interview: Emilie Mendham
With the aim to empower womxn all across Nottingham – with particular focus on womxn of colour – FlyGirl is set to launch later this year. We caught up with Avarni Bilan, one half of the Wigflex team, to see what it’s all about…
What inspired you to start Flygirl?
The idea for FlyGirl has been brewing for a few years now, but it wasn’t always clear exactly what form it was going to take. I always knew that I wanted to create a comfortable and safe space for womxn to learn, empower and support one another within; but as the idea was developing it then became really clear to me that the only way I would ever be able to do it authentically would be if it works to represent womxn of colour. I wanted to create a very practical response to the clear lack of representation that womxn of colour experience on a daily basis and be able to unapologetically address topics that may largely only apply to these womxn. But, it has always been very important that FlyGirl is open to all womxn, regardless of race. As a woman of colour in the UK it can unfortunately be very normal to feel like you’re constantly inhabiting places that aren’t meant for you, so I wanted to create a space that was specifically for these womxn, without ever denying a place at the table for any other womxn who want to get involved.
How are you planning to help Nottingham’s womxn?
FlyGirl is essentially an event series that includes a broad range of workshops, talks and parties which create opportunities for womxn to learn new skills, meet new people and feel a strong connection to the local Nottingham community. Most importantly we want to provide the practical tools that womxn can use to elevate themselves professionally and personally. There will be a good mix of wellbeing, vocational and social events all year round. Our first event will be a community interaction workshop where womxn from all over Nottingham can come together and specify the practical things that they need or want and we will work to make it happen.
As you explain on your Instagram, it’s important to lift up womxn of colour and empower them. Why do womxn of colour need to be empowered more than other people in society?
As a woman of colour myself, it is hard to approach this topic without sounding biased. But when you consider the fact that womxn are 75% more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than men (whether that be wage or sexual harassment related), and race-related hate crimes that were reported to the police in England and Wales in 2020 are up 11% from last year (totalling over 75k incidents), it’s really hard to avoid the fact that womxn of colour are some of the most marginalised people within our society. The definition of empowerment is ‘authority or power given to someone to do something’, and when you’re empowering womxn of colour you’re really just giving them the authority or power to be everything that society has repeatedly told them they aren’t for years on end.
From my own personal experiences as a British-born Punjabi woman, I feel that the combination of my race and gender has significantly impacted the way that I’ve been treated throughout my life and I know that a lot of other womxn of colour feel the same. We strongly feel that the black trans community is particularly vulnerable at this time and will be working closely to address this over the coming months through various workshops and initiatives.
Part of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to educating companies as to how they can be actively anti-racist. Has that impacted FlyGirl, or made you want to do anything differently?
Without a doubt the BLM movement triggered FlyGirl to finally get out there and become public-facing, because for months I had been worried about how the concept would be received. After seeing all of the positive support that the movement was generating it gave me the confidence to move forward with FlyGirl in the knowledge that it’s genuinely something that is needed and wanted within the city. The support that has been flowing in since we first launched is unbelievable – people from Nottingham and further afield offering money, expertise, free body therapies and talking therapies, plus their time to really help the platform to grow and positively impact as many people as possible.
As a British-born Punjabi woman, I feel that the combination of my race and gender has significantly impacted the way that I’ve been treated throughout my life and I know that a lot of other womxn of colour feel the same
That being said, we don’t at any point want the FlyGirl messaging to dilute the BLM message. We are focusing on womxn of colour, but BLM is about black lives, not every racial group that isn’t white. This is really important to us. Categorising people as ‘BAME’ or ‘of colour’ doesn’t really say anything about them apart from the fact that they’re not white. A black woman and an Asian woman will both have a different set of race-related experiences to one another and it’s important to acknowledge this. Unfortunately, there are still jobs, opportunities and rooms that are open to Asian womxn but not to black womxn and it’s important for people to understand that if we really want to bring about change.
A key element of FlyGirl was always going to be based around supporting black and brown owned businesses. We will be working closely with aspiring black and brown female business owners by helping them to access public and private funding, providing them with business advice, and support them with research and marketing for their prospective endeavours, all free of charge. We are also in the process of building a BAME directory for professionals and advisors that corporations can visit when they are looking to hire. Providing businesses with the platform to actively seek out diverse candidates will be a key way of establishing whether they are being real in their support, or just virtue signalling.
Why is FlyGirl important for Nottingham right now?
Unfortunately Nottingham has a serious problem that few are willing to address. Nottinghamshire Police have reported a steady increase in hate crimes over the past five years and something needs to change. Our community is extremely diverse, but this isn’t authentically represented in many corners of the city and we need to address why this is. FlyGirl certainly won’t fix all of these problems, but we will be offering a space for the local community to come together and find solutions that work to level the playing field and promote understanding for one another.
What can people expect from FlyGirl now and in the future?
We have the keys for our own city-centre building which is housed within the Creative Quarter. I’m really excited to be able to invite all of our following here, as it will be a creative community space prime for networking opportunities and socialising. Once we are able to open, we’ll be launching a series of events that all Nottingham womxn will be welcomed to attend.
Is FlyGirl something you needed when you were younger?
Without a doubt. Much of what FlyGirl is all about is simply a response to things that I’ve been unable to find for myself. I went to a predominantly white school in Nottingham then moved on to working in environments where I was virtually always the only person of colour. I would take certain bad behaviours from others on the chin, as they were supposedly just ‘part and parcel of being brown’ and seemingly ‘harmless’. As I’ve got older and my friendship group has become more diverse, I have been able to dissect many of these experiences for what they really were as the patterns tend to repeat themselves for many people of colour, albeit in different ways. Being able to connect with others who are able to authentically understand your own life experiences in a way that validates how you may have felt at the time (when maybe no one else did), is a very powerful thing. I would say that I certainly feel more empowered and confident in my own skin when I am around other people of colour. Many of our events will be open to younger audiences too, so that this process of promoting understanding, empowering one another and building confidence can start sooner.
FlyGirl’s first event is going to be a community consultation to understand what our local womxn from Nottingham need. Want to get involved in FlyGirl? Check them out on Instagram for updates or email firstname.lastname@example.org for any general enquiries or to discuss partnership opportunities.