Active Voice

How Naj Austin Is Creating Virtual Safe Spaces for People of Color in the Pandemic

The 29-year-old founder of Ethel’s Club had to make a hard pivot last year, but she knew it was important to stick to her vision

Naj Austin knows exactly what she wants and has no problem making it happen. Her high school classmates always knew this. “She’s a dog with a bone,” says a description in Austin’s high school yearbook. “She doesn’t let anything go. When she finds something she believes in, it’s a never-ending journey.”

Now 29, Austin feels she hasn’t changed at all. In November 2019, she launched Ethel’s Club, a social group and safe space invented for people of color, after becoming fed up with the lack of options for people like her to flourish and thrive in a welcoming environment. She decided to open her own safe space for people who could relate to her experience. The Brooklyn-based club now has over 1,000 members nationally and is named after Austin’s late grandmother, an advocate who organized and hosted community events from her home. “I grew up around safe spaces and wanted that to reflect my daily life as a twentysomething New Yorker,” Austin explains. “When I went to go search for that, I couldn’t find it.”

After the pandemic shut the doors of Ethel’s Club, only four months after opening, Austin was tasked with transforming a physical space into a virtual congregation. Through guided meditations via Zoom, live-streamed fitness classes, online writing workshops, and more, the wellness-driven club became a digital platform for people of color, mostly age 25 to 35, to connect during a period of racial reckoning. In addition, Austin recently launched Somewhere Good, a social platform designed for people of color to network and connect online. Soon the online platform will replace the use of Zoom for Ethel’s Club, allowing the club to control the experience end-to-end.

I spoke with Austin to learn more about the advice and processes that have aided her in creating spaces for people to feel welcome and a sense of belonging during a time where community proves to be essential.

Brianna Holt: What were you looking for in safe spaces, but were unable to find? What were the safe spaces you grew up in like?

Naj Austin: I was looking for a place that centered my identity, my Blackness, through art, wellness, music, and joy — and I wanted it to be a physical space in NYC that I could escape to. When you’re in a real radical community with others, it very quickly becomes a safe space because you can be yourself in all the ways that you are. There’s none of that pomp and circumstance that exist in other places. Ethel’s Club was intentionally personable, friendly, and real because we wanted to let people know they could join and make a friend, find a therapist, learn how to make a zine without the social stressors that exist elsewhere.

What has it been like building a community during the pandemic?

I like to think of it as less “building a community” and instead creating a digital space that speaks to people in a way where they gravitate toward it. We actively think about how we can add value to our member’s lives through programming, perks, job opportunities. Our community has thrived because we see them as people looking to feel seen, heard, and cared for. So we focus on that, and it’s working.

Since Black communities are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, has this social club been a place to cope?

We have had events catering to those who have lost jobs and loved ones. We also had an event with Black doctors last summer to answer questions our community had around Covid. Our focus is always: Does this add value? Will this make our members happier? Healthier? Empowered? More connected? If so, we do it.

“I can’t have the same pathway as the white woman founder of some new club. It just wouldn’t happen.”

What’s the best piece of advice you were given in regards to your line of work?

Stick to my vision. It’s really easy to copy what exists, and my vision was not aligned with that. It felt very like, “Am I doing the wrong thing because I’m thinking about this differently?” I had a lot of champions and mentors in my corner who said, “Stick to your vision. Stick to what you think is right and it will all work out.” And it did. So I’d say having that tight hold on the vision that you have and ensuring that it comes to fruition is really important.

Do you see some common rookie mistakes that people make when they first start organizing or launching projects in this space?

A lot of Black founders and founders of color try to emulate white founders, but like everything else in the system we live in, it doesn’t work the same. It’s important that we as Black founders, as women of color, think really critically about how we are leading and championing change both internally and externally, and understanding that what we are doing is building a new sort of pathway.

I can’t have the same pathway as the white woman founder of some new club. It just wouldn’t happen. No one would give me that much money at the stage we’re at. Understanding that I have to build in a very different way and being okay with that, is important. I can’t read a business book and then feel like I can just do what the author did; their lived experience is very different than mine. I think it’s really important to understand the powers that be in that way and then move forward in that manner.

What’s the most overrated piece of conventional wisdom that you’d like to debunk?

Anything around hustle culture. Anything that uses that toxic mentality of setting aside your wellness and well-being to achieve a goal, I would like to debunk. It’s not something that I’ve done. It’s not something we’ve rooted into our internal culture. We’ve been able to execute and build and create in a really astonishing, fast-paced way, and it’s probably because no one is burned out. Getting rid of that idea of needing to sink or swim, or any advice based in military or sports language, should all go away.

I think if I did believe in hustle culture, I probably would have quit a long time ago. So I very much respect my mental and emotional boundaries. I’m fine with telling people that I don’t take meetings on Fridays. That’s just a fact and literally nothing will change it. If Beyoncé calls, I will be free on Monday. Or, maybe for Beyoncé, I’d take it on Friday.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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