Earlier this month, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the launch of WANDA, a newly established nonprofit organization educating, empowering and advocating for women and girls of African decent to become leaders in the fields of nutrition, dietetics and agriculture.
The launch, which took place on March 5th was held in honor of International Women’s Day and as such, featured a panel of innovative and groundbreaking social entrepreneurs in industries ranging from beauty and cosmetics, to television and entertainment. WANDA Founder, Tambra Raye Stevenson, groundbreaking in her own right as a National Geographic Traveler of the Year and founder of the DC-based NativSol Kitchen, describes WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture) as an initiative bringing together “sisters of the soil” to encourage all women, young and old, to lead in advancing the fields of nutrition and agriculture.
“Women and girls are at the heart of transforming our communities through preserving our foodways, building vibrant economies and healthy communities,” she said. WANDA will also be launched in Abuja, Nigeria in May.
As a Ghanaian-American woman just beginning her journey into the fields of agriculture and nutrition, I find WANDA’s mission intriguing. The organization promotes itself as a Pan-African initiative, which is hugely significant to me at this point in my career. Though most of my professional experience falls within the realm of international development, a heightened social awareness of racial injustice in the United States, underscored by the growth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, has compelled me to offer whatever service I can to ensuring a healthy future for Africans AND African-Americans alike.
Having shared this passion with colleagues and advisors, I have been told that I cannot have a successful career straddling both sides of the Atlantic – I would have to choose. The launch of this organization confirmed that I am not alone in my desire to protect and promote health throughout the African Diaspora. And for me WANDA is blazing a trail where there had been none before.
If you missed the launch, check out my top 10 black girl magic moments that continue to resonate with me.
1. Getting in formation
Inspired by the song that launched many a think piece, WANDA flexed its impressive marketing and social media muscle by borrowing from Beyonce’s celebrated and controversial song, “Formation” for the title of their event. Dubbing the launch, “Black Women Getting in Formation: Power of Media and the Arts to Advance Nutrition and Agricultural Advocacy,” WANDA brought attention to the convening power of a song some have identified as a call to arms for black women.
In a recent interview with Black Enterprise, Stevenson shared that WANDA’s version of “getting in formation” means encouraging women and girls to pursue education and leadership roles in health and agriculture.
For me, gathering under the backdrop of “Formation” and a national conversation about self-love and unapologetic blackness brought a palpable sense of pride and purpose to the launch. It was an environment that allowed participants to celebrate each others accomplishments, relate to each others struggles and commit to partnerships moving forward.
A moment that stayed with me, however, was when panelist and WANDA honoree Rahama Wright, CEO of Shea Yeleen International reminded attendees that countless unnamed and unknown women have always and are still doing the work only recently championed by Beyonce. Way before the Super Bowl performance that stunned America, black women worked together to achieve success and independence. This moment from Wright reminded me that despite Beyonce’s undeniable contributions to the movement, the real heroes in the quest for justice and equality are in our midst and should not be overlooked.
2. Celebrating excellence in entrepreneurship
Speaking of celebrating the heroes in our midst, WANDA set a great example by honoring four WANDA women leading the way in promoting positive images of blackness and black women. Along with Ms. Wright, WANDA honored Julian Kiganda, CEO of Bold and Fearless, DeShuna Spencer, Founder and CEO of KweliTV, and Mukami Kinoti Kimotho, Founder and CEO of Joodj.
During the panel discussion, each honoree offered a unique perspective on the realities of being a black female entrepreneur. The most memorable moment for me was the vulnerability each woman shared in explaining that their successes were not won overnight. The panelists openly discussed the tendency in the black community to erase struggles from one’s personal narrative. By openly discussing the blood, sweat and tears that goes into growing an organization from the ground up, the panelists believe that more women may be encouraged to continue chasing their dreams even when they face hardship. It was a message that resonated with the audience who clapped in support of these personal and uplifting statements.
3. The food
NativSol Kitchen provided the tasty, healthy and culturally relevant fare originating from different countries across the continent. Stevenson dazzled attendees with a Morroccan stew, West African rice dishes, savory black eyed peas, and my personal favorite from the event, bissap, or zobo as it is known in Nigeria. The drink is made from dried hibiscus leaves and is known for its tangy flavor and deep crimson color.
NativSol spiced its version up with a touch of ginger, giving the beverage a kick that rounded out the meal. The message I took away from the impressive spread is that food from across the African continent and Diaspora is naturally delicious and healthy. Over time, departure from these foods and the uptake of the Western diet has left a staggering percentage of the Diaspora suffering from overweight, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. In the United States, over 75% of African Americans are overweight or obese, while in Africa nutrition related non-communicable disease will account for 40% of the disease burden on the continent by 2030.
A part of WANDA’s mission is to reverse this trajectory and restore health to the Diaspora by embracing the heritage foods that characterize so many of its classic dishes. For more information about the link between culture, food and health check out Oldways African Heritage and Health, a wellness program developing resources and initiatives to promote the healthy foods and delicious eating traditions of African Heritage for good health and community.
4. The fashion
Sometimes being one of a few, if not the only black woman in the one’s work environment requires a precarious balancing act of trying to maintain one’s identity while not becoming a target of stereotypes or scrutiny.Sometimes it can become pretty stressful. For black women, hair can be one of the most treacherous waters to navigate in the workplace. What I loved about the WANDA launch was seeing successful professional black women in all of their diverse glory.
From Kiganda’s waist length locs to Kimotho’s cropped and colored do, the women at the launch exuded class and professionalism no matter the texture, length or color of their hair. Not only did attendees’ hair make a statement, but their clothes did as well. Who says being a businesswoman only means blue, grey and black suits? The WANDA event was a feast for the eyes, with attendees rocking colorful Ankara print and eye catching jewelry from a range of African countries. This reinforced to me the necessity for all women of the Diaspora to rebel against the societal norms of the work place and refuse to forget just how beautiful every kind of black woman is.
