“I would like for it to be easier for Black women to find a network of professionals, who would be willing to mentor and sponsor them throughout their leadership journey from high school to their postgraduate career and beyond,” said Aku Acquaye, a senior at Barnard College. “One thing I think the Black female community could benefit from is sponsorship, which is essentially someone rooting for us when we’re not in the room.”
At Barnard, Acquaye serves as president of her class and as a student advocate for gender equality. Feeling compelled to make a difference in her community, Acquaye began to lead and execute initiatives and events around campus that addressed topics such as food insecurity and body image issues. However, Acquaye’s main interest is gender equality, and she puts much emphasis on making a difference in the lives of young women of color.
Acquaye became interested in women’s rights when she began her first year at Barnard, one of the most renowned liberal arts colleges for women in the country, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She felt an urge to extend her interests to her campus community, as well as to the city in which she lives. She worked as a mentor through a program that she developed called the WomanHOOD Project, which taught media literacy and social justice to high school women in the Bronx.
“We discuss topics such as institutional oppression, the implications of one’s racial and sexual identity, as well as the way women of color are portrayed in the media,” Acquaye said.
She felt inspired to educate other women of color on these topics because she never had access to it growing up. “I was never exposed to these complex topics and never understood why people found certain things to be problematic or how our identity as women of color can have such a profound effect on our day-to-day interactions,” she said. “I believe equipping young women with a background in these topics will make them more critical adults and make them more proud of their identity as a woman of color.”
Acquaye is a very active member of her small college community. She has led and organized on-campus events centered around improving the experience and overall wellness of students. In addition to serving as class president, she has also organized events with larger departments on campus. She organized a weeklong discussion of body positivity that addressed body image and perceptions of women’s bodies in the media. Body Lovin’ Week included an informational tabling session, an open mic event and a panel. She also started a blog on Facebook to document student’s experiences in relation to the topic.
Acquaye has won awards and honors for her student leadership, including the Millicent C. McIntosh Award and the Student Leadership Award. Off campus, she was selected by the American Association of University Women to the Student Advisory Council, as one of 10 college student leaders in the country who are committed to making a change in gender equality. According to AAUW’s website, SAC members advise on the needs of college students, organize campus activism projects and assist with AAUW’s National Conference for College Women Student Leaders.
Proudly she explained the meanings of her names: “I’m half Cameroonian, half Ghanaian. Aku is Ghanaian. In Ghana there is a name given for being the first girl or first boy born on any day, and there are variations of one’s name based on gender as well. Aku is the name given to a girl born on the first Tuesday or Wednesday, I believe.”
She continued, “Afanwi, my middle name, originated from the Cameroonian village of Bafut, and it means God’s Gift.”
Acquaye is currently working on the Gender Equality Project, a blog that focuses on documenting gender equality in the workplace. She explained, “While on student government my sophomore year, an administrator who previously worked in finance spoke about how in her past career she’d attend meetings with her male co-workers, but somehow always felt left out of conversations or, as I recall her saying, ‘not invited to the joke.’ The blog is dedicated to discussing inequality in the workplace experienced by women, and it intends to be a space where women can discuss injustices experienced in their professional field. It also serves as a place to discuss how being a woman may have impacted their decorum, pursuit of motherhood, career choices, etc. I had quantifiable data supporting my theory that women were truly not treated equally in the workforce. And I thought to myself, if this administrator experienced this, how many other women have felt the same way? The Gender Equality Project is meant to archive these experiences and bring light to gender discrimination in the workforce by putting actual faces behind the data.”
Acquaye’s interest in women’s rights was triggered by her own experience at Barnard. “My interest was sparked by my college experience in general and the community of women I have met at Barnard,” she said. “My race and gender have never been more salient to my identity until I entered college, and only once I recognized how important those identities were to me, I began to invest my time and energy in advocating for the rights of women and people of color.”
To learn more about The Gender Equality Project and hear intriguing stories about women’s issues in the workplace, visit www.thegeproject.com.