Blk Girls Green House is About Growth, Activism, and Yes, Plant Lady Goals
If 2020 were to have a motto, one of the more optimistic ones might be borrowed from Sister Mary Corita Kent: "Flowers grow out of dark moments." Nowhere is this more true than in the story of collaborators Kalu Gebreyohannes and J'Maica Roxanne, the bold founders of Blk Girls Green House, a new space for greenery, peaceful vibrations and community building in Oakland, CA. Born in the midst of the pandemic, Kalu and J'Maica saw an opportunity to bring beauty into their community in a safe, meaningful way, at a time when we all need to feel more natural, growth-oriented energy in our lives. Their form of activism is about joy, it's about design, it's about empowering Black artists and creators, it's about conscious shopping, it's about economic stability in a time of great uncertainty — it's about feeling GOOD. Their motto? "It's a beautiful time to grow."
Anjelika Temple here, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Brit + Co. I was introduced over email to Kalu and J'Maica not once, but three times! I knew our conversation would be a good one, one that would leave me feeling inspired, motivated and, yes, in need of some new plants ;) I'm honored to share their story here on Brit + Co as well as over on Represent Collaborative, a new site dedicated to storytelling, activism, and change. REP CO is made up of long-time media pros who have committed to pro bono assignments in the service of creating sustained, quality coverage of the issues and people that might otherwise "stop trending" over the next few months. The mission is to spread the message, not monopolize the content, and I am thrilled to be able to spread the mission and creative journey of Kalu and J'Maica in today's edition of Creative Crushin'.
The now-classic Zoom screenshot has become par for the course in this series ;) Can't wait to connect with these brilliant humans in real life sometime soon. Read on to learn more about Blk Girls Green House and the friendship that willed it into existence.
Anj: I'd love for each of you to share a bit more about your roots.
J'Maica: I originally grew up on the East coast in Washington DC area, Prince George's County, Maryland to be specific. My family is split between there and California. My mom is from California, my dad grew up in DC, and they met there, got married, had kids, the whole thing. Growing up, I actually wanted to be a doctor, which clearly did not happen. I worked for a while at a non-profit, and then from there, I transitioned into post-secondary education and program management. I worked at UC Berkeley for a while, and then went to the Academy of Art. And then I started to venture off and do my own thing.
Kalu: I was born in Ethiopia and was raised in Toronto, Canada, and I've lived many, many places in between. I've been here in Oakland for eight years this month. I have three children: 10, eight, and six. I essentially call Oakland home. From the day that I set foot here, I loved it. I was super skeptical at first. When we decided to move, we were in LA. And I just couldn't envision myself living out here. Didn't know much about it, but once I landed here, the history and just the way the city makes me feel, what it's connected to as far as historically for Black people, just spoke to my heart. I just love it, and I love the community that I've built here.
Anj: How did you meet and connect?
Kalu: We have a lot of mutual friends. And so we've known of each other for a good minute. And then we met officially in person again through one of those mutual friends at the Black Joy Parade here in Oakland, which was actually just this past February. It's a really interesting friendship and business relationship because it was one of those things that just instantly kind of connected and felt good.
Anj: Tell us the origin story of Blk Girls Green House. What made you decide to open this concept store and nursery?
J'Maica: Again, it happened really, really fast. I think from probably, "Hey, we should..." until opening day was probably about six weeks. We both kind of had an idea of what we wanted to do and what the bigger challenges might be, and as soon as we started putting it out there that this is what we wanted to do, everything literally just fell into place, one thing after the other. We were able to just move really, really quickly and just kind of make it happen.
Kalu: Yeah. I mean it happened at a time where I was actually recovering from being ill, and I always have to follow up with saying not COVID. J'Maica though was taking really great care of me and my kids, and as I was starting to feel better, we went and we visited one of my favorite nurseries in Oakland. And it was just a really beautiful energy. It was probably the one thing I mustered up my energy to do after being down for the count for a minute. Prior to that, most of our conversations dealt with interior design and plants. We were excited about every plant leaf coming in, and a new leaf, and just talking about the kinds of plants that we had. And between the both of us, we have a crap ton of plants. After visiting the nursery, it was like, "Hey, is this something that we could do? And how cool would it be to have one that felt really good for us and our community?"
Anj: Describe your mission with this new space. What do you hope people experience when they come there? What are you hoping to put forth in the community?
J'Maica: Plants and beautiful spaces are one of the ways that we've been able to find joy and refuge from everything that was going on out in the world. A large part of our idea in creating the space was to translate that outward so that other people could kind of have that same experience. Especially with everything being shut down, we have so few opportunities to treat ourselves to something. We can't socialize in the way that we used to, we can't go out and do things that we used to before COVID. So being able to create a space that looked really beautiful and that felt really good, as a way to channel that energy and just sort of offer a respite from the outside world with everything that we're hearing and everything that's going on both with COVID and also issues around the pandemic of being Black in America.
