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Thursday
Jul102014

Celebrating Girls & Women

If I were ever in the position to be a beauty queen (nope, not happening) and had to choose a platform I know exactly what I'd promote: anything that celebrates girls and women. It's not that boys aren't important and I have 2 sons of my own so I see a need for them, too. But this passion around girls and women has only been fueled in the last several years. It's as if I was a dry, thirsty forest and someone came by and dropped a lit match on me. 

Athena Awards

Two months ago I found out that I was a nominee for the Illinois Women in Leadership Award. They call it the *Athena Awards to honor those women who encourage, support, and assist women in reaching their leadership potential. Some of this just comes naturally, for me, by virtue of my job. Not only do I come into constant contact with young girls on the cusp of womanhood, but I have made a mission out of supporting causes that allow girls the permission of agency in their lives. 

I support my local Girls on Track and have been a running coach as well as a keynote speaker at their fundraising events. Just last week I returned from my second Coca-Cola sponsored trip celebrating women. Online, I fight for that on a fairly regular basis especially in social media. I religiously follow Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party

What I'm saying is that it happens in a lot of spaces for me and I'm grateful to have an online voice that turns into real-life activism for women wherever it is that I lend my voice.

So getting this chance at being an honoree at the Athena Awards was pretty special to me.

ONE Foundation

Most of my work with the ONE Foundation has been focused on that and my trip, in 2012, centered around seeing what Federal Aid dollars were doing as well as what the Ethiopian government does in cultivating spaces for women. I've shared this video before, but it's worth a watch to see what ONE is doing for women.

Today, the ONE Foundation is launching the ONE Girls & Women Initiative on which I am an Advisory Board member along with some of my blogging contemporaries.  

This is work I am immensely proud to do and be a part of and my relationship with ONE continues to grow which makes me wonderfully happy.

 

Meet Us at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Feminism and The Internet

 

At the end of this month, I'll be on a panel and joined by some powerhouse women on a panel at BlogHer's 10th Conference discussing, among other things, how these issues of race, gender, and feminism intersect on the Internet where we all do some of our work:

Feminista Jones (on Twitter, where a lot of magic happens)

Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan

Grace Hwang Lynch (again, her Twitter page)

Natalia Oberti Noguera, the Founder and CEO of Pipeline Fellowship

Patrice Lee, Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum

moderated by the founder and publisher of Jack & Jill Politics, Cheryl Contee, who is also a co-founder of Fission Strategy

Through all this, I remain as on fire for this work for women as I have ever been. Each time an invitation to speak is offered or a nomination is bestowed I wonder if I should bother mentioning it. But I've been a part of this work long enough to know that, while they are very nice, they are also somewhat necessary to building a body of work online.

Let these flames continue to burn in my life because there is no way I thought I'd be here, at this time in my life, doing such things. 

*If you want to learn a bit more about the Athena Awards, this is directly from their website:

The ATHENA Leadership Award® was inspired by the goddess of Greek mythology known for her strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment—qualities embodied in the ATHENA Leadership Model®. The Award is unique in both scope---local, national and international---and the ATHENA mission upon which it is based. The ATHENA Leadership Award® is presented to a woman ---or man--- who is honored for professional excellence, community service and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills. Since the program’s inception in 1982, more than 6,500 exemplary leaders in over 500 communities have received the prestigious ATHENA Award in the United States, Bermuda, Canada, China, Greece, India, Russia, Unite Arab Emirates and United Kingdom. By honoring exceptional leaders, the ATHENA Leadership Award® Program seeks to inspire others to achieve excellence in their professional and personal lives.

ATHENA Leadership Award® Recipients are individuals who: 

  • Have achieved the highest level of professional excellence.
  • Contribute time and energy to improve the quality of life for others in the community.

