I’m convinced that you will have what you need in life. You may not get what you want, but what you need will come and it will come right when you need it.
Tuesday night I met with Shayna Israel, Co Executive Director of Elements, an organization dedicated to “uniting LGBTQ womyn of color,” and I got exactly what I needed. I got an interview with a phenomenal young woman who is passionately pursuing her dreams. I got an interview that reminded me and I hope reminds you that pursuing dreams are not in vain. I got an interview that reminded me and I hope reminds you to dream bigger, that impossibility ought not take up residence in our minds and hearts, and that you need not money nor an office to organize, mobilize, and actualize.
Phreedum: Talk to me about how Elements got started.
SI: We started as a group of friends gathering pretty much every weekend. We’d meet up, go out to parties and events in the LGBTQ community, drive to someone’s home, sleep over, carpool to a spot for Sunday brunch and we’d have conversation and cry.
SI: Yes. There would be about 20 of us women of color with degrees and experience all across the board conversing and crying. There were lawyers, designers, writers, educators, clinicians, computer specialists, and the like sitting in some coffee shop or restaurant having conversation and crying about the schism between the women we get to be and don’t get to be and really us just wanting to be whole. We knew that we had enough know how in the group to heal ourselves and be whole women but we weren’t really tapping into what we could really offer ourselves and other women of color in the LGBTQ community.
Phreedum: Twenty women is a lot. How did this go from the coffee shop conversation and crying to an organization that’s working to host its 4th annual conference for women of color in the LGBTQ community?
SI: When one of our coffee converse and cry weekends wrapped up I found myself reflecting on our conversation and a retreat I and some of the women in the group attended a few weeks prior. I sent an email to these women and suggested we have a weekend retreat where we could all identify the needs of our community, self assess what we could do individually and collectively to meet the need, and how we could work individually and collectively to meet needs we could not fulfill as a group. The retreat was in August 2008 and by April 2009 we organized a conference with goal being to provide a space for women of color in the LGBTQ community to heal and become whole. The conference had four different tracks, 12 different workshops, and a “keynote” artist if you will, who talked about her journey as a multiracial lesbian activist. We later found out that we were the only conference for this population in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Phreedum: Wow that is pretty huge. I imagine there have been other huge moments for you as an entrepreneur?
SI: I got to go to Tel Aviv for an international youth LGBTQ conference. I was the only woman and only person of color from the United States at this conference that the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia sent me to because of our work at Elements. I think this sticks out as such a huge moment for me because here I am working with a great team of people in Philadelphia to increase visibility, to say that women of color in this community exist and have things to offer and have needs, and I go to an international conference and find that the need for the work Elements is passionately doing is needed and is needed beyond Philadelphia. It was one of those moments for me where I was reminded there is a bigger picture and Elements is part of that bigger picture.
Phreedum: How does the work you do through Elements change the lives of others?
SI: We unite, network, and empower self identified women of color in the LGBTQ community. We work really hard to create a space for these women to gather, heal, and feel empowered to create the change they desire knowing they have a host of women who are committed to their wholeness. Sometimes the space and healing occurs at our conferences, sometimes at our biweekly gatherings at the William Way Center, and sometimes at someone’s home over dinner.
Phreedum: What is it that people just don’t get about the work you do?
SI: That I and all of us at Elements are volunteers. I think people see the drive, professionalism, organization, and excellence of our work and think that we have passion motivated by pay, but we don’t. We have passion period.
Phreedum: What inspires you and keeps you motivated to do this work?
SI: The actualization of my dreams and deepest desires. In fact, I have to dream bigger. I think if I am really honest 90% of what I have dreamed of is already before me or is within reach. I used to take pleasure in imagining what is possible but most of what I thought was possible is actually now my reality. The progress that I have seen is what pushes me further. If it weren’t for the progress I probably would have stopped.
Phreedum: I like to think most people carry around words of wisdom that helps them to stay focused and keep moving forward. What words of wisdom do you carry with you?
SI: In a magazine interview Demi Moore once said “Don’t let your wounds make you become something you are not.” I’ll never forget when those words resonated for me. I was on the bus reading her interview in Harper’s Bazaar. She was talking about a time when she was afraid of not fully being herself. I think for a good portion of my life I would hold back. I knew I had something to offer but I was afraid of being too loud or being too visible. I didn’t want to cause problems. Part of this I believe was some resentment I had toward my parents for what I can now say they didn’t know and what I saw others get from their parents. I was becoming angry about these two things and I’m not an angry person. I was making my wounds who I was and I think reading that interview and what she had to say really freed me to be who I am and not who my wounds suggest I become.
Phreedum: What is the best thing about being a woman?
SI: Women have an amazing capacity to hold. Women constantly expand to take in and take on and do it well. Women constantly make room and make it work. I have always been in awe of our ability to do that and extremely grateful.
Phreedum: If you were a color in the rainbow what color would you be and why?
SI: Indigo. It’s the deepest blue and it’s mysterious. I think there are things in my life I have discovered and the mystery is gone. However there are things I am discovering, will discover, and things I may never discover in this lifetime but are there to be discovered nonetheless.
To learn more about Shayna and Elements please visit www.ourelements.org or follow Shayna @ShaynaSIsrael