Issue No. 36
New York City, New York
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: Bee Walker
If choreographer Makeda Thomas had her way, she’d never leave her house. On the first floor of her New York home, her sister runs a daycare where Thomas’ 3-year-old son Shiloh spends his weekday mornings and afternoons with other children, while Thomas heads into the studio or works in a small office in the attic. Many of the matriarchs in Thomas’ family reside in New York, and were on hand when she gave birth to Shiloh in their home. There is a garden out back where she and Shiloh grow “everything from carrots, to tomatoes, to ginger, to okra” for big, Caribbean dinners with family and friends. She almost has everything she needs.
“My friends always tease me because I could very happily stay in this house for months and never come out,” Thomas says. “I bought this house in 2001 because I wanted to set those foundations. Now that I’m 35 years old, I can have the freedom and mobility that I have built on those foundations,” Thomas says.
That mobility includes having a home in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, her home country.
“In Trinidad, we have way more people around us because it’s this kind of village life. Your neighbor’s not across a two-lane street; your neighbor’s right there. The scale of everything changes,” says Thomas. “My mom and my sisters are in New York; and in Trinidad, Shiloh has a much more male space that includes his dad and his grandfather, to whom he is incredibly close. That’s the best part of what I do: the freedom.”
Thomas often uses the word “freedom” to explain her motivations and goals.
The origins of her decision to start a dance company took root in 1999 when she was still dancing for Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, a New York-based dance company focused on stories of the human experience and the African Diaspora respectively. Thomas was no older than 21 then—the youngest person in the modern-dance company at the time—and had joined the group at an especially exciting moment. Ronald K. Brown was “on fire” and its projects were being performed by companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Thomas explains. The group had a hectic schedule, but Thomas felt prepared for the pace after an earlier apprenticeship with Urban Bush Women, a troupe whose themes center on women of the African diaspora.
Thomas remained with Ronald K. Brown for a year before returning to Urban Bush Women when a full-time company position opened up. Then, still not slowing down, she left UBW after three years to join the premier hip-hop group Rennie Harris Puremovement, where she spent another three years choreographing works that toured internationally around Africa, Europe, and North America. Though she enjoyed her work, Thomas felt something was missing in the dialogue she was creating as a dancer.
“Ron used to say all the time, ‘Who is going to tell your grandmother’s story?’” she says. “That stuck with me because although I was performing in works by black artists, it was definitely a black-American experience, and I saw some space for my own experience to be told.” That feeling led her to create own company in 2003.
Being responsible for the business side of making art increased Thomas’ workload “tenfold,” but she felt prepared. After earning her MFA in Dance from Hollins University in Virginia and before her first stint at Urban Bush Women, Thomas had briefly worked at Sony Music and Coach in the media and public relations divisions where she developed a “good head for business.” And creatively, “like all young artists,” Thomas says she initially pulled inspiration from the many people she had worked with before settling into her own vision: multimedia performance projects with “an Africanist aesthetic.”
Thomas put her undergraduate degree in English to good use and devised experimental, multi-genre works that went beyond the stage and could be filmed in gallery spaces or outdoors, such as 2008’s “Costa del Alma,” the seven-minute film she made with Finnish videographer Panu Kari, which takes place in the Indian Ocean at low tide, just off the coast of Mozambique. Or her current work, “Speech Sounds,” a partly improvisational work named after an Octavia Butler short story in which “the only likely common language [is] body language.”
Thomas shares artifacts from her family's past, including the receipt for her mother's wedding ring.
Though these projects may appear to be a leap from what Thomas had done under the banner of other artists, experimenting with literature and other media comes naturally to her, especially as she gets older.
“With each work that you make your voice becomes clearer and the idiosyncrasies of your personality become more apparent. So I’m really proud of where I am right now,” she says. “The companies and artists I worked with before starting my own company were like parents. They lay a sort of foundation, and then you step away from that and come into your own. That’s what’s happened for me in the last decade. Now, I can experiment more and make myself out more in the complete image of all that I’ve learned. I’m just in my own skin—and certainly after I had my son."
When Shiloh was born in 2010, Thomas had been living in Trinidad for four years. She returned in 2006, five years after the death of her father.
“The arts community in Trinidad is vibrant,” she says. “Visual arts in particular are incredible, and the literary art scene is highly-regarded and well-known. But in Trinidad there is a lot less energy, support, and fewer conversations happening around dance, the body, and how we physicalize our experiences.”
Trinidad and Tobago didn’t necessarily lack an arts scene—Thomas notes that artists like Pearl Primus and Geoffrey Holder are known internationally—but the scope of the arts in Trinidad is much smaller-scale. And though she was from the island and had visited every summer, Thomas was, in a way, the new kid on the block.
Thomas holds a piece of art created by her father.
“I was in the United States when people were going to school with each other in Trinidad and developing relationships with one another,” she says. “So I had to have patience. I had to get to know people and cultivate relationships with them, and include myself in conversations about the work that was already being done there.”
After four years of establishing herself in the community, she felt ready to launch the Dance & Performance Institute in her home country in 2010. Since its inception, the Institute has been a space for important conversations about the body, movement and cultural production for an international community of dance and performance artists.
“I started the Institute to create a space where dominant discourses on art and culture could be challenged and where new progressive languages could be spoken,” Thomas explains. “[It’s] a space where dancers could dance and be healed from the laborious hierarchies of imperialism and colonization; a space where we could “each re-strategize our own personal vision.”
Thomas was five months pregnant with Shiloh when the first artist-in-residence arrived so, as she puts it, “children have always been part of the vision of the organization and very present.”
“Tony Hall, a Trinidadian playwright and scholar, has this process he calls the ‘Jouvay process,’” Thomas says. “It describes a way of seeing the world and making work that reflects what you’re seeing. I was a mom, so it made sense to me that this should be a part of our vision.”
Unlike many other residencies, Thomas’ Dance & Performance Institute allows artists to have their children on site and makes space for them when it is necessary. Her team also helps families scout for housing in the area and makes classes available to youngsters. For Thomas, making it possible for people with families to take part in the Institute isn’t about pardoning exceptions, but following through on a commitment.
“I responded to what my circumstances were and what my environment said to me was necessary, because I was pregnant and running this program,” she says. “But also, if we’re going to talk about different kinds of communities, and communities that include children, we’re going to have to make a way for those to exist.”
Another promise that Thomas is making good on is continuing to explore the work of artists in other places of origin in the Caribbean diaspora. Although the program has taken place in Port-of-Spain every summer since it started in 2010, this year the two-week intensive seminar Thomas runs will be moving to Haiti, a shift Thomas believes is a natural progression.
“I want to expand the conversations we’ve had in Trinidad as far as the art-making process, Caribbean art theory, or even the idea of what the Institute means as a community,” she explains. “All of that stuff—discussions about what it means to be free, and to be a Caribbean artist—shifts when we move into Haiti, which is really the birthplace of the entire black experience in the Americas, in a way. I think it’ll be a prime place to form political, social, and cultural alliances with the artists who are there.”
And beyond that? Maybe more children, and definitely more travel, more movement, and more growth. “I love the fact that I can focus on writing and be in a more scholarly space if I want to,” she says, explaining the importance of fluidity in life. “I can be in the studio, or dream up an incredible program that I think is missing from all the programs out there—and then I can make it happen.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
It’s made me firm in my convictions—all of which were up for rethinking with the birth of my son—and I’m more compassionate to all of the different kinds of people that there are. I used to be able to watch certain violent scenes in films or television, but I can’t anymore. I’m always thinking, “That could be somebody’s child.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
Always, always, always. It happened in the best way possible, though I always imagined I’d be much younger. I didn’t think I’d be 32 years old and having my first child. All of the women in my family had their children in their 20s, so that’s was my idea of when you started. But I wasn’t concerned because it was a great time for my family. I was dancing and performing and had just gotten my MFA, and I was in Trinidad since my mother was getting married. So when I learned that I was going to be a mom, it was the best timing: I was ready and Shiloh’s dad was happy.
What was your pregnancy like?
I enjoyed every moment of it; it was a great pregnancy. I was still doing dance, which requires quite a bit of travel, so I went back and forth to Trinidad and came back to New York for the last two months of my pregnancy so that I could be spoiled by my sisters and my mom. I had a Colombian doula and a Jamaican midwife, so the process felt very natural and I loved it. I also breastfed Shiloh for three years because, to me, breastfeeding is just what there was; it was a choice. If I couldn’t do it, then I’d have to make another choice, but it was what I wanted and was able to do. I knew that it was healthiest, and I wanted to have that amazing experience of bonding.
I knew this as a dancer, but what I really learned during my pregnancy was how intelligent the body is. It can create and lead the right nutrients to the right places. It’s a being that knows exactly what to do, and it’s amazing. So I learned to step back and honor that [that] wisdom, which included breastfeeding, was completely natural. And letting Shiloh breastfeed until he wanted to come off was the way to go and made sense.
What about dancing after having a baby? What has that been like for you and how has that changed you professionally or the kinds of work that you do?
Luckily, my body did not change that much and I still feel very good about it. I’m probably thinner now because of breastfeeding, so that helped me get back to my size very quickly. Being a mother has, though, made me think a lot differently about how I want the female body or the body of a mother to be perceived, thought about, and performed.
For example, my whole relationship to even my breasts has changed dramatically. I don’t want to make this whole thing about breasts themselves, because there’s also a discourse about the overexposed, oversexualized black female body that I’m aware of. And yet, I want to assert and expose the power of all the stories and experiences that the body has to tell. This kind of thinking underlines some of the choices I’ve made artistically—“Speech Sounds,” for one, does feature some nudity. And I don’t think that kind of perspective I have now was possible before I was a mother.
What does “balance” mean to you, and what are ways that you receive support or give support in order to make this work for you?
I happily can say that I exist outside of those conversations about work-life balance. I live in movement so, for me, balance is necessary at points—but only so that I can continue to move. I’m always aware that life is going to be in flux, and the flux involves people in my community who are invaluable to me: my family, the rest of my neighbors in Trinidad, and my Institute family as well. Every summer, when I have a big group of people around me I say, “If you see Shiloh, in that moment, he belongs to you.” And that goes for any child that’s in the space at the time. This is a very West Indian thing and sometimes we have a very international group of people who may not know what’s appropriate or what they can say to someone else’s child—but we tell them it’s okay: If you see a child, they are your responsibility in the moment that they’re in your eyesight. This is automatically a community, and I could not do what I do if it were a different kind of environment.
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
Re-seeing the whole entire world with Shiloh and having him in my life. Kids really do challenge you. You have to walk the walk with your kids. I’m not one of those “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of parents because I know that doesn’t work. If you tell your son to be honest, for example, he’ll just hold you up to it. Everything that you say you’re about you have to be in front of your children. That’s been the greatest challenge for me—to meet that expectation, which ultimately makes you better.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mom?
Figuring out how to make sure to include his father in everything since Shiloh and I go back and forth between New York,Trinidad, and Tobago, where his dad is. On top of that, we have the traveling that I do for work, and Shiloh goes to everything with me. With that kind of schedule, I have to be really conscious to make sure that he spends quality time with his father, just the two of them.
What is your parenting style and how do you execute it, especially when you experience doubt as a mother?
I’m encouraging Shiloh to be seriously independent. I think the only true way to honor the self is if you ask questions and explore, and try and fail—and all of these things require that you have a really independent spirit. I want him to have that even if it means that we disagree, which I imagine it will. But I still want him to ask his own questions in his own ways, and to find his own answers. That’s important to me. That’s honoring the divine, and it’s all I want him to do.
How would you describe your child’s personality?
Oh, he’s funny. I see a lot of my father in him every day. Shiloh’s very cheeky; he has a really wicked sense of humor, but is very sweet and very loving. He’s also a flirt and is very, very charming and knows when to turn it on. We can’t believe it. Right now, he’s a very heterosexual male. That could change—I’m open—but right now he has all these little girlfriends. His whole self just changes, it’s hilarious.
What is it like to see his personality evolve as he gets older?
It’s wonderful. It’s one of the rewards I imagined being a mother would give. That’s why I love it the most when he makes me laugh—I’m collecting all my mother coins. Going back to the idea of being independent, I encourage him to be himself because that’s where the most magic and joy will come from for me. Not from getting a little replica of me who’s doing exactly what I’m doing, but from how amazing it will be to learn from him other ways of doing things.
What is the best advice your mother, or the mothers in your life, have given you?
I can’t think of anything they’ve necessarily said, because some of it is old Caribbean nonsense like, “He’s two days old—don’t pick him up yet! Stop spoiling him now.” (Laughs) But what these women have shown me is how to love their children, unconditionally. They have walked away from harsh relationships with men, and certain supposed stabilities and securities, in order to stand by their children.
Family photos in Shiloh's bedroom.
What perspective do you hope to give him through your work?
The most perspective he’s probably been getting is that art is life. Because he’s been very much in the middle of everything, he probably doesn’t recognize that work is a kind of separate thing. I think it could be very powerful if he could learn a very different kind of work ethic. My mother’s father, for example, worked very hard his entire life and was honorable because of that, but I think what gets lost is that connection that I want Shiloh to maintain. You can work so hard, sometimes, that you forget the magic. So if Shiloh can learn how to make work part of his life and be enjoyable—but not be consumed by it—that would be awesome.
What kind of person do you hope your child becomes?
I don’t want to say that there’s nothing in particular I want him to be, because that’s not true. If he said “nothing,” there would be tears after all this raising him. I hope that he remains connected to himself, to me, to his family, and to his history. That’s it.
Issue No. 37
Words: Michelle No
Visuals: Erika Salazar
Jamyla Bennu may be the founder of a beauty collection about to make its Target debut, but, truth be told, the 37-year-old is just as happy under quieter circumstances: spending time with her family in their home in Baltimore, Maryland.
"They'll climb into bed and Pierre and I will pretend we're still asleep for a good 10 minutes," Bennu says of her two sons, Sadat (3) and Osei (5). "One will be on one side of me, and [the second] will be on the other. Then one will say, 'This is my mommy,' and then I'll say 'We share the mommy,' and they'll try to be quiet. Then it's time to get up."
From there Bennu's life jumps into high gear. While her husband and Oyin Handmade co-founder Pierre prepares breakfast, Bennu gets the boys ready for school in a marathon frenzy of packing lunches, dressing her children, and shuttling them off to their respective schools. Save for the blissful few moments shared in bed, her mornings are “mayhem.”
"As the oldest of four, [I’ve always known] the amount of responsibility and work involved in raising children, and that responsibility is one that I've always respected and been intimidated by," explains Bennu, who, despite her initial nonchalance, was won over to the idea of parenthood by her "amazing partner."
"Pierre is incredibly nurturing, and has this insane amount of emotional intelligence,” she says. “It is something I’ve always admired and a big part of why I decided to have kids; even if I feel like I have a lot going on, I know that someone else on the team is available."
As ideal as her parenting circumstances may be, the unexpected challenges of raising another human being have taught Bennu that a “perfect” household exists only through acceptance. She learned her first lesson in flexibility when, at the age of 2.5, her oldest son was diagnosed with a speech delay. Bennu initially tried to talk herself out of her suspicions, but enrolled Osei in an early intervention program as soon as an official diagnosis was made.
“As laissez-faire as I am, there still are some assumptions that I make that I’ve had to let go of to parent this particular child in the way that is best for him,” Bennu admits. "It’s been an education. I’ve learned how to communicate with someone for whom—the way it feels—English is not his first language. I’m a very verbally communicative person and I’ve had to pull back from my need to understand on my own terms, to communicate with someone on so many other levels. It’s taught me a lot about patience and about respecting the multiple intelligences with which we all greet the world.”
In her professional life, Bennu’s open-mindedness is what spurred her to start her own honey-based beauty line, Oyin Handmade, and what continues to guide the company’s ethos today.
“I grew up in a crafty, creative house, making clothes, furniture, and bicycles, [basically] knowing that you could make pretty much everything that you wanted or needed,” she says. “So when I came across a recipe book about home spa treatments, I just added it to the list of crafty things that I did. It wasn’t a big deal.”
During the early 2000s, Bennu kept herself busy with many other “artsy, hustle activities,” including building websites for artists, grant writing, teaching, and making films.
“We were doing all sorts of things,” she says of her and her husband. “But then in 2005, we kind of looked up and [Oyin] was all we were doing. It had taken over. That was when we decided to take it a little more seriously.”
When she moved to Baltimore from Brooklyn, New York, Bennu moved Oyin’s production to her “shoebox” of a house, which had a basement large enough to contain her entire business. As her clientele grew, so did her collection, and the business world started taking notice. Since 2012, the brand has been expanding through Whole Foods Markets in the Mid-Atlantic region, and starting spring 2014, will be debuting at select Target stores nationwide.
For Bennu, the feat is less of a financial step forward, and more of a personal win.
“For most of my life, there were way less products available geared toward natural hair. I have highly textured hair, and that’s who I thought of when I made it.” Bennu says firmly. “[Though] I’ve learned over time that just about anyone can use Oyin.”
Puppet created by fiber artist, Adrienne Patrick.
In her work, as in the home, Bennu is an ambitious multitasker. When she’s not researching new recipes for castille soaps or honey butters, she is ordering new production equipment, or interacting with customers on her various social media feeds.
“Being an entrepreneur is never boring,” Bennu says. “You're always getting to learn and stretch your capacity and do different things and exercise different parts of your brain.“
Though Bennu’s aspirations for Oyin include introducing a facial and home collection, her most pressing goal is raising her children to be the kind of people who don’t “cut people off in traffic,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.
“We really don’t want them to be jerks. We want them to be friends with each other, because having a peaceful and supportive family life can build up a foundation for being a peaceful and supportive member of society.”
Whether it’s building up her family or her company, Bennu estimates she’s only spent one out of 15 years with her husband, working apart from him. While most couples may cringe at the idea of working so many hours together, Bennu sees the shared ownership as one of Oyin’s biggest assets.
“I love spending my days with him,” she says. “There are shared goals, trust, and ease of work between us, and those things are carried over into the business and the culture of the business. We always say our products are made with love, and they really are.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
It has changed everything. From the way in which [Pierre and I] make decisions, and the way we spend our days, to the amount of sleep we get and the way our house is organized. My husband collects toys and knickknacks and obsolete technology, and there have been toys in our house since far before we had children. We’ve always had a house where kids love to come. Now we have a house where kids live.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I didn’t grow up thinking I’d have kids. It was not a given. When we began talking about it, we had [been together] for eight years. We’d say, “Oh my gosh, children, what a big decision. Let’s think about that later.” [At one point], I began to feel like it was too late for me to keep not thinking about it. You can only put it off for so long before your body begins to make that decision for you. And there’s never a perfect time. So in 2008, [we thought], “Let’s give it a try, and if it happens this year, then we’re gonna have kids, and if it doesn’t happen this year, then we won’t.” And it happened.
Bennu's mother makes these dolls and sells them through her site, Dtb originals.
What was your pregnancy like?
Pregnancy is a complete science fiction experience. It’s crazy. My body changed in this accelerated phase and became a whole ‘nother shape. I didn’t have any of the discomforts one expects. There was no morning sickness, no lack of mobility—it was just complete fun and surrealness. I did feel [my second pregnancy] a lot more. I was 32 with the first one and 34 with the second one, and I wonder if it was just a matter of just being older. I felt bloated, a little bit of back pain, and I didn’t feel like an amazing fertility goddess of beauty and wonderment.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
Learning to respect the kids as individuals and allowing them their own time frame for development, and to grow outside of my expectations. My oldest son had a speech delay when he was 2.5, and his linguistic language does not come easily to him. He has a really strong mathematical and engineering mind, and is strong in kinesthetic and physical languages. I sometimes say his first language is charisma and English is his second; he tells you what he needs with the sparkle of his personality. [Parenting him] has been one of my biggest lessons and I’m still learning it.
How did you find out Osei had a speech delay?
At the time, he was in home care with a babysitter who had one other child, and the other child was speaking fully by the time he was 18 months. Super precocious. I was very concerned about looking at him differently, or judging my kid too harshly or in comparison to this other child. Even though I had questions, I just wanted to be fair to him. So I [went through a period of] asking myself, “Am I crazy?” when I first began to suspect that his speech wasn’t developing normally. I [finally] took him to a pediatrician, who did more testing and did confirm for me that [his speech] was outside the realm of what was normal for a 2.5 year old.
Is there any advice that your mother, or any mothers in your life gave you, that you abide by?
I abide by all advice and no advice. I feel like having a circle of mothers is incredibly important because it gives you perspective. But I also take it with a grain of salt because nobody’s got my kid, and even between the two of them, I’ve seen that what works with one child doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Or what works for one at one point, may not work for that same one a year later when he’s a completely different person. I don’t know if any of us really feel like we’re doing it right. In fact I’d wager all of us feel like we’re doing it wrong. Ultimately these kids are the ones that can teach me best how to parent them.