Kalu: Both J'Maica and I were carrying a lot of trauma around it. And we could only imagine the trauma that our community has around it and carries around it. The reality is when you get an opportunity to celebrate yourself, it's a small victory, and I would like to call our nursery a small victory. You can come in and you can feel something. It's not just this concept of coming into a retail space. It's evoking a level of consciousness and peace and joy in our community, and not just for Black people because I think J'Maica and I can be really transparent in saying that not everyone that has shopped with us has been Black. And for those who have not, they've come in with a really open heart and a joy of supporting us in what we're doing in an understanding of why what we're doing is so important. Allowing people to come in there and experience that and walk away feeling like they've offered themselves some form of self care, some form of joy, some form of peace. If people have left there feeling good and a little happier than they came in, or a little more fulfilled, then our space is magical. We're grateful for that.
Anj: The word activist has become a charged word at the moment, with plenty of varying definitions as the world ebbs and flows. Do you consider yourselves activists? Tell me more about how issues of social justice play into your work and life.
J'Maica: For me personally, just as a Black person, as a Black woman in this country, doing something that challenges the current narratives and stories about us that are out there, and doing it in a way that is intentional for me and for my community, and for people that look like me — I think that that to some degree is activism. I'm happy to call it that. Taking that stance, and again just being really intentional about the way the space is curated, even the location of the space, the way that we wanted people to feel when they walk into the space, and after they leave, and wanting it to really feel like a fulfilling and joyous space for people that look like us. For my personal definition, I would absolutely say that activism and issues around social justice certainly play into what we're doing and why we're doing it and who we're doing it for.
Anj: Kalu, what does activism mean for you?
Kalu: I would add that I think that every Black person is forced into activism, and I think White people have an option to be activists or not. I think Black people are actively having to fight for equality and fight for justice and fight for things that have been conventionally given to White people quite easily. So I'm actively being active in trying to make sure that my children have an easier and better life than I have as a Black woman in this country, and quite frankly in this world.
I also believe that sometimes without even the intention of wanting to be an activist, we carry the burden of having to. Our activism looks very different. I think there are professional activists, and those are those who are studying facts and data, and constantly on the front lines, and then I think that's a different form of activism. But I recognize it comes in different forms. And so as J'Maica said, our way is through empowering fellow Black artists and makers which we carry in our store, which translate into dollars and economic stability within our own community, doing it in a neighborhood like Martin Luther King Boulevard Way where we are located, doing it amongst people who might not have access to this type of beauty on a daily basis and these types of stores.
Anj: Activism and entrepreneurship are both physically and emotionally demanding — do you have practices that help you stay balanced and recharge? Especially in the midst of a pandemic?
J'Maica: Sleep and "do not disturb" on my phone. And really just taking it day by day. Having your plan in mind at the beginning of the week, "Okay, this is what I'm going to do. This is how I'm going to balance the workload, and this is how I'm going to structure my day, and how I'm going to do..." And then one thing happens and that just tips the scales in a completely different direction and it all falls apart. So I think being really malleable and flexible in those situations and giving ourselves some grace and some space to just say, "You know what? We got to table this for now. I'll circle back to that." Or, "I can't do this right now." Let's reshuffle the deck, let's prioritize what needs to happen by the end of the day today." And then just go from there. Or else everything will just come crashing down.
Yesterday, I think I was in bed until noon. And it was just, "Nope. I don't have to be anywhere. I'm going to stay here. I'm going to get up, get some water, get a snack, and I'm just going to go lay back down. That's what my body needs right now. My brain needs a rest. I'm going to stay off of my phone and just really give myself some time to recharge." And just making that a priority kind of thing. If I'm no good for me, then I'm no good for anybody else, any of the projects that I have going on, any of the work that needs to be done. So take care of home first, and then go forward from there.
Anj: And Kalu what does that look like for you?
Kalu: Honestly these days, being able to tend to my house — watering my plants, doing laundry and cleaning, that actually feels good, it feels grounding for me. I'm, "Okay. I'm doing things for myself." The problem is turning off my mind. I've been really trying to work on calming my thoughts, calming my anxiety. Because I've never had that issue before, and over the last few months it's something that I've just had to accept. "Oh, this is what this is." I have a great friend who has given me some incredible herbs to help with that and that has been phenomenal. We are also both avid tea drinkers and we're totally off when we don't have our tea. Neither one of us can do caffeine. So we drink our tea in the morning, but when we don't, literally we call it out. "I didn't even have my tea today." Or, "I brought it and didn't drink it." So I'm realizing these small routines for us in the morning feel good. J'Maica loves to sit out on her front steps with her tea in the sun, and even when she's at my house, she wants to be on the patio. I'm realizing there are really small things that we can do that add a sense of relaxation and rest.
