Dear Black Women: U-M grad creates network of affirmation for southeast Michigan's black women

Strobe lights, pumping music, big smiles, laughing, and non-stop sweat-your-hair-out dancing. This is what you'll find at most parties. 

But there's this and much more at a Dear Black Women (DBW) party. For starters, the room is full of love and free of judgement. An affirmation mirror stands as a backdrop to the evening. There, women write positive affirmations to themselves and each other on index cards. Every time a woman walks by to check herself out during the night, she catches a glimpse of these positive and beautiful things reflecting her.

That's the goal of this and everything done by DBW: To provide positive reinforcement to black women in southeast Michigan, a group that is often underrepresented and underappreciated in their life and work.

DBW was founded in January 2017 by Florence Noel. Affectionately called "Flo" by friends and family, she is all about creating space for black women to embrace not only themselves, but one another. 

Noel has a Haitian family heritage and grew up in White Plains, N.Y., a hotbed of Haitian culture.

"I became an adult in Brooklyn, but I grew up in a Haitian enclave of sorts," Noel says. "In my house, it was all Haitian culture."

While pursuing two master's degrees in business and human computer interaction at the University of Michigan, Noel felt a little out of place.

"There aren't many with my physical aesthetic and personality there," she says. "I knew I was going to be weird and even out of place. I knew my decision coming here was right, but that it would be painful."

Minorities made up 23 percent of the 2017 class at U-M's Ross School of Business. So Noel knew she had to make some changes to feel included in a place where few people looked like her. Soon after her arrival on campus, she started Dear Black Women.

DBW exists for black women to feel affirmed not just through parties, but a number of events and other outlets in Detroit and Ann Arbor. "Circles" are the most common kind of meet-up. In addition to good food and drink, women make connections and share insights at the circles. Black women from all walks of life are encouraged to come.
Florence Noel
"A big part of DBW is developing circles and events to create this space of being deep and uncovering important issues," Noel says. "But it's also just as important to create the space to move our bodies, dance, and just have a good time. I feel like both spaces are needed to speak to our best selves."

Sharing affirmation letters is a central feature of the circles. Everyone brings a letter to pass around and share anonymously with the group. 

"Affirmation can look like a multitude of things," Noel says. "At its heart, it can make you stand up right in your truth and accept it. There are a number of forms of affirmation that involve telling your story and being truthful about your story."

Noel also sends DBW members a weekly "Affirmation Letter of the Week" newsletter, each edition of which contains one of those letters. These can also be listened to on the DBW podcast, which begins with the charming intro: "This week's affirmation letter is brought to you by me, Flo, DBW's founder; written to me, Flo; and read by me, Flo. And dedicated to any person out there, any black girl out there, who can relate." 

DBW presented a workshop at the most recent Allied Media Conference, entitled "The Power of Black Women Affirming Themselves." It also hosts picnics, photo shoots, and various other events. 

But DBW is just getting started.

"This started with my own experience and then I began testing it out and seeing how others responded," Noel says. "I keep getting affirmations about this being needed."

What began with modest gatherings of around five people has grown to a group with a few hundred members. Because of the clear demand for programming of this sort, Noel might one day expand DBW beyond southeast Michigan. 

Noel is pleased that so many women find strength in the group — and she still does as well.

"Now I'm able to identify things that I want to change," she says. "I journal, and the more I learn, the more I'm able to deal with daily challenges. When I forget things, I forgive myself for forgetting. I block out time to be offline. … When I do these things, I have a clear view of my focus and feel more powerful."
 

Amber Ogden is a Detroit-based freelance writer, communications manager, and social worker. You can visit her website here.

Photos by Doug Coombe
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