The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary recognizes the significance of centering Black women’s scholarship as viable sources and resources for theological education. The center serves as a site of participatory learning for scholars, students, clergy, laity, and community leaders.
Drawing from the Black Southern colloquial expression (you actin’ womanish), the word “womanist” is a dynamic term that describes a growing field of study and social movement that takes seriously the historical and contemporary experiences of Black women while advocating for the wholeness and wellbeing of all humanity.
Union Presbyterian Seminary has developed the Center for Womanist Leadership “to inspire, equip, connect and support Black women divinely motivated to serve as change makers in their community.” The mission statement reflects the visionary insight of the late Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union, who, in 1974, became the first African-American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Cannon named womanism as a powerful approach to recognizing the human dignity and amplifying the long-ignored voice of Black women in a hostile world. She wrote that “…one’s soul has work that is …vital not only to the health and strength of the community but is integral to our fulfillment as individuals.
From left, Sharon Blount, Katie Cannon, Alice Walker, and Union Presbyterian Seminary President Brian Blount at the center's Inaugural Gathering in Richmond.
Director Melanie C. Jones teaching at Seminary for a Day
“However,” she continued, “this work is often stifled by the confining powers of patriarchy and racism that flourish in the subordination of Black women.”
Cannon’s New York Times obituary on Aug. 14, 2018, described her view of “womanism,” one that helped set the direction for the center:
“Womanism” — a term generally attributed to the novelist and poet Alice Walker — examines the intersection of feminism, racial identity and more, finding points of both commonality and conflict. In just one example of how Dr. Cannon applied a womanist approach to theology, she wrote of how the Christian idea of suffering was usually defined from the perspective of a white and male-dominant class, which, with a comfortable existence, could view it as a choice.
“‘In dominant ethics a person is free to make suffering a desirable moral norm,’ she wrote in “Black Womanist Ethics.” ‘This is not so for blacks. For the masses of black people, suffering is the normal state of affairs.’”
Such a piercing reality requires a sustained, systemic response. The center is a response to, and bearer of, that message.
The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership
Mission & Programs
In her seminal work, Katie’s Canon, Dr. Cannon wrote “Black women are the most vulnerable and the most exploited members of the American society. The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities, combined with patriarchal contempt for women, has caused the Black woman to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds.”
Cannon’s clear-eyed and uncompromising position on the status of Black women sets the tone for the work of the Center for Womanist Leadership. In 2019, Union Presbyterian Seminary Trustees named the Center in memory of Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon.
In its mission statement, the Center is described as “committed to convening Black women around common issues for wisdom sharing, networking, problem solving, and mobilization, and to giving Black women thinkers, activists and artists opportunities to expand existing efforts and connect them for sustainable collaboration.”
The Center is organized around three core values:
It is rooted in sisterhood, recognizing that the experience of Black womanhood is an isolating experience of overwhelming responsibility and persistent oppression.
It is unapologetically committed to the wholeness, liberation, justice, and self-sustainability of Black and marginalized communities.
It is in tune with the Spirit and the Folk, not isolated in academia, but anchored and grounded in the priorities and desires of those it serves and in the work of the Spirit that inspires these women.
In July 2019, Rev. Melanie C. Jones joined the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership as its newest director and next visionary leader. Jones maintains, “Building on an enduring legacy of womanism in theological education with Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon as its leading trailblazer and foremother, The Future is Womanist. The compounding moral assaults facing Black women and marginalized populations in a contemporary world require a wisdom-bearing platform that cultivates freedom and flourishing and a justice-seeking program that enlivens the liberating reign of God in word and deed. This is the future of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, the premier center for womanist theory and practice in the nation.”
Union Presbyterian Seminary President Blount affirmed the prophetic leadership of Rev. Jones. Blount asserts, “In her teaching, scholarship and direction of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, she brings sharp theological insight and an engaging ethical perspective. She will be a great resource for our seminary as we strive to be a witness to and for the Church and the world.”
The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership is broadening awareness of its purpose and identifying individuals and institutions that can support its work financially.
In her own words, Katie Geneva Cannon captured the spirit of the Center. She wrote:
“What we need to be free is right here in this religion. It just hasn’t been unleashed, and that’s our job.”
The Reverend Renee Alston, DMin Minister of Congregational Care, First Baptist Church of Highland Park
The Reverend Gail Henderson Belsito, MDiv Alum, Union Presbyterian Seminary CLT Associate Minister, Caldwell Presbyterian Church
Bridgett Cannon The Katie Geneva Cannon Estate Representative Resource Support Senior Specialist for Wealth Management Client Care, Bank of America/Merrill
The Reverend A. Elaine Crawford, PhD Alum, Union Presbyterian Seminary Adjunct Professor of Theology at Samuel Dewitt Procter School of Theology Visiting Scholar for the Center for Christian Women
Bishop Leah D. Daughtry National Presiding Prelate, The House of the Lord Churches President & CEO of On These Things, LLC
Co-Convener, Power Rising
C.E.O. of Democratic National Convention, 2016, 2008
Stacey Floyd-Thomas, PhD E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Associate Professor of Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University
and Executive Director, Black Religious Scholars Group (BRSG, Inc.)
Shonda Jones, Ed.D. Executive Director, Academic Programs School of Professional Studies, Wake Forest University
Aimee Laramore, MBA Owner, ALlyd Solutions Director of Learning Services, Grand Valley State University
Lakisha R. Lockhart, PhD Assistant Professor of Christian Education, Union Presbyterian Seminary
The Reverend Diane Moffett, DMin President & Executive Director, Presbyterian Mission Agency
The Reverend C. Diane Mosby, DMin Senior Pastor, Anointed New Life Baptist Church
Dana Purdom Graduating Student, Union Presbyterian Seminary Recipient, Presbyterian Mission Agency Katie Geneva Cannon Scholarship
Valerie Hill Rawls Co-Creator, The EcoWomanist Institute Graduating Student, Union Presbyterian Seminary
The Reverend Ebony Speakes-Hall, EdD, LISW-S Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Allied Health Sciences, University of Cincinnati
The Reverend Michele Watkins, PhD Assistant Professor at University of San Diego Executive Director, Society of the Study of Black Religion
The Reverend Renita J. Weems, PhD Co-Pastor, Ray of Hope Community Church Senior Fellow for Center for American Progress
The Reverend Audrey Akins Williamson Director, The Collaborative for Faith Leadership
The Center further outlines a set of high-priority “initiatives,” which include:
a healing and hospitality programming arm
programming designed to identify, inspire, equip and support emerging Black women leaders
connectional programming with churches and religious communities to nurture and affirm Black women’s religious leadership
a publishing and cataloguing component for the Center
a social entrepreneurship effort, aimed at helping Black women and marginalized communities to become self-sustainable.
programming that values “the arts” and the divinely-inspired creative productions of Black women in music, dance, theatre, film, literature, fashion, crafts, photography, visual artistry, and more while interrogating possibilities for cultivating whole communities.