How did you start Oyin?
I started making bath salts and hand butters for myself and friends in 2001. Pierre encouraged me to make a website for it to sell to people who weren’t my friends, and that happened in 2003. We found ourselves working on it more and more, as we also did other things. [By the time] we moved from New York City to Baltimore, we were working 12-18 hours a day. A huge shift [happened in 2008]. We hired people and Oyin began to be [more of] an official business—something that wasn’t just the two of us but involved others—and enabled us to scale it out a lot more.
Which product was the toughest to “get right”?
Boing! [A hair moisturizing cream.] I worked on that for a year. I wanted to have the hold with the moisturizing [component]. It was a really delicate balance. I’d have to try different fixatives and vegetables and there were none that I found [that were perfect]. They would be too chemical-y, or too medical-y. But I loved that part of [the work]—the science and trial and error of it.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
Meeting customers and seeing how they use Oyin. We opened a boutique in 2009, and that was when the in-person interaction started to really happen. Even though I don’t work at the shop anymore, and we have another person who does the social media, I do whatever I can to participate. Like, at the end of my day, I’ll go on Instagram and [see] 40 people who are really excited they got their Black Friday orders so fast. There is all this emoji love and it just makes my freaking day that they trusted us enough to buy our products. We still can’t believe we get to do this for a living. It’s just the best.
What kind of example do you hope to impart to your children through your work?
That work doesn’t have to be a place that you dread to go to; it can be fun. We have a family business and having the kids coming in every now and then is awesome for the culture of the company. The things we make are made with love, and everybody on the team is working their butts off, but we’re also having a good time and enjoying each other.
And the kids love it. They ask to go to work with us and get excited about bringing friends over after school. Osei was less than a year old when we first opened our little boutique here in Baltimore, and he was in the shop every Saturday that [first] year. He was the mascot.
We also want them to be fulfilled. We hope to instill in our kids the freedom to shape their lives, follow their strengths, and [encourage them to] work to make the things that they do best, the things that they love the most, also be the things that they do most often. That’s an incredible luxury [we have], and one we are thankful for all the time.
Issue No. 38
Tenafly, New Jersey
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: Bee Walker
Not many people can say they’ve made their childhood dreams come true, but, then again, not many people have the same dogged passion as lawyer Rachel Rodgers.
“I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer when I was like, 8 years old,” Rodgers says. “My mom was really into crime dramas and used to watch movies that had courtroom scenes. I was always taken by the lawyers; I saw them as representing the little guy.”
While her career today bears little resemblance to a tension-filled, “A Few Good Men”-style courtroom procedural, Rodgers has made a name for herself fighting for another type of underdog: small-business owners. Founded in 2010, her virtual law practice Rachel Rodgers Law Office has become a source of both emotional (“I have a lot of clients [who] call me for motivational speeches,” she says) and legal support for her clients, mostly young entrepreneurs under the age of 45. (mater mea recently became one of those clients, as well.)
“I like being a lawyer, but I don’t want to work in a firm where it’s uncomfortable for me as a woman, or as a minority, or as a parent—and then there’s no room for free time,” she says.
Free time and flexibility are perks she values as wife to Dediako Rodgers, mother to Riley (2) and Jackson (7 months), and a stepmother to her husband’s daughter Fatia (14). Helping other entrepreneurs achieve balance between their work and personal lives became especially important.
Although Rodgers always knew she’d be a lawyer, her path to the profession was far from clear cut. As an undergrad at a State University of New York school, Rodgers was accepted into a Washington semester program that sent students to the District for six months to take classes on Friday afternoons and spend the rest of the week interning. She secured an internship in the office of Hillary Clinton, who was a junior senator from New York at the time.
It wasn’t long before Rodgers began to consider trading the courtroom for the Capitol and a career in politics. After her internship ended, she spent an extra year in DC working at a lobbying firm that worked with Clinton’s office. However the experience of working for big interests left her wanting, she says.
“We were a pretty well-known firm for some big corporations,” she says. “When I saw how things actually worked I became kind of jaded. I knew nothing about this before I got there, but it helped me find my bearings in terms of what I did and didn’t want to do.”
Realizing that law was the right path for her after all, Rodgers decided to transfer to a smaller college and completed her undergraduate degree at Bethany College in California. Then she enrolled at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York for her JD. But again the experience wasn’t quite what she had expected.
“I was an excellent student used to getting excellent grades, and then I went to law school,” Rodgers says. “I thought I’d figure it out eventually, even if I wasn’t doing so great at the beginning, but I wasn’t really catching on. I did pretty well, but not as well as I was used to.”
Adding to her difficulties at law school were her fellow classmates. After her father died unexpectedly when she was in high school, she had seen what it was like for her mother to manage raising two children on her own. Rodgers worked part time throughout college to support herself and was accustomed to struggling financially unlike many other Cardozo students she met.
“Law school tends to attract a lot of entitled people, and I just felt like I wasn’t connecting with a lot of the students,” she says now.
What’s more, the Cardozo student body didn’t reflect the diversity she had hoped to see in a New York City-based school.
“Our Black Law Students Association was pretty small, and there weren’t a lot of people of color in general,” Rodgers says. “I grew up in New York City and was comfortable around different types of people, so the fact that there [wasn’t any] diversity just seemed super odd to me. I felt like I was never plugged in and that was a big struggle.”
Despite her growing disenchantment, Rodgers threw herself into various activities and jobs. She helped represent Cardozo at a tournament in Paris, and outside of school, held internships at “all kinds of different places”: working for judges in federal court, in a public defender’s office in California, and even at Bear Stearns during its collapse. She also participated in a volunteer program where she went to family court and helped domestic violence victims advocate for themselves.
“I was trying to find my place in the law, and I hadn’t found it yet,” Rodgers explains.
In 2008, after her internship in California ended, Rodgers eloped in Napa with her boyfriend of three years (and friend of eight years) Dediako Rodgers, wanting to avoid the expense, frenzy, and “pomp and circumstance” of a wedding. They returned home to the East Coast and used the money they would’ve spent on a wedding to purchase a home in New Jersey. A few months later, Rodgers began a one-year clerkship with a family court judge in Sussex County, New Jersey, which ended up being one of the most positive experiences she had had in law in a while.
“Judge Farber worked with clients at trial level, and that was really interesting and exciting,” Rodgers says. “I didn’t want to work in appeals with a lot of paperwork and not be able to work directly with litigants. Trial was more in the trenches, which is what I envisioned. I didn’t necessarily see myself as an academic clerking for the highest judge possible, then getting into a big firm. That was not my path.”
Potential employers agreed. Rodgers interviewed at a number of firms, but received rejection letter after rejection letter. Interviewers would tell her how much they loved her—even writing encouraging notes in standard form replies saying that they knew she would go far—but still explained that she wasn’t a good fit for their firm’s culture.
“I thought it was grades at first, but I had friends who had the same grades as me and got into big firms,” Rodgers recalls. “I think they knew I was just not a fit. A lot of the time, when corporations interview a candidate they can identify whether that person fits their culture, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is. It’s not something on paper; it’s personality. I think we both knew I wouldn’t fall in line with what they needed.”
It was then that Rodgers began thinking outside of the confines of a traditional law career. “People work so hard to become lawyers, only to discover how much the structure of the profession sucks,” Rodgers explains. She read Tim Ferriss’ oft-evangelized book The 4-Hour Work Week on how to “escape the 9-5” and spent all of her off-the-clock time researching virtual law offices, a concept that was still in its infancy.
“There were probably a total of 10 in the country,” Rodgers recalls. “If I couldn’t find them online they probably weren’t very successful, because if you have a virtual law office you have to market your product online.”
Rodgers found every lawyer who had a virtual law office in the country and reached out to them by phone or via email, and asked them what was and wasn’t working for them, and why.
“Luckily they were very open to talking to me,” she says. “I’m really grateful for that because it taught me a lot. I learned that the biggest struggle they were having was marketing their practices; they were very good lawyers—really smart people—but they didn’t know how to market online because it’s not traditionally done that way.”
By the time her clerkship ended in August 2010, Rodgers was ready to go. She launched Rachel Rodgers Law Office exactly one month later, starting out with three clients off the bat. Word of mouth had spread among her friends and her sister’s friends, and the trio was comprised of women who all needed help with starting a business. Since all the people she was serving were young entrepreneurs, Rodgers decided to make them her niche. And in the economic downturn in which many young people were losing their jobs and using their severance packages to launch startups, she received a lot of press for being able to specifically help those people.
“A lot of my clients say that they’ve gone to traditional lawyers who don’t know what on earth they’re talking about when they say, ‘I sell my products and services online,’ or, ‘I need terms and conditions for a website,’” she says. “Lawyers won’t quite get it, but will charge exorbitant fees for a service that is obviously not going to fit with their business model. I like being the one who gets it.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
One of the things that’s awesome is that it makes you so present. I’m a very future-focused, almost overly-ambitious person; I’m always planning the next thing I want to execute or experience. A lot of good things come with that, but it sometimes causes me to not really enjoy the experience I’m having right now. I’ll accomplish something and then think, “What’s next?” instead of enjoying where I’m at. My kids allow me to be more in the moment, and I love that. I think that’s one of the big benefits of being a parent.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
My husband has a child from a previous relationship and I’ve been very involved in her life since she was 5, because that’s when her father and I started dating. I was already playing a sort of mothering role to her—and I was also very involved in my niece’s life—so I kind of felt like I didn’t have to become a mother. I could have kids or I could not, and either way I’d be happy—and then of course I got pregnant.
How did you feel when you found out so soon into your new venture that you were going to be a mother?
My initial response when I saw a positive sign on the pregnancy test was, “I am totally not organized or ready for this experience.” I still had health insurance from my clerkship, but it was about to expire. At the same time, I knew that I could handle it. My husband and I are very close and still have a strong relationship, so I thought, “What better person to do this with?” The money situation wasn’t great, but it was a really good environment for a child.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mom?
My second pregnancy with my son Jackson, which was more difficult than my first pregnancy with my daughter Riley. I found out I was pregnant again the day before my daughter’s first birthday. When the baby was 20 weeks along, my husband and I went in for a routine sonogram to find out the sex, but the person that was doing it had a concern and wanted the doctor to review the results. After half an hour of being super excited that we were having a boy, the doctor told us there was a very high risk of him being born very early and not making it. I had an “incompetent cervix.” The cervix thins out for birth but at that point in my pregnancy I was supposed to have three or four inches left; I had about an inch. Although the doctors said it was a common problem and that the vast majority of women who have this problem go on to have healthy babies, I had to have surgery to sew up my cervix as much as possible. After that, it was just me trying to hold onto Jackson for as long as possible and researching if he was born early, how many complications he could have.
I was put on bed rest. I literally could only get up to go to the bathroom, and that was it. I was still trying to run my business which, at that point was starting to thrive and get really busy. I had figured out some of my operational issues and had a lot of clients, and I was getting paid pretty well for the work that I was doing—and I was running it all from bed. The only time I could leave the house was for doctor’s visits, so my husband took over. He took my daughter to child care, made all of my meals, and basically took care of me constantly. He had to rush me to the emergency room multiple times during the pregnancy because I started having contractions and the doctors had to stop them.
That was the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a mother so far. Just the worry. I was really concerned and would break down every now and then. I tried to stay strong and be really positive because I tend to be a positive person anyway, but it was tough. I was on a forum with other mothers who were on bed rest and had similar issues, and I’d read stories about their babies being born really early. So I dealt with it by trying to find as much information as possible. I felt like if I let my imagination go then I’d imagine the worst, so I wanted to look up actual statistics and articles from medical journals. In some ways it was comforting, and in other ways it was stressful.
How has your schedule changed since then? What’s a typical day like for you and your children?
During my pregnancy with Jackson we were living in Rapid City, South Dakota. My husband was taking classes in a special program that teaches you how to build cars from scratch, from the chassis up. He had to stop taking classes, though, to take care of me full-time after I went on bed rest. My husband would make breakfast and drop Riley off at daycare around 8:30 every morning, and then go work out and have some time to himself. He’d come back for lunch, and I’d be working, taking calls with current clients and potential clients, drafting paperwork, registering trademarks, and just doing my day-to-day. So it was great that I was already used to working from home.
Riley would come home from day care around 4 p.m. and lie in bed with me, and we’d watch Bones. She liked the music in the beginning and even though there were all these dead bodies in the show, she didn’t mind. My husband would make dinner and feed her, and she’d fall asleep in bed with me watching shows on Hulu. It was a hard time overall but I loved that part of the day because we spent so much time together bonding when I couldn’t run around and do other things. My husband and I also bonded because we had this thing we were both worried about, and him taking care of me really strengthened our relationship.
Now we’re back in New Jersey in the house we bought in 2008 when we first got married. It’s like 10 minutes outside of Manhattan. I recently moved into an office space because my practice is so busy now. My son is still home so if he cried, I’d want to get involved. I was constantly getting interrupted or would interrupt myself because I would go try to help out.
It might be too early to tell with Jackson, but what are your children’s personalities like?
I’m very close to my stepdaughter Fatia—who I don’t like calling my “stepdaughter” because it’s not inclusive enough. My friend has a stepson from her husband’s previous marriage and she calls him her “bonus son,” so I would refer to Fatia as my “bonus daughter.” I would say that Fatia definitely has a lot of my husband’s personality. She’s very laidback and super smart, and loves Japanese manga and rock music. She has her own style and is very aware of herself; she knows she’s different from other kids and is comfortable with that. I love that. I see a lot of her parents in her, and I do see some of myself in her—but that’s one of the things that was hard. Playing the role of a parent in some ways and having opinions about what is right for a child, but not getting to decide. For example, I could go to my husband and advocate my position about certain decisions concerning Fatia’s education, but sometimes he didn’t agree with me and that was really hard. Now, I have more influence over my children and getting to see myself in them is just amazing.
Riley definitely has some of my traits. She’s very outgoing, fun, and says hi to everybody. She loves to sing and dance, and she’s also very feisty. She wants what she wants—but maybe every child is like that. She also has this kind of laidback air about her and my husband has that, too, but she kind of goes after what she wants.
What is the best advice your mother, or the mothers in your life, have given you?
I think the best thing I learned from my mom in terms of parenting is definitely to encourage my children. She was my biggest cheerleader and still is, in a lot of ways. We have our own opinions about certain things but she always, always encouraged me, and that’s why I felt like I could be whatever I wanted to be. Lots of people in my neighborhood never went to grad school, let alone college, but I felt like it was a no-brainer. I could do that because my mom convinced me that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I’m really grateful to her for that, and I want to make sure I accomplish that with my own children.
Your husband, Dediako, is a stay-at-home father. What does it feel like to be the breadwinner in your family?
I like the idea that I’m taking care of us when that has traditionally been a “man’s job.” Being able to support my family—not just so that we’re getting by but that we can do really well—means a lot to me. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up and felt like I was struggling financially for a very long time. So to get to a place where I’m doing it and making more than enough on my own terms brings me so much joy, because it took so many years to make it happen. And as an experience, my husband and I are both very comfortable with it.
We went to premarital counseling before we got married, and I always tell my friends to make sure they do it. It was a super-valuable experience. You go through all of these different areas of your relationship and your personal lives, like money and sex, and one of the things we talked about was even household chores: What was our vision of how our life was going to be? Who was going to cook and clean and all of that? You answer the questions on your own and then come together to talk about it with the counselor, and my husband and I really agreed. We realized there were some areas where we vastly disagreed, but we were very comfortable with not being a traditional household. And I like that we’re modeling that for my daughter so she knows it doesn’t just have to be one way. We figured out a lifestyle that works for us.
Sometimes I totally wish that I could stay home and can tomatoes and make everything from scratch, like organic baby foods that I’d puree in a blender. But having a flexible schedule that I make for myself still allows me to be here a lot. There are nights or weekends when I have to go into the office, but for the most part this works and I love the work that I’m doing. It’s not like I’m doing a job that I hate and I don’t get to stay home with my kids, because I think that would be a challenge.
What perspective do you hope to impart to your children through your work?
I want them to do work that they love; that is something I’m super passionate about. I feel like I’m providing legal support to people who are doing that, and that’s why I do the work that I do. I want my kids to know that whatever lifestyle they want, they can build around it. They don’t have to do a 9-to-5 and be in a cubicle all day if they don’t want to. They can do work that matters to them—and if they can’t find a position they want, they can create it.
I want them to be pioneers of their own lives and to be living their lives intentionally. Not just I happen to be at this job, or I happen to be with this guy or happen to be with this woman. As if life were just happening to them and they were doing something because they were supposed to be doing it. No. I want them to spend time getting to know themselves, figuring out their talents, figuring out their personalities, and feeling confident and having strong self-esteem, and then to be making decisions. If they want to travel, then I want them to do that. I want them to have whatever lifestyle they want and to do work that they enjoy.
They don’t have to love every second of it—I don’t love every second of drafting contracts and handling cases. But overall my work is very, very rewarding and it’s worth it to me for those moments when I’m not enjoying it. I want them to have that.
Issue No. 39
Words: Lisa Kay Davis
Visuals: Tim Redman
There’s very little room for resting in entrepreneur Agatha Achindu’s packed schedule. Even when her two younger children have been tucked in bed for a few hours, Achindu is still at it, working on another round of paperwork and food prep that awaits her in the kitchen of her home in Atlanta. As the founder of Yummy Spoonfuls, a line of organic baby food sold in retailers like Whole Foods, sleep is a luxury the 46 year old left behind years ago, thanks to the demands of caring for her sons—Georges (23), Malcolm (15), and Jared-Zane (9)—and running her own business. Although the constant shuffle can be hectic, Achindu believes that the level of sacrifice is worth it.
“The biggest challenge to me is being in a million different places at a million different times because of how I choose to parent," she says. “Everything is hands on. We don’t do any fast food. We don’t do any processed food. No matter how busy I am, we have to cook. That is my biggest challenge, but at the end of the day I am grateful that I have the opportunity and [the] willpower to do it.”
Juggling tasks is nothing new for Achindu. Before she launched Yummy Spoonfuls in 2006, she spent hours building and testing code as a quality assurance executive for a software company called Agilysys.
“If you go to Las Vegas, almost every hotel has the Agilysys software," Achindu explains. “My team was based there and I traveled back and forth from Atlanta. Our job was to make sure that all the software used at casinos, hotels, and spas was bug free.”
The travel took her across the country providing IT products and services for some of the biggest named hotels and entertainment outlets on the Las Vegas strip. The income was more than enough to support her and she absolutely loved her job in corporate America.
When she wasn’t overseeing her team of developers and coders, Achindu spent after hours and weekends cooking for friends at home. “I had a friend who loved french fries. She would eat them all the time," Achindu recalls. “I told her, ‘Come over and I will make french fries that you’ll love.’ I rubbed the potatoes in coconut oil and baked them on parchment paper. She loved them!”
Spreading the word about nutrition and healthy eating was always a part of her routine. She wanted the people she met at work or church to enjoy eating healthy, something Achindu carried with her from her childhood in Cameroon. “I remember at home the kitchen was where everyone settled," she says. “We were always in the kitchen. This person is cooking while another is talking. We were all there telling stories. As a kid, I really loved cooking. I was the person in the house who was always trying new things.”
When Achindu came to the United States as a 19-year-old college student, she noticed something significantly different in the way people ate stateside —it wasn’t the farm-to-table model she was used to. Maintaining her childhood diet turned out to be pretty tough and often times disappointing.
“Back in the early ‘90s you couldn’t just find organic just anywhere," Achindu says. “I had to do my research. I realized that [even] the brown bread was different. I took a bite of that bread and I knew that something was wrong. Everything we made at home was made fresh. It’s not special to us; that’s how we grew up. You get up in the morning, go to the farmer’s market, go to the butcher’s and you cook and you eat. For lunch you cook and you eat. And for dinner you do it again."
Although she held a passion for her career and cooking kept her busy, her romantic life left something to be desired. The idea of marriage and children was attractive, but her options were limited. It wasn’t until 2001 that she reconnected with the man who would become her husband. “I have known Georges since I was 9 years old. We grew up in the same city in Cameroon and he was friends with my brother," Achindu says. “During the ‘80s and ‘90s we’d see each other at parties, but never dated. We reconnected years later at my cousin’s wedding in Seattle. I just looked at him and my heart just melted. I can still picture the room and the setting today. We hung out that day and the next day. I love him to death and he is the best thing in the world to me.”
Achindu married Georges, a registered nurse, in 2003 and started thinking about adding to their family (sons Georges, Jr. and Malcolm are from Georges’ previous relationship). “It felt like it took me forever to get pregnant," she says now. “For me, it was a long journey and everyone else was there already. It took me a full year to conceive. I found out I was pregnant in April and I kept it a secret from everyone, including my husband, until our anniversary in May. We were blown away.”
