In planning the first Young Women of Color (YWOC) retreat with Elisse Battle, one of our HS Learning Specialists and my co-leader for our Young Women of Color Affinity Group, we had an aligned, yet simple vision from the beginning: create a safe space for young women of color to come together to bond and uplift one another while having fun.
Our humble vision evolved into something far more impactful and wonderful and brought our wildest hopes for our young women of color to life. Our theme, Dreaming in Color in 2017, was realized this past March, and we lived that dream through each of the 17 girls present throughout our two-day overnight experience.
First up on our agenda was an opportunity for the girls to interact with GDS alumnae of color, who could speak about their experiences at GDS as influenced by their identities. Our panel included seven amazing women from various industries, who deeply care about giving back to their alma mater. Ashley Bethel ’04, Nina Grillo-Balthrop ’04, Ava Jones ’02, Samhita Kumar ’08, Alexis Shepherd ’10, Ferima Sidibe ’04, and Molly Yeselson ’16 answered questions from our YWOC with whit, candor, and oftentimes, nostalgic recollections of their time at GDS.
It was clear that our young women of color felt a sense of connectedness. They shared that they walked away from the experience feeling both encouraged that they were not alone in their experiences and also hopeful that when they return as alumni years from now, they too would be able to impart wisdom and insight to the next generation of GDS young women of color.
After bidding our alumni panel farewell, another GDS alumnus and current student at Howard University, Nina Nesbitt ’13, led a workshop on make-up and skincare for women of color. While talk of lipstick and eye shadow seems like an unlikely GDS topic, it was important to offer various workshops that ranged in content and scope that would affirm and uplift the girls in unique ways. This was also one topic that the girls requested be a point of focus, and they definitely enjoyed the time with Nina.
Following an hour-long heart-to-heart conversation, which allowed the girls to reflect upon their day, the first night of the retreat ended with a much-needed impromptu dance party!
Day two of the retreat was equally full of excitement and thoughtful engagement. Our HS studio arts department chair and yoga enthusiast, Michelle Cobb, led an early morning “Mindful Meditation” workshop infused with yoga. In a world where phones are often attached to hips, it was nice to see the YWOC fully present, in the moment, inhaling positive energy while releasing any points of stress from their busy weeks. Fully relaxed and with clear minds, the girls then tackled “Inclusive Feminism” with presenter, Stephanie Kimou, consultant, trainer, and executive director of Populations Works Africa.
Stephanie began the workshop with the YWOC by dissecting and defining intersectionality, feminism, and womanism. The conversation included an overview of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, and how it partly focused on the challenges named by middle class, white, suburban housewives. The girls discussed how this book ignored and silenced a population of women from certain socio-economic classes, races, religions, and sexual orientations.
They reflected upon questions including, “Who are we inadvertently silencing?” and “Who are we not including?” This part of the session was about reflecting in an open, honest, and safe space on what our biases and judgments were against other women of color. Did we judge women who dressed a certain way, attended public school vs. private school, weren’t as conscious or “woke” as we perceive ourselves to be?
Stephanie wrapped up the session by asking the young women who they thought were non-exemplary feminists. The girls chose four examples, and then had to turn around and defend these examples and debate why they were still strong women with agency. Stephanie’s workshop and activity provided a great example of how inclusive feminism is about putting our biases to the side and giving women the space to express their agency in their own unique and special ways.
We closed out the retreat re-affirming each other. As women, we pay attention to the many perceived “flaws and imperfections” we have or that we have been conditioned to believe we have, often ignoring the special qualities and gifts that make us strong and fabulous human beings. During this closing exercise, the girls had to say one thing they liked about themselves while looking into a mirror. While the task seemed simple enough, when you aren’t affirmed and uplifted on a regular basis, finding something you love about yourself feels like an overwhelming challenge. After the girls affirmed themselves, Elisse and I continued to fill their spirits with as much love and affirmation as possible, so that when their week started, they knew they had a full tribe of women behind them, supporting them every step of the way.
It was a sincere honor and privilege to spend this time with our Young Women of Color. The possibilities for continued engagement ahead are many, and I sincerely look forward to them all.