 

Monday
Jul072014

Girls & Essence Fest 2014

While this is going to mostly be a photo essay of the last few days I have to pause and thank Coca-Cola for inviting me to something that is so perfectly up my alley that I saw my interests converge all in one weekend. Traveling to New Orleans was a bit of an ordeal, but I cherished having some free time one of the days to visit my family down there and eat to my heart's content. My cholesterol would disagree with that but it was only for a few days. 

 

Here's where the entire Essence Fest 2014 hit me in the heart: it became abundantly clear that my passion for girls and women is right on track both in the music acts and the actions of the companies I got to learn more about. Usually, when one goes on sponsored trips like these one can expect to hear about the brand non-stop, but Coca-Cola was truly committed to showing us women leaders who are change-makers and unveiling to us their 5by20 initiative which made me immensely happy for this project. 

The short version is this: a global commitment to enable the economic empowerment of 5 million women entrepreneurs across North America by 2020. 

A few years ago when I was invited to attend a Coca-Cola sponsored blogging event I heard, repeatedly, the value they embrace from the African proverb: Lift as you climb and that theme is still in effect with 5by20. After having traveled with the ONE Foundation to see what female empowering initiatives look like in Ethiopia, this was heartening to see it happening here with Coke at the helm. 

 

Leaders of all kinds took to this photo opportunity just before opening the festival. Do you see Van Jones on the right there? I SAW HIM. I SAW VAN. I have been following his work for a while, but I truly love the YES, WE CODE work he is doing with Cheryl Contee (with whom I'll be at the Closing Keynote at BlogHer this month!)

 

Michelle Ebanks, President of Essence Communications, at the press conference opening up Essence Fest 2014 and giving Coca-Cola some stage time as a 19-year partner of the festival to talk about the 5by20.

 

Reverend Al Sharpton at the press conference lending his support to the festival and the efforts to empower women. 

 

Coca-Cola hired the best and most fun kids for this at the Coke Stage where I danced before 10 in the morning in front of strangers. I reserve this for my kitchen at that time of day.

 

Body by Denise is an amazing workout group that came to perform and with all the New Orleans food I was eating I should have jumped on stage and worked it off with them.

 

Ledisi has the sweetest talking voice as well as singing voice when I stood front and center for this interview.

 

The unbelievably wonderful Janelle Monaé owning the stage. She brought it so hard with Electric Lady and everyone was surprised when Prince joined her on stage playing behind her. You want to see a crowd on their feet quickly (if they happen to be sitting)? Then this is how you do that. It was amazing.

 

Nile Rodgers took the stage and immediately started taking photos of the crowd. Later, he owned his music and played a song he produced for David Bowie, Let's Dance, which Prince joined him on and the crowd went wild. 

 

He turned up the funk and brought out Kathy Sledge (of Sister Sledge) and Janelle joined him on this one. As a kid I used to get tired of "We Are Family" but this brought me back to a time when I loved it so I love it again.

 

By the time Prince took the stage I was aware of just how many people were in the Superdome because of the noise level (and they graciously gave us earplugs which I refused BECAUSE PRINCE). I haven't been to nearly enough concerts in my lifetime since I was such a young mom and I plan on making up for that now. When I was a teenager there was The Big Three I wanted to see: Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. I'll never see MJ now and I'm over Madonna but Prince has remained on my Must See list. Plus, Prince covered Don't Stop Till You Get Enough so I'm going to be happy with that. 

The crowd wasn't disappointed when he opened up by standing behind the large white screen and saying two words that sent chills up my spine: Dearly beloved. During the concert his band (a bunch of serious badass musicians and, of course, all women as they're 3rdEyeGirl) was joined by Trombone Shorty and Lianne La Havas who did the most achingly beautiful rendition of his Sometimes It Snows in April.

He came to thrill us and he did just that and more.

I love when artists know we're going to sing along and back off the microphone and let it happen. When Prince did that he looked like he actually enjoyed us singing. The man is a serious performer and my favorite comment he made other than asking us to take out our cell phones (usually a no-no for him at his concerts) was when he said, "Look at how beautiful you look. You can sing along if you want." So sweet and unassuming. 

