Why We Need More Black Women Workspaces

Unfortunately, the most popular co-spaces aren’t always the most welcoming

A woman working on her iPad at The Wing, a women’s co-working space.
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty

InIn all, Asha Grant had only been part of The Wing’s West Hollywood location for about a month before she found herself feeling disregarded and out of place.

On May 28, she and a guest (both Black women) went to the location only to encounter an angry White woman in the parking lot, upset that Grant had snagged a spot she felt “belonged” to her. Grant alleges the woman, a guest at The Wing, followed them into the location yelling insults and threats. Once inside, she gave the middle finger to Grant, her guest, and another Black Wing member, Stephanie Kimou, Grant recalls.

“The harassment did not end,” Grant, the director of The Free Black Women’s Library Los Angeles, says. “It was clear that she was not going to stop saying things to us… I was like, ‘Okay, you need to be asked to leave.’”

The woman was not asked to leave in accordance with the location’s guest policy. Instead, staff members allowed the woman to remain in the space, saying there was nothing they could do about the “sticky situation.” They said they did not feel “empowered” to confront the woman, leaving Grant and her guest feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, she says. In exchange for her discomfort, Grant was offered a free meal.“It was another example of White women’s comfort prioritized over Black women’s pain,” Grant says. She terminated her Wing membership and never looked back. Kimou left with her in solidarity.

TThe Wing confirmed the incident, telling ZORA that the woman has not returned to the location. A spokesperson says the woman alleged Grant and her guest used a homophobic slur — which Grant, a Black queer woman, vehemently denies.

“Every day at The Wing, thousands of women across the country come to our spaces because here they feel empowered, seen, supported, and safe — and it’s imperative that we deliver on that promise to every member of our community,” The Wing says in a statement to ZORA.

“In this specific incident, we struggled to get it right and we are deeply sorry. We know how important it is to build an environment and team that reflects the diversity of our membership and the cities we inhabit, especially considering the historical and systemic marginalization of women of color in the context of women’s spaces. This was a humbling experience for our team and we are currently putting measures in place to make sure we handle incidents like this one much more thoughtfully in the future.”

This isn’t the first time The Wing has faced criticism. Since it was founded in 2016, the women-centered network of community spaces has repeatedly come under scrutiny with critics calling it “branded feminism” and “too White for women of color.” Despite being billed as a set of inclusive and intersectional workspaces — and boasting a Black CFO and high-profile supporters like Kerry Washington — critics have alleged that “women of color aren’t optically or logistically welcome.”

TThe Wing isn’t the overall source of such disapproval, though. Grant’s situation and the criticism is a symptom of a larger problem: We need Black women workspaces.

For Black women, community is often paramount as we navigate life in predominantly white, and inherently anti-Black, spaces.

“It’s just that classic, ‘Where is the place for Black women to exist?’” Grant says. “Where is that place that’s made for us? It’s hard to find a place where we can just relax.”

For Black women, community is often paramount as we navigate life in predominantly White, and inherently anti-Black, spaces. So, as shared workspaces become increasingly popular, it’s no surprise that Black women are seeking community within this societal phenomenon. The problem is that we’re continuing to see the age-old dilemma of the out-of-place Black woman, even in co-working spaces that appear to value diversity.

Of the roughly 4,000 co-working spaces that exist across the country, only about 56 of them are Black-owned, Vice reported. The number of those spaces designed specifically for Black women is likely much smaller, forcing us into largely White spaces that fail to cater to our needs. This is only exacerbated by the implicit bias that often moves White and non-Black people in these spaces to view Black women as inherently dangerous and threatening. In recent decades, we’ve had meaningful discussions about White feminism, anti-Blackness, and the overall disregard for Black women’s lives. Even notable White feminists are able to quote bell hooks as they declare themselves allies and flaunt their knowledge of Black women’s issues. But that doesn’t always translate to their everyday encounters with Black women.