The first-time mother took to pregnancy quite easily. “I used to feel guilty about how good my pregnancy was—no cravings, illness, etc. I’d go to the gym three times a week and do yoga. My pregnancy was joyful and very uneventful until the end; things changed a few weeks before I gave birth.”
In late December, a very pregnant Achindu wasn’t feeling well. She told friends, family, and her doctor about her concerns, but it was written off as typical third-trimester discomfort. Several days later, she was rushed from her doctor’s office to the local hospital for an emergency C-section: Achindu was suffering from pregnancy-induced fatty liver disease. She gave birth to a healthy boy, Jared-Zane, but her own health was in a precarious state.
“I was sick and hospitalized for three weeks,” she says. “When I was sick in the hospital, I would stand in front of the mirror and pray. I was begging God, ‘If you give me this opportunity, I will be more purposeful and more giving to all of the children in the world.’ I told God that I would help the entire community. I would tell Him, ‘If you heal me, I will glorify your name forever,’ and I knew that I would make it through somehow.”
After the initial scare, as Achindu settled into motherhood she remembered the promise she made to God and approached a local hospital about offering nutrition workshops for mothers. "When I started teaching, I still had the corporate job, but I was able to answer that call from God,” she says.
She taught mothers at various hospitals around the area about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and how to make some of her signature dishes like orange-glazed green beans or quinoa carrot cake. It was a way to pay forward what she learned early on about the value of eating unprocessed food without chemicals and harsh preservatives.
Friends and friends of friends started clogging her inbox and voicemail, tapping the busy working mom for her baby food creations. Fresh, creative, and most importantly organic, the simple recipes made mothers rethink the jarred food that lined their pantry shelves. Achindu began to batch-cook carrot and pea purees for her friends who paid her in food. Soon she had 300+ moms as clients.
"Some would say, ‘I made the peas, but they didn’t taste like yours. Can you just make it?’" Achindu explains. “My husband and I said, ‘This could be a business.’
Until then, Achindu was comfortable in her executive IT role; she was making more than enough money to cover her household expenses and her side project. That all changed in 2006 when she realized she had a solid product that people liked. Still she worried.
“‘Are you going to make the sales?’ ‘Are you going to please clients?’” she wondered. “In corporate America somebody else is doing the worrying. When you become the owner, you become that top layer. You have to worry about it all.”
Achindu set up shop with a small staff, cooking small batches for Yummy Spoonfuls’ growing customer pool. Soon others started to take notice, but it wasn’t until she entered a baby food contest in the parenting magazine Cookie that there was a measurable shift for the business. “I sent in samples of my food, like apricot and brown rice and lentil porridge, and I found out a month later that I had beaten all of the competition—all 12 of them. We won “#1 Baby Food: Best Taste” [and] “Best Overall,” and received five out of five stars in every category. Then we were called by CNN for the first time and I said, ‘Okay, this is really happening.’”
Though the switchover from corporate America to small-business owner was not seamless, the payoff has been worth it, Achindu says. “The first year I missed the paycheck, but I love what I do. I tell people all the time if you want to start the business and it is going to be successful, it has to be something that you love. It is going to be a lot of hard work. Sometimes I would go 24 hours and then realized that I hadn’t had any rest.
“Between taking care of the kids, the husband, and the household chores, it’s a lot,” she continues. “Lack of money was a major obstacle. We were used to a certain lifestyle that was now out of reach—we had moved from a two-salary to an one-salary home. The things that we took for granted were no longer a priority. We were more mindful of money and just grateful for what we had.”
But there are some wins here and there that make the sacrifice worth it, Achindu says. One of her major goals was to sell her line at Whole Foods. She would drop off samples to team leaders at her local store regularly and teach them about her approach to food and nutrition. Soon she landed a pitch meeting at the Whole Foods’ regional office. “When I got there,” she says, “I did not know that the woman I was meeting with was a new mom. She tasted the carrot, sweet potato and broccoli [puree] and loved it. I didn’t even have to show my presentation. My product was in Whole Foods after two weeks.
Today Yummy Spoonfuls is a national company featuring 27 types of high-quality baby food made from fresh fruits and vegetables sourced from local farmers and suppliers. The company ships across the country and has a large customer base on Amazon. The brand has been featured in Martha Stewart’s Living magazine, on E! Network’s Tia & Tamera show, and on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta.
“I love making a difference,” Achindu says. “I get emails from parents, from people who didn’t realize that healthy eating was possible. Creating awareness is a blessing to me.”
How did you feel when you found out you were going to be a mother?
I felt [a] feeling of being responsible for such a huge gift. [It’s] something that I can’t even describe. I tell my friends all the time, “There are women all over the world. God just chose me to birth and guide this child.”
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made as a mother?
Not everyone is blessed to be able to nurse and I was. I prayed to God that he would nourish me enough to produce enough breast milk to nurse my baby and not have to give him formula. I nursed him for 16 months.
My best friend was my breast pump. I was often out of the house and would have to pump five times a day. Breastfeeding—nursing while having a full-time job—was the biggest sacrifice I made as a new mom. It wasn’t the easiest, but it was the most fulfilling. It meant pumping breast milk in airport bathrooms and almost every major retailer! I was committed and it has paid off every day with Jared-Zane’s good health. It is that initial gratitude to God for his healthy birth that motivated me to give my son the best and that included breastfeeding.
How do you keep your family a priority?
Separating business and home was a huge obstacle in the beginning. When I worked for someone else, I would come home and be done with my job. I didn’t have to bring work home with me. With the new business, I would bring work home: scheduling meetings and always thinking about next steps. You have to work at being more mindful about separating business and family. What has worked for me is using a planner. I schedule everything including date night. Unless someone dies, my schedule doesn’t shift. During playdates with my boys, the phones are turned off and we play uninterrupted. Never underestimate the power of planning and keeping a schedule. That has really worked for me. At the end of the day you feel good and you don’t feel guilty.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
I think for me one thing that I know is that I am not trying to be their friend. I mean, I love my kids to death but I am the parent. I am here to guide you and direct you. I am consistent in my parenting. We have rules. My kids are smart—they know. We do homework. Monday through Thursdays at home there is no TV. On Friday after school [and Saturday and Sunday] there is TV, but during the school week there is nothing. They get home and do homework. If they get done early, then we can do another activity. It is not even something that we fight over because there is not enough time to do too much.
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
I tell them as African Americans you are not just some random person. You come from a deep tradition, a deep culture: the way you talk to people, the way you dress. You are big. You are strong. You are smart. The only person who can make you believe this is you. No one can make you believe that you are not smart enough or strong enough. Society might [try to] make you believe that, but you have to be strong and proud because of your ancestry. On Sundays I have them dress in African wear for church. My father would visit and draw out the family tree, explaining to them our culture, what men would do, how they take care of the family.
“God just chose me to birth and guide this child.”
Jared-Zane goes to Catholic school. He is one of three black kids in his class. They just did a project and I can see the pride in him. He had to write about someone he admired and he chose Nelson Mandela. He was doing the research and was shocked by some of the injustices. I tell him, “Yes, that’s why I want you to be educated. That’s why I want you to be proud and know who you are. That’s why if you don’t know who you are, then someone is going to tell you who are and you’ll fall for it.”
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
The ability to touch other peoples’ lives is the best part of my job. I have a ton of stories—a lot of parents don’t realize that baby food is old. Saying to a mom, “Oh, those peas could be two years old," and seeing the light bulb go off in someone’s head [is so gratifying].
I truly believe that if we start babies off properly with the right foods, we wouldn’t have the problems that we have as they become older with not wanting to eat the proper nutrition. Even at this age, I crave what I know and that is real food. If you start a child with processed foods, that is what he will crave. I see it with my sons. My son will eat everything from raw okra to raw cabbage. There is no smoothie that we make that he will not try. I know from experience that starting a child off right is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Maybe your child was trained to eat [junk], but you can untrain your child with a bit of tough love. I tell people if you don’t want your child to eat then don’t bring it into the house. That way you don’t have any conflict, [and] then you don’t have to fight for everything. You can train a child. Keep trying.
What drives you, as a business owner, to keep going?
This business is me answering a call from God. I really try to help parents understand the importance of nutrition. This is how I think God works all of the time, providing opportunity. This business started from pure charity and trying to serve: Mothers I used to teach kept coming back for more. The requests from moms kept coming in, and from 2004-2006 I did over 40 workshops while I was still working in technology. The workshops fulfill the promise to God that I made and now we have a business.
Issue No. 40
New Bergen, New Jersey
Words: Dara Mathis
Visuals: J. Quazi King
Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo, 36, has always known that the meaning of family extends far beyond the bounds of immediate kinship. Eyeson-Akiwowo, a first-generation Ghanaian-American, and her husband Akinola, who is of Nigerian descent, were both brought up in households that cherished their African heritage. When the couple welcomed their daughter into the world in 2013, they chose a name for her that reflected this connectedness: Omolara. “Omolara means ‘this child is family’ in Yoruba,” Eyeson-Akiwowo explains.
Indeed, from her “look-into-your-soul kind of eyes” to her persistent personality, Omolara (1) is a reflection of her family and ancestors. “She looks like my mother,” Eyeson-Akiwowo muses. “She has the most magnificent eyelashes and big brown eyes. We don’t know whose eyes those are, but the eyelashes are his.”
Omolara is already experiencing her family’s culture beyond her name. “We eat traditional food. We go to functions and we’re very connected with our families. She’s been to Ghana [and Nigeria] already,” Eyeson-Akiwowo says. “She’s going to continue to see that part of herself and that part of her family.”
Eyeson-Akiwowo learned the importance of extended family growing up with parents who often welcomed their countrymen into their home. “My father was always active in the Ghanaian community; there’s always been a place for someone,” she remembers.
In a sense, the tradition of connecting with others for a common good followed her into her professional life as a bookings editor at Essence magazine.
“I produced photo shoots from beginning to end,” Eyeson-Akiwowo says. “I’d create the budget, figure out where the shoot was going to be. Who’s the photographer? Who’s the model? Is it within budget?”
Little did she know that her professional skills and personal interests would merge to lead her on an unexpected and emotional journey. In 2006 she received a distressing phone call at work from an uncle in Accra -- her father had suffered a heart attack.
“I remember I was sitting at my desk; I was crying still,” Eyeson-Akiwowo recalls. “My friend Lanre had just moved to Nigeria. He happened to IM me and [say], ‘I’m in your neck of the woods. I just landed in Accra.’ I just started to type, ‘My dad had a heart attack.’”
When Eyeson-Akiwowo told her friend which hospital her father was in, he promised to find it and call her back. “Maybe midday, after I’d been calling all these relatives and no one [could] help, Lanre calls back and [says], ‘I found your dad, he’s in the hospital. He was in the hallway, they hadn’t put him in a room yet. I got them to put him in a room [and] I saw the doctor. I’ll be back to visit him; I’m in Accra for the weekend. Everything’s going to be okay.’”
Knowing that someone she trusted was looking after her father meant the world to her. But along with her friend, Eyeson-Akiwowo says the entire community of Pokuase, a suburb of Accra her family called home, joined together to support her father in his recovery. “It was the community that made sure he had food to eat. People came and they washed his car. Someone was always with him.”
Those simple acts of kindness inspired her to return the favor in the form of a health fair in Pokuase. “It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do,” she says. “Knowing the population, I knew that if my father could afford to receive and seek proper health care and wasn’t [receiving it], then what [would become] of a person with lesser means?”
Drawing on her skills as a bookings editor, she pulled together 21 friends to volunteer time and supplies for health screenings at the event she called A Gift of Life @ Christmas. “I raised the money by literally asking everyone I knew, and what I didn’t raise I matched with my own funds.
“When we did our first health fair [on December 26, 2006], it was really meant for that little area,” she recalls. “Instead 300 people showed up. My dad [said], ‘You have to keep doing it.’ It was never my intention that it would become a nonprofit or it would become something that I would do again another year.”
What helped change her mind? The 301st health fair attendee. “The next day one old lady had missed it completely. I [said], ‘The fair was yesterday! All the doctors have gone home,’” Eyeson-Akiwowo recalls. “She had walked and taken a dollar van, a tro-tro, all the way here from two towns over. She was so defeated that she had made this trek.
“So [my father and I] gave it to her right there,” she continues. “We did her blood pressure and glucose. She [said], ‘Thank you! That’s what I needed because I don’t have the money to go to the doctor.’”
It was then Eyeson-Akiwowo realized it wouldn’t take a superwoman to change the continent—just a strong community that shares resources. That first health fair was the beginning of what would become African Health Now (AHN), the nonprofit organization Eyeson-Akiwowo founded that year to provide healthcare accessibility and information to Africans.
The transition to the nonprofit sector while continuing her full-time job at Essence wasn’t easy. “I realized that I didn’t even know what nonprofits were and I didn’t know how to do them!” she says laughing.
To her surprise, Eyeson-Akiwowo found that she already possessed many of the tools she needed to succeed in the nonprofit sector. “In publishing, everyone’s had to write a press release,” she says. “Having started as an editorial assistant [and going] all the way to the production side of it, I’ve been able to do all those things. All of those skills came into play working for a nonprofit that had a small development team.”
Eyeson-Akiwowo became so engrossed in the nonprofit world that when Essence eliminated her position in 2008, she considered her layoff to be an unexpected gift. “’This is a great opportunity for me to do my nonprofit,’” she recalls thinking.
“I started doing a lot of freelance, volunteer opportunities, and even internships for nonprofits. Just to understand the ins and outs, I started taking courses in nonprofits.”
Her growing nonprofit experience also laid the foundation for a career shift to full-time nonprofit work. She now works at the New York City Mission Society (NYCMS), which provides services for youth and their families. “I’m the special events, marketing, and community relations manager,” she says. “I am three people in one!” Many of her duties at NYCMS, such as development, stewardship and accounting, have helped her grow AHN.
Enlisting the help of professionals and volunteers, AHN has hosted five health fairs serving approximately 2,000 people in Ghana to date. “My vision for AHN is to really help inform and shape the conversation about healthcare on the continent. How something as simple as [information and accessibility] is so important,” she explains.
Although Eyeson-Akiwowo is passionate about both AHN and NYCMS, she admits that sometimes, “I really just want to play with my kid.” She finds creative ways to spend time with Omolara when working weekends. “We have a community center [at NYCMS], so I take Omie with me. We can hang out there and do some stuff in the city.”
More than just a nonprofit, AHN represents a family legacy of service Eyeson-Akiwowo hopes to pass on to her own daughter.
“Even if she doesn’t want to be a doctor, I totally see Omie participating in every health fair and understanding what it means to help change someone’s life, even for a day, in a small way,” she says. “I want her to understand that sense of community, why it’s important. If you have that, it takes nothing from you to give it to someone else.
Between your full-time job, AHN, and your family life, what is a typical day like?
We work really hard during the week—I’m trying to juggle my regular 9-to-5 job and still find time to do my African Health Now project—and [Akinola] is in IT, so he’s always on. Monday through Friday, I’m getting up at 6 a.m. to get ready for work, to get her ready for daycare. [We] don’t pick her up until 6 p.m. that night and [we] haven’t spent any time with her. She’s going to bed at 8 p.m..
So [during] the weekend we make up. We probably stay in our bedroom most times. She wakes up from her room, we bring her to bed, and we sleep in the bed as a family for an hour or so. Everything’s done in here. We play blocks in here, we chill, and then we decide, “Do we want to see other people? Or do we just want to be with ourselves?”
AHN takes up a lot of time and sometimes I feel guilty if I don’t give it enough time. And it’s probably something that’s part of the motherhood process. When I read all those other mater mea [profiles], it’s like, “You chicks are superwomen! How much time is in their day?!” Maybe I should wake up at 5 a.m. I could do so much, but I’m so damn tired. Now, with the change of being a mom, I [have to] get better at organizing time.
How did you feel when you found out you were pregnant?
I felt good! We were trying [and] we had some complications in the beginning. I had to have polyps removed. Once we got the polyps removed and we got the go-ahead, we [had to make] sure that we could get pregnant. [I learned] in biology…as long as you’re having your period and you’re ovulating, then essentially, you are producing viable eggs. [But doctors said], “Of all the eggs, maybe one of yours is viable.”
We went through a system where I’d ovulate, I’d run to the fertility clinic and the lady would probe. She’d look at my eggs and tell me, “Okay, you have a good one.” I’d get this shot to make those eggs drop, and I’d get 36 hours to have sex, which didn’t make for romance! I’d call, “Aki! You at home?” [He’d reply,] “No, I’m not home; I’m at work!” ”No, we have to go home!’”
Finally, one day he was just like, “Can we stop putting pressure on ourselves? It’s going to happen. Let’s just relax.” And then it just happened. I think we’d gone to Chicago for a wedding, and it was so funny because I’m just having cocktail after cocktail! [Then] I go to the doctor’s appointment [and] she said, “Oh, Nana, this is amazing. You’re pregnant!” I was like, “I can’t believe I drank so much!” (Laughs)
That was really my first reaction: “Oh my God, what did I do?!” And then we were happy. This was what we wanted.
With such an eventful conception, what were your pregnancy and birth experiences like?
I had an easy pregnancy, for the most part, with the exception of an extended term of morning sickness. It wasn’t horrible; it wasn’t morning sickness that made me want to die. [But] I felt like I had morning sickness from the day they told me I was pregnant. (Laughs)
I had morning sickness, I think, up until four months. I had to change my toothpaste. We use Arm & Hammer and the baking soda used to just—on sight—[make me sick]. We had ginger ale in the car, I had saltine crackers in my bag. I bought a little flask for soda alone. I was drinking soda at 6 in the morning.
I’m epileptic as well, so the bigger stress was just having a healthy pregnancy, being able to go the entire time without having a seizure. And we were good! We didn’t have any seizures, and I was able to carry to full term, to full on, “When are you coming out?”
The pushing was 18 minutes; she came out, she cried. She wasn’t a [fussy] baby. She wasn’t colicky. I had an easy pregnancy and I had an easy newborn, and now I have a very rambunctious -- but still easy -- kid.
What surprises you most about motherhood?
The whole thing. How tired you are, how in love you are, how scared you are. What kind of kid am I raising? What kind of kid is she going to be? And we’re only 14 months in the process! I’m scared shitless all the time. Am I a good mom?
You know that your kid is your kid; your kid is not you. Your job as a parent is to help guide and mold this kid to be the person they’re going to be and be the best person that is. But that is still scary. Because the traditionalist in me is like, “Well, I don’t want my kid to flip burgers. I’m molding you to go to college, I’m molding you to be independent, to be a critical thinker.”
That is the scariest part of parenting: being a good parent and being a parent that your kids look up to, that your kids feel like they can talk to.
What role does family tradition play in the way you will raise your daughter?
Our upbringing and our traditions are really, really important to us. When we were thinking about naming Omolara, a lot of people thought—probably because of how we were treated growing up not having an English name—that we would just give our kid an English name. Like it would be easier, we could call her Tiffany and all will be well in the world. (Laughs)
We said no. That name, and making sure people say your name properly, is important to who you are as a person. It’s important to them recognizing that you’re not just an American kid, you are African, and you take pride in the fact that we are African. We wanted her to have that experience, because we felt that, for us, it was part of our identity. It would be great that she understood that as well.
Coming up as an African in America, the true definition of African-American in that sense, I remember the struggle that I had with my mom and my dad about tradition and American culture. I never thought I would be that parent, but I am that parent. I talk to my kid in Twi [because] I want her to know how to speak Twi. [My mom] would talk to me in Twi and I would respond in English. She’d [say], “No, I’m speaking to you in our dialect for a reason. I want you to have that.” And I want her [Omolara] to have that.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
We were raised in households [like the one] that we want to raise her [in]. Everything has to be done in a respectful manner and you need to respect your elders. You don’t get to talk back to your parents. You don’t get to roll your eyes. You don’t get to slam doors because you feel like you should be able to express yourself.
Even at 15 months, when we introduce her to people who are not related to her, you still have to call them “Auntie” and “Uncle.” You don’t get to call my [friend] by her first name. And so all these small things that agitated me and Aki when we were growing up, incidentally, will be the same small things we’re going to instill in her, because we know that they were character-builders.
"HOW HAS BECOMING A MOTHER CHANGED YOUR LIFE?"
When mater mea launched in 2012, we knew that along with profiling women of color who weren't being featured in mainstream media, we wanted to ask them real questions: Questions that got at what it was really like to be a career- and family-focused woman.
The first question we start every interview with never fails to get a surprised laugh. "How has becoming a mother changed your life?" "How has it not?" replied pretty much every woman we've spoken to over the course of mater mea's two-year history.
