Anyone who knows local arts leader Rozella Kennedy knows she’s a force of nature. Definitely one of those hyper-achievers that spur you to ask, “How on earth does she do all that!” Now, Kennedy’s coming out with an answer to that question: a day planner and journal bursting with gorgeous images, birthdates, and bios of historically important and fierce women of color, each a “Brave Sis” (and many not too well known to general audiences). Thus, the name of the project, Brave Sis, which is currently up on Kickstarter and definitely worth a look.

I talked with Rozie about the Brave Sis genesis—inspired by a visit from an ancestral mother force!—and what it’s like to get a project like this out into the world, which speaks directly to and about our time of rediscovering and valuing women of color and their achievements.

48 HILLS What inspired you to do this project?

ROZELLA KENNEDY After going through a bit of a tumultuous life passage, I had determined to focus on wellness and mindfulness, so I started looking at journaling as a way of creative release and centerin. Every self-help guru has a planner they try to sell, and the ones I looked at were horrible!

They were like bullies; one (from an author I admired) was full of quotes and wisdom from people like Tony Robbins and Arnold Schwartzenegger. WTF – these “Me Too” guys were not people I wanted to invite into my intimate headspace; I was so offended. Another one was like, you needed a Ph.D. in geometry and architecture to figure out their method. And then the ones that were soooo dedicated to white blondes doing yoga on the beach. The ones for Black women were also ridiculous, so stereotypical and mainstream and totally, totally not me. A lot were religious, others were like generic AF inside.

I was really upset. So I thought about building a journal for myself. And my friends: What would we want from a tool like that? We are all pretty smart women and demanding; we’d want to learn something substantive and be in dialogue with that learning. We would not want to be forced to buy washi tape and stickers and go all scrapbook (unless that was our thing, which it hadn’t been for me in like, ever!) … But most of all, on Christmas morning, I literally had a “visitation” from an ancestral mother force. She was saying “tell my story.” I jumped out of bed and started researching women in history. And being a Black woman with a lot of friends who are Brown and Asian (and white) I just wanted to uplift women of color, and create these impossible dialogues of juxtaposition.

It’s like being a novelist insofar as I wanted to create a world and a point of view. And from the very start, I thought of my peeps and just knew this was something they would cherish. So it has felt like an offering.

Rozella Kennedy

48H Divine inspiration! I would have absolutely no idea how to put a planner together. What was your process for writing and constructing it?

RK Well I was reading our dear friend Elaine Elinson’s book about civil libertarians in California, so I really got inspired to write about heroes hardly anyone had heard about. I made a spreadsheet calendar of the year and spent the entire Christmas-New Year’s break looking up birthdates of women of color I found notable. (Note: I could not find one for each day, though I am sure there are. I’d love to do a “Your Brave Sis,” where people crowdsource and nominate their grandmothers and others!)

Anyway, I’d worked in nonprofit fundraising and communications for a long time, so I knew how to do the graphic design; I went online and found some templates to modify and let myself have a creative moment. I started looking at my library of books and other sources for quotes and ideas that inspired me. Friends started sending me suggestions. I went to an online forum of young artists and found this incredible illustrator whose style I liked. I actually checked out several illustrators. There was one who was very polished, like an advertisement, very Lichtenstein/Duran Duran, but it felt cold. There were several who were cartoonish. I love that I ended up working with a high school student who just had a beautiful eye and hand. She told me that she had put on a “wish bracelet” on Christmas Day, because she hoped for 2020 to be part of something big. Our discovery and working together has been just so beautiful. She’s off to art school in the fall… or maybe next fall, given our world right now.

Then I started doing all the business stuff and marketing stuff. Given my work background, I have a fair amount of acumen for all that. But at the end of the day, I now have a wonderful new “day job” and so I’m scaling back the ambitions of being a business owner, and all that. It’s a bit of a racket. I’m just enjoying the ride of putting this out there and building a community around it and seeing how it can serve people. When I started this, we were not in a pandemic, so the world was really different.

Amazingly, it fits into our present paradigm really well (which will be our 2021 paradigm): How can we be mindful, quiet, inquisitive, humble, celebratory? What do the foremothers want us to know? It’s just great, I love it!

48H  The art is so gorgeous, can you tell me a wee bit more about it?

RK I’ll tell you one more thing about the artist. Her name is Marketa, and she is a young woman who is white. But you know, her generation, they are really cosmopolitan and not befouled by racism the way older folks are. I didn’t know anything about her when I saw her artwork, so it was a really blind selection. I wanted an illustrator, not an “artist” with their own artistic voice, if you know what I mean — because I had a clear idea of what I wanted the book to be and I needed something that fit with my editorial vision and flow.

But what is so cool is that we both learned a lot from each other working together. She and her friends are real admirers of Black American culture, like a majority of young people, and it’s not a big deal to them). It’s just what they love. So she was thrilled to learn more about the history of the past 200 years in America and what some of these women went through. It was like an honor for her to learn about these stories and figure out how to get the “essence” of each woman into the drawings. We worked from photographs, but some of the women are from so long ago, or so unknown, there wasn’t really a reliable source for what they looked like. So we just imagined it. And that was friggin awesome.

Another thing, the color scheme changes from month to month. I owe that to Rhianna and Fenty Beauty, to be honest! My daughter and I came up with a palette of colors of hues of women of color for each month, from darkest to lightest (deliberately in that direction, foregrounding dark skin!) but in the end, the light colors were not readable on the page, so we simplified a bit. I’m not trained as a graphic designer, so there were some intuitive things in there, but it’s like a crazy quilt of reverence.

