Every month, the women of The Collective meet in a cozy, book-lined reading room on SMU’s campus to tell stories. Among the women are artists, activists, teachers, students, mothers, and scholars. They gather together to exercise the power of giving their stories a platform, of creating connections based on both shared and unshared experiences, and of listening.
One of those women is Dr. Candice Bledsoe.
“Our goal is to create space for women of color to share their stories and their voices. Storytelling is an essential practice, and the stories of women of color are often left out or not included.” Dr. Bledsoe explains as we meet over coffee. She is the founder and creator of The Collective, an SMU faculty member at Simmons School of Education, and the executive director of the Action Research Center, an organization that hosts youth symposiums to help local middle and high school students with big dreams envision a future powered by higher education.
Dr. Bledsoe is also a mother, and a proud one. We started our meeting by sharing photos of our kids. “My children are a part of my story and a part of my identity,” Dr. Bledsoe says. “Motherhood is something that informs my work. It’s not separate from anything I do, from the work I do helping young people become global leaders to sharing the stories of the sisters of the collective.”
Dr. Bledsoe’s back-story is as extraordinary as her list of titles. She was raised overseas in Germany; her parents met in the FBI and later joined the military. By the time she graduated from college, she had visited most European countries. Her upbringing introduced her to the concept of a global village, which is an idea that drives her work for both the Cutting Edge Youth Summit and The Collective.
“It is very special to experience someone else’s culture,” Dr. Bledsoe shares, and her own story is evidence that she truly believes it. Her first job after completing her undergraduate degree at Baylor was teaching English at the king’s palace in Thailand. (When she told me this, I asked if the “King’s Palace” was the name of an educational organization. “No,” she responded, “the actual palace of the king.”) She also served as a Visiting Professor for Yonok College in Lampang, Thailand.
She traveled to Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi for her doctoral research when she was a student a the University of Southern California. Yet, despite her global travels, she has Texas ties that ground her to her local work.
Dr. Bledsoe spent her childhood summers in Waco visiting her grandmother. She credits the matriarch of her family for exposing her to the power of storytelling.
“I remember riding my bike outside in the summer,” Dr. Bledsoe recalls. “My grandmother would call me in to teach me poems and share stories with me. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I would ask. And she told me it was because stories are powerful.”
It is the intersection of stories and power that drives the work of The Collective.
“I believe in the power of the spoken word,” Dr. Bledsoe says. The Collective hosts two annual symposiums in addition to its monthly roundtables. Last year’s symposium focused on the #MeToo movement and the experiences of women of color.
“Speaking about sexual misconduct, sexual trauma and abuse is an issue that is kind of taboo for women of color.” Dr. Bledsoe explains. “As the leader of this initiative, I am always thinking of ways to build community. We need to be unapologetic in supporting women of color. The topic may be something you don’t want to hear or seems more controversial because it’s taboo, but we are committed.”
Dr. Bledsoe’s commitment to empowering women and minorities through stories has attracted allies and supporters from many communities. As evidence of this, midway through our coffeehouse conversation, one such ally, Robyn Short, came to our table to greet us.
The Collective is an inclusive group, attracting new members through word-of-mouth and personal invitations. When Dr. Bledsoe first invited Robyn, who is white, to attend a roundtable, she accepted the invitation “in the role of a listener.”
“I am very aware of the power dynamics within the society,” Robyn says to me when I ask her about her experience as a part of The Collective. “I am learning how to be supportive and how to create authentic friendships. There is sometimes difficulty when black women and white women work together because white women can unintentionally and without awareness, steal the narrative.”
Dr. Bledsoe interjects: “And Robyn has done intentional work, and that’s why she displays this mindfulness.”
Robyn continues, “I have met wonderful people and made lifelong friendships. It is a privilege to be invited into the space and to be a part of the vulnerability and real honest truth-telling that sheds light in ways I may have been showing up in the world unintentionally.”
As I listen to the two women in conversation, I think of the simplicity of Dr. Bledsoe’s objective. I asked her at the beginning of the interview to explain to me how The Collective works. She responded, “We create a community and sisterhood comprised of women to share their stories and also to be a network.” Between Dr. Bledsoe and Robyn, I see the power of The Collective in action.
The Collective network and community is indeed a powerful one. Dr. Bledsoe shares some of their stories. “Olinka Green is a black woman who is an environmental activist advocating for underserved communities. Professor Jessica Dixon Weaver was the first African American woman to obtain tenure in the Law School. Yolanda Blue Horse is a community activist and powerful indigenous woman. Michelle Bobadilla, the Assistant Provost of the University of Arlington, is a strong Latina woman who empowers students to succeed.” She continues, “They share stories of triumph, victory, defeat, racism sexism, renewal, and overcoming. These stories shared by women of color empower other women of color and their strengthen an understanding of what it means to be human with the white community.”
While she is dedicated to providing a platform for other women, Dr. Bledsoe’s own life is a perfect example of the importance of sharing and passing down stories. Qualities from both of her grandmothers live on through her accomplishments in leadership and education.
“In order to get her Master’s Degree, my grandmother moved so that she could go to a Historically Black College. That really showed me the strength in her decision. Moving the family to another city so that she could go to college showed me how powerful education was. She was an educator for many years,” Dr. Bledsoe explains. “My mother’s mother was an entrepreneur and fashion designer. I’m a combination of both of them. I’m an educator who sees the importance of standing out and being unique.”
She does stand out. Dr. Bledsoe’s many initiatives to give voice and power to those who are underrepresented are echoing across the globe, and most of them get their start in Dallas.
“I love so much about Dallas.” Dr. Bledsoe shares. “There is so much opportunity that we have to make an impact globally. I love the resources that we have and the stories that we have. We have so much cultural wealth to learn from one another.”
This is the heart of The Collective–learning from one another. Every month, the women of The Collective gather in the reading room, neat rows of hard-backed books lining the walls, to learn from one another. In this space, the voices of artists, activists, teachers, students, mothers, and scholars are amplified and given power.
“The other side of the power of storytelling is the power of listening and hearing.” Robyn tells me on her way out of the coffeeshop. “The stories need to be told, but the stories also need to be heard.”
One of those stories is Dr. Candice Bledsoe’s.
The Collective is inspired by the SMU Women of Color Research Cluster, which is sponsored by the SMU DCII and the Simmons School of Education. Dr. Bledsoe and Professor Karen Thomas, co-lead the SMU Women of Color Research Cluster. The next Women of Color Symposium will take place on April 6, 2019, at SMU Meadows School of the Arts.
To learn more about Dr. Bledsoe or to book her to speak, visit https://www.drcandicebledsoe.com.
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