The only thing I regret was missing him visiting my hotel (I KNOW JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THAT) and his subsequent visit to the House of Blues after his own concert to surprise jam with Liv Warfield

 

Walking through the convention center I noticed that a crowd was forming on the Essence main stage so I stopped to see the lovely and refined Chrisette Michele (on the left) and Chanté Moore (on the right) talking about their new reality show (which I won't watch). Mostly, I wanted to see Chanté who has the NERVE of not looking any older than when I first bought Love Supreme in 1994. I had to buy it again in 1996 because I wore that CD out by listening to it so much. 

 

No, really. Who does she think she is to NOT AGE AT ALL?

 

Speaking of stunning, I got to see Elle Varner in a live interview where she was disarmingly charming. 

 

Then, my youth came to haunt me when I saw MC Lyte. I just love her so much.

 

She, along with Doug E Fresh and Monie Love, were being interviewed by industry giant Shanti Das of Press Reset Entertainment for the When Did You Fall in Love With Hip Hop? segment (Brown Sugar, anyone?). Shanti has a new book out, The Hip Hop Professional 2.0, that you can purchase here

By the way, Doug E Fresh acted as DJ during the Friday night concert and was so fantastic at playing old school music that I was mentally making a list of all the music of my youth that I need to buy again but in digital form. 

It reminded me of why I still love old R&B and hip hop so much. It's not that I hate all the new stuff, but I long for the days when crooners sang and called women 'baby' and not 'bitch'. Times. They have been a'changing for a while but it became so clear to me as a feminist and girl champion that I haven't fallen out of love with any of that music.

 
 

One of the panels I sat and listened to was about Black women and health and I was looking forward to hearing from the Black Girls Run founders (the two women on the left) about how they make time for fitness and encourage Black girls and women to get out and exercise. It was such an intersection of issues in dealing with Black hair and messages we hear. Go support their cause and follow them on social media. They're wonderful. 

 

Of course, to my grown sons I do nothing cool ever but when I sent them a selfie of me and Tyrese I got a text message back from Mason that simply read: You have got to be kidding me

Mom: 1, Kids: 0

 

Ledisi opened up on Saturday night and delighted her hometown crowd. I want this dress. Hell, I want her voice. She is a trained musician who writes beautiful music. My favorite remains the first I ever heard from her, Alright.

 

I had 2 favorite performances of the night and they belonged to Prince and Jill Scott. Not only can this woman blow serious sounds from her person but she is all at once powerful and vulnerable on the stage. She vacillates between the two. Perhaps my favorite thing she said was thanking the audience for "allowing a sister to grow" and I could tell that she's mature enough to look back at her career and see how she's changed but is grateful for it. She remains, to me, a perfect picture of feminism in what she does. 

 

Finally, I got to see my other boyfriend, Common, join The Roots to perform The Light. In fact, The Roots invited a ton of folks to the stage to perform: Naughty by Nature, Biz Markie, Nelly and DJ Jazzy Jeff played with them all night. 

Common was the only time I stopped texting The Cuban who was, suddenly, worried that I may not come home from this trip. Except I was reminded how much my own community of girls need to hear positive messages and how much work I have to do on the homefront. I know it seems like a lot of name-dropping in this post, but they were just the performers I was lucky enough to see at Essence Fest 2014. The real theme of empowering women just seemed to shine through all those other stars. 

 

Wednesday
Jun252014

Well + Good

I can promise you that I don't read as much as I should or as much as I used to read. The two years of graduate school in my 30s notwithstanding I couldn't wait to get away from reading all the academic texts and return to what I love: history books. Rather, the history alluded to in books such as Lies My Teacher Told Me.

