In 2018, eleven Black women volunteered to come together over eight weeks to share, learn, support one another, and to find out more about how systemic poverty has impacted their lives. Their time together is carefully chronicled in a recent book by Winston-Salem State University professor Michele Lewis. The group became a source of connection and learning for the women involved and the author herself.
In a large meeting room, signs are posted — motivational quotes by well-known Black ancestors. There's plenty of food, and music welcomes the women as they enter.
Many arrive with young children. They make small talk and nibble on snacks before the program begins. They don't know each other well, but they share a common goal: carving out a decent life for their families in a world of big challenges including food deserts, lack of affordable childcare, healthcare, and transportation.
Velma Terry helped organize this local version of what's called an Emotional Emancipation Circle. She rented a van, delivering participants. Terry says being without a car in this city is tough, especially for moms.
“I remember how it was trying to get to the store, not having enough for my kids to eat, and just being aggravated all the way around getting to the doctors,” she says. “And then it falls back on you because the system says that I'm being lazy. I just do not have the proper transportation or tools to get me back and forth for what I need to do.”
To build trust within the circle, Terry herself participated in discussions sharing deeply personal stories, like her own battles with substance abuse decades ago as a young woman.
“And when I talked about my drug addiction,” says Terry. “When I talked about how my children were being neglected; I talked about being abused in a relationship; I just let it go. And then it was like, ‘Okay, if she can do it, then we can do it.'”
Lakesha Jones remembers that first day well.
“At first, we came in like, ‘I don't know her, I don't know her,'" says Jones. “And towards the end, we were hugging and talking and exchanging books and loving each other. So, love is the point.”
The mother of three says she enjoyed learning about African American history — Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King — and the group discussions that emerged following each presentation. Jones says she appreciated everyone's sincerity and knowing that what was shared in the circle stayed there.
“The part that really affected me was when we had a group about child molestation. You know, I knew we might be little sisters, but we don't talk about that amongst each other,” says Jones. “So, that's one of the issues we have to bring about amongst ourselves too because we keep that a lot in the closet. And as we get older that's what affects us. Like a lot of my friend girls are messed up in the head just because of that.”
Domestic abuse, drug addiction, and racism are all ongoing struggles for these women. Michele Lewis with Winston-Salem State University's Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) led the group discussions, taking deep dives into a wide range of emotional topics for her book, Our Biosocial Brains: The Cultural Neuroscience of Bias, Power, and Injustice.
“It's a different kind of research because you really have to put yourself into it looking closely at what is the impact of Black inferiority, multiple generations of traumas on people,” says Lewis. “Talking to them up close and personal in these circles is very powerful.”
There's an educational component too: deepening their understanding of the impact of Black history on their emotions, relationships, and the community — East Winston — where they live. It's a community where every majority Black census tract has above average housing loss, the percentage of residents without health insurance is high, median household incomes and property values are roughly half the county average.
Wake Forest University Professor Sherri Lawson Clark describes Winston-Salem as "highly racially segregated," and she says that while there has been some development in East Winston over the past decade, it has not been nearly enough.
“It has to be getting the county government on board to either bring local businesses and organizations to East Winston and opening sort of those doors for those who haven't heard or don't understand or see because they don't have to see on a daily basis these disparities,” says Clark.
What's clear from the emancipation circle discussions is the damage these disparities have done to generations of Black women. The process was at times was painful. Many tears were shed. But Terry and Jones say gaining a clearer understanding of who they are as Black women is a beautiful thing.
“I was looking forward to each group though,” says Jones. “Towards the end I was sad we were leaving. So I was kind of sad at the end I was like, ‘Oh, ya'll this is the last day,' like it was the last day of school.”
But “school” may continue in East Winston. Michele Lewis is developing plans for a permanent Wellness Center there one day with hopes of moving forward once the pandemic subsides.