|Trenée McGee and Azaria Samuels at "The Strength Within Me." Lucy Gellman Photos.|
Find your village. Look to the women in your life, especially the elders among you. Mine your inner strength, but also say the word ‘no’ when you need to. Shake off the strong Black woman trope and let yourself be exhausted. Talk about being exhausted.
Saturday, that advice came from six panelists at Long Wharf Theatre’s (LWT) first annual “The Strength Within Me” celebration, a sweeping discussion of inner strength, faith, and family that took place over brunch. Organized by Long Wharf Theatre Group Sales Coordinator Azaria Samuels, the celebration was followed by a matinee performance of Pride & Prejudice, which runs through Dec. 22. Over 75 women attended.
Panelists included Valencia Goodridge, president of the New Haven chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inner-City News Editor Babz Rawls-Ivy, Woman I Am, Inc. Founder Chardonée Avelar, longtime community champion and educator Lensley Gay, life coach and Sterling-Xavier Consulting Group President Dr. Sheryl Barnes, and Keepsakes CT Director Angelina Wilson.
The panel was moderated by Trenee McGée, an arts educator and actor who was just elected to West Haven’s City Council. It doubled as a chance to celebrate Long Wharf Theatre as it becomes a more community-focused and collaborative institution. In addition, the brunch featured spoken word poetry from Hartford-based artist Monique Harriot and music from "The Guys," a band that formed at Neighborhood Music School.
“For those of you who have never been to Long Wharf Theatre, this is Long Wharf Theatre,” Samuels said as attendees nibbled on fruit, eggs, chicken and waffles from Sandra’s Next Generation. “Let’s raise a glass to the new Long Wharf Theatre. Jacob Padrón, this is his vision of radical inclusion.”
For many of the panelists, inner strength began and ended with family. One of four daughters, Barnes recalled growing up in a home filled with laughter, so much so that she “thought everybody’s parents danced late into the night.” On weekends, her cousins, aunts and uncles stopped by to break bread together.
If she wasn’t at home or at school, she was in church, learning about prayer. For her, she said, it became a language in which she trusted. To laughs from attendees, she recalled praying for a teddy bear and knowing “that God was real” when she finally received it.
|Dr. Sheryl L.W. Barnes.|
Barnes gave a sort of opening to other women on the panel. One of four kids raised by a single mom, Avelar praised the influence of strong women both at home and in her church, where several female pastors modeled behavior that she later followed. After studying journalism in college, she chose to go into ministry instead, because "God was calling me" to give back through the church.
Gay, who helped found Gateway Community College in the 1970s, recalled the emotional impact that her mother, grandmother, and aunt all had on her—and the immense pain she experienced when she lost them. Goodridge, who grew up in Bridgeport’s Marina Village housing project, echoed a reliance on family, which meant her mom. After her parents split during her childhood, Goodridge watched her mom work two jobs to support three children. She learned to help out around the house, warming up food for her siblings and tending to them after school.
She remembered her mom as strict but loving, often threatening punishment if Goodridge and her siblings didn’t keep their grades up. In those years, she was enrolled in Project Concern, which meant that Goodridge was bussed out to Wilton for school each day.
“The thing that really is resonating is that for our girls, it starts very, very young,” she said, adding that her mom is now in her 70s, has worked through her retirement, and remains “my shero” today. “And instilling in them that they can believe in themselves. It’s really critical that we as leaders cultivate our young people and draw back on our story. Everyone has a story that brought them to where they are today.”
The Role That Community Plays
|Chardonée Avelar and Lensley Gay.|
In addition to their own families, many of the panelists looked to the strength that they had mined—and continue to mine—in their wider communities. Some, like Avelar and Wilson, have learned to rely on their faith communities. Raised in the Pentacostal church in New York, Wilson lost her mom when she was only 15, then later discovered a different church in New Haven, where being religious did not revolve around condemnation. That transformation led her to the work she is doing now.
Others spoke about the importance of their neighbors. Born and raised in New Haven, Rawls-Ivy recalled growing up in the Church Street South housing complex with a mom who worked two jobs, which meant that her neighbors were constantly looking out for her. Laughing, she described the small parade of people who would check in on her when they knew her mother wasn’t home.
“There was always other people who helped keep eyes on us,” she said. “It was this unspoken commitment to everybody else’s kids.”
Decades later, she said that same sense of responsibility has pushed her to serve the community that raised her, from her role editing the city’s only Black newspaper to serving on several nonprofit boards to her life at home, as mom to four kids.
|Lensley Gay and Angelina Wilson.|
Gay, too, pulled from handfuls of anecdote on family, both blood and chosen. As she choked up recalling the death of “those three matriarch people” that built her foundation, Gay explained that her work and her friends have kept her going. Now site coordinator at the Brennan Rogers Magnet School family resource center, she praised the students and parents that she sees every day. On the few times she has told them she doesn’t have kids, she said, they’ve swiftly corrected her: she has thousands.
To laughs, applause, and a few tears, she told the story of a student who explained that she wanted to be just like Gay when she grew up—which meant “busy!” in her young vocabulary. The student later went on to get a certificate of thanks from President Barack Obama for performing the Heimlich maneuver—on her birthday no less—on someone in a restaurant who was choking. Gay, who heard the story and brought it to the Red Cross, was by her side when she received the certificate.
“We have to pull on what we have,” she said. “We never know where our strength comes from. We must always think about how we’re giving back, and reaching back, and helping someone else.”
“I’ve Retired Identifying As A Strong Black Woman”
In mining strength, panelists also urged attendees to take care of themselves—which is the last thing women of color often do. Avelar, who turned 30 this year, spoke about living through more than she thought she could ever handle, and leaning on those around her to get through it. In the past several years, her brother has been shot in the head. Her husband has spent months in the Intensive Care Unit. Her family has faced homelessness.
“I believe every woman should have some type of village,” she said. “And if you don’t seek one out. When you go through something, an authentic village is what makes a difference.”
Barnes said that as a life coach, she frequently sees women who have hit burnout and feel that they must keep going. She noted that for her, she’s held tight to her faith as a source of inner strength that doubles as a spiritual balm even on her worst days.
Both she and Goodridge called for spaces where women of color can commune with each other, take time to read, bathe, and “catch up with authentic girlfriends.” That—and learn that 'no' isn't a bad word.
"We have to reframe it in our minds and allow ourselves to enjoy that self-care," Goodridge added. "Sometimes, it's okay to have compassion, and authenticity, and truth, and bring your voice in a subtle way. We have to take care of ourselves."
|Valencia Goodridge: find authentic girlfriends.|
Rawls-Ivy added that she has “retired identifying as a strong Black woman” to describe herself or her friends. She advised attendees to find a vocabulary that acknowledges they may be holding down the fort—and sometimes the neighborhood—but they get to be vulnerable too.
"We stamp the strong on us, and then we soldier into this life and take beatings every single day,” she said. “And everybody expects us to continue to do that! And so when one of us falls, we feel bad, we clean that up, and then we soldier back on. We never give ourselves room to be softer, to say ‘I need,’ to be open, to be vulnerable.”
To find out more about Long Wharf Theatre, visit the organization's website.