During the second weekend of July 2015, heavy rains poured on the Ohio Valley, causing residents and motorists a number of significant troubles. Homes flooded; roads became more like rivers. Travel required intense concentration. Chenai Okammor, an Illinois woman road tripping with her 15-year-old son, paid attention to little else but the slick route in front of her. Her mind drifted, ever so briefly, to her colleague, mentee, and friend, Sandra Bland, who was on her way to Texas. Chenai had encouraged Sandra to take the drive down for her temporary job at Prairie View A&M University alone, to have some time to reflect. On July 13, Sandra was found dead in a holding cell, three days after being arrested by a state trooper for making a lane switch without signaling.
Sandra and Chenai’s friendship was founded on their shared desire to preserve stories like this. Originally, they met at church. As their relationship grew, the two became work partners. Their website, Woman4Woman, which launches today, is meant to connect and empower women across the world, and to help them share their writing. We wanted to tell you about it before Lenny’s official launch this fall, so that you could share it with your friends and cement Sandra’s legacy.
Police brutality visits upon black American citizens the sort of dehumanization that persists even after death; full, complicated, and healthy lives get flattened out in memory, becoming only the length of the fatal interaction. We wanted to restore Sandra to the fullness of her life. Here, we learn a bit more about Sandy through a conversation between Chenai and Lenny co-founder Lena Dunham.
—Doreen St. Félix, Lenny editor-at-large.
Lena Dunham: Your mission with Woman4Woman is so inspiring to me. It teases at what the Internet could be for women. How did you decide that this was your passion?
Chenai Okammor: The transformative moment came about two years ago when I was working for an educational company. I worked with educational leaders, and I started noticing the women weren’t moving up the ladder the way the men were. Their approach was different, because the men run schools, but the women nurture schools. Big difference. And a lot of the women were getting sick and a lot of them were getting fired or demoted. And it was always a tragic story about a great leader that could have been. I wanted to help them.
I started getting a life coach to come in. We would plan it for two hours. It would go on for six hours. Everybody would be in tears. The women would follow up with the life coaches after our sessions, because those meetings had been so meaningful to them. At the same time, I said to myself, I think I want to retire. I’ve done enough labor for education. I need to do something else.
Finally it dawned on me: What if every woman had somewhere to go? Someone to talk to? Worldwide. I’m from Zimbabwe and with our diaspora, I have cousins all over the world. So a whole bunch of them came here last summer. And I realized that just in my family alone, everyone has a thousand stories, and I wanted to give them a space to tell those stories.
Chenai Okammor (L) and Sandra Bland (R) at church, discussing a fundraiser for their church’s day care program.
LD: You met Sandra through church, right?
CO: Oh my goodness. Me and Sandra. When I retired I joined a church committee that Sandy was on. Her ideas were so brilliant they left an impression on me. So I said to her, “Let’s exchange phone numbers and keep in touch.” I called her the next day because she was on my mind. She reminded me of myself when I was younger. There was a lot in me but the self-confidence wasn’t there.
For me it was because I switched languages. I always felt people would focus on my accent. And I came from a tradition where women and young girls have a very specific role, men have a very specific role, and adults have a very specific role. If I was sitting down to have dinner I would not start eating until all the older people around me had started. As a woman in my culture, you don’t talk about a lot of things.
Sandy was raised by a single mother with a bunch of sisters. And she said that when she was growing up, she held back her thoughts at times. What became clear to me as I met more with Sandra was that she was finding her own voice. After a couple of meetings, Sandra shared our project with her sisters, encouraging them to join our group. She had such a commitment to having women tell their own stories and she helped them talk about things they hadn’t talked about before.
Sandy said to me, “I’m 28 and I’m just now beginning to identify what I stand for. I do know that when something is wrong, it bothers me so much that I take it to heart.” When she started working on this project I asked her what she wanted to accomplish with it. She said, “I want to be able to share my story with young women out there.” Because she still thought she was alone in her quirkiness.
LD: What struck me about Sandra is that she was an activist and a person who knew her rights and knew the concept of police brutality and men abusing their power. Part of what she was doing with you was fighting against that every day. It must have been especially painful and personal for her, to be arrested in this way.
CO: Yes. For days after I got the phone call from her sister I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t listen to the radio. I did not open myself to anything the world had to say, because I knew how Sandra felt about men using their power for something not good for anybody.
She was also really specific about how she wanted the world to notice her. She had a beautiful body. I’m five nine, and she was five ten. But she was built like a brick house. Maybe you’re too young to remember the song “Brick House”…
LD: Yes! I remember it. [Laughs]
CO: She was athletic and simply gorgeous. Legs that I go to the gym twice a day for! She was just discovering her own strength beyond the physical, focusing on intellect and spirituality. She was also focusing on how to share the things she was passionate about with the world. Then she started her writing. We both decided to start keeping a journal.
LD: As a pair you decided.
CO: Together. Exactly. I noticed there was a theme in her writing. Visibility. One thing she wrote about was watching a Starbucks’ drive-through for a few hours. That Starbucks is always crowded and they have people come out to the cars and take orders and bring people their coffee. She watched a woman run back and forth, taking orders. And Sandy said not one person really smiled at her. So she called it “Runner Runner, Here’s your Latte. Thank You.” Sandy wanted people to notice that woman and she wanted those stories on the site.
“It’s always the women who hold up the country in times of war. It’s the women who hold up anything or everything. That’s why we’re doing this.”
LD: Will you tell me a little about your relationship as collaborators?
CO: When we brainstormed together and shared our life experiences, we’d give ourselves prompts such as “Let’s talk about the stupidest day we ever created for ourselves.” Or, “Tell me about the day you cried the most and what brought that on.” We shared stories of triumph and sorrow. I was most struck by Sandra’s ability to reflect on how the experiences in her life revealed untapped resilience. I once told her I’m 51 and I’m just learning some of life’s lessons. She responded, “51 and you’re just learning?” I’m learning to listen to people. We learned from each other.
LD: When you heard the story of what had happened—which I know is still unfolding—was it hard for you to put together the pieces of what had occurred?
CO: I’m still having a hard time with that. Let me just take you back. The reason why my brother and I were sent to my father in New York was because there was a guerrilla war for independence in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. So many people were killed. You’d hear the adults say, “Steven is missing now.” Everyone just had this look when they talked about it. That’s the same feeling I got with Sandy.
CO: It was horrible. And when I saw the pictures of the prison that she was in, it’s archaic. I don’t know if they call that a place to put anybody in.
LD: And it’s not a place for a human being who didn’t commit a crime.
CO: No. And that’s the same feeling I got from my experience losing a brilliant young lady who I truly loved. This is America. I’m going through the same exact thing I went through in Rhodesia.
LD: What does it make you feel like when you hear the press being critical of Sandra? There’s a lot of ignorance about the fact that, whether its suicide or someone has been killed, it’s still murder because they’ve had their humanity taken away from them.
CO: Oh my goodness. Lena, Lena, Lena. You hit it with that line. If people can say all the things that they’re saying and sleep with themselves at night, then we’ve got a bigger problem than we realize. Because if it were their child, their relative, their sister, their friend, their colleague or whatever, they would never have it looked at it that way. However, it shows more the amount of work we still need to do.
And you know it’s always the women who hold up the country in times of war. It’s the women who hold up anything or everything. That’s why we’re doing this.
This interview has been condensed and edited.