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A Place Called "The Sisterhood"

Together is where we belong! Welcome to Sisters from AARP.

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A drawing of a group of four sisters, sitting around a small coffee table.
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My friend in Milwaukee, a high achiever with great performance reviews, felt alienated and undermined at work. Her new manager cooked up reasons to put her on a performance improvement plan (PIP), which y’all know often really stands for “pink slip is pending.” With no sister support system to help navigate the nastiness, she gave notice. Saying buh-bye to her daily beatdown, she bought herself a parting gift — a sapphire ring. “Wearing this reminds me that I’m enough,” she told me.

I hear stories like this often from Black women friends facing conflicts as one of few of us on the job, in town or at their child’s school. I sympathize and offer support.

But for years, I couldn’t personally relate. My life path has wound mostly through spaces that are estrogen and melanin rich. The middle child among five sisters, I attended a historically female Seven Sisters college — with my twin sister. I edited a campus magazine, Brown Sister. We unapologetically sat at the dining hall’s “Black table,” never missed a Greek party and blasted Prince on the boom box. My volunteer work? The Big Sisters. My career began at one of the Seven Sisters magazines (you know, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s…).  Over the next 20 years, I was at female-run mags and websites for African Americans: Heart & Soul, Essence and Ebony. I worked with maybe three straight men total (one reason I didn’t marry until 37). Male coworkers were usually men of color.

If the really cool white guy who hired me at AARP The Magazine reads this, he’ll learn he’s my first male boss since 1986. (I quit that job on day four, after the owner insulted me over a live mic while emceeing an event. Sliding behind the wheel the next morning, I turned the key in the ignition and vomited on the dash.) See, ladies? Belonging to a “sisterhood” has been my default.

Until it wasn’t.

Blame the recession. Essence laid me off. I hustled remote gigs from out-of-town clients. Since we’d left multi-culti Brooklyn for the ’burbs before our twin boys were born, I saw my girls less often. I met deadlines from home, my block deserted during business hours. I chatted up Lola behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts or Margaret scanning books at the library to feel less alone.

Trips to the market broke the monotony. But why do saccharine-smiled shoppers where we live make “casual” comments about the watermelon in my cart? (Never about the salmon steaks or the brie, mind you.) That’s happened more than once.

My sisterhood umbrella left behind, I watched the sky darken and a shitstorm of shitty shitastrophes roll in. My mother was dying of cancer. A deadbeat client owed me $12,000, and projects got scarcer as the magazine industry imploded. Our children’s principal insisted things were fine while a troubled transfer student tormented one son for a year. My other son’s teacher was removed from that post after we parents raised hell. All I can say about that teacher's drama was that it was a pain, a tough pill to swallow and a numbing experience for certain adults involved. Talk about a prescription for stress. I was in fight mode all the time.

I sat in bed so often that the mattress formed a sinkhole. “You act like you’re on punishment,” my husband Kelvin would say, urging me to get some air. One dark night of the soul, I prayed and laid awake until 5 a.m. when I could call my sister Marilyn, who wakes early for hospital rounds. She listened through two hours of tears, then called me daily until I’d connected with a mental health provider.

My girlfriends? Truth is, I didn’t share the truth with many for a while. But my blood sisters circled close. Marilyn blew up my phone, meanwhile dealing with Mom’s doctors and hospice. Carolyn corralled me and my kids for walks in the woods with her dogs. Jeanne sprung for airfare and a week at the beach. Karen visited, bringing gourmet goodies, dirty jokes and gifts for the boys. They covered me with prayers and hugs. I used my time sitting on the bed to make a vision board and thousands of contacts on LinkedIn.  I threw a party in the city to reconnect with girlfriends.

Things got better.

Here in The Sisterhood, things are better.

I’ve been thinking about the ‘hood since last month, when a squad of us Black women from AARP met up in New Orleans for our Block Party at The Essence Music Festival, which AARP has sponsored for several years. Traveling alone, I marveled at the departure gate packed with beautifully dressed Black women of all shapes, sizes and shades. They talked about Girls’ Trip and How to Get Away with Murder and church and shopping. I felt a tinge of sadness because, on this work trip, I wasn’t with friends or family. Fortunately, a Mississippi native named Velvet and her girls adopted me as we boarded the “soul plane.”

Later, I met in the hotel lobby with AARP’s talented and fun-loving #sisterssquad. Dian art directs this newsletter. Shani makes sure AARP is in the house at Essence Fest, the Stellar Awards, Tom Joyner Family Reunion and annual events with The Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, NAACP and many more. Edna honchos multicultural outreach, including recently linking up with AARP’s Movies For Grownups team.  Together, they treated 12,000 moviegoers around the country to free screenings of The Black Panther when it opened. Kellye delights guests with activities at our booth: Spinning a prize wheel; playing an augmented reality game; jamming to Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé and En Vogue; taking selfies with Vivica Fox, Kim Coles and Holly Robinson Peete. I texted an update to Maya, who connects you with our social media.

My fave Block Party activity was a giant blackboard where guests with colored markers covered every square inch with answers to this question: “What can sisters do to support each other’s dreams?” They wrote “Don’t judge each other,” “Pray without ceasing,” “Smile @ each other,” and even “$$Pay full price. $$ No hook-ups! $” Busy meeting and greeting, I missed writing my answer.

Here it is: “Tell one another the truth.”

Truth. I feel blessed that you’ll visit with Sisters each week.  Holly told us, “As women, we’re all in a sisterhood. But African American women — we really need each other right now. We can’t afford to let jealousies or pettiness get in the way.” Tanasha Driver of Newark, N.J., visiting with college friends, told me, “We are power for one another. Without that, it’s harder for us to make it.”

She is definitely feeling The Sisterhood. So am I. Fam, it’s great to be back in the ’hood.

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XOXOXO – Claire