The answers were just what we wanted the site to be: inspirational, moving, and most importantly, real. In honor of Mother's Day and mater mea turning two, we look back at some of our favorite answers to that big question over the years. Thank you for your continued support, and we can't wait to hear many more women answer that question for us in the years to come.
xoxo, mater mea
Crystal Black Davis
author of "Shaken and Stirred" and founder of Savvy Food Marketing, with her son Elijah Davis
"I feel like now frivolity is not necessarily what I’m able to engage in anymore. Every moment and every minute has to have a purpose. Because I’m a mom, I want to focus on him, so there’s not a lot of idle time. I still make time for me, but I want to make sure that I’m balancing my time, and [that I’m] being a good mom to him and being able to devote the time that I have to my business."
"I always think the biggest change is just making sure that I’m managing my time and making sure that every minute has purpose, even if the purpose is to rest, and to be able to indulge in a little me time. But it has to have a purpose."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
Zuhirah Khaldun Diarra
marketing director of the National Urban League, with her first daughter, Salimata
"I’ve become much more serious. There are higher stakes in life. I find myself more productive in the office, taking my career much more seriously. I’ve always been a high-obtaining individual, worked very hard, but I think being a mother definitely has helped me as a professional as well, in terms of a seriousness that I bring to my professional life and the work that I do, in managing my time. If I’m going to be away from my baby, it’s going to be for a good reason, and I’m not going to waste any time doing it either—the hours are going to be well-spent. I think that mothers are magicians, in terms of multitasking, and also in terms of having the seriousness and the focus."
Photo credit: Rog Walker
co-founder of Urban Bush Babes, with her son Jaden
"It’s a journey and it’s taught me that there’s no such thing as a perfect mom. It’s taught me about love. I really know what it is to love another human being unconditionally."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
artist and sculptor, with her first daughter Neema
"It’s made me very clear about my relationships and not in a way that I’m dismissive of my friendships. I’m way clearer about which friendships are truly meaningful and caring of who I am as a whole person because some people can’t deal with the part of being a mother. You’re not the person that stayed up with them to 4 a.m."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
Senior editor of Ebony.com, with her daughter Naima Freedom Lemieux-Giles
"Being a mother hasn’t changed me as much as I had expected. I’m still very much Jamilah. I’m 29, I still feel very young. I thought that being a mom was going to make me 42 overnight. (Laughs) A lot of my values and thoughts and feelings are the same. [But now] there’s this little person who is the most important thing in my life. She’s my constant companion and the reason for me doing everything that I do. It’s enhanced my life. It’s a love that I’ve never experienced before. It’s amazing and new and different every day."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
television personality, with her children Casey and Cole
"I remember someone saying, 'Once you have a kid, you can’t go to sleep before making sure everyone in the house is safe." That sums it up, you’re always thinking of someone other than yourself. You just have this understanding that there is always someone else that you would put ahead of yourself."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
poet, with her daughter Zuri
"I think watching a human being come into consciousness makes you reconsider any monolith of consciousness you had prior. It forces you to question your own tenets, the things you thought were immovable and sturdy and steady. And invariably when you look at things that are fixed, you’ll find that they aren’t so fixed, especially when it comes to identity, humanity and human relationships. I mean, I have relationships that are changing as we speak based on what’s happening with my kid, how I view myself as an individual who will raise a kid, and how I might be looking at other people raising their kids. You find yourself bumping against people in spaces you never imagined."
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
dancer and choreographer, with her son Shiloh
"It’s made me firm in my convictions—all of which were up for rethinking with the birth of my son—and I’m more compassionate to all of the different kinds of people that there are. I used to be able to watch certain violent scenes in films or television, but I can’t anymore. I’m always thinking, 'That could be somebody’s child.'”
Photo credit: Bee Walker
fashion photographer, with her sons Tesfay, Ayo, and Idris Saleh-Batts
"You’re dealing with a lot more responsibility, and the relationship with you and your partner just changes 1000 degrees. (Laughs) It’s really up to you to make sure everything is going to be okay for the little one, and most of the time you’re going to take more responsibility than the dad, of course. And for me, running my own business... It was very challenging trying to figure it out [while] being emotionally stable for your little ones and taking care of them."
Photo credit: Hannan Seleh
founder of etiquette program Modelquette, with her youngest daughter Brea
"I think being a mom just opens you up to sharing with somebody else. If ever you have to put someone before yourself, you’re going to put your children [first]. These kids mean everything to me. It’s just given me the capacity to see this other level of myself. If I have to say how it changed my life in one way, it’s that I feel I have grown as a person in my capacity to be selfless."
Photo credit: Rog Walker
Issue No. 41
Words: Dara Mathis
Visuals: Lizilu Photography
Leila Noelliste, her husband, Norman Baldwin, and their 15-month-old son Noah are just settling into their first home, a 1920s era remodeled house on the West Side of Chicago.
“I love that it’s old,” Noelliste says. “It’s sturdy, but it’s also very modern, [and the remodeling] does a good job of making it really nice and really livable. It’s given us a sense of stability.”
The couple deliberately chose to move from their condo in an upper class area of the city to her husband’s childhood working class neighborhood of Lawndale for Noah’s sake.
“In those upper class communities, I felt like Noah was becoming ‘the cool black kid,”’ Noelliste says now. “I just felt like he was already being put into this box. Parents would walk up to him and talk slang, like ‘Yo, yo!’ It really bothered me and I really wanted him to be in a place where people would look past his color to get to who he was.” While Noelliste deals with one aspect of being a minority—the politics of natural hair—on her popular website, Black Girl with Long Hair (BGLH), she had no desire to subject her son to early lessons on the matter.
The permanence of having a child coaxed Noelliste into buying property thousands of miles away from her Caribbean roots (the daughter of a Haitian father and an African-American mother, Noelliste was born in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, but grew up in Kingston, Jamaica).
“I wasn’t content with the idea of being a Chicagoan and letting go of my Caribbean heritage in a major way,” Noelliste recalls. “It was a big step emotionally for me to buy property here; it kind of solidifies that this is my new home.”
Though it feels like new, Noelliste has been acquainted with Chicago for years: She received her bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in the Chicago suburbs, and in 2007 began her career as a journalist with The Chicago Defender, a historically black newspaper, after shelving her dream of becoming a television writer.
“Once I started journalism I fell in love with that brand of storytelling and the importance it has for the preservation of democracy and the documentation of culture,” she says.
In addition to black culture, Noelliste was inspired by the photos she saw online of black women learning to love their natural hair. She started BGLH as a hobby in 2008 to document her own journey. Noelliste had worn her hair in its natural texture for nearly her whole life with little knowledge of how to properly care for it. In college she was “the braid girl” and then the “press-and-curl girl” before the confluence of a break-up and other stress led her to “big chop” her hair. The blog’s name voiced her desire to dispel a commonly held myth about hair growth in the black community.
“I always thought that black girls like me couldn’t grow their hair out,” she says. “What if that [was] not true?”
Noelliste’s first posts showed pictures of her own growing Afro. Then she began asking women from natural hair forums, "Hey, can I share your photos on my blog?" To her surprise, almost everyone agreed to be featured. BGLH soon grew into a supportive community that set out to show Black women they could grow long, healthy hair.
Blogging casually about natural hair while working full-time as a reporter allowed Noelliste to tell the stories she cared about on both platforms, but the economic downturn was unkind to the newspaper industry and led to Noelliste’s layoff from the Defender in 2009. “[It] was heartbreaking,” she says now. “I really loved that job.” She soon took a new job at a rural paper in Illinois, but quit shortly after realizing that position offered no opportunity for professional advancement.
Facing unemployment, Noelliste took a good, hard look at her options. “‘I have this little website, people seem to like it, I enjoy doing it, and I think it’s serving a need,’” she recalls thinking. Though BGLH was barely profitable, Noelliste made a deal with Baldwin, her then-boyfriend: she would move in with him, contribute any income she received, and take the next 12 months to ramp up the site’s revenue.
“It was a very, very difficult transition,” she admits now. “I really learned who my friends were. A lot of my friends at the time thought I was foolish for trying to be a blogger. Some of them straight out talked about me and laughed at me. I actually went into kind of a depression around that time. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed.”
Despite her fears and her detractors’ warnings, Noelliste earned twice as much at Black Girl with Long Hair as she had at her prior job within that first year. Today her blog is one of the most popular natural hair websites on the Internet.
“What that year taught me was that I’m a much better businesswoman than I am a writer,” she says now. “It’s not writing that makes a blog profitable, it’s business acumen. I found that I was really attracted to that challenge of learning how to monetize.
“I also think I’m much better at identifying voices that need a platform than actually writing from my own experience,” she continues. “It’s been a journey for me really learning what my talents are.”
Noelliste thanks God for her mother and Baldwin, whom she married in August 2010, for believing in her vision when no one else would. After weathering another employment challenge—her husband was also unemployed briefly—Noelliste and Baldwin finally felt a measure of stability.
“The plan was just for us to breathe for a few years, enjoy the new kind of financial freedom we had, and then have a kid like three or four years later. And right after we made that decision, I got pregnant,” she says with a laugh.
Noelliste was happy to receive the news but says she struggled to adjust. “I would tell my husband over and over again, ‘This is going to be the last time it’s just the two of us. This is the last time we’re going to go to Costco, just the two of us,’” she jokes. “I would freak out all the time.”
Noah was born in September 2012, a carbon copy of his father with his mother’s focused personality. Noelliste sees her son’s disposition as a karmic twist. “You know how your parents say, ‘You’re going to see what it’s like when you have a kid?’” she asks. “I’m definitely going through that right now! He’s very persistent and stubborn. I was so strong-willed growing up, and then I made this son who is just as strong-willed. I’ve definitely met my match!”
Managing both her business and her son during the day proved to be an overwhelming task. “It’s a huge, huge challenge,” Noelliste confesses. “[Noah and I are] in this exchange where we’re trying to figure out how much space to give each other. It’s my workspace, but it’s also his home; I’m a businesswoman, but I’m also his mother.” As a result she’s hired two full-time writers for BGLH to ease her writing load, as well as a part-time nanny to help care for Noah.
“When I was pregnant, I used to hear about the ‘mommy guilt,’ and thought, ‘What are these people talking about?’ But now I get it. As a mother, you ask, ‘Am I doing enough? Am I giving enough?’ That’s an ongoing negotiation,” she says.
Buoyed by her successes, Noelliste is comfortable in her role as a businesswoman, but is still finding her stride as a working mother. “This might not be a [politically correct] answer, but I’m still trying to figure [motherhood] out,” she confesses. “I think there’s this expectation that it’s going to be [instantaneously] ‘the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done!’ As women, we have to negotiate a lot to make way for children. [But] I am grateful... Having Noah has shown me that family is important.”
“I think, on some level, having a child definitely puts life in focus…it is a chance to start over, it’s a rebirth and a chance to really clarify what we want to see in the world. It’s reflected in what we teach our son.”
Did you ever doubt your decision to be a full-time blogger, even after you became successful?
In March 2010 or 2011, I was going to quit blogging. We had stagnated on revenue generation and traffic [and] I had a hard time with the Internet culture. I just didn’t feel I had the stomach for it.
So I put up a post telling people enjoy the blog for what it is. I’m going to keep it up for a year because the archives are online and then I’m going to take it down and move on to something else. And in the comments, people just kept saying, “Where will we go? What space would we have?” At first I thought they were exaggerating, so I said, “Let me look and see what’s out there” [but] there aren’t many spaces that celebrate everyday black women. I realized, “Wow, [BGLH] is an important space [and] this is a valuable space.” It reignited me.
How do you and your husband balance working and caring for your son?
Initially we were both working full-time, and I was also responsible for Noah's care during the week, which was pretty much full time, because I work from home. We soon found this setup was very unsustainable. I felt that I wasn't running my websites as effectively as I could be, and I was not raising Noah with good energy and presence of mind.
After suffering severe abdominal pains in January  and consulting with my doctor, I learned that my body was not taking well to the full-time work and full-time mommying schedule. So after several long discussions, we made some pretty serious decisions. We hired a nanny and my husband decided to go from [working] full to part-time while he pursues his master’s in computer programming of information systems.
Our setup is pretty nontraditional, but we are really loving it so far. Now I feel that I can give the requisite time and energy to my business and really be rested, attentive and "present" when I engage with my son.
Given the circumstances behind your decision, how have you adjusted to hiring a nanny?
Well, I had no choice but to accept and adjust. My decision to hire a nanny was the direct result of an intense stress reaction my body had to the hectic pace of my life. At the time Noah was 15 months old and I had spent almost every day of his life with him. So to watch him leave the house with a stranger felt so foreign. I cried a bit that first day the nanny came. I didn't want my son to feel abandoned, or that I didn't want him.
Plus, I got quite a bit of flak from older family members who felt that it was criminal to hire childcare help. One older family member sat me down and said, "Have you seen the news? These nannies are crazy. You should be taking care of your own child." It was very difficult to explain to her that, as a working mother, I don't have the time or energy to do that.
The thought that has got me through is: It takes a village to raise a child. It might be cheesy, but it holds so much truth! As a working mom, I need a village to help me—and sometimes that includes paid help.
Thankfully Noah's nanny is a gracious and educated young woman who is currently getting her master's in child psychology. She loves Noah's energy and encourages his curiosity. I know that she will never love him like I do, but I feel that she respects him as an individual—despite his young age—and that makes me feel at ease.
It’s very true that parenting is often informed by our village or support network. How does your upbringing influence the way you hope to prepare Noah to succeed in life?
Growing up in a country like Jamaica was the foundation of the sense of pride I have as a black woman today, and the sense that I’m part of a global community and need to do what I have to do to advance that community, given our history of colonialism, segregation, and slavery.
First of all, [Noah] has to know his history, and he has to know the correct history. He has to learn how black culture as it exists across the world came to be. He has to understand what colonialism is and was [and] what effect it had, [and] what slavery was and what effect it had, because there [are] too many people in the world who are going to tell him, “You’re inferior because you’re black.” He also has to be willing and able to question authority
Education, too, is something that my parents really instilled in me. It’s powerful. It’s not about doing homework and getting good grades; it’s about knowing how to make yourself valuable to whatever economy you’re in so you can sustain yourself.
With Noah, I just don’t want my own idea of what he can do to limit him. There’s a world of things that he can do, and I want to be aware that I never limit him with my own expectation. [Also] my husband has a lot of integrity, so I just hope [Noah] is like that as well.
Issue No. 42
Words: Michelle No
Visuals: Erika Salazar
To her 200,000+ international social media followers, Alex Elle (as Alexandra Smith is more commonly known) is the face of pure bliss.
On any given day her Instagram feed showcases her 6-year-old daughter Charleigh’s (pronounced Charlie) toothy smile, while a tweet proclaims a truism from her bestselling book, “Words From a Wanderer.” (“If you are unsure of who you are, you will easily get lost in others.”) Collectively her digital output encourages self-love and resilience and regularly doles out positive affirmations.
“I try my best to only spread words and images that will incite happiness, positivity, love, and peace among people,” Alex Elle explains. “It’s part of my personality.”
Despite the cheer of her online persona, the self-published poet and author endured dark formative years which bear little resemblance to her current circumstances. An early high school graduate who enrolled in community college when she was 17, Alex Elle grew up an old soul. But she soon found herself in the most adult of circumstances—unexpectedly pregnant.
“I was kind of [a] statistic: young, African-American woman pregnant by age 18, you know what I mean?” Alex Elle says now. “I was depressed and lost a lot of weight even during my pregnancy. During what she calls “probably my worst point,” her mother suggested she get a late-term abortion. (“I’m pro-choice, but I said no because that is really, really not a good thing,” she says.)
While her intuition and family tugged her in the opposite direction, the father of her child ultimately convinced her to go through with the pregnancy. Even with the psychological toll her pregnancy took on her, Alex Elle was able to transition smoothly into her new role as a mother—Charleigh’s peaceful demeanor definitely helped, she says. Integrating her new lifestyle with her friends, however, wasn’t as easy.
"I was a parent and a lot of the people I was friends with were single with no kids, so our priorities were different,” she recalls. “My personality was [also] changing; I was becoming more self-aware, more spiritual, more at peace with myself, and I think I was using the crowd I was with as a crutch. I had to steer into my path and purpose to prepare to be the best mother and woman I could be."
Alex Elle started on her current path at age 20, when an end-of-the-year thesis project prompted her to create a marketable brand. From this assignment materialized Safi (“pure” in Swahili), a line of all-natural, handmade hair-care creams, conditioners, and body butters that was so popular, she was forced to close the operation due to high demand.
But her entrepreneurial streak didn’t end with Safi. After deciding college wasn't the best match for her, Alex Elle began a jewelry line—her “side hustle”—while working full-time in the nonprofit world.
"My mom actually had been making jewelry for years and she wanted me to get into it,” she says. “I fell into it and it’s been awesome. The jewelry is really where things started snowballing for me as far as [my] clientele and the [social media] following goes."
She soon added poetry and writing into her oeuvre, encouraging a hobby that had been a creative compulsion since childhood.
“I started writing when I was 12; I was a very angry, depressed, and troubled kid, so my mom gave me a journal, and that [became] my therapy [and] an outlet,” she says. “I really got into poetry and I carried that with me through middle school, high school, [and] college.”
Last year, Alex Elle heeded her fans’ requests and self-published a 57-page book, “Words from a Wanderer.” The compilation of uplifting poetry made it to Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers list for poetry, and has sold more than 4,000 copies to date. It continues to sell hundreds of copies a month.
The book’s success, combined with her hunger for independence, led Alex Elle to take her biggest career leap yet in 2013.
“Charleigh was just starting kindergarten and I did not want to miss out on it, [nor] first, second, or third grade,” she explains. “[My job] had just given me a promotion, a salary raise, and all this great stuff, [but] I quit. I knew I could do it and I wanted to build my own dream and not someone else’s.”
These days her schedule includes speaking engagements, producing jewelry for her line shopALS (Alex L. Smith), and working on her second book, Love in My Language. Set to appear on Amazon in July 2014, Alex Elle describes her new work as “longer, more personal, and more transparent” than her first.
Though she’s happy with her DIY career, she stresses it’s not a path for everyone, including her daughter or any future children she may have.
“I want my children to be happy and fulfilled,” she says. “And if that means going to college and getting that degree, and going to work in corporate America, awesome. If that means not going to college and doing something entrepreneurial, awesome.”
Above all, there is a sense that Alex Elle’s successes have transpired as a result of her determination to redefine the nos she’s heard in her life as a teenaged mother.
“Just because we have children young, or make mistakes in our younger years, doesn’t mean that our lives are over,” she says. “For a long time, I thought I would have no place in the world—’I’m a mom, no one’s gonna want me, my life is over.’ And although I do not advocate for being a teen mom, it is not the end of the world. It can push you to be a better person, and that’s how I’ve tried to use my situation.
“Everything they said was gonna happen, happened,” Alex Elle admits. “But I had to go on [that journey], or I would not be the woman I am today.”
How did you find out you were pregnant?
I really have to sit and think about my pregnancy. It doesn’t just come naturally to me because it was such a dark and emotionally trying time. I’ve kind of erased it, and I don’t remember a lot of it, which makes me really sad sometimes. I recall I had a feeling I was pregnant and [Charleigh’s biological father] thought the same. He actually said to me, “I think you’re pregnant.” And then we got the pregnancy test.
What was your pregnancy like?
As far as being pregnant with Charleigh, she was a really easy baby to carry, which was awesome. She was just easy—even after she was born. She wasn't cranky and she was very peaceful. As far as my relationship with her father, that was really tumultuous. I was going to doctors’ appointments by myself, I didn’t have a partner there holding my hand. And what’s crazy about that is he wanted me to go through with the pregnancy while I was thinking of terminating. I can look back now and say that my daughter has changed my life, and she’s amazing, and I wouldn't change her for the world. But I felt pressured into having her and that's because I was not capable [at that point] of thinking for myself.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
My teen years were really difficult for me: being 17 and pregnant, 18 giving birth, and 19 trying to figure out what I was doing. I graduated at age 16 because I hated high school and [I was] in a rush to be grown and be out in the world. I get to college at age 17 and it completely was not the right choice for me to make. I wasn’t focused, I wasn’t really into it, and I’ve always known I’ve wanted to work for myself. But being impressionable, I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna go to school and find my footing there.” Trying to come into the woman I am today, it took a lot. It took a lot of wasted money, wasted energy, wasted time, and a whole bunch of failures, before things really started to look up for me.
What is your parenting philosophy?
To let your child be who they are. I try my best to influence Charleigh in a way that’s not forceful, that’s not, “Be this way.” I know a lot of parents want their children to be this molded version of perfection, but kids are flawed. They should be able to show those flaws, and be as creative, and adventurous, and imaginative as they like. So I try to let her be who she is. She can be whoever she wants to be as long as she’s not hurting anybody.
