by Tawanna Brown

It was a stormy Saturday morning in April, but the rains did little to deter the more than 100 middle school girls, parents and girl allies who showed up for Shelectricity’s Memphis Listening Party.  It was a festive affair that included girl-power music, from Alecia Keys to Aretha Franklin, spun by DJ Crystal Mercedes. There was food, poetry, dance and games, but the party also had a powerful purpose. Black and brown middle school girls from across Memphis were there to share their stories, challenges, gifts and dreams with one another and a team of visionary women who were there to listen and learn.

The organization’s name – Shelectricity –  speaks to its galvanizing charge: teach brown and black girls the critical skill of innovation through technology, creativity, entrepreneurship and increased self-esteem. With support from Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), Shelectricity co-founder Anasa Toutman included Memphis among the cities for which she is developing cutting-edge STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) curriculum for brown and black middle school girls. The experiential, project-based curriculum is designed to inspire and connect girls of color to creative career fields, including high tech aspects of the music industry, that are traditionally less accessible to them.

Shelectricity contracted Dr. Shaneesha Brooks Tatum and Dr. Quinn Gentry of Creative Resource Solutions to coordinate and facilitate the initiative, which included food, dance, poetry and focus groups led by women graduate students from local colleges and universities. Many of the girls who were uncomfortable even speaking their names into a microphone at the start of the day, ended it in jubilance – networking, dancing, and celebrating the goddesses they are and the phenomenal women they are charged to be.

This is a beautiful experience and I’m so glad my baby is in that room,” shared one parent. “I was hoping she’d forget she asked me to bring her here today. This rain is working my arthritis and I have so much to get done. But when my daughter set her clothes out last night because she wanted to be on time this morning. I just couldn’t let her down. I appreciate those women in there for giving my baby a day she’ll remember.”

Facilitate a day to remember is exactly what the Shelectricity and Creative Solutions team did. The event was a celebration of girl leadership, spontaneity, artistry, creativity and connection. The day also demonstrated community engagement tenets that are embedded within MMI’s strategies:

  • Power multiplies exponentially when we dismantle silos and invite energy to flow between and among us. A host of organizations provided critical support to the Atlanta-based facilitators. Knowledge Quest provided space and staff team assistance; Girls, Inc. recruited participants and joined them in the event; Latino Memphis and a host of MMI partners marketed the listening party to girls and their parents. These and many other offerings contributed to the success of the event.
  • Difference, divergence, diversity and respectful discord fuel change, growth and new possibilities – thus, we must find ways to welcome them. During the community forum segment of the event, parents expressed a range of opinions regarding their preferences for how the curriculum could most effectively approach issues of gender identity. The team was patient with its support of the group in moments of discomfort. They facilitated a conversation that was both honest and, in the end, centered in the love of youth and respect for all of humanity, an approach which parents, whatever their opinions, seemed to appreciate.
  • Success of a process is as dependent upon the team’s ability to take thoughtful risks and trust in a positive outcome as it is their dogged ability to drive the process strategically forward. The event was well-planned, well-executed and well-received. That said, it was the same Saturday as numerous graduation celebrations and year-end performance productions. The heavy rains made it difficult to predict how many registered participants would attend. That the team was able to release worry to be fully present for their guests spoke volumes about who they are as women, educators, entrepreneurs, and visionaries. It was a critical message to model with girls.
  • Together, we can rewrite limiting narratives that minimize our power and potential. The event denounced the social narrative that depicts girls and women as physically and emotionally combative. It rebuked the implication that girls and women who operate in a cooperative framework are boring and irrelevant. To debunk the myth, the adult team “showed up and showed out” in the most affirming ways. Never short on laughter and exuberance, they were deliberate in their efforts to demonstrate that women with education, careers, comfortable salaries, affirming work, loving tribes, and strong relationships can live joyous and exciting lives.
  • Innovation need not rely solely upon an abundance of resources – creative and collaborative reliance, responsiveness and resourcefulness ideal conditions for innovation to spark and flourishes. The team engaged participants in ways that demonstrated how to apply knowledge to take care of business and create new possibilities. Their approach showed to how honor collaborative partnership and loving friendship. They demonstrated responsiveness in the moment and resilience as a commitment of character. In short, their message said: this is how you sweat, smile and testify all while staying true to the course. Most of all, this is how you do all of this while having fun, stepping in style and standing in love as girls and women.

MMI is proud to partner with Shelectricity and looks forward to witnessing the organization’s vision to create new pathways for girls and girl-supporting organizations throughout and beyond Memphis.

Tawanna Brown is a native of Chicago with paternal roots in Memphis and Milan, Tennessee.  She has worked as a staff and board member, peer coach, and community volunteer within not-profit, governmental and educational sectors. She brings experience in a variety of areas, i.e., program and organizational operations, youth and parent engagement, participatory evaluation and grant writing and management. Tawanna is particularly inspired by the cultural wisdom and metaphors embedded within the collective stories of communities.