Future versions may be more polished, but it feels like your BFF you can snuggle up with on the couch. And it’s 7×9 inches and linen, so it’s tactile and yummy. My daughters say their college friends will love it. My two sisters, who have HS degrees, can’t wait for it. My niece, who is a federal judge sworn in by Chief Justice Roberts, also cannot wait to be sitting with her staff and pulling out “her planner” and feeling proud. I’m really thrilled that there’s a universality to it.

48H How did you choose which women to feature? I see one of my favorites, Etta James, in the preview … 

RK Marke I hate to disappoint you, but I had to take Etta out. The women who were deceased less than 100 years, and with names with commercial value were possibly going to be problematic, because of licensing issues. It’s still unclear to me what the threshold is, because arguably, and by legal precedent, this is educational and not commercial (look at ads, or those t-shirts with famous women on it, in contrast), and also the portraits are drawings, so there is a clause about artistic license.

But I have a friend in New York who is a big IP lawyer and she frankly freaked me out. I wrote a few of the estates of people like Toni Morrison (no response, though her photographer granted us permission to interpret his famous profile portrait of her); Ruth Asawa (they wanted too much money to use the photo); Audre Lorde (they literally scolded me for doing a coloring book element, as if that wasn’t serious enough), etc. I just didn’t have the energy, so when I decided to pivot and focus on women hardly anyone had heard about, it added a richness and devotion that really appealed to me!

And along the way, I did reach out to the children of some of the more-recently departed women (when I could locate them) and have ended up having some really wonderful exchanges. They’re all thrilled I chose to honor their mothers’ legacy in this way. It’s been so beautiful and heart-warming. 2020 has not been an entirely awful year! It’s too bad about Etta because we had a really wonderful portrait of her. I kept the short biographical sketch on the blog, but maybe someday those estates will come to us to ask to be included. We shall see!

But you know, a lot of these women didn’t have children. And several were gay, even if closeted. There are stories behind the stories, and that interests me as well, from a historian’s viewpoint (which I am not, but history is really essential to understanding the mess we are in today, and how to get out of it…)

On another note, it was imperative to include Black women, Asian, Latinx, Native American, and Hawaiian. I have so many intercultural friendships, and it’s just such a valuable part of my life. But we are also of a 21st century generation; a lot of the women I might have wanted to include, I didn’t, because back in their day, they would have associated with being white, and would have been insulted that I would claim “woman of color-ness” of them. This was particularly on my mind with some “Hispanic” and South East Asian, and Arab women. Their immigration experience might have given them cover in a way that Japanese, Korean, and Chinese women never had, due to our oppressive history. And our Indigenous women (Hawai’ian, Native American) deserve so much more visibility than they are usually given. Of course there are a majority of Black women in there because our story is just so inherently woven into the history of America. And you know, there’s a lot to be proud of!

48H How are you hoping this will inspire and sustain readers, especially in these times?

RK My neighbor asked me, Rozie did you plan this to come out now? I was like, yeah, sure I planned a social revolution to coincide with my journal release! The fact is, all women, and many men, can really benefit from creating an intimate space for themself and their story. I knew this from working in the arts as long as I did, and also being a mom and a sentient being. You get to explore things when in that meditative space of reflection that you can’t do in the normal day. And at the same time, you can’t really read about some of what these women went through and sit around feeling sorry for yourself; so there’s a strength and purpose there that I hope folks will get. Each “birthday portrait” ends with a prompt that will give you the chance to consider what wisdom the story has for you in this moment in your life.

It was important to me in building this to consider it as a welcoming space for white women too. Marke, the majority of my friends are white women (and for the most part, they’ve read White Fragility, so they aren’t Karens, ya feel me?! They totally embrace the idea of de-centering themselves from the narrative.) And based on the quality of our conversations and relationships, I knew they would be as authentically and humbly excited about these stories as my Black and Brown sisters would be excited, and proud to be centered. And I really think all my years in the locker room at ODC, talking with my friends about our lives and the world, gave a special kind of sensation of togetherness to my life that I also wanted to honor in this book. That’s a shoutout to the 8:30 crew; they know who they are!

On the website, I tried to encapsulate the idea of a Brave Sis, to take it from “just” this Journey-Journal to an actual “movement or message.” With a true inclusive and intersectional lens, I came up with this:

A Brave Sis is:

A Black Woman using history to better know & love herself—& other Women of Color.

A Woman of Color embracing story & intercultural joy.

A White woman entering a circle of learning, de-centering & celebration.

Women & Womxn who dare to be brave.

Us changing ourselves & the world.

I’ve spent a lot of time, as a woman and a friend, talking, listening, sharing, learning. I wanted to find a way to codify all of that practice into something portable, intimate, and fun and to make sure that if you start with it on January 1, you will remain motivated to keep at it. And each spread has a space for Gratitude, as well as Attitude. I don’t want anyone to be fake with themself. Sometimes you are just annoyed as hell and you need to get that out, too!

And given where we are in the world right now, I literally think for as much energy as we are putting out there revolutionizing the world, it is also sustaining to spend a little time with the foremothers, and learning from them how to keep it going, and how to keep ourselves going. So it all just feels like it’s exactly the right moment for Brave Sis to be born.

Lastly, I will add that when shelter-in-place hit, I felt I had to create a streamlined version that was a digital journal, because we were all so anxious and a simple practice of journaling and centering felt like it made sense. Because it’s digital, without the illustrations and bios, I could be a lot more flexible who I included. That’s why your girl J-Lo in in there. Just birthday shoutouts and some cool quotes, and five simple ruminations for each day: What do/will/did you celebrate, give thanks for, reflect upon today? How do/will/did you move your body and nurture your body and spirit? 

The July-September version just went up on the website. It’s totally free, it’s just my little contribution to the community in this moment.