As an undergrad, I majored in English Literature, reading all the classics I was supposed to read like a good girl. Somewhere around the end of my Freshman year, though, I chose an elective English course in Afro-American Literature. That was where I read Terry McMillan, Maya Angelou, Ernest J. Gaines, and Amiri Baraka. Rita Dove, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and August Wilson were new to me as well in the early 1990s. It was a profound moment to have discovered Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and I felt even more furious after our professor showed us the film version starring Al Freeman, Jr. and Shirley Knight.

Profound, I tell you. But furious, too. 

Looking for symbols and deconstructing the text became my only way through literature for a time. It can take away from the pure enjoyment of a piece and I was guilty of that while entrenched in the academia of it all. Each time we read a poem or play or book in that class we had to discuss the inevitable: systemic racism in this country. That's an uncomfortable place to be but it's why I'm so comfortable with it now: lots of practice. 

 

And each time we finished some text there would be a student, always a White student (for my courses were filled with more Whites than any other race), who would begin the deconstruction with the same phrase:

That's all well and good, but...

They filled in the blanks with so many things. I admit, however, that I had fantastic professors who anticipated this and deftly responded. What a relief when they wouldn't call on me or the smattering of other Black students to respond. That wasn't my role there. I was a student, too. 

I find that phrase regurgitated when discussing a lot of historical points. One of my professors, a Black man in his 50s, taught a course I took that focused on the Reconstruction. He was blind and that fascinated me because he didn't ever refer to or read from notes. He stood up at the lecturn after making his way there with his cane or his TA and then launched into teaching. He asked us good questions and made us think and the history of America swirled around in my brain, connecting images and burning its way into the neural pathways and gray matter. 

The first time a student tried to counter a fact of history with him the student began, "That's all well and good, but..." and I watched a master at work in his response. I wish I were one of those students who brought a tape recorder to class (did I just show my age there or WHAT?) because his rejoinder brought the house down. You want to talk about deconstruction of the Reconstruction? That man brought the thunder in a way that everyone could learn.

He made me consider American history and Black history in particular and how we teach it. We do a great disservice to this nation when we take 28 days to highlight the inventors and scientists and great performers. We do a magnificent injustice to the fabric of this country when we compartmentalize Black history as a quick jump from slavery to having a Black president and being "post-racial" and how everything is fair now. 

We are doing it all wrong.

It used to be that when someone labeled you a "racist" you would have to consider that you're in the same space as the Klan or David Duke. No one wanted that association so they quickly and vehemently denied culpability. If we are to truly look at it and teach it in schools then we're missing a huge part of the puzzle: we don't look at it in a linear sense of the systems put in place to continue new forms of slavery.

We aren't looking at or considering Jim Crow laws or "black codes". At least, we're not doing that during Black History Month. We're not connecting all the dots from separate but equal to the obstacles encountered by Black Americans seeking to use GI Bill to attain higher education. Or even how that very bill acted as a catalyst when it was challenged to include diversity, both in the number of Blacks registering for college and the fact that I could attend, decades later, and take a course taught by a Black professor. Intention is everything and our country, from the lawmakers to the law enforcers, aimed to stay in power and constructed societal rules to ensure it. When we fail to teach students about the Prison Industrial Complex as a continuation of slavery, then we simply fail.

 

There aren't many books that I would recommend be a part of a mandated curriculum in teaching History (because there are a great many to be sure) but one that I cannot stop thinking about is Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. It is remarkable in scope and one cannot help but consider that movement, The Great Migration, in shaping cities and labor issues and the construction of what came to be known as the ghetto and the gentrification of those cities later on in history. Wilkerson herself has called that Migration "the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century" and if you need a glowing report of what it contains then listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic

He was right. "Get the book. Read it now. Today is too late."

 

Those connections, they are all well and good to make, but if we're not teaching in this particular scope then we will continue to have the same discussions and sterotypes and Lazy Shaming that we've always had. It's all well and good that American public school teachers are making the effort, but I would urge any parent of a child to insist that school curriculum include a broader scope and use The Warmth of Other Suns as a piece of critical text. 

A great many lives depend on it.

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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