused on one main goal: “giving small grants that could change people’s lives in a time where Black women are not only the ones who are on the front lines in these protests but are also facing the brunt of the economic decline that resulted from the pandemic—the highest unemployment rates, the highest food insecurity rates.” Given the substantial platform she’d built with Blk Girl Culture, she felt a responsibility to do what she could to direct resources towards those who needed them most at this critical time. “I’m making all of this fun content, as I normally do, but the people that follow me are going through it. They have a lot of needs right now. And what can I do? I don’t have enough money to give them myself, but we have people within reach that can.”
Although Barnard provided ample opportunities for her to grow her organization and expand her horizons, Zachery is not blind to her school’s faults. One of the biggest lessons Zachery has learned from her years at Barnard is the importance of self-advocacy. She credits her ability to advocate for herself and her needs as a key factor in the success she has had in her publication and her activism.
Zachery is hesitant to suggest self-advocacy as a catch-all solution, however, given the unfair burden that it places on many students. “I think [Barnard doesn’t] advocate for their girls of color,” said Zachery. “There’s a lot that’s left for us to do for ourselves, whether it’s racist experiences in a classroom, whether it’s even just small things like kids are having to do their FAFSA on their own. Most people don’t have parents that can do it for them. There needs to be things in place to support us through those things, not just sort of, like, figure it out.”
She hopes that Barnard does better for their students of color, especially their Black students. At the same time, Zachery expressed some gratitude for Barnard: She could not deny the privilege that allowed her to apply to—let alone attend—an elite school. “My fellow Black girls would be dope at Barnard and, like, are beyond qualified, but just didn’t even have the introduction to even make that decision,” said Zachery. “I would love to see that outreach extended beyond Black girls who go to private schools. Most of my Black girlfriends that I’ve met between Barnard and Columbia went to the same conferences and went to the same independent schools. And that’s an issue with the fact that they’re still only accepting a certain type of girls of color, and I would love to see that shift.”
Zachery still isn’t sure what her life will look like post-graduation. Long term, she imagines that Blk Girl Culture will continue to expand and that she will be able to support other mutual aid initiatives like the Four Women Fund, as well as hold in-person events. Zachery hopes this future activism will maintain the communal spirit that drove her to develop these organizations in the first place. Once those activist structures are established, she said, her mission is relatively straightforward: “Take from what is accessible to us because of where we are, and just give it to the folks who don’t have it.”