Connection, Growth, and Healing in Sisterhood
By: Natanja Craig-Oquendo, Executive Director at Boston Women’s Fund, co-founder of the Women of Color Leadership Circle; and Alexandra Auguste, Director, Community Investments at Boston Women's Fund
“The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” – Toni Morrison
From time to time, we think of these famous words and are reminded of countless experiences we’ve endured as women of color in the workplace. We know all too well the exhaustion of having to prove your leadership and competence time and time again. We know what it’s like to have to fight to have your voice heard. We know the trauma of operating within systems of white supremacy culture and the isolation many women of color experience, too.
The Anna Faith Jones & Freida Garcia Women of Color Leadership Circle (WOCLC) was founded as a salve for such struggles. This is not a standard leadership development program. Our aim is less focused on what these women produce, or leadership strategies; we are instead concerned with their core. This program is about the hearts and souls of women in leadership positions. And so, we call this a human-centered leadership development program.
The Women of Color Leadership Circle was built around what we needed but had not yet received in the workplace — a supportive environment to explore who we are as leaders, an ethos centered on collective wellbeing rather than individualism, and a community of other professionals with our shared experiences. The WOCLC is a place where barriers come down and bonds become strong, a space that will challenge the ways we’ve internalized the dominant culture’s view of us and replace that with deep love, acceptance and sisterhood.
We are excited to kick off the year with our second cohort of 15 incredible women working in the nonprofit sector.
Creating Sacred Space & Relationships
This year’s circle met for the first time in January and connected in such a way during the six-hour virtual meeting that, by the end, they were stalling for time. The session began by centering connection through storytelling and culture sharing. Each sister shared a photograph representing their power, an aspiration, an ancestor, or something that was grounding them, and together, they built a digital altar. So many told stories of their mothers and grandmothers and the long-lasting boldness and self-confidence they’d passed down. The group discussed how this current moment has impacted each of them personally and professionally. They also spent time reflecting and setting intentions for how they’d like to show up as leaders.
We were so moved by the unapologetic vibe of the discussion. There was no rushing. We took time to let each woman express her thoughts. No emotion was too big. No topic was off-limits. There was no need to be reserved. This was a space for every woman to show up and feel welcomed to be herself.
The unique energy of the session and the freedom it began to foster couldn’t be denied, and neither could the diversity of the virtual room. So often in mainstream culture, women of color are seen as a monolith. When in truth, there is so much beautiful complexity and variety within our cultures and identities. To allow for connection within those nuances, we created breakout rooms where women could gather with others of their background: Black Diaspora, Asian Pacific Islander, Latinx, and mixed heritage.
One woman commented that although she is of mixed race, such a group usually isn’t offered. In the past, she’s joined the group for Black individuals to avoid the exhaustion and complication of explaining how she actually identifies. She was so surprised to see a breakout group specifically for mixed-race individuals, which she excitedly joined because she knew she would find others with shared experiences there.
Centering Inclusion and Joy
We dreamed of the WOCLC as an inclusive space, through and through, and in just the first session, we were reminded of how our individual diversity enriches the group as a whole. To offer a full experience for a participant who is deaf, each session features women-of-color sign-language interpreters, whose work offered a gift to us all that we had not foreseen. Unexpectedly, honoring the needs of one sister brought such powerful beauty, light and movement that we didn’t know we were missing. We can’t think of a more perfect illustration for the truth that when we prioritize accessibility we create a more rich experience for all.
Our interpreters are both women of color, as well, and they are incredible. Huge thanks to Jo Welch and Kaylee Texiera from The Learning Center for the Deaf. Additionally, we’d like to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to our amazing facilitators, Aba Taylor and Kelly Bates of the Interaction Insitute for Social Change. Aba and Kelly’s energy was so felt by all of the women in attendance and their understanding and deep commitment to this program is invaluable and so appreciated by us all.
The session closed with the circle sharing ideas for self-care and cultivating joy. We hope to have created an environment that allows these women to explore, heal, envision who they want to be as leaders and foster a sisterhood among each other. Most of all, we hope through all of this we are saying, “You are enough.”