A Journey of Learning: Shannon Black dedicates herself to promoting women’s rights

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Shannon BlackShannon Black

Whether she is advocating for women’s rights on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus or in a small village in Tanzania, Shannon Black is a trailblazer.

Just ask her—and the outspoken, articulate Pitt graduating senior will gladly share her opinions and experiences.

“My friends used to make fun of me all the time in the 8th grade because I was that weird girl who was angry about wage discrepancy and gender discrimination,” Black recalls with a chuckle. “I don’t know where it comes from. I think it’s always been a part of who I am as a person and what I feel strongly about.”

The 21-year-old Bethel Park native graduates from Pitt today with a bachelor’s degree in English writing and a minor in political science and religious studies. She recalls having an awareness of women’s rights issues for as long as she can remember. A self-described “determined and outspoken feminist,” she views women’s rights as an ongoing worldwide fight—and one to which she would like to dedicate her life.

While at Pitt, Black received a 2008 Nationality Rooms Scholarship to go to Tanzania, where she helped local villagers gain better access to water supplies while she learned about issues affecting women and families in Africa. She has been very active in Pitt’s Campus Women’s Organization (CWO), serving as president for the past two years. She was also the 2008-09 president of Pitt’s campus-based Student Volunteer Organization, a community service group, and a member of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, an organization dedicated to the interests of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities.

Black credits Pitt with playing a major role in focusing her passions. She says the University provides an open atmosphere where students from all walks of life can develop their belief systems within a diverse population. In addition, Pitt encourages creative expression among its students, she says.

“Pitt has helped me to become more confident in myself and more comfortable in my beliefs,” said Black. “I have so many friends who are involved with different organizations around campus. It’s very inspiring to be surrounded by such positive energy.”

The campus’ intellectual and student diversity helped spur Black’s interest in volunteering in Tanzania. “I had never thought about going to Africa before, but the more I studied Tanzania and its culture and people, the more appealing it became,” said Black. “I went to Tanzania to learn—about myself and my limitations, as well as how people in a completely different culture work on the conditions they are trying to change.”

In Tanzania, Black discovered that many problems facing women in the United States are universal and, in many cases, much worse in developing countries. Domestic violence, widespread poverty, and AIDS were very much a part of the picture in Tanzania. The most frustrating aspect of the trip, Black says, was her realization that her efforts could not fix any of the institutional problems facing most Tanzanians. However, she also realized that the absence of things that she takes for granted can be life-changing.

“Tanzania opened my eyes to things that I’d never even thought about before—like water not being available whenever you want it to be.”

According to Black, retrieving water from the local creek could be an all-day affair for many Tanzanian women. To relieve this strain, she and other foreign volunteers worked to install fresh-water tanks within the homes of local villagers.

“It’s nice to see how three to five hours of work setting up a water tank or just listening to people’s problems can benefit someone’s life for the better,” says Black. “I think we made a genuine difference, because having the water tanks will mean that a young Tanzanian girl won’t have to leave school early just to get water for her family. A lot of young girls’ potential to get educated and get jobs is squashed by the fact that they have to trudge up and down a hill all day just to get water.”

E. Maxine Bruhns, director of Pitt’s Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs, said the Nationality Rooms Scholarship Committee was quite impressed by Black’s desire for hands-on knowledge. “With Shannon Black, you see a young woman who realized that there was not enough time or resources to make a permanent change in Tanzania, but she went anyway, knowing that the summer experience would prepare her for future work with cultures in America and abroad. [In awarding the scholarship,] we were impressed by the fact that she wasn’t going to Africa for the purpose of learning a language or doing library research. Shannon had an innate desire to lend her time and energy toward helping others.”

Black’s desire to help has played out here at home, as well. For example, when the federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 ended student discounts on contraceptives at university health centers around the country, contraceptive prices skyrocketed on college campuses, and Black fought hard to help get the relevant portion of the law reversed.

“Birth control is a fundamental part of the lives of many college-age women. This wasn’t some trivial issue that [female students] viewed as a lost luxury item,” says Black.

“Going from $15 a month [for contraception] to $60 or $70 may not seem too extreme to some people, but for women my age, that could be the difference between buying birth control, purchasing a text book, or paying a gas bill.”

Black, who was the president of CWO for the past two years, stepped into action. Working alongside Pitt’s Student Government Board as well as such national organizations as Choice USA and the Feminist Majority Foundation, CWO began collecting signatures on petitions at area colleges, organizing rallies, and lobbying local Congressional representatives. Black and other advocates even met this past fall with U.S. Congressman Michael Doyle in a bid to convince him to support to the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act, which seeks to restore discounted drug prices at university-based health centers. The bill awaits consideration by the U.S. House.

This desire to help others will not end once Black graduates from Pitt. In the short term, she is investigating teaching opportunities in Asia before pursuing graduate study in California with a focus on Native American Studies. She has decided to keep her long-term options open as she explores the best way in which to direct her socially active energies. For Black, life is a journey of learning while living, and she is seeking to define her life as that of a feminist.

“I’ve always looked at feminism as a woman’s freedom to do what she wants to do, not what society expects her to do. That could be staying home with the kids or it could be traveling the world. More than anything else, feminism is about the ability to make choices.”