The hope is that these conversations would lead to intentional intersectionality and spark change. Instead, Black women’s language and aesthetics are often co-opted by capitalism, with $20 T-shirts that read “Protect Black Women” and “Black Girl Magic” throw pillows that fail to credit the phrase’s creator, CaShawn Thompson. In short, Black women often fall victim to White feminism that spouts intersectional rhetoric from a large platform, only to ignore the needs of Black women on an interpersonal, day-to-day basis. Even the most seemingly inclusive co-working space isn’t immune to this. Like in any non-Black space, Black women are often on high alert, working to avoid being unfairly viewed as an “angry Black woman.”

FFortunately, there are a handful of businesses working to address the need for culturally relevant shared workspaces. Zora’s House in Ohio, Dream Village in Maryland, Ethels Club in Brooklyn, and more have taken care to prioritize these needs. LC Johnson, 31, had a particular vision when she launched Zora’s House in 2018. Though Zora welcomes women of color, its demographic is predominantly Black women, which Johnson says she doesn’t take lightly.

“It’s really important for me as a Black woman to make sure that the space is truly safe for Black women. In many women’s spaces, even women of color spaces, we’re not always prioritized, validated, or safe,” she says. “For us, combating anti-Black racism even as we build solidarity with other communities of color is key. I think it’s important for non-Black women to practice being in solidarity with other Black women.”

Some 500 miles away, Najla Austin, 28, is preparing for the launch of Ethels Club, expected to open by the end of the year. There are thousands on a waitlist to become members, and Austin says Black people have shown the most interest. (Feminist author and activist Roxane Gay famously invested in the project.) Austin says the space will be equipped with places to work and commune, including programming that partners with local artists, vendors, and creators. Members will even have access to on-site therapists of color and other wellness activations. Community is key at Ethels Club, and Austin says “intentionality is our North Star.”

“We’re providing this comfortable community of like-minded people where you can actually unburden yourself from the rest of your life,” Austin says, noting that she admires all The Wing has accomplished.

It is worth noting that the majority of women-focused, Black-owned co-working spaces cater to women of color rather than Black women specifically, even though many of them boast large populations of Black women. Still, none of these workspaces, and those like them, have seen the success and profitability of massive shared workspace companies like The Wing and WeWork. This is likely because Black businesses generally lag behind the growth of those belonging to other groups. Black women businesses suffer most, largely due to a lack of capital, Forbes reported. This was the case for Meagan Ward, co-founder of Femology, a Detroit-based community of co-working spaces for women, launched in 2017.

“Black women have created these spaces for as long as we’ve been here — they’ve just been in our kitchens, our dorms, our auntie’s backyards, in community centers — they’re all in spaces that we create.”

“What has helped The Wing expand so large, so fast is that they were backed by women who believe in their vision and they had an insane amount of access to capital,” Ward, 28, says, noting that she is an ardent supporter of The Wing.

“The statistic is less than 3% of women get access to venture capital funding. When it comes to women of color, it’s less than 1%. We’re dealing with some hard statistics here, especially if we’re talking about women trying to open up national, female-focused co-working spaces.”

DDespite lacking adequate resources and capital, the number of firms owned by Black women grew by 164% from 2007 to 2018, according to The 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report. With the number of co-working spaces in the country set to hit 6,000 by 2022, Black women-focused spaces should be the standard. This is because we know that tending to the needs of the most minoritized will ultimately repair larger systems of bias and discrimination. There is nothing to lose by cultivating workspaces specifically for Black women, but everything to gain.

Grant knows this full well. Though her time with The Wing has come to an end, Grant says she’s confident Black women will one day find what we’re looking for in the nation’s ever-growing forest of co-working spaces.

“I definitely think safe, affirming workspaces are both practical and possible. Black women have created these spaces for as long as we’ve been here — they’ve just been in our kitchens, our dorms, our auntie’s backyards, in community centers — they’re all in spaces that we create,” she says.

“We want to know that when we enter a space in real-life, we’re reflected in the fabric of the company and lessons on racism and microaggressions won’t come at our expense. Like most things, we’ve learned that if there’s something we need from the world, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. So here we are.”

Char Adams is the digital editor of SUM research at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a former reporter for PEOPLE Magazine. She is on Twitter: @CiCiAdams_