What is the best advice that your mother or other mothers in your life have given you?
To exercise patience. I think that’s something that I really had to learn because once they get to a certain age, they start to test you. I don't believe that spanking children is an effective way of punishment, and it's a sign of extreme frustration on the parents’ end. I was spanked often as a child, maybe that's why I feel this way.
I can count on one hand how many times Charleigh has gotten a pat on the butt—they didn't "work" or change anything. Kids are going to get on your nerves, they’re going to break things, they’re going to make messes, they’re going to do things they’re not supposed to do. I don’t want to resort to violence or to scaring them. I was scared of my mom growing up. She would just spank me, and that’s just how it was. My grandmother too. If we were out of line, we were getting spanked. I was scared of my mom for a long time and I never want Charleigh to be scared of me.
What kind of person do you hope Charleigh becomes?
A free thinker. Someone who goes after what they want, isn’t scared of failure, and isn’t scared of what’s gonna happen down the road. I’d like to make sure she's confident in who she is, especially as a woman of color. That’s very important to me. My mom and I are very close now but we had a rocky relationship when I was growing up, so I feel as though I didn’t really have the type of guidance that I’m giving my daughter. I don’t think I was really even receptive to the lesson that [my parents] tried to teach me because I was so caught up in my own craziness. I guess I would add that [I’d like] Charleigh to be able to receive, as well as give, to others.
What’s your partner’s relationship like with Charleigh?
[Ryan] just moved 3,000 miles from Los Angeles, California to be with us. I’m really excited to see how they grow their relationship together. Even when he wasn’t here, he was FaceTiming her, sending her books, and showing her that she was just as important as mommy was. So when they met for the first time last year, she instantly just clung to him. The love they have for one another is special to me.
Do you see more children in your future?
Oh, yes. If I could have it my way, three more. But I’ll settle for two if I can only get two. Ryan wants children too and we are excited to start a family with each other. It’s going to be awesome to have a partner I can go through pregnancy [with]—doctors’ appointments together, taking Charleigh along, having them watch my belly grow... It’s just going to be amazing.
What are your creative plans beyond your second book?
I’m probably going to do a couple of children’s books and use Charleigh as the main character, have her turned into a cartoon. There are a lot of different things that I’m going to be exploring in the upcoming years, but children’s books will probably be next.
How has motherhood changed your life?
Charleigh brought our family together. She softened my mom, she softened me, she softened my stepdad. She’s changed our entire family dynamic, and the past six years have been phenomenal. If you ever had the chance to ask my mom the same question, she would say the same thing. Charleigh changed everybody’s life.
Issue No. 43
Los Angeles, California
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Brandon Hicks
Listen to Endyia Kinney-Sterns closely, and you can hear how deep her faith goes, as well as the hard-fought-for lessons she’s acquired during the course of her 30+-year career in the entertainment industry. It’s in the soft yet commanding timbre she’s acquired from years of impressing casting directors as a child actress. You can imagine her using that same confident tone in development meetings for the popular shows she’s helped launch, such as BET’s “The Mo'nique Show” and TV One’s “Unsung.” That voice lets you know that Endyia Kinney-Sterns lives a very purpose-driven life.
“I truly believe that God gives you everything that you need for every season and every level he wants to take you,” she says.
Kinney-Sterns, now the vice president of programming and development at OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, has lived this statement for most of her life, sometimes without her knowledge. Now the mother of two boys, Judah (9) and Cairo (5.5), becoming a mom was the furthest thing from Kinney-Sterns’ mind when an acquaintance shared an unexpected bit of insight with her.
“‘I know this is going to sound crazy, but God is telling me to tell you you’re going to have a son,” Kinney-Sterns’ recalls the woman telling her while the two shared a car ride. “‘You’re going to have him soon, and birth control is not going to be a factor.’ And I’m like, ‘Right.’” Three years into her marriage to music composer and producer Brigg Sterns—and living on the income of two freelancers—“we had not by any stretch of the imagination prepared for a baby,” she explains.
But two months after that seemingly random conversation, Kinney-Sterns realized her period was MIA, even though she was definitely taking birth control. A pregnancy test and a trip to the doctor confirmed that she was indeed pregnant—”My husband’s like ‘Shut up!’ and I’m like, ‘I know!’”—and “within those nine months, we got everything that we wanted,” Kinney-Sterns says, with a smile.
Although motherhood admittedly caught her by surprise, Kinney-Sterns had a firm grasp on what she wanted from her professional life. Being an entertainer was a calling she’s followed since she was a child growing up in Fort Worth, Texas.
“My mother asked me what I wanted to be, [and] I said I wanted to be on TV,” Kinney-Sterns recalls. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to do that, but I can put you in theater. If you can wow them in front of a live audience, maybe you have something.’”
Her first audition at the age of 4 landed her a spot in her local theater’s summer stock. By 5 she was an Equity member (the Screen Actors’ Guild for theater actors) and attracted an agency’s attention for her work at an area playhouse. In 1987 she appeared as Topsy in the television movie “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” alongside esteemed actors Samuel L. Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Avery Brooks, and Bruce Dern.
“That’s sort of how I got my [first] taste of TV,” she says now. “And I loved it.”
Kinney-Sterns spent the better part of her childhood and teen years acting, appearing in Disney movies, commercials, and sitcoms as well as touring with theater companies in Texas. But after starting college at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, “I sort of pumped the brakes on the TV end,” she explains. Now a little heavier than she was when she was younger, Kinney-Sterns made a plan: After graduation, she would go to law school, lose weight, and then stage her return to acting. But she quickly realized that just wasn’t going to happen.
“I got to law school and I didn’t like it. There was nothing creative about it. I was miserable,” she says of her year at Pepperdine Law. “I started auditioning again, and then as I got older it became more about a look than my gifts. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the part or say the lines; it was that I was a little too short, too dark, [my] hair wasn’t quite the right texture, or [I wasn’t] skinny enough. It was always something.
“I realized, ‘Man. I don’t want to live my life based on someone else’s approval of me,’” she continues. “So I decided I wanted to be a person that could affect change. I wanted to be able to write more parts for people who were like me, offer more opportunities for people of color and beyond. And so I began my quest to get on the other end of the camera, to be a game changer and a decision maker.”
Empowered by her new life’s mission, Kinney-Sterns jumped into the production side of the industry, working her way up through a number of positions: first as an intern turned assistant story editor at Edmonds Entertainment, then as a development associate at VH1, followed by six years as a freelance producer for a variety of programs including “The Wayne Brady Show” and “Big Brother”.
In 2005 Kinney-Sterns became a full-fledged television executive when she was hired as the senior director of original programming at BET. After a brief stint at TV One, she returned to BET in 2009 to launch a number of successful unscripted series, her most popular including the gospel-singing competition “Sunday Best.” Though the network’s sensibilities didn’t always mesh with hers, she was proud of the work she developed there. But just as Kinney-Sterns had found a place in the world that had once rejected her as a young actress, the rug was pulled out from under her again.
“I had been at BET going on two years, and they were going through a series of layoffs.” Kinney-Sterns explains. “I did not believe that I would ever be laid off; I had been working for 13-14 years in the business, and had never once got laid off in my life.”
Despite her credentials and accolades, Kinney-Sterns found herself a casualty of the network’s new focus on scripted television series. However the layoff couldn’t have happened at a better time: Kinney-Sterns was entertaining offers from three different networks.
“Between my salary and my husband’s salary, we were making really good money; we lived like nothing could ever go wrong like a lot of people do,” she says now. “[But] over the course of six to seven months, each opportunity fell away. I met every president of those three networks, [and] all but signed the dotted line [at] two of the three.” Fallout from 2009’s economic downturn kept a deal from going through at each network, leaving Kinney-Sterns reeling.
“My phone stopped ringing, it just became radio silence. It took me about nine months—and I think that’s symbolic—to say, ‘Ok, no matter what I do, no matter how much money I make or not, I have to go back to the basics [and] use all my gifts to fuel the passion that God put inside of me to help others and to please Him.’ Once you get free of all the other junk, it makes it easier.”
This time around, a humbled Kinney-Sterns picked up the phone instead of waiting for it to ring. She reached out to friends at production companies to offer her services and drummed up a steady stream of business as an independent consultant, giving her more time to spend with her family (which now had grown to include her youngest son, Cairo).
“Did I have the house that I had before? No. Did I have the same cars? No. But I had so much more,” she says now. “Piece of mind, stability, [and] more connection with my family.”
As luck would have it, one of her networking phone calls would bring her to where she is today. Kinney-Sterns offered her consulting services to a friend at the Oprah Winfrey Network during the height of the network’s well-publicized struggles. Her friend shared there was a position available in the creative development team, but Kinney-Sterns had reservations.
“‘Do I really want to go back into the network side of things?’” she wondered at the time. “I talked to my husband and he said, ‘You know what? You’ve always wanted to be in an environment where you believed in the mission and the core of that place. You should take the meeting.”
Two weeks later, Kinney-Sterns had found a new home at OWN. And this time, she’s succeeding on her own terms.
How do you balance the demands of your job with being a present mother and wife?
I’ve been here almost three years and [have] been promoted. [I] have gotten quite a few shows on the air that have done very well for the network and helped us to be one of the top 20 networks. I am so grateful because I just don’t think I would have been able to handle this position had I not gone through what I had before. Now I’m in this position and I realize that what’s most important, aside from my family, is knowing that my job is a resource but not my source.
I [put] my heart and soul into every job I had, [but] at the end of the day I’m just a number. And at any given moment, they can just decide, “You know what? We appreciate what you’ve done, but we’re going in a different direction,” and I’d have to think about all those times that I wasn’t there with my family to meet a deadline. So my priorities are very different. I set the proper boundaries. [Now] I make sure I have enough time to do what I need to do for work, and then there’s a cut-off time that I give fully to my family.
What is your and Brigg’s parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
We truly live by Scripture. Everything strictly comes from the Bible and the way God outlines it: about respect; honoring God first and then honoring your mother and father; love your neighbor as yourself; and love God with all your mind, soul, and strength. They know those Scriptures, and that stands across any and every situation that comes their way. If there’s a bully at school, love your neighbor as you love yourself. Take up for yourself, be confident in who you are, but extend love and grace.
[This works] even in terms of how they see themselves. [They] know that they were wonderfully made the way God said it, that everything that they have—from their skin tone to their hair to their height to their size—is all part of God’s plan and purpose, and that it’s nothing to ever be ashamed of; it’s always something to celebrate. And so that helps them feel confident in themselves, knowing that it doesn’t matter what anybody says, what the world says, or anybody at school. Who are they? They didn’t make you. That gives them a sense of worthiness and understanding of who they are and to whom they belong to that’s super important to us.
How has becoming a mom change your life?
I quickly understood the meaning of the word sacrifice to another level: living for not just myself, but for someone else. I got a little bit of that when I got married, but having children is a completely different experience because you realize this is an incredibly awesome responsibility. I’m in charge of shaping a mind and a life. That means that they will have before me, that I have to impart to them everything I know and admit what I don’t know, and learn and grow as I go. (Laughs)
You really get to see yourself in them and that reflects things that you need to [be] better at. Like, “Oh, that’s me, I can’t even be mad at you for that. You saw me do that.” (Laughs) It’s truly one of those awesome blessings because you are constantly in a space of growing with them and for them. And it’s so pleasurable, it’s so rewarding; I’m totally blessed.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mom?
Always, absolutely. I didn’t know when, but I knew that I wanted to be a mom—my mom was so great. I had such great parents, but my mom especially, because she was a single mom for 8.5 years; my father passed away when I was really young. I was 2 years old [when] he died in a car accident. She was a widow at 27. And so, everything she poured into me, I was just like, “Wow, I want to do that for mine.”
How would you describe your sons’ personalities?
Judah, he’s the methodical one. We call him “The Philosopher.” He’s always thinking things through, he always has questions, but he’s also the one that wants to make everyone happy. I can just give him a look and he’s like “OK.”
Now the little one? The little one’s a little bit more of a tester. He wants to be the big boy. He wants to prove that he’s just as smart and just as big as his big brother and his dad. He’s always trying to find his way and make his mark. Literally the other day he said to his dad, “Dad, in this order, I need you to teach me how to drive and tie my shoes because I don’t want my wife to have to do it. I’ll look like an idiot.” Because in his mind, [he’s thinking], “My brother knows how to tie his shoes, and my dad knows how to drive and he’s married, so I need to figure out how this is going to work out.” And he’s 5. (Laughs) But he’s also the cuddle bug, the sweetie pie, the one that’s always going to hug and kiss you, and take care of you.
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
Honestly, to be a part of the bigger purpose that God has for their life—to take on that responsibility is really exciting. My favorite part of the day is when I come home, kiss my husband hello, and they run to me and give me kisses and tell me I’m the “most prettiest” woman in the world—that’s the best. I’m like the apple of their eye, and I sort of want to hold on to that because I know that’s not going to be the case always. (Laughs)
But that’s my favorite part about it. The unconditional love… I don’t even mind the sacrifices. And I love it when they actually take what you say and apply it. That’s the best moment, like, “I’ve been telling them this for three years, over and over and over again,” and then you see them in a moment where they have to apply what they’ve learned and they do it. Or they respond in a way where you’re like, “Oh my God, he got it!” It’s so great! (Laughs) I know it sounds crazy, but it’s like, “Ok, maybe I am doing something right.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
The biggest challenge I think is being a working mom, and learning how to balance that. My mother always said, “It’s not the quantity, but the quality.” There are a lot of people who are around their kids, but they don’t spend quality time with them.
I remember my mother going out of her way to make sure that I had everything, but she wasn’t always physically there at everything. I was really big in theater, and she said “I’ll be there on opening night and closing night. Anything else you need in between, I’m there.” She owned a business, she worked a job, but her presence was there. She was always engaged with me. So I really do believe the hardest thing is the balance. I make sure that when I am with them I am WITH them. When I’m in the room with them, I’m present so they know they have me. I think that’s been the most rewarding, but the most challenging part of it—and managing the mommy guilt because you’re going to have it no matter what. (Laughs)
NICOLE LYNN LEWIS
Issue No. 44
Words: Gabrielle Rucker
Visuals: Erika Lynn Salazar
Thirty-four-year-old Nicole Lynn Lewis knows that hard work and a want for a better future, pays off: she’s gone from having an unexpected pregnancy in her teens that left her homeless to eventually becoming the founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a community-based nonprofit organization focused on getting teen parents in the D.C. area to complete college.
“I had people telling me that I was going to be a failure, that I wasn’t going to go to college,” Lewis, the mother of Nerissa (15) and Naya (5), says. “And now to be at this point of my life... some days I don’t believe it myself. I knew I would be a mom, but I never dreamed that I would be a CEO.”
Growing up, Lewis, who was often an honor-roll student, thrived in the classroom. When she became pregnant during her senior year in high school, she worried that her plans for college might be permanently halted. “I was devastated,” Lewis admits. “I had just been accepted into all of these different colleges and I knew that now all of that was jeopardized. I was really disappointed in myself.”
Lewis had to deal with more than just letting herself down; her family placed great emphasis on education. (Her sister went to Yale for graduate school, her mother was in the midst of receiving her MFA, and her father worked as a college administrator.)
“My mom was [heartbroken],” she recalls. “I remember her crying and [as] I was holding her, she [said], ‘You’re not going to go to college. You have no idea how difficult this is gonna be.’
“My dad was working at Grambling State University and was commuting home once a month, so my mom called him. I got on the phone and he [asked], ‘Is this true?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’” she continues. “I don’t think he said anything after that. They were [both] devastated and really upset. I don’t think they really knew how to handle the situation.”
With little support at home, Lewis made the decision to move out.
“They didn’t tell me I had to move out, but we already had a tumultuous home—there was a lot of fighting a lot of arguing, a lot of crying, a lot of yelling,” Lewis explains. “It was like throwing a crisis on top of an already fragile situation, so I left. I moved in with [Nerissa’s] father, but we didn’t have anywhere to go. We would sleep in his car, in parking lots, or sleep on people’s floors—it was just a really scary time.”
Now homeless, pregnant, and juggling senior-year classes and doctor’s appointments, there seemed to be no end in sight to Lewis’ struggles. Despite these odds, she was able to graduate from high school with honors. After graduation, Lewis made a promise to her mother that she would attend college the following year. In the fall of 1999, Lewis, now 19 and the mother of a 3-month old, attended her first day of school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virgina, keeping true to her promise.
Spending many sleepless nights working on assignments or tending to the needs of her baby, Lewis’ time at William & Mary was nothing like that of her fellow classmates on campus.
“I was worried about ‘adult things,’” she says, laughing. “Like putting food on the table.”
Lewis was able to care for Nerissa with the leftover money she received through loans and grants. “I paid for my living expenses, food, and daycare. I didn’t work so that I could focus fully on college and Nerissa,” she recalls. “This was sometimes problematic because I had very little money.”
The summer after her freshman year, Lewis became a single mother after breaking up with Nerissa’s father. Despite the responsibility of raising a child by herself, Lewis was able to squeeze in some fun and make a few friends, one of them being her future husband Donté Lewis. Over the next few years Lewis and Donté spent time getting to know each other and watching Nerissa flourish. In the spring of 2003, Lewis graduated from William & Mary with a degree in English with a concentration in secondary education.
“I remember being at the commencement ceremony and, as you can imagine, it was overwhelming emotionally,” she says. “It was like, ‘Wow! I actually did it.’ I even had Nerissa walk across the graduation stage with me. It was just a very surreal moment.”
Lewis’ life quickly morphed into the one she had always dreamed of having. She moved back in with her parents and started a summer internship working in media relations for a small boutique firm; after that, she went to grad school at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia for social policy with a concentration in communications , and got her first full-time job working as a regional public relations head for Geico.
“It was a very cool first job; I really enjoyed that I was working with senior leadership and I was even traveling a bit,” she says. But despite her growing success at Geico, Lewis soon began to feel the burdens of working a full-time job while raising a child. “I realized I didn’t really like traveling. Nerissa would stay with my mom [and] I hated being away from her and for three or four days.”
She decided to leave GEICO to explore a career path in the non-profit sector, allowing for a more flexible schedule and an opportunity to work on a cause that hit closer to home. Shortly after her departure from GEICO, Lewis began volunteering for several nonprofit organizations geared towards reproductive health and teen pregnancy. Now an accomplished, mother of two and a wife, Lewis, who was now three years into her volunteer non-profit work, was able to glimpse at her work from a different perspective.
“One of the things that became very clear was that there was a lot of support for teen pregnancy prevention, which is obviously extremely important, but where you saw the support take a nosedive was for those teens who do experience a pregnancy,” she explains. “A lot of the support tends to be on survival—’just get me through the next 24 hours: shelter, food, diapers, formula’—not longevity. Then, the educational support just really tended to focus on high school because less than half of teen moms graduate from high school. When I looked at college completion, less than 2% of teen mothers graduate from college before the age of 30. That meant that 98% of teen mothers were not graduating from college and were more likely to be living in poverty [with] their children.
“I looked at my own life and at the transformation that a college degree had on my life and on my daughters’ lives and I was like, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” she continues. “More teen mothers and teen fathers need to be walking across the graduation stage.”
That realization helped birth her nonprofit organization Generation Hope, which helps more D.C.-area teen mothers and fathers become college graduates. While Generation Hope’s beginnings were marked by little financial backing and countless overtime, its growing success in just four short years has been payoff enough for Lewis and the many young lives it has affected.
“The most gratifying part of my job is knowing that what we do really matters in the long term,” she says. “I know that when a scholar walks across the graduation stage their earning power immediately skyrockets. I don’t have to wonder, you know? I don’t have to sit back and say, ‘Is what we do really going to make a difference 10 years from now?’ Because I know that their lives are going to be completely different because they have a college degree—not only for that teen parent, but for their child. That legacy just kind of continues in that family. That is so gratifying for me because this all will outlast me—it’s just going to keep going for generations to come and that makes me feel really good.”
What’s a typical day like with your daughters?
Oh my gosh! (Laughs) A typical day with my kids is extremely busy, and because I have a 10-year age difference between my daughters, we’re busy in very different ways. My daughter [Nerissa] is a freshman in high school so I take her to school every morning and I pick her up every afternoon. We’re off pretty early to get her to school by 7:20 a.m. I’ve got my youngest, Naya, in tow, and we jump in the car. [I talk] to my older daughter about things [like] homework, did she sign up for such and such extracurricular activity, and is she ready for the basketball game tonight? With my youngest daughter we’re talking about does she have her cheese stick in her lunchbox? (Laughs) And what does she think they’re going to do in circle time today? [We] get sissy to school, then we go home, and I get [Naya] ready. Then I bring her to school [which] starts at 9 a.m.
