Just like so many things since the pandemic, the first-ever Essence: Girls United summit was held virtually this year. However, that didn’t detract from any of its impact and power. Essence now has a platform that’s specifically for young Black women to gain financial literacy, business tips and mental health support that I’m so excited for.
The Essence: Girls United summit was founded by Rechelle Dennis and Sophia Dennis, who wanted young women to learn about the unique challenges they face as Gen Zers and as media consumers. It’s important to learn how to use the influence you hold and as the next generation we have the power to literally change the world. For three hours they talked about the issues Black women face as a community, how to get back on your feet post-quarantine and topics that are vital to changing the way the world views diversity and inclusion.
Mental Health and Young Black Women
In light of the BLM movement, it’s been noted how Black women and activists have felt underappreciated and under-supported within and outside of the community. Although the resurgence of the movement hasn’t had any shortage of Black women creating spaces for everyone else, the neglect shown them by their male counterparts and the rest of the world is not okay.
“When Black women are not acknowledged in their work or lived experiences, or even in their death, it makes them seem easily disposable,” said Shavonda Sisson, the founder of the Love on Black Women Fund, a fund that supports Black women. We see this clearly in the death of Breonna Taylor, which is important to note, was only brought to light after everyone rallied for George Floyd. In the fight for Black people, it’s not a matter of which group needs more support when all groups are being mistreated by the world, yet, Black women are still excluded.
The Girls United summit seeks to help this exclusion by giving talks about practicing positive mental health with Amber Riley (who simply goes by Riley now) and Choyce Brown, who speak about the need to combat the ongoing internal struggles Black women face. Black women have “higher depression rates, alcohol addictions, social anxiety, personality disorders and suicide rates” and yet they often aren’t able to get the help they need or deserve.
Essence not only provided tips but also created a safe space where young women were able to come and chat online with one another about their shared experiences. They were able to discuss their own mental health routines that help keep them safe and sane in light of the pandemic and civil unrest, as well as feel each other’s support as they learned that they were not alone in their struggles.
The first tip Riley mentioned was the necessity of social media breaks. “Our social climate is very reactionary,” she said, and because our reactions must be instantaneous, we feel this constant pressure to be online all the time to keep up with what’s going on. But the reality is that we’re not robots. We’re human and we cannot take in so much information at once, especially if it’s traumatic or if the platforms we’re following are toxic. So Riley suggested taking a social media break whenever you need to and creating a space for yourself online that feels more welcoming than taxing when you join on. It’s especially important to take social media breaks if you’re protesting because seeing your day-to-day experiences posted online can be traumatic.
Essence’s Choyce Brown also talked about the importance of art in helping her stay mentally and emotionally centered. She particularly likes to paint (her paintings were amazing from what I’ve seen) because it helps her mind to rest and focus on a task that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. When what you’re doing day-to-day is mentally draining, artistic expression is especially important. It allows your emotions to pour out of you as you take pleasure in dancing or writing or painting or singing terribly in your bedroom.
Studies have shown that making art increases the amount of dopamine in your brain, which can combat depression; it can also help treat issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. So make time to be creative. Not just because it’s a part of self-care, but it also improves your mental health, which is extremely important for Black women to care for when no one else will.
Helping the Black LGBTQIA Community
A huge topic discussed in the Essence: Girls United summit was justice for Black trans women. At least 33 trans women or gender non-conforming people were killed this year and that’s not including those that go unreported or misreported. As a result, Black trans lives are continually being disregarded and mislabeled and there needs to be a change. The panel for this summit was hosted by four amazing people who shared their stories on what they wanted to see for the lives of trans and gender non-conforming people in the future.
Isis King said that she would like to see “autonomy over their bodies and their stories.” This goes beyond the realities of day-to-day life, but also how Black trans women are represented in the media: on TV, in movies, in music. There needs to be more representation made by trans people for trans people. They should not be objectified or fetishized because they are not here for anyone’s disposal — literally or figuratively. They deserve the same love and respect as any human being, as any Black person, as any LGBTQIA person and yet they are a group that is almost always ignored.
Too often, Black trans women are loved and hated for who they are — hated by cis women who don’t understand that they’ve worked hard for this apparently “easy or better way” of being feminine, and that it’s not a luxury; and loved by men, who love who they are and how they look but feel shamed by a society that puts down men that subvert cis-heteronormativity, and who subsequently fear the parts of themselves that do love trans women. As a result, oftentimes that fear turns to hatred, which turns to violence.
In an effort to call out some of the problems, Essence talked about the divide even within the Black community on how they’re treated and how cis Black women can help by educating their sons and daughters about the right way to address a trans or gender non-conforming person. They talked about how the toxic masculinity within our own culture adds to this problem and how it needs to be addressed by cis Black men; and as for members of the LGBTQIA community, both Black and nonblack, they need to stand up for each other. Black trans women were the ones at the beginning of the LGBTQIA movement that white people were then made the face of. Leaders like Marsha P. Johnson were murdered and “disposed of,” evident when no one made an effort to find Johnson’s killer. Taking the time to be more educated is not only important, it’s imperative for the livelihood and survival of Black trans and gender non-conforming people across the world.
