As a part of the Queer in Appalachia series, sponsored by the ETSU Department of Women’s Studies, ETSU alumna and multi-rights activist Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson led a discussion about being a queer, black woman in the Appalachian area.
Henderson, who grew up in Chattanooga, describes herself as an “Affrilachian” who identifies as a black, queer, working womyn who was born and raised in southeast Tennessee.
“It’s our duty to fight for freedom, love each other, and support each other,” Henderson said. “That’s something I learned and always heard growing up.”
Henderson, before delving into her lecture, asked everyone in the room to tell one frustrating myth about diversity they have heard on and off campus.
“Some of my favorite myths are that we’re taking the rights away from cisgender, white dudes and that it’s not systemic but rather interpersonal and only stems from one person,” Henderson said. “Also, that stuff around your gender, your race, who you sleep with, is none of my business, but when it comes down to it, the primary focus is class because we’re all oppressed in that way.”
Henderson majored in English, minored in African and African-American studies and served in many organizations during her academic journey: the no longer active Organizational Liaison for the Initiative for Clean Energy, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, Black Affairs Association, Rho Upsilon Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and was also a co-founder of the Progressive Student Alliance.
Her list of leadership roles and organizing skills goes on, especially for helping to develop Diversity Week — which is now called Civility Week — and serving as a senator for Student Government Association.
“Talking about these systems is supposedly divisive; if you quit talking about it, we would just have diversity,” Henderson said. “If we stop talking about it, then things won’t be so tense and everyone will be nice to one another, and it’s all good is what people think, that your name is all that matters eventually.”
A few students asked Henderson how she dealt with opposing views from people who hold the same amount of passion for their beliefs and how to settle frustrations.
“You have to learn how to pick your battles,” Henderson said. “There are some days where I feel like discussing and educating, but there are some who fully believe in their heart and soul that they’re way is right. However, you should be getting angry and not want to accept the violence and pain going on.”
Henderson spends much of her time traveling, raising awareness for environmental rights and working in the Black Lives Matters movement. She shared ideas and advice about encouraging students and individuals to be more active in social rights.
“When talking about gender, race or sexuality, people are like, ‘Everybody deserves equality: you, red people, blue people, green people, purple people,'” Henderson said. “But, it’s like, I’m right here, and no red people, blue people or green people exist in real life; that’s not what diversity looks like.”