Like I said, it’s very busy, we’re always on the go: My daughter plays JV basketball, so we’re always taking her to her practices and her games, and my youngest daughter is in swimming and she takes ballet. But we’re having a great time as we’re doing it—we have our little inside jokes, you know? It’s like the three of us: me and my two daughters, and then my husband is trying to fit in wherever he can. (Laughs)
With such an age difference between not only your girls, but yourself, what were your pregnancies like?
With Nerissa, my pregnancy was crazy. I mean, I was pregnant in some dire circumstances. I had no money. I remember having a really difficult time getting to my prenatal appointments; we didn’t have reliable transportation and I remember walking really long distances to try to get to the doctor. I wasn’t eating properly: sometimes we [myself and my former boyfriend] didn’t have food to eat. All I wanted when I was pregnant with Nerissa was obviously to have a healthy baby, but I also wanted a place of our own to take her home to.
I remember feeling beautiful, I remember feeling excited, I remember all the little things like when she would kick, and getting to know her personality in my belly. It was [also] a lonely time. I was in this really bad relationship, [and] my relationship with my parents was spotty. I had really lost all my friends because of my pregnancy, [but] I was thankful for this baby that was growing inside of me—we were kind of weathering the storm together.
I loved being pregnant with both of them, [but] with Naya it was so different because I had this wonderful, supportive husband. I remember I would get the update every week of what was going on inside me, like how big she was. I would send them to him and he would be just as excited as I was. It was totally different; I had a home and we were decorating the nursery. I felt like I had a real partner and real support with Naya. I was so excited to meet this new baby who was going to be a little bit of me and a little bit of Donté.
The things I was concerned about were very different, but with Naya I do remember being more afraid of something going wrong with the pregnancy, which is so weird because I’d already done it before. I think with Nerissa I was so young that I didn’t even think about all the stuff that could go wrong. But with Naya—and being older and knowing people who had issues right up until the end—I was just like, “Please God, just let this baby be okay.”
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
I enjoy seeing them kind of come into their own and be their own people, and being able to help them in that process. Every day you get a glimpse. It’s almost like a gift that you get to open slowly every day.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when…?
When Naya comes running into my room in the morning and she snuggles up under me. There’s this whole other side of the bed she could be on, but she burroughs a little area right under my rib and that’s where she stays. I know that it’s only this small period of time I’m going to have that, but I love being a mom in that moment because it’s so sweet!
Fill in the blank: Being a mom is the hardest when…?
I think when there is an experience or a lesson that my kids have to learn that is necessary for them to grow and to mature, but it might be an unpleasant one. I think it’s hard for me because I just want to kind of swoop in and make everything okay, but I know I have to let them go through a process to learn that lesson. That’s probably just one of the hardest things to realize: that they just have to experience life in order to come into their own and be their own person.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
They’re very different. Nerissa is very energetic, very life of the party. She is always looking for something to do, she wants to get out of the house and just be with people. She doesn’t really like to be on her own much. She just draws energy from being with her friends and family. She’s always on the go and [is] hilarious.
She’s always been like that. She had a streak of mischievousness and around kindergarten, she started talking like a lot in class and getting a little sassy with her teachers. She definitely is very headstrong and she is not gonna let anybody railroad her. Even when she was a baby, I was trying to nurse her, [but] I was so engorged that she couldn’t latch on. So I pumped some milk for her and I put it in a little bottle. She was 3 days old and holding her own bottle because she was that hungry. That’s her—if she wants something she’s just gonna go after it.
Naya is much more content with snuggling up with mommy, [and] being in the house watching a movie. She’s okay with lounging around. But at the same time Naya is also very energetic. In the morning, you’ll hear her door creak open and then [these] rapid speed tiny footsteps into our room, past my husband, to my side of the bed. That’s every morning at 6:45 and then it’s nonstop She still has the energetic thing going on, but she’s fine with staying in the house.
How has being a mom changed your life?
I’ve been a mom for the past 16 years—I’m 34 years old—so motherhood is such a huge part of my life. I feel like it has definitely made me a better person. I think becoming a mom so young helped me to immediately recognize what was so important in the world and get really focused on my goals. For instance, when I went to college, I literally cared less when the next party was, because I had a baby to take care of. I didn’t drink in college because I didn’t want to be drunk on the floor, and everyone’s like, “Isn’t that...the one...who has...a baby?” (Laughs) I feel like motherhood just really put my entire life into perspective; it made me realize what was most important and made me really focus on getting there because it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about my daughters.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
It’s hard for us because we came into our marriage with a child, so parenting was something that we had to try to figure out from the beginning. You just kind of figure it out as you go. My husband’s great with helping me be consistent, which is really important with kids—to have some consistency and to make sure you’re following through on the things you’re holding them accountable for.
I think on the flipside I’m always trying to think of creative ways for the kids to learn a lesson. For instance one time [Nerissa] was pouring milk down the drain that she didn’t want to drink. I’m like, “Milk is expensive.” So the next time we went grocery shopping I told her she was gonna pay for the gallon of milk out of her own money, as opposed to putting her on punishment or whatever you might do. She was totally bummed that she had to spend her own money, but what I was trying to help her understand was the value of the things that we provide.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your children through your work?
I hope that Nerissa and Naya look at me and see that the sky is the limit for them. I just want them to know that they can do anything they want to, they can do anything they put their mind to, and that nobody [can] put limits on them. I feel like so often we give in to the doubts that we have about ourselves or the doubts that other people have about us, and the sad thing is they may not have any validity to them; you could waste your whole life because you don’t think you can do something. I don’t want them to feel that way; I want them to look at me and say, “I can do anything, because look at my mom and what she’s been able to do.”
Issue No. 45
Words: Satya Nelms
Visuals: Bessie Akuba
For most of her life, Nicole Blake thought her career—one that has sent her all over the world and puts her imaging science degree to good use—would be her top priority.
“I was never that girl [who] wanted children, wanted to be married, wanted a family,” Blake says now. “I think for a very long time I focused on achieving certain things in life [like] traveling, so I just focused on ticking countries off of my list.”
But when her daughter Arianna, affectionately called Poppyseed, was born, Blake decided to let her career take a backseat. (She currently works part time for a technology company.) “Honestly I can’t see myself going back to full time,” she says. “They money would be nice, but working part time and having a baby is already a full-time job.”
So much has changed since Blake first started living abroad eight years ago. Best known as the woman behind travel blog Nicole is the New Black, Blake has been to 37 countries on five continents. Blake’s travels and adventures as a black expat abroad have brought her tons of followers. (Mother and daughter have done their fair share of traveling together, too—“We just came back from Sweden. We’ve traveled in Germany [and] we’ve gone into Denmark to visit her dad and his family.”)
Born and raised in New Jersey, Blake went to school in Rochester, New York, then had four major work-related moves in a relatively short time frame, going from Lexington, Kentucky, to Washington D.C., to London, before finally landing in Berlin, Germany where she lives now.
“There’s so much diversity here,” she says of her new homebase. “The cost of living is so affordable, and it has accommodated me for every aspect of my life.”
Five years into living there, Blake calls Berlin her “kindred spirit,” a distinction that makes sense: She owes much of who she is and what she does today to the city.
“I wrote one of my first entries on a house hunting trip after I had gotten the job here,” she explains. “People would say, ‘Your life is crazy; you used to live in London and now you live in Berlin. How?’ I was tired of answering the same questions over and over and over again, so I thought, why not just write about it on the blog?”
Berlin has also seen her through a series of major changes, from the ending of what she thought was a lasting relationship to becoming an unexpectedly single mother. How did a woman who was “never that girl,” end up becoming a mom? “It literally was like a switch went off in my head,” she says. “‘I want to be a mom. I want a family. I want to build a unit with someone.’”
Even though Blake knew she wanted to have a child, her road to motherhood was a bit complicated. Her partner at the time told her he wasn’t interested in having children. ”He said, ‘I’m older, I already have two kids of my own’” she recalls now. “‘I don’t want to have more kids. So, I’m gonna let you go, and you [can] find someone who can give that to you.’”
Blake took the break up in stride, and enjoyed her time as a single woman in Berlin. “The nightlife is off the chain,” she says. “Leave work, go out, come back to work in the same clothes I had on the day before. Dating men from all over the world, all walks of life. It was just a crazy lifestyle."
But a year and a half later, Blake’s ex came back into her life. He told her, “‘I want you, and you want kids, so let’s do it,’” she remembers. Blake jumped in with both feet and, in true globetrotter fashion, discovered she was pregnant after a trip to Spain, three months after the couple decided to try to conceive. “It was right after I came back from Pamplona, running with the bulls,” she says, laughing “Leave it to me, risking my life, doing something reckless. Glad I got that out of the way! The universe was like, ‘Slow your roll!’”
She was excited to be expecting her first child, but the pregnancy wasn’t easy. “It was like I had every symptom possible,” she says. ”Nothing was comfortable. Getting out of bed was horrible. And then I developed pre-eclampsia.”
Her doctors worried that stress was exacerbating her condition, a diagnosis she agrees definitely played a part. “Her father dumped me when I was eight weeks pregnant, and so it was like a dark cloud was over the entire pregnancy.” This darkness combined with her workload resulted in her doctor putting her on bedrest when she was five months pregnant. Thanks to Germany’s health care system and generous maternal health leave policy, Blake was able to finally relax.
“I got 100% of my pay to stay home,” she says. “The benefits are serious. They said, ‘You’re not sick, you’re pregnant, and if you keep going to work and doing what you’re doing, you’re going to put the baby’s life at risk. It’s for the protection of the baby that you have to stay home.’”
The time off allowed Blake to take a trip back to America and spend some time with her family. “I got to be just a daughter and a sister before I became somebody’s mom,” she says. “Everybody spoiled me.”
Shortly after returning from the States, Arianna was born in Germany. Arianna has changed every aspect of Blake’s life, down to the way she identifies herself. “I have a newer sense of responsibility,” she says. “I have to consider her and the impact on her in all things. Before I would say, ‘I’m a woman first, [then] I’m black, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister…’
“[Now] I am a mom first, and that’s a really big shift for me, considering I used to travel all over the place, and date who I wanted to date, and go out when I wanted to go out,” she continues. “It’s taught me a lot about myself and it’s taught me a lot about love. Sometimes I don’t like her, because she can be a handful, but there’s this incomparable love.”
How do you juggle being a present mom with your career and your blog?
Not very well. (Laughs) The blog has suffered the most. It’s definitely the ball that I’ve dropped, which is unfortunate because there are people who have been loyal readers from the very beginning. They’ve been very supportive. I’m trying to post something at least once a week.
The blog is also evolving with me. At first it was just hair and then it was purely travel, but now I’m not traveling as much because of the baby and the finances. I might start sharing my pregnancy story, or my feelings about being a single mom, or trying to date while being a single mom, stuff like that.
How would you describe Arianna’s personality?
She is happy. She’s always smiling, laughing. Of course she cries, but she waves at everybody, blows kisses; she’s a social butterfly. Everybody says she gets that from me, but I don’t like everybody. Arianna likes everybody, and if she doesn’t like you, your aura is all the way off, because my child smiles and laughs at everybody, even when she’s tired.
How do you want to raise your daughter as an American expat in Germany?
I would like to raise Arianna as an international child who happens to live in Germany. I'm American by citizenship but was raised in a very West-Indian household. Her grandparents on her father's side are very active in her life so she has exposure to the Danish side of things, combined with the fact that she lives and will be educated in the German school system.
Of course her primary cultural influences will be German. But I hope that I can tackle some of the things in German culture that I don’t particularly care for. For instance, manners are a bit different here. Arianna says "thank you" all the time. [It’s] something I say to her when she does what I ask, or hands me something, or gives me a hug. She just knows that when you receive something, you say “thank you.” Normal German kids and adults don’t do this. They have their own version of manners; I hope she adopts the American version.
On the other hand there are German things I plan to embrace. For instance, children often go on week-long trips away from home as early as 3 to 4 years old here with their daycare and parent chaperones. When kids are older, like 12 or so, they sometimes have international trips to other countries in Europe. Kids take public transport by themselves or walk to school as early as 6 here. This would never happen in the States. There just isn’t this looming fear or reality of kids being attacked or kidnapped in Germany. Children have the freedom to be children for much longer.
How do you reconcile where you daughter lives with your own upbringing?
I think my planned method of parenting will come under fire during the teenage years. German children often have sleepovers with their boyfriends/girlfriends at the early age of 16. I don’t play that. If she does manage to convince me that she is responsible to date at 16, she ain’t having no sleepovers. To me, partaking in adult activities with a mindset of child have not won Germans any favors. They play house at too early of an age, don’t value marriage, and spend years in various relationships, resulting in crazy patchwork families.
In the end, her childhood will probably be very similar to my upbringing. Outside my home was Newark, New Jersey with all its charm, but inside the house I was raised by a strict West-Indian mother and grandmother. I knew I was different and I probably resented it at times but as an adult I totally appreciate it. I also will disregard aspects of my upbringing that I don’t agree with. For instance, I don’t plan on "whoopin" or beating Arianna.
At the end of the day, I do have confidence in my ability to make decisions, but at the same time I appreciate the ability to ask. It’s hard for me, I think, because it’s just me. Or when I’m sick! That’s really when I [think] “This single mom stuff is no joke.” Even when I’m sick or I’m throwing up, I still have to take care of her. And she’s looking at me like, “Why are you running to the bathroom every five minutes, mom? I’m bored, I need a hug, I want to play.” So I think that’s the hardest part: doing it all, all the time, never, ever, ever turning off.
How has being a mother change your life?
I have never felt as close to women as I have since becoming a mom. My network of moms is ridiculous—it’s like a sisterhood.
[They’re] sharing clothes and recipes, dropping off casseroles right after you have the baby, holding the baby so I can take a shower. [There are] just so many hands willing to love and accept my daughter. I received countless pieces of advice and help from other mothers because they know and they can relate. I was cool with women before, but now I’m just like, how can you not respect women? How can you not appreciate women when they are really, the foundation? They’ve been my rock.
Even women I didn’t even know that well have become like sisters to me, because we share the fact that we have children or we’re single parents. I think for the most part, just the women that have come into my life, after having a child, have just been amazing. I could have never imagined that I would think even more highly of women, but ever since being a mom... it’s crazy.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
I think my challenges stem from being a single mother. I’m a discusser. If I’m packing for a trip, I need to ask somebody, “Should I bring this? Have you been there? What’s the weather like?” Before I make a decision, I’m always going over stuff. The hardest part about being a single mom is you don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of when it comes to the baby. Do I send her to an English kita [daycare]? Do I send her to a German kita? Should I send her to daycare when she has a fever, or is this really a fever?
What kind of person do you hope she becomes as she gets older?
I hope I don’t start crying… I don’t know what type of person I envision her being, but I hope that she doesn’t feel conflicted about her dad not being here. I don’t care that her father and I aren’t together, but he really isn’t as involved as he could be, or as he should be. I would hate for her to feel that he rejected her. I hope that she will realize that things happen in relationships and most people’s issues or reactions to you have to do with themselves. It wasn’t anything to do with her.
It kind of hurts my heart when I see men with their daughters, especially biracial girls with white fathers. Why doesn’t she get that? She is lacking it. She is friendly to everyone, but tall white males with blue eyes, she just gravitates toward them. And I wonder, “Does she know? Does she think that guy’s her father?” Then again, it could just be all in my head. Maybe she’s like that with every guy, but I feel really emotional when I see it. I just really hope that I give her enough love so that she doesn’t miss her father’s love.
As a single mom and an American, how did you go about building your support network in Germany?
My network in Germany, believe it or not, started online. Because of the blog and Youtube videos a few people found me. Other people I found on message boards for English speakers in America or Facebook groups. I also have great coworkers who I consider like family and even have an amazing neighbor who also acts as Arianna's play dad. She calls him Papa. He helped me so much during my pregnancy, building nursery furniture and carrying up the groceries. He loves her so much. There is also another good male friend of mine that adores Arianna. He met her when she was 10 days old and they have been the best of friends since. I am so happy she has positive male figures in her life.
I also have family that live in the south of Germany. They won’t be there forever and plan to repatriate but its good to have family close for holidays when I can’t make it back to America. We see each other four or five times a year. We have been super fortunate.
Issue No. 46
Los Angeles, California
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: Molly Cran
Mignon Moore, an associate professor in the department of sociology at UCLA, combines the best of the “cool mom” and “cool professor” tropes in a genuine package. But the former distinction is a recent title Moore is still getting used to.
“I have dedicated so much of my focus to my career [and becoming] a tenured professor,” Moore says. “After so many years of not being a mom, my kids have taught me that my time is no longer my own. I’m still trying to find a balance between being a mother to my babies [daughter Joie, 1, and son Ryan, 11 months] and continuing to do my research. Although it can be challenging, I’m privileged to have a job that gives me some flexibility.”
Along with flexibility, her job has also allowed for incredible intellectual and professional growth. After attending Columbia University as an undergraduate, Moore earned a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago. She then followed up with a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan and began her first professorship back at Columbia in 2000. It was a move that led to six years of work at the university.
“I hadn’t actually gone on the market,” she explains of her first big job. “They invited me to apply for the position during my post-doc. I was a good fit for what they were looking for, so they hired me.”
After writing her dissertation on risk factors for early teenage pregnancy and childbearing, Moore continued to study African-American families, looking, for example, at gender socialization.
“One finding I had in my dissertation was that even in high-poverty, disadvantaged neighborhoods, there were pockets of stability and safety. And if girls were able to connect with those,” says Moore, “they had a positive outcome.”
So when she started teaching at Columbia, she could have chosen to find families in nearby Harlem to interview and see where those pockets of stability were. But she felt there were a number of researchers in the field who had already been studying black families in those ways, while few were studying LGBT people and families of color.
“It was a fork in the road where I had to make a decision about what to study,” Moore says. “When I decided to study black lesbian families, people weren’t really doing that kind of work in mainstream sociology. [LGBT people of color] were marginalized in the media [and] they were marginalized in the academy. I thought that I could contribute something more original in showing how race, gender, and sexuality intersected to shape these women’s lives.”
While at Columbia, Moore began working on her first book, Invisible Families, a study of black gay women creating families. She collected all of her data and started writing some of the chapters but eventually, after a six-year run at the university, Moore felt like it was the right time for a personal and professional shift. In 2006 she accepted an offer from UCLA’s sociology department—another juggernaut in the field of women’s and gender studies—and moved with Elaine Harley (then her partner of four years, now her wife) to the West Coast.
“I wanted to try something new,” Moore says of the change. “I think it’s important to have a lot of experiences when we’re young. Some people are fine to stay in one place for their whole lives and I think that’s great, but I wanted to see what it was like to be in other environments, and this offered us a chance to grow in different ways.”
Moore and Harley built a tight-knit social group for other gay women of color in Los Angeles, a location that presented unique challenges compared to their hometown.
“In New York there are more public spaces for and a greater visibility of gay people—and gay people of color, specifically,” says Moore. “Los Angeles is a larger city in terms of square miles and everything is much more spread out, so most socializing takes places in people’s homes. But [Elaine and I] believed that greater visibility leads toward more acceptance—self-acceptance and acceptance by larger society. It was important to us that we be in public spaces where we were affirmed, and [where] other women would be affirmed and welcome.”
On the East Coast, the couple had hosted a series of events for women called Persuasion. So two years after moving to the West Coast, they launched a similar recurring program called Chocolate and Wine Upscale Events.
In 2013 Moore and Harley decided to expand their family through adoption. The two had planned to have children for years but ran into a stumbling block after Moore experienced difficulty conceiving. Still, they refused to give up their dream of raising children together and pursued other options. Rather than embarking on round after round of expensive fertility treatments, Harley and Moore looked into adoption.
“We didn’t choose private adoption because we thought there were plenty of children who needed a home that were in the system already,” Moore says. “Also, female couples have a harder time in private adoptions because when the birth mother has to decide [on a family], she often has an image of the ideal family she wants her child to have”—which doesn’t always include same-sex parents.
Fortunately, with the help of the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency (SCFFAA), the couple was placed with Joie and Ryan, who are biological sister and brother. The Moore-Harley children were born prematurely. Joie, who was born at 30 weeks and is now 20 months old, is developing at an adjusted age of 18 months, while Ryan (who was born at 25 weeks and is now 11 months old) has an adjusted age of 7 months. The pair faces some common health challenges that arise from early arrivals, including developmental delays, feeding issues due to acid reflux, and underdeveloped lungs. But, Moore says, “We felt those were issues we could deal with.
“When babies are born early you never know what will happen,” she continues. “But [neither Joie nor Ryan had] any ailments that we felt would make it hard for two working parents to care for them.”