5. Establishing a multigenerational connection
The number of mothers and daughters who came to the launch together pleasantly surprised me. So much of whom I am as a woman in terms of my confidence and self-esteem comes from my mother therefore it only makes sense that mother/daughter pairs would be interested in ensuring that their descendants yet to come are guaranteed equal access to the education and job opportunities they desire.
Beyond those with familial ties, women of all ages were able to connect at the WANDA launch. During the panel discussion, a lawyer with plenty of years of experience asked panelists if they ever seek to engage older women. All panelists highlighted the importance of engaging all generations, particularly elders, in their work.
Mothers, grandmothers and women leaders in general play the pivotal role of passing down cultural knowledge and eating habits, and promote economic growth in their communities. This traditional role fits well into WANDA’s model of empowerment through mentorship. It touched me to know that WANDA and its honorees saw it fitting to remind us that we all can influence the next generation. and we ‘have a duty to plant trees, so they can sit in the shade.’
6. Remembering the importance of self care
After the panel discussion concluded, I asked the panelists how they maintain their enthusiasm and confidence. I also asked how they care for themselves and maintain their sanity if they ever face backlash for their work. I asked this question because, as in the case of Beyoncé, black women who stand up for themselves and for their people can sometimes open themselves up to racist and sexist criticism.
Activists and public figures such as Melissa Harris-Perry have publicly discussed the self-care routines they adopted to protect themselves from their detractors. Though all panelists gave incredible answers, such as knowing one’s limits, never neglecting one’s health and feeling comfortable admitting failure, my favorite piece of advice came from Spencer who discussed the importance of having a team of friends and trusted advisers who you can go to for laughs, tough love, a shoulder to cry on and more.
Spencer noted that surrounding one’s self with like-minded individuals keeps one focused and inspired. I remember looking around the room in the moment and thinking, “We need each other. None of us can do this alone.” This sentiment was solidified by Stevenson who admitted that unlike past initiatives she tried to grown on her own, WANDA would be a child raised by the village – a community of women who want to see the child thrive. The grassroots nature of this organization encouraged me to address my own fears of failure and get involved with WANDA by working on my writing.
7. Reflecting on the pain that unites us (and how to overcome)
The moment that drew out the most thought and reflection came from a comment shared by a woman named Rose. Originally from Uganda, Rose had this to say during the question and answer portion of the panel: “Africans will never heal until African-Americans heal”. Having never heard such a statement, I stopped, as did many other participants, to seriously reflect on what this means.
Though I’m sure it can be interpreted in many different ways, I took what Rose said to mean that our destiny, as people of the Diaspora is interlinked. It has been interlinked since the first of us endured the Middle Passage. It was interlinked when the Civil Rights movement exploded during a time of widespread liberation on the continent and will continue to be interlinked as Africans and African-Americans battle the very similar challenges of hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, marginalization and limited access to resources. These feelings were hard to unpack, but were appreciated by the panelists who praised Rose for remembering the importance of communal healing and love within the African Diaspora. This was a thought provoking moment that will not be soon forgotten.
8. The unveiling of little Wanda
In a moment that drew a collective “Awwwwww!!!” from attendees and panelists alike, Stevenson unveiled an exciting and creative aspect of the WANDA initiative: Little Wanda of the upcoming “Where’s WANDA?” series, is a character inspired by Stevenson’s own journey to Africa and childhood goals of healing her family.
In developing series, Little Wanda travels across the African continent meeting WANDA Women, or Big Wandas, that research, produce and promote African heritage foods to nourish their communities. “Where’s WANDA,” geared towards girls under ten years of age, will include educational enrichment resources inviting young girls to travel and learn with Little Wanda.
I believe this character, the Diaspora’s answer to “Dora the Explorer,” will open so many opportunities for little girls of African descent to learn about culture and heritage in a way they never have before. With her adorable afro and cute ankara skirt, Little Wanda is a character young girls can relate to and that sort of representation in the media is so important. Follow @NativSol and @IamWANDAorg to catch updates on where Little Wanda goes next!
9. ToluMiDE debuts “Mama Sunshine”
TolumiDE is a talented Nigerian-Canadian singer and songwriter whose music spans the genres of R&B, Afropop and Soul. Having never met her nor listened her music, I was struck by Tolu’s earthy voice and quirky adlibs. A WANDA honoree herself, TolumiDE graced attendees with a new song called, “Mama Sunshine”.
While listening to the catchy song filled with themes of growth, resilience and renewal, I felt the song was a perfect way to begin a new chapter for many of the women standing in the room. WANDA has provided an opportunity to connect and build a community with a common purpose and that is something I am very thankful for.
TolumiDE had a song for these feelings as well, offering an encore with her song of thanks and praise, “My Love”. Be sure to check out the video on YouTube!
10. Recognizing the strength in numbers
The WANDA launch was an awakening for me, drawing out feelings of affirmation, inspiration, solidarity and energy that come with finally feeling understood and identifying a direction. Following the close of the event, participants lingered for hours, laughing, sharing and embracing their newfound roles as students, mentors, leaders, advocates, and WANDA Women.
We closed by taking a final picture, which solidified for me that I have become apart of something bigger than myself. The sense of community offered by WANDA and its powerful women and male advocates fills a hole that many black women in the fields of nutrition, dietetics and agriculture often feel, being one of a few, if not the only black woman in their work place.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, people of African descent only make up roughly 2.6 percent of the registered nutritionists and dietitians. It is time to change this and WANDA is a big step forward in finding the solution. There is strength in community and strength in numbers, and I look forward to watching WANDA’s membership grow.