Sister-Sistah! These Two Siblings Are Creating Spaces That Challenge Stereotypes Against Womxn
"This time we are choosing to save us, first."
August 18, 2020 at 8:28 am
Women, too often, are not given enough credit. And, if we're talking about Black women, the respect is even less. Black women get all the flak, while our hairstyles, fashion trends, bodily curves, vernacular and boldness are gentrified. Black women are expected to carry the weight of the world and be quiet about how heavy it is. We are expected to support everyone else and be strong enough to accept the fact that no one is in our corner. Well, for two Black, biological sisters from the Chicagoland area, there was no other option than to give women a safe space to exist, without consequence.
Blavity had the honor to speak with Dionna and Danyelle Gray, co-founders of WOMANISH. Both college educated career-women, working in media and marketing, have collaborated on a variety of businesses that they both believe led them to create WOMANISH, a fun interactive visual art networking experience designed to empower women. The five-story exhibit also serves as a platform to break the stereotypes of what defines womanhood.
Blavity: When did you both decide to make supporting and connecting women your life's mission and why?
Dionna Gray: I remember sitting on the couch thinking “what can I do that I’m passionate about and can build a brand on?” I am Super passionate about helping women. We both are. It's an "Each one, teach one" type of mentality. It was around 2012 to 2013 when we first had this idea that we wanted to do something to celebrate women, but we weren't sure how. So we bounced ideas back and forth between us and our friends about what they would want to see done in support of women and womanhood.
We were also very blessed to have a mom who was a hard worker herself, who motivated us to know “you can do anything” and we've had enough faith in God and ourselves to believe that, in everything we do. Women get a bad rep, in a lot of ways, so we have been dedicated to showing other women that they have value, they are not limited to stereotypes or gender roles or preferences, and they're powerful.
Blavity: It seems you both focus on "creating fun and safe spaces" for women. What thought process goes into creating these spaces (from podcasts to physical events) and can you talk about the inspiration behind your latest creation, WOMANISH?
Photo credit: Brianna Gray.
Danyelle Gray: It's about having the right people around you. We have been lucky enough to have an amazing group of friends. We studied Museum of Ice Cream, [and] found a creative director who saw our vision and could bring it to life (shoutout to Emily). We had to learn early on that you can’t do everything yourself, you need the right people on your team to help put the ideas together. We decided that the best way to celebrate and empower women [was] to give them a safe haven to explore and express themselves. So we started putting feelers out there for collaborators and event spaces. That is WOMANISH — a community.
Dionna: We were privileged enough to grow up in a two parent home, but many women grew up watching their mom do it on her own and some may think that is how things always have to be and we want to break that cycle. We are really big on creating safe spaces. People will drag you and talk about you online, for what you wear, how you speak, etc. We're not here for that, we're here to uplift.
Blavity: How did you get the support to grow your brand from hosting podcasts and workshops to installing this magnanimous upcoming event/art installation?
Dionna: In the beginning, the main support we had was simply built on faith in ourselves, knowing we can do all things through Christ.
Danyelle: All I had was God when we went into this. This is just a testament of “crazy faith” (shoutout to Mike Todd). In addition to that self motivated support, we know people rally around a common cause and a good mission. Our mission is about celebrating women. Our exhibit is mission driven, we touch on important topics and we’re accessible. People want to support good movements and this is exactly that.
Photo credit: Brianna Gray.
Blavity: I noticed that "breaking single-definition stereotypes" is the central theme in the WOMANISH exhibit. How has this form of stereotyping affected both of your careers, as Black women, and how did you both overcome those stereotypes to get to your current level of success?
Dionna: What does it even mean to be a woman? You’re supposed to be dainty, you’re supposed to dress a certain way, etc. There is no single definition of a woman, really. That's the message we want to spread. You define your own womanhood. It's not about what others think.
Even with creating this experience, there are a whole bunch of stereotypes that we've had to overcome. We’ve had to have other people go look at spaces for us to get this going. They don’t believe that, as a business woman, Black woman, you could afford to host an event on multiple floors in a single space. That’s just another thing that you have to overcome as a [Black] woman.
Danyelle: That’s why there is a play on “ish” because there is so much to being a woman. As businesswomen, we've faced some obstacles just because we're Black. Black women being called bossy is not a bad thing.I don’t mind being called bossy, Dionna and I are bosses. Always having to be better than everyone else, do more work and get paid less, we've learned to create our own. Black women are always expected to save everybody else, but this time we are choosing to save us, first.
Photo credit: Brianna Gray.
Blavity: As you both work together to become more successful, what have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of running a business with your sibling?
Danyelle: The challenge is always being in the same space. Always. We live together, work together, hang out together; we do virtually everything together. But the reward is also that we get to be successful together. This is both our dream, both our passion. We want to create generational wealth for our family, our kids, our little cousins. We are mission driven about where we want our family to be. We had to make sacrifices to put this together, sacrificed our savings, our independence to make this happen. It is bigger than us.
Dionna: The hardest part is we’re always together. I could not be in the mood to work and [Danyelle] can come in ready to work. But, I'm thankful for it. It's so rewarding being able to come together and raise our family up. We want to retire our mom and show the younger family ”you can do this.”
Another thing is the support of different people, sharing their stories at our smaller girl talk events. Seeing that impact is the most rewarding feeling.
Blavity: Lastly, what message do you want to share with the Blavity audience, as it relates to your upcoming exhibit and being a creative Black woman in this current climate of civil unrest, global pandemic and election season?
Danyelle: My word to creative women is you are capable of anything you put your mind to. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can figure it out. If you have a dream, you can do it. If we can do it then why not you? I want to tell people how to do it, I want to share the wealth.
Dionna: Faith is everything. Faith without works is dead. People will tell you all the time what you are capable of. If you take your dreams to God, the sky is the limit. I don’t care where you came from, you can do it!
WOMANISH opens in Chicago during Labor Day weekend and is slated to embark on a world pop-up tour once social distancing and the pandemic are a thing of the past.