And work she does. After their successful placement, Moore and Harley became advocates and spokespeople for the nonprofit organization RaiseAChild.US which, like the SCFFAA, is open and welcoming to same-sex, single, and older people building families through fostering and adoption. Moore and Harley now lead workshops in both of these organizations to share their experiences with adopting children through the public system.
Additionally, Moore is working on her latest book, In the Shadow of Sexuality: African-American LGBT Elders and Social Support. The book is one part social history of African-American LGBT people in New York and Los Angeles starting in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, through the lens of the different social movements at the time—the Civil Rights, gay, and women’s movements. The second component of the book examines how this cohort of black gay elders will live out the rest of their lives.
“I’m trying to understand how this group understood their race and gender and sexuality during that era,” Moore explains. “Did they think about themselves as gay, or was race their primary identity group? Were they able to have children? Were they able to form relationships [and families] or, because of the time, were they limited to sexual liaisons? And the other part is about social support as they age. Who is going to take care of them in their old age? Most of them don’t have children because they came of age at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for gay people to have children. I wonder what kind of support they’ll have in their retirement years.”
The issue is a personal one for Moore as she celebrates her 44th year. Her life has shifted in many ways since she and her partner adopted their children and have delved further into communities on both coasts.
“I want my kids to see through our example that they have a responsibility to participate in a community,” Moore says. “I want them to be part of a larger movement, to be part of a family, and not to think that the world is only about their dreams.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I was very undecided about it in my twenties and even in my early thirties. I was more focused on my career and I didn’t think much about it. One thing I wish that women knew is that they shouldn’t take motherhood for granted. I think because so many people are mothers, it’s easy to believe that anyone can be a mother, but not everyone has that gift.
Do you think that many women take motherhood for granted?
I think that I did. [Before adopting Joie and Ryan], I just felt that when I decided to have a baby, I could. I didn’t have any medical conditions and I didn’t know that there was a timeframe for the quality of your eggs. I never gave it one second of thought, but there’s only a limited amount of time when you can physically have a child. I guess [some] people don’t recognize that because we hear so many stories of people who have a child in their 40s, so you think, “Oh. When I’m ready, I’ll do it.”
But on my journey to motherhood, I had trouble conceiving a child and carrying to term, and I met many people who also tried and weren’t able to. Others may have assumed those women did not have children because they didn’t want to, but [maybe] they just weren’t able to, and I learned that. I also think there’s an assumption that black women and Latina women are particularly fertile, and I met black and Latina women who physically weren’t able to have children. It would have been a really hard and expensive thing. So I tell people, if you want to have a child, start trying.
I do think that women have to seek fulfillment in their personal and professional lives. For too long, black women have not had that opportunity, so I want them to pursue those personal and professional endeavors, wholeheartedly. But I also want them to know that if they want to have a child, that’s something they have to take seriously and not just think that it will happen when they’re ready. If they think they might want to be a mother, I want them to value that as well.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far as a mother?
Our biggest challenge so far was when we lost our first placement with a child that we planned to adopt. The agency located a distant relative and he had to go live with them. It was devastating because we had been through loss with our efforts at fertility, and then experienced this. Elaine and I had to take time to mourn that loss, but we still wanted to fulfill our dream of raising children together. So Joie and Ryan were a blessing.
Do you think people have misconceptions about fostering or adopting a child?
I think that people might assume that the children they adopt from the foster care system are of a “lesser” status than children you have by birth; that they are second-choice, or that they have extra baggage that children you have by birth don’t have. That’s not a good way to look at it. Yes, adopted children have suffered some kind of trauma. Even though we brought our children right from the hospital as soon as they were ready to come home from being born, they still have the trauma of being separated from their birth parent. But children that you might have biologically may have some personality difference or physical ailment that develops as they get older. Or maybe none of that is present, but something else happens in the family—a failed marriage, or a parent loses her job. There’s always going to be something in your family that will be a test of your will, a test of your endurance, and a test of your faith.
For adoptive parents, bonding with a child who is not biologically related to us or who we didn’t have from birth is our test. But for a person who loses her job and needs to keep her family together, or who is struggling to create a close bond with her child, or who is parenting a child with autism, that is her challenge and her journey. We all have journeys in the experience of motherhood—we just have different ones.
What does the idea of “balance” mean to you as a parent, a spouse, and a professional?
It’s something that I would like, but I think it’s a hard thing to achieve. You want balance in your professional life, in your experience as a mother, then with your partner or spouse to make sure that you nurture that relationship, and finally for yourself where you can do something that nurtures you as a person. I think that life constantly rotates amongst all of those areas. Balance is not achieved all at once. There are times when each of those areas is nurtured, and there are times when each of those areas might not receive the attention that it needs. So for me, in this state of my life, it’s about making sure that I make time for the babies, and making sure that I make time to do my research and my writing, as well as for myself to exercise or nurture my spiritual side. But usually, none of those areas is in perfect balance; one area is usually suffering.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you and your wife execute it?
Right now, the babies are young. Elaine and I tend to have to think about how to help socialize our children as they come into the world. How do you teach them to be good citizens? How do you teach them basic life skills? Fortunately, Elaine and I have shared ideas about parenting. We both think it’s important to read to them, and for them to know that they’re loved and cared for by being affectionate. We are not punitive in our discipline and show them lots of love so that they feel special and know that they are valued. We think those are important things that you give to babies to help them feel secure in the world, and we practice and agree on those things, which makes for harmonious parenting.
What was the best advice your mother, or the mothers in your life, gave you?
Patience. You have to learn a certain kind of patience, and that’s what my mom did for me. When I get frustrated that the babies are crying and I don’t know why, or they won’t go to sleep when I want them to, it’s just that they’re on their own time. I’m working on their time—and after so many years of not being a mom, my children have taught me that my time is not my own. You may be thinking, “I don’t want to stop!” but the baby is like, “I don’t care if you’re working. I need a bottle!” And you have to listen; you can’t tell them to wait. I know it sounds so obvious but it surprises me, still, how they have so much control. You don’t want them to feel like their crying is not being heard.
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
I want them to love themselves and to love God, and to be kind to people who are different from them. I want them to be able to stand up for themselves in the face of hardship, and to be independent and self-sufficient. I want them to experience love and to have happiness in their relationships, and to find fulfillment in their work. I think all of those things make for a balanced person. I don’t have a particular goal for them to be in a certain occupation or to have a certain income. Just that they feel loved, have self-esteem, and have self-worth because to me, that is the key to avoiding many of the pitfalls that plague African-American children.
What perspective do you hope to impart to your children through your work?
I want my children to see that they can think outside of the box; that they don’t have to be limited in terms of what they would like to accomplish in life, or in terms of what society might impose upon them. I want them to feel like they have choices, and to feel a sense of mastery where they can achieve the things that they want. I want them to feel like the world is open to them.
Issue No. 47
San Francisco, California
Words: Tanyanika Samuels
Visuals: Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co.
Meridian Adams is, in a word, driven.
In little more than a decade, the 36 year old worked her way from folding sweaters as a part-time sales associate to global production manager at Gap, Inc (home of Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic). It was a career path that took her to Asia several times a year to facilitate production of the company’s women’s clothing lines, handle cost negotiations, and ensure on-time delivery of products.
“The one thing consistent about retail is that it’s not consistent,” says Adams from her home in the San Francisco suburb of Potrero Hill. “A lot of things are out of your control. I was constantly finding ways to make things work.”
The ups and downs of the retail world proved to be good training for her biggest challenge yet: motherhood. Earlier this year, Adams gave birth to her son Jace Tyler Adams, a mellow, happy baby who has completely changed the focus of his mother’s life. Though Adams always knew she wanted children, career came first for a long time.
Three years after graduating from high school, Adams worked as a part-time sales associate at a Banana Republic in Sacramento while completing her freshman year at Sacramento City College. She fell in love with Gap, Inc. and two years later, in 2001, cold called their corporate office in San Francisco to ask for an entry-level job. She juggled another year and a half of classes while working full-time at Gap, Inc., but college eventually fell by the wayside as she further pursued her career in retail. Adams worked as an assistant buyer for three years then transitioned from merchandising to production.
“I was really interested in the international business aspect of the production job,” she explains. “They worked with our overseas offices around the globe to make clothing. I found it exciting to be able to work daily with people from different parts of the world as well as get the opportunity to travel to these places and see life outside of the U.S. all while making clothes.”
It was challenging work that meant unscheduled late nights at the office. Because of the time zone differences, she often found herself making conference calls in the evenings from home as well.
“It was more than just your eight-hour day,” Adams says now. “You were constantly plugged in.”
But she thrived in that go-go-go environment. “Working in retail you deal with a lot of change in a fast-paced environment to keep up with the market and trends. Dealing with ambiguity and problem solving made for a different challenge day by day. You were never bored for sure.”
Adams moved up in the company, and in 2011 earned a promotion that had her managing her own production team. Her personal life was taking off as well: In 2006, she met her husband Justin, a financial portfolio manager for an investment firm. The two married in 2010 and bought their three-bedroom house a year later. They even got a dog: a Great Dane named Trooper. Adams was in full nesting mode in their new home, and soon it was hard to ignore her longing for children.
“When I hit 34 and 35, it was like, ‘Hmm are we doing this?’”
The couple tried for four months, and when Adams learned she was pregnant, it felt “surreal,” she says. “When we went for that first appointment and saw his heartbeat, I remember looking at the doctor and saying ‘Oh, now it’s for real.’”
Her pregnancy was “pretty easy.” “In the beginning, I felt a little nauseous here and there. I tried to stay fit but cheeseburgers and French toast became my best friends,” she says, laughing. “My husband was like, ‘Okay, now I’m putting on the pounds.’ All we were eating were cheeseburgers.”
After Jace was born on January 26 and Adams went on maternity leave, she fully believed she would return to the job she loved at the end of her break. But, the more she thought about it and spent time with her son, the more she realized her hectic work schedule would not dovetail well with life at home.
“The decision to not go back was a hard one,” she says now. “I had never not worked since I was 16 years old, so just wrapping my head around that was hard. I waited as long as possible before informing my boss of my decision, which was just a couple of weeks before I was supposed to return to work. Ultimately it came down to doing what I felt was right for our family and [for] this short amount of time when our child is home before going off to school.
“I felt being home with my son became more important than my career,” she continues. “This was the first time work was not top of my priority list.”
Other considerations weighed heavily into her decision to stay home as well. There was the question of finances, of losing momentum on her career track, and uncertainty about re-entering the workforce when Jace was ready for school.
“Taking time off meant losing opportunities that arise to advance, as I was was in a really good groove with my team when I got pregnant,” Adams explains. “I also struggled with the life I was giving up, like traveling the world to make clothes, and the friendships I had with my co-workers. Some people didn't understand my decision and couldn't believe I was leaving my job to become a stay-at-home mom, which they imagined to be less glamorous. While changing poopy diapers isn't as exciting as traveling and making clothes, the other parts of staying home have proven to be far more rewarding.”
"You can see my husband’s face light up when he comes home and Jace smiles at him."
Though Adams’ days do look a lot different now—cuddle time, morning walks with Trooper, and mommy groups have replaced factory trips to Asia, conference calls, and work events—she’s happy with her decision to get off the corporate track...at least for now.
“I feel very fortunate that I’m able to stay home and see all these developmental changes,” Adams says. “The first time he took the bottle from me and started holding it I was like ‘Oh my gosh!’ It’s the little things for me that are the best part. I can’t imagine life without him.”
The change of pace has taken some getting used to, however.
“I wasn't completely sure what life would be like at home,” she admits. “I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was at first—like figuring out being a mom and all the parts that come with your child developing and ultimately realizing your time is no longer your own at any part of the day. You always question whether you are doing it right. I think that’s the biggest question everyone has: Am I giving my baby everything he needs?
“Another aspect I didn't expect was it being a bit alienating and at times lonely,” she continues. “Most of my friends are all still working, so it was a challenge figuring out how to fulfill our days. It can be a struggle to get everything I need in between the limited time my son is napping. As he is getting older, it is getting better, and I am finding ways to keep us both engaged with our day to day.”
It also helps that she has a support network that includes Jace’s grandmothers, who both live close by, in those moments of doubt and isolation.
“My mom told me to just be patient with myself and that was reassuring,” she says. “The best advice came from my mother-in-law who just said, ‘Whatever works.’ She had four kids and they all have their 10 fingers and toes. They all turned out great. So I’m going to go with that for sure.”
Looking back on your career, would you do anything differently?
I think I would have applied for more positions to advance in my career earlier. I think I was self conscious about not finishing college and thought that would prevent me from getting the job. Eventually, after years and experience, I got over it and finally pursued moving up. But I should have pursued it earlier.
How did you eventually move up?
I had a crossroads in my career. I could have stayed and applied for a manager position, but I felt, “If I don’t leave now, I’ll never leave.” It was like the seven-year itch where I felt like I needed to broaden my horizons: I wanted to learn a new industry outside of clothing. I’d been in the same company, so I wanted to see how other retailers out there worked. An opportunity came up [with] Williams-Sonoma Home, which is their luxury brand, so I applied for that [and] worked there for almost two years. That was right around the time the economy changed for everyone [with] the housing crisis, so people weren’t buying $100 candelabras and $800 sheets. (Laughs) They kind of knew they would be transitioning out of that [and] it was only going to be an online type of thing.
At the time, my VP back at Old Navy was like, “Hey, we need someone in accessories. Would you consider coming back?” So I went back [as] an associate production manager. And I’m glad that I did because even though I put off being a manager for a year and a half, I still gained experience.
How do you envision your return to the workforce?
I would love to find something for which I can use my previous background in interior and/or architectural design. When we remodeled our home in 2011, I really enjoyed the process of selecting and sourcing fixtures and finishes and pulling it all together. Based on this, I’m exploring some new avenues to get into this industry. I’m definitely keeping my eye out for ways to stay connected to the workforce if an opportunity arises.
What is your parenting philosophy?
The biggest thing, I think, is they learn from you, so lead by example. Even with Jace only being 9 months, I’ve learned that if you’re cool, they’re cool. If you freak out, they’re going to freak out. So the biggest thing is to just have patience and model what you want them to be.
What is the most challenging part of motherhood so far?
I think the most challenging is questioning yourself constantly: Am I doing this right? [Also] it's learning to go with the flow, know you’re not going to know everything, and [that] you both are learning together. That and the lack of sleep—you really don’t know tired until you have a baby. It’s amazing that Mother Nature can put someone this tired in charge of someone so small. But what I have learned is it gets better, little by little and day by day. And when they finally sleep through the night, you feel like a new person.
What do you love most about being a mother?
I love when I can make him laugh. When I can get that smile out of him, oh my gosh, it melts my heart.
Are you planning on having more children?
My husband comes from a big family. He’s one of four and a twin. So he always knew he wanted a big family. I was an only child. But I think we will. Everybody needs a buddy, so we might go for two.
Did you and Justin have conversations about having biracial children?
At first there was a concern. I would [say] to my husband, “You know you’re going to have a son who’s going to be black, and wanting to identify with the culture.” When Justin and I got together eight years ago, we would get comments here and there just for being a biracial couple. I don’t think he got it until we were dating and he could [hear] the comments, or [see] people giving us a look. If he hadn’t met me, he probably wouldn’t have seen it as much.
We were prepared for whatever might be. I assumed my son would have a little bit more of a tan. (Laughs) When he was born, I was like, “Whoa, ok. This is a whole ‘nother game right now.”
It was interesting. Now instead of getting the looks for being an interracial couple, we’re getting the looks [because] they want to see what the baby looks like. They want to peek around the stroller. I went through a couple of play groups, and people would say, “What family do you work for? Are you the nanny?” No… he’s mine.
That’s so awkward on so many levels!
Isn’t it? And of course she backpedaled and [said], “I just mean there are other nannies here.” And I got it.
I was talking to my mom about it, and it’s funny because the same thing happened with her. My mom is French Creole and looks white. I’m sure in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it’s like “What is going on here?” because I was much darker than her. She said, “Just get used to it.” My family is French Creole Irish from New Orleans, so everybody is mixed up, if you will. My grandmother had red hair and blue eyes, but we were also raised to not see that. My aunts and uncles are Filipino, Tahitian, and Japanese and Portuguese, so for me it wasn’t a big deal to have a biracial child because I feel like my whole family is sort of a melting pot. But I definitely wonder what it will be like when my son gets older. I know that racism will never go away completely, but I’m hoping it won’t be as bad.
Do you guys have an idea of what you’ll say or what you’ll do if your son has questions?
I think I would talk to my kids as if they were an adult. I think every kid is probably going to go through some sense of identity [crisis], trying to figure out who they are and what they’re about. For me, I didn’t really know my real father all that well—my stepfather raised me. So I think there are different things kids are always going to have to deal with. I think it’s more about leading by example and saying, “Yeah, everyone’s different. But we’re all the same. We all get our feelings hurt. We all go through trials and tribulations.”
He’ll also see his parents: We love each other and we’re different. We come from different walks from life, so hopefully that will instill in him that color doesn’t really matter—or shouldn’t. But I [also] don’t want him to not know the black culture, and what it’s about.
How do you plan on incorporating your culture so that your son knows that part of your identity?
In some ways it’s not like a religion where you [can say] here are the basic thoughts of our religion and this is how we do it. I think it’s more just being part of it and immersing yourself in it. We live in San Francisco, so it’s very diverse, but I grew up in Sacramento where there’s parts of it that aren’t very diverse. We didn’t have tons of money, but my parents worked really hard. My dad was the first African-American licensed painter to work for the Sacramento school district, and he got it because of Affirmative Action and constantly following up with the district for a year. He worked there for 30 years until his retirement. Things like that where I saw my dad work really hard to get to where he wanted to, and deal with racism, I’m looking at that and thinking, “How do I teach my kid that? How do I show him that?” And I think making sure we stay connected to the family is a big piece of it.
I [also] think it’s your life experience. I’ve felt it before so I think I would know how to talk to my son about it. I think my husband would say, “If someone treats you [with] ill will, then don’t bother yourself with them. You do what you think is right,” which I agree with. But I think I would be able to give first-hand accounts or experiences I've had and how I handled them.
It’s a tricky one, because on one hand you’re thinking, it shouldn’t matter—it didn’t matter to your father and [me]—but at the same time you don’t want them to be completely oblivious to it. I think they’re going to figure it out for themselves. I don’t think I have to say, “You have to do this, and you have to spend time doing this.” But I just want to be sure they’re always connected to every part of the family. Not just my husband’s side, but my side of the family, too.
Issue No. 48
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: J. Quazi King
No advertising or media world’s “best of” list is complete if Nadja Bellan-White’s name doesn’t make an appearance. With more than 20 years of experience, the mother of two (Troy Jr., 13, and Azza, 10) has made her mark at a number of high-profile agencies—most recently Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide—for her work with Fortune 1000 brands like American Express, Citibank, Motorola, and LG Electronics.
Her tireless work ethic—and we mean that quite literally: “I will not go to sleep until something’s done as perfectly as possible,” Bellan-White says—has borne the type of fruit typically believed to be unattainable to working mothers or only seen on the other side of the glass ceiling. But she’s quick to disabuse anyone of the notion that her career has followed a gilded path.
“It’s funny,” she says. “I meet some young people who think, ‘Oh, I want to be you one day.’ [But] you know what? It took 20 years for me to be me, and I’m still evolving. It doesn’t come easy.”
Advertising wasn’t on the horizon when Bellan-White graduated the University of Virginia with degrees in foreign affairs and Spanish in 1989. She wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and work for the United Nations, but found herself so bored during a trip to the UN, “I kept falling asleep.”
“At the time I entered business school,” she recalls. “I really thought that I was going to have a career in urban development and real estate corporate finance.” But a teaching fellowship with an enthusiastic professor at New York University introduced her to the possibility of working with brands. When she graduated from NYU, she had two job offers on the table: one to go into corporate finance and the other consulting brands on restructuring after bankruptcy. She went with consulting, and worked with IBM in its marketing strategy group.
“My assignment was figuring out how IBM could actually develop a direct business,” Bellan-White explains. She studied their upstart competitor Dell Corporation, which, at the time, was doing an unheard thing by selling directly to consumers in the mid-1990s. It was then that she first became acquainted with Ogilvy. “I was so impressed by Ogilvy, I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing group of people. I hope to work with them, because they sure seem to be having a lot more fun than I am!’
“I was making these presentations about Dell and how they’re changing the market,” she recalls. “Here I am, this young person at this behemoth IBM talking about ‘We have to expand!’ Some of these executives were like, ‘What is she talking about?’”
