Jendella Benson — Sharing Black Women’s stories at Black Ballad

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Jendella Benson is the Head of Editorial at the Black Ballad — a digital media platform and membership community that caters to Black women. The Coalition For Women In Journalism reached out to Jendella to understand Black Ballads role in amplifying voices of Black women in Britain, the role of race in their content and featured stories, the platform’s work following the Black Lives Matter protests this year and issues that Black women face in Britain. Read on.

Let’s start with Black Ballad. Tell us all about it.

Black Ballad is a digital media platform and membership community. It started as a free online magazine in 2014, and then relaunched in 2017 with a membership model. All our articles are written by black women and speak to the experience of being a black woman in Britain and beyond. We cover a range of topics from beauty to politics, to popular culture to activism. We also host regular events — recently transitioning to online events due to Covid — and have a Slack community for our premium membership tier.

How does membership access make Black Ballad different?

Membership means that we intimately know our primary audience. We can serve them better, cater specially to their concerns and their interests and we have really fostered a digital community who trust us with their stories and experiences. Also the paywall helps us create a safe space for black women online which is hard to find right now. Studies show that black women are trolled, harassed and targeted online more than others, but as black women ourselves we don’t need studies to tell us what we’ve experienced in some form or another. That safe space has allowed us to tell really nuanced and important stories, and knowing exactly who our core audience is allows us to have conversations that are affirming and even life changing for all of us.

How long have you been working as the head of editorial at Black Ballad? What were the milestones in your personal journey that led you to want to be a part of Black Ballad?

I went full time at Black Ballad in February 2020. Before that I came onboard as commissioning editor in a part time capacity in 2018. Before I ever wrote for Black Ballad I was an avid reader, knowing how important it would be for Black British women. My journey to Black Ballad has been very unique, I’d say. I studied an art degree and journalistically I leant more towards photojournalism and social documentary projects. Then when I had my first son and couldn’t do as much freelance photography work, I started writing for my personal blog. From there I got a few columns on different digital platforms over the years, including Media Diversified. Then I started writing for Black Ballad, had the opportunity to write for places like Metro Online and Indy Voices, and then came on board as an editor at Black Ballad. In reality, I’ve skipped a lot of steps than perhaps people would expect because Tobi and Bola — Black Ballad’s co-founders — saw me and believed in me in a way that other publications just didn’t.

It’s been six years since Black Ballad was established. How have you observed the platform’s growth towards becoming a crucial voice for Black women in Britain?

People may have been sceptical at the beginning, but as time has gone on we’ve proven why we are needed. We are having the conversations that are not being had elsewhere, whether it’s as light-hearted as the economics that dictate the price of our favourite foods through the impact that the criminal justice system specifically has on our communities. Another example is our editorial around black motherhood in Britain, we’re having various different conversations from medical racism and health outcomes through to different ways of looking at family, the way we raise our children and so much more. That has only grown our audience.

There are plenty of stories on the platform that amplify the voices of Black British women. Does Black Ballad also focus on stories of Black women outside Britain?

We are expanding our editorial commissions and starting to look more and more at the African diaspora as a whole. I think recent events have only highlighted how the experiences of black women the world over are interlinked in various ways, whether it be down to the fact that many of us in Britain are second or third generation migrants — so have strong links to “back home” — or due to the way that inequality in the West is replicated in different countries in very similar ways. We’ve told stories about Black British women’s experiences migrating to different countries, but we also are starting to tell stories of black women in other countries and the way that our lives align and differ.

We have noticed that your content is very diverse, as it covers a lot of ground on Black women and their lives. As an editor, how did you make space for content after the Black LIves Matter protests sparked across the world?

I take the lead from the writers who pitch to us, from conversations I’m personally having and from what’s going on in the world. We are multidimensional as people, so as much as we can have conversations about Black Lives Matter, activism, racism and injustice, we can simultaneously switch to having conversations around beauty politics, social media trends and family relationships. The content on Black Ballad reflects the conversations that we as black women are having generally, it’s just a natural extension of that. I also like to keep a balance as well, mixing heavier articles with lighter content in any given week. We know intimately the toll that racism and injustice takes on our mental state as we’ve been living with it our whole lives, so while keeping our audience informed and empowered, I also want them to be energised, feel loved and appreciated and inspired in every facet of their lives.

What are the hardships women go through in Britain that are mostly particular to being Black Women?

I think many of the hardships that women experience because of gender — gaslighting, undermining, less pay, being patronised and not listened to — are compounded by the fact that we are black as well. So if we live in a society where whiteness and maleness is at the top of the pyramid, being black and a woman is gonna land you at the bottom. Then combine that with any other things that further marginalise you — whether that’s sexuality, disability, or whatever else — and it’s really, really hard. We’ve been having a lot of conversations around the life-threatening inequalities around maternal healthcare in this country, so that immediately springs to mind, but when you look at stats across other areas: when it comes to Covid-19 we are four times more likely to die, when it comes to educational outcomes, as children we enter the educational system on the same, if not in some instances a better, level than all other kids but by the time we come out of it we are more likely to have been excluded or not reach our potential or whatever else. This is what is meant by systematic racism and inequality. We start off just like anyone else but when we encounter the healthcare system or educational system, we somehow end up coming out worse than everyone else. While overt acts of racist aggression are certainly making a comeback (look at the stats), it’s these insidious “invisible” acts that are the hardest to fight.

How do you think the Black Women culture can be represented and amplified better in mass media?

I think when it comes to coverage and articles around our culture, black women need to take the lead. Some editors see these really interesting conversations and movements and want to leverage it for their publication but don’t trust black women to write about themselves and their lives and ultimately that results in really flat or inauthentic commissions. Decision makers need to allow black women the space and give them the resources to tell their stories in the best way they know how. That’s it. It’s that simple. But often it seems like people are more concerned with maintaining existing power structures behind the scenes while paying lip service to diversity and inclusion — and that comes across in what’s produced or the way stories are told.

This interview was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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