This is a topic that is extremely important, and a part of what’s helped me to lead this discussion has been a YouTube video by The Grapevine called Violence Against Black Trans Women. I highly suggest you watch it to become more educated on the lives of Black trans women and what you can do to help.
Entrepreneurship and the Black Community
When we think of this largely un-spellable word, we think “capitalism.” But when I think of young Black women pitching ideas for Black women’s issues, I think “vital.” This segment of the Essence: Girls United summit reminded me that there are still so many gaps to fill in our society and Generation Z is going to be the one to do it. Here, I learned how important it is to have a business in a lucrative industry that’s needed in your community. As a result, hair and clothing are huge for Black women. So I was so happy to see a beta design of a new fashion app called Mive as well as a plant-based braiding hair supply company called Lillian Augusta win $10,000 to help push their business plans forward because they definitely add a unique quality to two already extremely lucrative fields.
However, the main advice Essence gave for becoming an entrepreneur was learning how to get out of your own way. Black women are always trying to do it on their own, and not necessarily because they want to but because they feel like they have to. But the only way a business will become successful is if “You get out of your own way and ask for what you need,” according to Rhonesha Byng. She pointed out that the longer you wait for your product or service to be perfect, the more time you end up wasting. Ultimately, you have to think about who your business is for; at this point, your business is no longer just for you, but for the young Black girls following behind you, who will hopefully, one day, find it easier to make it in their chosen industry.
My main takeaway from this is to remember how important it is to support the Black-owned businesses in your neighborhood. In light of the pandemic, so many small businesses are struggling right now but Black-owned businesses were hit the hardest. Black people are the group that has been most disproportionately affected by COVID-19, which has been “taking the lives of Black people in the US at twice the rate of white Americans.” And according to Forbes, more than 43% of small Black businesses won’t survive the pandemic.
So, buy from a small Black business whenever you can because they will provide all the services you need with just a little more love. Granted, Amazon has fast two-day shipping but supporting the Black-owned businesses in your community will help close the racial wealth gap, celebrate Black culture by Black people and help hold larger companies accountable for making a profit off of Black products without giving the proper credit or showcasing the true diversity of consumers in America. We want our Black-owned businesses to do more than survive, we want them to succeed.
Tips From Essence: Girls United on Finding Jobs Post-Quarantine
Finally, Essence addressed the question we’ve all been wondering: How do I go back to work? For some Gen Zers, the questions can run the gamut of, should I go back to college? Should I go to college at all? What does the job market even look like right now? Even though there’s a lot of economic instability and civil unrest, learning how to deal with the current state of the world right now is what is going to help us succeed in the future, even if the future is still very unknown.
The main thing I took away from the Essence: Girls United summit was that for the most part, jobs are going to be remote and that the rise of social media is making it incredibly important to build your professional brand. The perfect way to do that, and find jobs as well, is to learn how to use LinkedIn. It’s the best way to connect with future employers, make connections with people who interest you, and possibly join more summits that can lead you toward opportunities in the future. An economics professor at the University of Rochester, Lisa B. Khan, did research on how recessions have long-lasting impacts on the careers of recent college graduates. She found that “entering into the job market during a recession also tends to make you more afraid of risk in your career.” However, she encourages you to still be vigilant in your job search and Essence encourages the same.
Essence emphasized the importance of an elevator pitch — a two-minute description of yourself about who you are, what you do, what you’ve done and what you aspire to accomplish — so that you’ll be able to reach as many employers as quickly and efficiently as you can.
And volunteer work never hurt anyone. In fact, it could actually be what helps put you ahead in the job market. People love to see your skills and your talents but they want to know, how do you care for the world, your community and share your gifts and talents with others? Or even better, how were you able to learn something new?
Volunteer work should be something that interests you, even if it’s not related to what you want to do in your career. If you’ve decided to take a gap year or a semester off, now would be the perfect time to either work or do volunteer work; just make sure you have a productive gap year or semester so that you can have something to show for your time away from school.
Actively searching and getting little to no results may not help quell the emotional uncertainty of being in the job field, but understand you’re not the only one going through this process. So build on your skills and your connections as often as you can.
Final Thoughts on the Essence: Girls United Summit
The 2020 Essence: Girls United Summit was exactly what I needed this year. It was enlightening, educational, inspiring and just fun. Some of the cast of “Power” was there to speak about their next season, Marsai Martin did a hilarious skit on doubt and confidence and Tobe Nwigwe performed a beautiful number on Black liberation and coming into your full Black self that was truly transcendent.
But most importantly, the summit taught me that Black women need a space and community where they can come and trade ideas and discuss the problems going on in our world. Black girls need to feel supported and encouraged. The Girls United Summit did truly that: It united young girls and women and I can’t wait to see what they turn up to do next. If you’re feeling stuck right now and don’t have an inspirational summit to go to, just do what Kash Doll says and “focus on what makes [you] feel good.” It’s the only way you’ll be able to find out what you truly need in this moment.