By: Tahira Christmon, Vice President of External Affairs at ABFE
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal I cannot be comprehended except by my permission
I mean…I…can fly
like a bird in the sky…
Nikki Giovanni, Ego Tripping
I haven’t found anywhere more perfect than being in community with Black women. When it’s just us in the room, our laughter is so genuine it makes our heads tilt back a bit, even our hugs linger a little longer, our embrace a little tighter.
In August, more than 120 Black women leaders in our sector convened in St. Croix. An island stretching only 28-miles long, but bursting with lush beauty, deep ancestral connections, divine tranquility, and a resounding quietness that can so easily soothe the mind and quell the body. The island is a perfect manifestation of simple abundance.
“Goodnight”, exclaimed Sonia Jacobs, Executive Director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society, who served as our resident culture bearer as she kicked off the retreat to give us all a sense of place and space. Most of us sat a bit puzzled by that greeting, as we were just starting to get settled into the program. Sonia quickly picked up on the silence and explained the Crucian tradition of saying Goodnight similar, to how most of us would say Good Evening, and promptly told us a proper greeting goes both ways. We chorused an exuberant “Goodnight” as we all picked up on the cue and paid our respects.
We all watched as the hot sun tucked away behind the ocean, giving space for us to be engulfed by the moonlight, and ate dinner amongst the stars. Deanna James, President of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, shared reflections of her life on the island; her fierce dedication to St. Croix and its people were palpable as she encouraged us to rewrite the colonial scripts that have been taught to us. With mother nature’s ocean waves as our musical backdrop, Deanna shared how the Foundation isn’t endowed and rather their unflinching commitment to holistic community development situates them as a conduit of philanthropic resources, rather than a container. Our resounding adoration and celebration of her leadership is the backbone of the Black Women in Philanthropy Retreat. It’s here that we get to fill our cups with praise, support, and affirmation.
Many of us ended the night at the pool, as we did most other nights, glaring at the night sky, leaning on the shoulders of our sisters, letting down whatever we were carrying, and just letting go as our skin wrinkled in the water. Simple abundance.
We don’t ask much of our attendees at this retreat, after all we’ve designed this as a space of radical rest and healing. We ask that women come ready to receive and hold tightly to sisterhood, that we all commit to making space for the intersections of our femininity, that we feed our souls with just as much intentionality as we feed our bodies, and that we come to the retreat with at least one all-white outfit to be a part of our iconic photo. My mouth dropped in amazement as I watched droves of Black women in white making their way through our beachfront hideaway for our photo. To watch their Black beauty glitter in all white gave me goosebumps.
“What would it look like if you rested?” said Dr. Yaba Blay, scholar-activist, public speaker, and cultural activist. How ironic that all of us had committed to a rest and leadership retreat, but many of us admitted that we got the leadership part down, but that rest part… not so much. How can I devote more time to rest, if I haven’t defined what rest for me looks like? I took time in that session to write a few ideas including more time to write, less time on screens, being more vulnerable in my leadership, and welcoming spaces of ease. I held on to this question as I made my way to the beach the following morning. “What would it feel like for you to rest?” I asked myself as the sand and waves surrounded me.
That night we all dressed up in cultural attire and celebrated each other in an impromptu fashion show. We strutted down those beachfront aisles like red carpets had been stitched just for us. Our hips swayed down the makeshift runaway as our heads raised in joy and delight. We began our founder’s celebration dinner with Trinnette Cooper, ABFE’s Director of Philanthropic Advising Services, reading from Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping”.
“We never could have imagined this 10 years ago” said Sherece West-Scantlebury, President and CEO of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and one of the founders of this retreat. “Back then it was hard for us to get Black women to see the value in taking care of themselves in this way” said Susan Taylor Batten, President and CEO at ABFE. The retreat, ideated by 6 trailblazing women including – Susan, Sherece, Karen McNeil-Miller, President and CEO at Colorado Health Foundation; Gladys Krigger Washington (Retired), Deputy Director for Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; Toya Randall, Senior Director at Casey Family Programs; and Dani Johnson – is now a sanctuary of support and a birthplace of sisterhood where Black women executives can prioritize their wellbeing amidst a profession that can be stressful on most days, and brutal on others.
I left St. Croix with a deep appreciation of the land, adoration for the work and commitment of Black women to this sector, and deeply encouraged by the beauty and value of the simple abundance of the Crucian people. There’s simply no space like this space, and I’ll forever be in gratitude to the founders of this retreat for creating a safe space for Black women to trade our strength for moments of softness and ease, and for reminding us that the only way we can continue to powerfully lead in this sector is when we can rest in the arms of true community.
I was born in the Congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
Nikki Giovanni, Ego Tripping