Her foresight and doggedness got her recruited from IBM in 1999 to Strategic Interactive Group, which later became Digitas, a global digital marketing and technology agency. The move placed Bellan-White solidly in the advertising and branding world, as she worked on turning around American Express’ small-business services arm and had a spot on the company’s coveted global advertising team. It also marked a place in her life when she was ready for another transition: becoming a mother.
“There’s never a good point—particularly in a career like mine—to have kids,” she says. “[But] as one of my mentors once told me, ‘You’re never going to have any regrets for having kids.’ My husband [marketing executive Troy White] and I were so excited when we found out we were pregnant.”
Bellan-White didn’t slow down during her pregnancies. “I remember sitting in a room with [American Express chief marketing officer John Hayes], 9.5 months pregnant, talking about the power of persuasive marketing,” she recalls. “I worked up until like the day before. I’m kind of extreme; I was that person writing presentations up until right before I delivered.
“I prayed every day,” she continues. “‘Lord, get me through today. Let me be ok.’ And you know, at the end of the day, you’re ok.”
She also had a support system in place to help her manage the difficult juggle of being a working mom in a client-driven field. “I have an amazing husband doing the heavy lifting at home. I get up at 6:30 in the morning and I don’t go to bed until 11. From the grandmothers to my husband to cousins to babysitters, they all help me so I can do what I do.”
But shortly after her daughter’s first birthday, Bellan-White decided to slow down and devote more time to her family. “As a mother you have to make a conscious decision to really get off that fast track for a minute and focus more on the kids and the family,” she explains now. “And I did that.”
Bellan-White left Digitas after six years, and did some consulting work for a few years before the marketing world beckoned here back in 2007. An old boss at Digitas called her with an opportunity she couldn’t turn down: senior vice president and marketing director of Publicis.
“It was another amazing ride. We’re transforming the LG brand in America, we’re doing work sessions in Paris,” she says. “My clients and I had a great relationship. And then, typical me, I’m like, ‘What’s next?’ I reached a point where I took a conscious step back to focus on the kids, and there’s a point where you have to move forward. You can’t just tread water anymore.”
That’s when Ogilvy, the company she had admired from afar at the start of her career, came a-calling.
“I came in, and it felt like home,” Bellan-White says of her interview. “[I thought], ‘This is where I want to end my career and this is where I want to make my mark.’”
And she’s made good on that feeling: She was recently tapped by her company to become the CEO of Ogilvy Africa, the continent’s largest agency network, overseeing branding, advertising, marketing, and strategy for clients like Nestle, Coca Cola, and Airtel. The family moved to Nairobi, Kenya in the fall, and have since settled into their new life abroad.
“It’s a lot for me,” she admits. “My mind is spinning. I’m blessed that Troy is excited for the ride too, and also to give our kids that exposure.
“I don’t know what’s to come,” she continues, “but I think it will be amazing.”
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
I think working with different brands [and] the look on people’s faces when they see my team’s work. It’s kind of exciting.
The other part of it is changing perceptions of people of color in the market. I think so many of us are quick to be in front of the camera [and] not enough of us are behind the camera. In the board room, in these meetings, [I can say], “Well, I don’t think that’s the right assumption, I don’t think that’s what we should be putting forward.” If enough of us aren’t there, then how can we make a change? So that’s kind of the role that I play.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a mother?
I come from a large Caribbean family where the young kids were always taking care of somebody’s child. I’ve always had that instinct, so I’ve always known I was going to be a mom. I was pretty excited. I was ready.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mom?
I think work-life balance. I know a lot of moms who feel this way: Kids can cut you deep when they want to know, “Why can’t you be the one who doesn’t have to go to work every day?” I never sugar coat anything with my kids. [I say,] "This is the reality. These are the cards that we’ve been dealt, this is what God has blessed us with. I know you want me to stay home every day, but that is just not possible. But because I work where I [do], you are able to have the experiences what other friends of yours may not normally have." So that’s what I try to tell them.
Azza with her guinea pig Chase.
How do you manage the mom guilt that comes with the balancing your career and home life?
It’s hard. I just came off a vacation where I was working on a big business pitch [and ultimately] the company wasn’t really that interested. I can’t get that week back. At the same time in my career, if you don’t give a 110% at all times, you’re just not keeping up.
So you try to balance it all. You try to carve out time when you can, and recognize that if I didn’t love what I did every day, it would be really hard. But I do love what I do; I love the people I work with at Ogilvy. It’s an extraordinary company to be a part of. I get excited to come to work everyday just like I get excited to go home at night. Is everything perfect? I don’t think anybody’s life is perfect, but I try to strike a balance where I can.
How do you and your husband balance parenting with the demands of your jobs?
He works from home, so he does a lot of the heavy lifting. We also have a sitter who helps us out as well, so that makes it easier for me. I also choose to live in the city and not in the suburbs. Now some may say, “Well, that’s why [you] have to pay for private school.” At the same time, I’m able to rush to a school recital and get back to work within 45 minutes. If I lived 2.5 hours away I couldn’t do that.
I usually try to set the table for breakfast unless I’m traveling on business, so at least the kids have the table set for breakfast. And on Sundays, I try to cook for the week, so I end up being hyper-organized. I’ll label stuff: “Here’s chicken for Monday and Tuesday, and I want you guys to take this fish out for Wednesday.” I try to be sure I organize the meals for the week with instructions on what needs to get done.
What is the best advice your mom or the moms in your life have given you?
Never ever, ever give up and don’t rest on your laurels at any time. You keep on striving, you keep on doing, you keep on trying to be better than everybody else. And because you’re a woman, because you’re a black woman, you have to work three-, four-, five-times harder than everyone else.
I tell my daughter that. Even though we may have evolved a little bit as a culture, we’re still not that evolved. (Laughs) The standards are going to be different. That may not be fair, but it is reality. I feel bad for somebody who thinks, “Oh, everything’s fair, and everything’s equal, and everything’s perfect, and everyone cares.” Just because someone looks like you doesn’t mean they’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt, [and] just because someone doesn’t look like you doesn’t mean they’re against you, either. You judge people based on who they are as individuals. You don’t come to anybody with preconceived notions because chances are it’s not going to be what you thought it was going to be. So just bring your A game always—110% at all times.
How would you describe your kids' personalities?
My son is very structured, very, very analytical—although at 13, he’s kind of discovered girls, so he’s lost a brain cell, I think. I mean, woof, I didn’t see that coming. I knew it would happen, but it is real.
My daughter is the most amazing flower child ever. She’s like peace, love, and happiness. She loves to write, she loves to sing… she’s a girly girl. She doesn’t want me to tell her she’s a girly girl because she’s a little more funky, but she’s definitely influenced by Disney.
My son is all jock, all sports all the time. His voice is changing and he’s really into it. For my son, his dad is his best friend. And for my daughter, she’s like my shadow. It just worked out like that.
How do you and your husband handle raising a black boy with all the attendant stereotypes and dangers of being a black man?
I have to tell you, my husband is, I think, the number-one dad in the world. He has spent such an extraordinary [amount of] time giving the kids balance. He is on the board of Harlem’s Little League and he’s also very active with the Harlem Jets [a youth football team].
My kids attend private school and we’re members of Jack and Jill, but I got to tell you, my kids have one foot in each world. By no means do they think that they’re better than anyone else, so my son sees both sides of the world. He rolls in his very privileged private school world, [and] he also rolls with the kids who come from cross-socioeconomic backgrounds on the Jets and Harlem Little League. And I think it’s great. It makes him a better person.
My children are perfectly well-suited for this world today. They are always respectful of other kids, and they’re not the mean kids. My kids are the ones that stand up for the ones who are being bullied, and that’s what we taught them.
You’ve had quite the career! What are some of the lessons you’ve learned while moving up the ranks?
Show me someone who’s had a perfect career, and I’ll show you someone who is lying. Lying through their teeth. (Laughs) It doesn’t come easy, and every day I’m learning. I never feel as though, “I’ve got it now, I’m good.” I’m always learning from other people. That’s kind of been my philosophy.
Don’t take anything personally. I think it’s easy to take things personally, [but] don’t hold grudges. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives [or] why they are the way they are in meetings.
Be good to the people who are around you, because you never know what’s going to happen and where you’re going to end up, and be true to yourself. Know who you are, know what you’re really, really good at, and know what you need to succeed.
What advice would you give to the young woman who wants to be where you are today in your industry?
Be honest: Do you want to be in this career? Is it fancy? Sure. Is it like Mad Men? Sorry. Mad Men does not exist here. But if you work hard and make sure you’re good—and if you’re diligent, organized, and really committed—you can do really well in advertising and media. You just have to be willing to do the work.
Take care to study the field. You’ve got to be willing to work. Roll your sleeves up. I work on a team of women who are working with me and for me. They’re extraordinary; they’re your roll-your-sleeves-up kind of women. No task is too difficult, nothing is beneath them. You have to learn all bases. You can’t lead if you don’t know a little bit of what everyone else’s challenges have been.
ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY
Issue No. 49
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: J. Quazi King
Stories are incredibly powerful. They shape our understanding of history, culture, and ourselves. It’s why readers of all ages clung to the viral hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks recently: Seeing an honest representation of someone who looks like you when the world reflects a different norm can be life affirming. It says that your story matters.
This is a fact that Andrea Davis Pinkney, an award-winning, bestselling children’s author and a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic, knows well. Storytelling’s transformative powers—and the lack of diversity in children’s books—are what brought her to the industry in the first place.
“I’m a mother of a daughter and a son,” Davis Pinkney says. “And I tell them all the time, ‘The negative things you read about African Americans are a lie. They’re not true about you, they’re not true about our people.’ I write for young readers because I want to set the record straight.”
Like many great stories, Davis Pinkney’s book publishing career started “by accident.”
“I wanted to be a journalist,” she recalls. “I wanted to live in New York City, and work for a magazine.”
Davis Pinkney began working towards that dream after graduating high school. She went to Syracuse University, where she majored in journalism, and began working as an editor at Mechanix Illustrated magazine shortly after graduating. It was there that she met her husband of 23 years, illustrator Brian Pinkney, who was then her across-the-hall neighbor. (Brian worked in Field & Stream magazine’s art department.)
“From the time I was 14 years old, I wanted to marry a man who loves me, and have a daughter who I would name Chloe. I wanted a boy child, too―Chloe’s little brother,” she recalls with a laugh. “And that dream came true for me.” (Another childhood dream came true, too: having a family with names in alphabetical order. Her son Dobbin completes the family.)
After Mechanix, Davis Pinkney went on to write for a number of other publications, including The New York Times. She eventually joined Essence magazine as its senior editor in the mid-eighties, managing the publication’s Contemporary Living section. It’s there in Essence’s offices that Davis Pinkney’s story began to change course.
“One of my charges was to put together an annual December gift guide, which included children’s books,” Davis Pinkney says. “I was calling publishers, saying, ‘Send me your best African-American books for kids.’ I wasn’t a mother at this point, but I kept thinking, There needs to be a popular series for teenage girls that’s like the Baby-Sitters Club. There need to be more great books that feature African-American boys. And where are the really engaging picturebook biographies that celebrate the awesome achievements of black people? The children’s book publishers I was calling didn’t have these books on their lists. I was charged to fill Essence magazine’s pages with a variety of genres and types of books that featured black characters, but the books weren’t out there.”
That experience stayed with Davis Pinkney. She began thinking of ideas for children’s books with black characters—both fictional and historical—that covered topics she had wanted to read when she was a kid. Her husband, who had become a children’s book illustrator after leaving Field & Stream, was a regular sounding board. “I was saying to him, ‘Call your editor at this publishing company, here’s an idea for them,’” she says now. “He finally just said to me one day, ‘Why don’t you do that? You should write the books you want to see on bookshelves!’”
As luck would have it, Davis Pinkney had a chance meeting with the publisher of Simon & Schuster at a conference. She immediately started pitching her ideas.
“I was so passionate about seeing these books get into the hands of young readers, I must have sounded like an evangelist,” Davis Pinkney says with a laugh. “The publisher invited me to lunch. When we met, she offered me a job that day!”
Despite the professional and cultural transition—from Essence’s largely black masthead to the mostly-white world of book publishing—Davis Pinkney found her footing. She worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster for four years, where she acquired and edited a number of African-American children’s literature. From there she went to Disney Publishing Worldwide, where she started Jump at the Sun, an imprint focused on African-American children’s books. (“Jump at the sun” was a phrase Zora Neale-Hurston’s mother used to say to the author and anthropologist when she was a child, encouraging her daughter to reach for great heights.) The Jump at the Sun imprint, which still exists today, was the first of its kind.
”It was a vibrant and robust list with many notable authors,” Davis Pinkney says. “We launched a lot of new talent.”
One of those talents was Deborah Gregory, the author of The Cheetah Girls book series, which would later become a recurring Disney Channel original movie series.
“That came out of my Essence experience,” Davis Pinkney explains. “Sitting in a room with my Disney colleagues saying, ‘All right, who are we not reaching?’ ‘We are not reaching African-American girls ages 8-14.’ I called up Deborah Gregory, and gave her the bare bones of the idea, and she said, ‘I’m on it.’”
Along with shepherding these stories into the hands of grateful young readers and their parents, Davis Pinkney was creating them as well, writing the manuscripts while her husband provided the illustrations. Their first book, a biography of Alvin Ailey’s life, was published in 1995. The duo have collaborated on books ever since, including Seven Candles for Kwanzaa (again, addressing a gap in the market) and the Coretta Scott King award-winning Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, inspired by their son. As a solo author, Davis Pinkney has written many notable novels for young people, including her latest, The Red Pencil, which was named a New York Times Notable Book, and is also an NAACP Image Award nominee.
Now editing notable talent at Scholastic—and with 30 books of her own lining thousands of bookshelves around the world—Pinkney remains committed to telling stories that will speak to children who look like her own son and daughter. She’s always in search of stories that will create what she calls “book magic.”
“To me book magic is when a kid is so enthralled with what he or she is reading that when something interrupts, they don’t want to leave that book,” she explains. “Seeing that magic happen when the child is reading a book that I’ve either published or written is a powerful thing. Because every child―even the most reluctant one―is a reader. You just have to find them the right book.”
You’ve had some big executive roles at major publishers. Before you joined Scholastic as a vice president, you were a group publisher at Houghton Mifflin. Have you ever had to put your career over being a mother?
I love bookmaking and my job and my work; it’s very satisfying to me. But I love motherhood more.
For several years I was commuting between New York, where I live, and Boston [Houghton Mifflin’s headquarters]. I got down to a routine. But the commute was the reason why I ended up leaving, and it was a very hard decision. There were many school events that I would miss, and my husband would go, and I thought, I’m missing so much. These moments will never happen again. I want to enjoy them.
I left Houghton in 2005 and started at Scholastic—it’s a great place to work [and] it’s close to home, and it’s a company that feels like home. Publishing diverse books is a primary purpose at Scholastic.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when …?
I love being a mom most when I get a text from both children, separately, saying “I love you” on the same day.
Being a mom is the hardest when …?
Being a mom is the hardest when I have not had enough sleep.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
My parenting philosophy is that my children [Chloe, 18, and Dobbin, 15] are separate, unique individuals who are not me. So I allow them to be themselves. We may have areas where we don’t agree, of course. [But] part of my philosophy is active listening. Let me listen, let me not react.
What perspective do you hope to impart on your kids through your work?
My children know that work can be something that is very satisfying and fun. I don’t equate work with drudgery or negativity. They see the great joy Brian and I have in doing what we do. So they know why I’m always at the computer, why I’m writing and editing day and night. I come home from work and I’m feeling energized and engaged and happy. So they’ve grown up seeing that a career can be uplifting.
How do you bring balance into your life?
One thing that is very helpful as a mother is pausing. At every moment, even in joyful times, I remind myself to slow down so that I can really experience what’s going on.
I need quiet time at least three times a day. And the kids know that now. They don’t ask, they don’t question it. I say, “I’m going to bring down my chi now.” That means, “I’m going into our bedroom for a little bit of quiet.” I do that in the morning, and I usually do that every day around 3:00 p.m. in my office to get centered, and it is imperative when I walk in the door at night because I am tired. I use a philosophy, which the kids have heard me talk about, “H.A.L.T.”
Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired. I know when I’m in H.A.L.T. I have to address those four concerns before I can interact with them. My kids know to wait before they ask me something like, “Can I go over to my friend’s house?” They know I first need to take some deep breaths to come out of H.A.L.T. Then I emerge with the same letters, which are now Honesty-Acceptance-Love-Tolerance. As my husband points out, you always have to have your root structure down. What that means is you’ve got to stay grounded and focused on what is important. That three times a day of quiet has revolutionized everything.
How has becoming a mom changed your life?
Your lens changes, your view of the world changes, your perspective changes. I could never have imagined that I would have such great kids. I think that one of the biggest ways in which motherhood has changed me personally is that life is so much more exciting and multifaceted. Through their interests, my daughter and son have exposed me to things I never would have experienced otherwise. It’s also changed me as an author and publisher of children’s books. As someone who does writing for young people, I’ve got two in my home who can really tell me like it is in terms of books that I’m working on.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
They’re both very mature, loving, intelligent, fun kids. And they’re very creative. My daughter, who is in college, wants to be a fashion editor for a magazine, and my son is a dancer, who was a principal performer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Teen Extension, and now performs with Broadway Dance Center’s AIM traveling company. Chloe and Dobbin get along, and they look out for each other.
You originally began your career in magazines. What was the transition like from magazine editing to book publishing?
It was quite a change, a little bit of a cultural transition. In the magazine world, everything moves very quickly. You’ve got to fill that magazine every month, you’re dealing with writers and super-tight deadlines constantly, and when the article is due, it’s due.
In book publishing, things move a little bit slower. You’re writing and editing books that are going to stand the test of time, that are going to be embraced by parents, teachers, librarians, the children themselves. So there’s a longer composition process involved.
You’ve noted in past interviews that you were also jumping from Essence magazine, which we know is predominantly black, and into the largely white world of book publishing. What was that like?
I think it took some getting used to. At Essence, I was working in a place where everybody looked like me, and then I went to a place where very few looked like me. At Essence I could talk to my colleagues about doing an article on Zora Neale-Hurston or an event in African-American history or my upcoming Kwanzaa party or my hair. Those were not the nature of the conversations I was having in book publishing: I often had to explain Kwanzaa, I had to qualify who Zora Neale-Hurston was. Or I wouldn’t have to qualify, but I could see the blank look on a person’s face when I talked about these things that were part of my everyday experience.
Why do you think it’s so important to bring more diversity to books?
We as a people have a tradition of seeking out reading as something to aspire to because of having a history in which we weren't permitted to read or write. This has carried over through generations—reading is important. Our people like to read. We want to read. We see its value, and we embrace it.
It’s why I write and edit such a variety of books—to foster a love of literature, literacy, and to present positive images. This is vital for all children, but especially for African-American children. We must be bearers of positivity about ourselves.
As an author, I visit classrooms all over the nation and the world. Even in the most remote towns in America, there are students of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds sitting at those desks. These kids are the thought-leaders and influencers of tomorrow. The books they read today will affect the direction our world will take in the future. If these children don’t see diversity now, they won’t internalize how vital it is for our global society when they’re adults.
Issue No. 36
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
There is a tremendous amount of movement in Makeda Thomas’ life, which is unsurprising since she has been dancing professionally for 15 years. Thomas, 35, has toured and showcased works with several big-name, Brooklyn-based companies, while somehow finding time to found her own self-named dance company in 2003. Thomas and her 3-year-old son, Shiloh, split their time between New York and Trinidad. Thomas speaks with mater mea about her two homes, and how each place keeps her grounded.
Issue No. 37
As co-founder of beauty brand Oyin Handmade and mother of two children, Jamyla Bennu has mastered the art of the work-family shuffle. Her business philosophy transitions smoothly into her home, where she and her husband insist on raising their two sons, Sadat and Osei, on their own terms. Bennu speaks with mater mea about her journey toward authenticity in her family life and career, and reveals the key decisions that continue to bless her today.
Issue No. 38
TENAFLY, NEW JERSEY
Most law school graduates who become lawyers accept the fact that they will have to deal with long hours and little personal time for years. But when Rachel Rodgers embarked on her career, she initially thought that a traditional path to law would provide the most security. Now Rodgers runs a virtual law practice that caters to entrepreneurs who hope to make an impact on their own terms. Rodgers tells mater mea how she became her own boss in a field that doesn’t allow for much flexibility.
Issue No. 39
At the age of 19, Agatha Achindu traveled to the United States from her native country of Cameroon to embark on the next chapter of her educational journey. Within a few years, she landed a six-figure job as a software executive with a growing tech firm. Yet in 2006 she decided to walk away from it all and pursue her passion for providing children healthy food. Achindu chats with mater mea about how she started her successful line of organic baby food that empowers mothers everywhere.