Darcelle Dance wants to create a strong infrastructure for black professional women in Portland.
“When black women in particular move here to Portland, there’s not this infrastructure to bring them into the community here, to answer the question, ‘How do I fit in here? Where are the people?’ “The dance said The Skander.
To that end, Dance, a mental health professional, teamed up with her daughter Aasha Benton, who is studying to become a social worker, to create Mo Better Wellness, Connection and Facilitation in January.
“The reason our name is so long is that we do a lot of different things,” said Dance, who currently serves as a program supervisor for the Multnomah County Early Childhood Mental Health Program. “Well-being is in the foreground, but also connection.”
In May, Dance and Benton ran a four-week pilot course to gauge interest and expand the program.
“It was all black women,” Dance said. “They loved it. It was about how jobs really weigh on you – as black women, everything weighs on you – so how do you rebuild?
“So our group’s theme was ‘Relax, Reflect, Rebuild.’ For Relax, we worked on breathing and mindfulness, encouraging participants to take inventory of how they feel. Reflecting, because this pilot group took place over several weeks, was to reflect on the week that had just ended, to ask yourself: “Did things go well and you want to move the week forward next ? and then setting goals by asking “What can I do to further integrate what went well, and how can I let go of what didn’t go well?” And for Refill, we asked: How do you refill after pouring? (The exercise) was a bit like accountability to each other.
Recruit but not retain
The group will also work to address what Dance sees – and what the data suggests – are systemic issues within workplace culture in local government and private companies.
“We’ve noticed that organizations are recruiting and hiring black women, and there’s a revolving door that tends to happen,” Dance said. “They come into these organizations and they just aren’t treated well.”
In March of last year, the City African American Network published its Black Workforce Data Reportwhich showed that the number of black employees in the city had increased from 793 in 2019 to 456 in 2021. A related survey on support for black employees showed that almost half of respondents felt “tokenized” at work, and an overwhelming majority said they did not feel supported in their workplace.
“Part of what we want to do is work with organizations that want to recruit and hire us, and talk to them about how you build a foundation for the women you’re trying to attract? And how do you retain them? And having real conversations with them,” Dance said. “We don’t do (diversity, equity and inclusion consulting), but we focus on equity and how you support black women.”
In Portland, one need not look far for recent, high-profile examples of black female leaders being unceremoniously fired from supervisory positions with little or no explanation: Ruby Haughton-Pitts served as Oregon AARP for two years before being fired. in January of last year; O’Nesha Cochran, former director of Portland’s first Afro-centric women’s transition house, held the position for only four months before she was abruptly fired with a vague explanation that she lacked leadership skills; Tricia Tillman was ousted as director of public health at the Multnomah County Health Department in 2017, without explanation and despite a history of glowing performance reviews.
Dance reflected on the phenomenon: “I think part of it is, are they even able to talk about what they see happening? Is it even a safe environment? There are women who occupy positions of power, and even in these positions of power, the people who work under them can have more power than them. They are not respected as the leaders they are.
Through Mo Better Wellness, Connection, and Facilitation, Dance and Benton hope to alleviate the disproportionate stress and invisible emotional labor that plagues black professional women.
“I’ve been saying this for years: I wish I could go to work every day and just do my job.
“That would be great,” Dance said. “But no, I have to deal with all the other things that go with being a black woman working in whatever environment I find myself in.
“Even the job I’m in right now, I’m in a supervisory position, and I have so many conversations with people – it’s exhausting. You can’t even have a real conversation about what’s going on. You have to play it in such a way that someone can receive it, that they can hear you. There is a lot of denial. It’s exhausting. It’s really toxic. I say it all the time, others don’t have to go through this.
“But (black women) spend a lot of unpaid time and energy doing all this work to try to make things acceptable to other people, or to have these conversations in a way that people can hear. There are a lot of workarounds – you don’t want to be too direct.
Dance and Benton hope to bring these lessons to employers looking to not only recruit but also retain a diverse workforce.
“They can do a self-assessment in their organization, we can consult with them on that and how they can make it a more inviting place for black women,” Dance said. “As part of this, we would like them to offer our services to black women as part of their package.”
Connect by retirement
Meanwhile, Dance and Benton worked with Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO) as they developed a vision for their business. A recent Vibrant Spaces grant from the City of Portland will allow them to host an in-person wellness event in September.
“We want to do retreats when it’s safe to do so,” Dance said. “Eventually we want to do this in other parts of the country or even leave the country and do these kind of wellness retreats.”
Part of the value of these sessions, Dance explained, is that attendees can feel valued and supported no matter where they are in their business development.
“Sometimes women are so new to their business that they ask, ‘Do I really have one?’ Yes, you do,” Dance said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re still formulating it or if you’re still getting it off the ground. It’s still valid.”
After two years of battling a pandemic, Dance said, it’s helpful for women to come together and feel affirmed in their efforts.
“There are all these things that take their time – family, kids at home and trying to teach them – or they feel like their business was starting to take off but then Covid happened,” Dance said. “They maybe try to start over and then they see okay I’m on the right track and there are other women doing this too.”
For more information on Mo Better Wellness, Connection and Facilitation, email Dance and Benton at [email protected]ail.com.