Anj: Shifting gears, what advice do you have for creative upstarts trying to carve their path and space in the world?
J'Maica: Just do them. I don't know that if COVID wasn't happening, if we would have gone into this venture. The timeline from idea to opening was so fast. If we had thought about it in a different way or had more time, we would have done more research and worked to solidify every aspect of it before opening. I think that one of the best lessons, at least for me, has really just been in the doing. I'm a very hands-on learner. Sure, I could sit and read the book or whatever, and learn the theory behind it and all of that. Or I could just go and do it. And that's where you learn, you know what I mean, theoretical versus practical application of things. You take what you have and you work with it, you make the best of it, and you learn, and you iterate, and you figure that thing out, and then you go on to the next thing. Sometimes having the luxury of time and resources and all of those things kind of acts as the hindrance when you're starting something new, it's scary. It's uncertain. But you don't really know what it can become, or what it can turn out to be until you actively do something. So I just say go for it.
Kalu: Both J'Maica and I have been entrepreneurs now for almost 13 years. So while this project is new and only just opened, we had a lot of experience to fall back on. I can recognize our privilege in that. Putting in a lot of hours understanding how things work, understanding how social media rollouts work for a launch, and everything. We brought to the table this experience, which I think gave us this upper hand in being able to do this as swiftly as we did, because it's not an overnight success thing for us. Literally we've put in many years of work, and I just want to be clear of that because I've had people think that, "Oh my God, you guys just came up with this idea, and then three weeks later, it was a success." But had we not understood some of the things that we needed to make this a success, I don't think we would have. It would have been too easy to fail. Research, take the time to know your industry, understand it, and have courage. It's not brave unless you're afraid.
Anj: I know that each of you have your own businesses as well. Kalu, tell us more about By Kalu.
Kalu: By Kalu started just over 10 years ago, and it started right when I had my son, and I didn't want to carry these ugly diaper bags, and I was working in the industry of fashion and styling and makeup in LA. And so I thought, "I'm just not going to carry these hideous diaper bags. This is not going to be my vibe at all." So I started designing some of my own stuff. I ended up connecting with this incredible handbag designer who made Princess Diana's first clutch, and he's this old man who works with his hands in the mountains in Sierra Madre, so not in a downtown fashion district. He did some prototypes with me, loved my designs, and we've worked together ever since. I'm actually phasing out the handbags and focusing on luxury silk head wraps. Our hair is so fragile, especially for women who have natural hair, and I wanted to be able to use a fabric that is really good for your hair and protect it. I'm also a business partner over at Alyce on Grand which is a women's clothing boutique here in Oakland and have been there for almost six year.
Anj: J'Maica, tell me more about The Blacklist.
J'Maica: I started The Blacklist almost three years ago, and it was another thing born of out of activism. I had gone to a protest actually in downtown Oakland for a shooting of unfortunately I can't even remember who, another young person. I got home that day and felt like it wasn't enough, it wasn't sufficient. That didn't accomplish a thing. So I was trying to think of ways that I could help that would be significant and beneficial to my community, but that also sort of tapped into my strengths and who I was, and things that I was interested in "How do I make a contribution in a way that is really true to who I am, but also is going to be beneficial to our community as a whole?" So I came up with the idea of a quarterly subscription box. The idea is that each box is going to be curated by somebody who just represents the Black community, whether it be through arts, whether it be through design, whether it be through music, whatever it is, that person's top five things made by Black creators. It's a way to just give Black vendors a way to have their product given to an audience, be able to learn about it, experience new products. So that's the idea behind that.
Anj: What stories or people would you like to see covered in the media that you haven't seen enough of (or at all?)
Kalu: Most of everything in this country is very short lived. So people's attention span is like that. And so, I think for me, it has to do, and maybe it's because I'm a mom, but it has a lot to do with education and how our public school systems are. I would love for there to be more focus on how we can get things in order for our children, just really breaking down the public school system in America. And also the discrepancies between public schools within certain districts and areas in cities. Education for me is very much a right and should not be a privilege, and it feels like a privilege in this country. COVID has highlighted just how much of a disparity there is between the haves and the have-nots and how those children are essentially conditioned to not succeed because of how the system is set up. So I would love to see more stories around that.
I would also like to see more coverage of the fact that lead in water is still very much an issue, and how many people it's affecting, and in what neighborhoods it's happening. There are serious health issues, food deserts, and things that are happening in certain communities that get highlighted for a quick second, and then dropped.
We also need to continue to acknowledge that there's a plethora of successful and incredible Black and Brown people in this community and this country, and that we need to stop making it feel like there's a first time for every accomplishment, and for it to start to feel normalized that there are functioning, intelligent, talented, skillful, Black and Brown people in this country. We're still tokenized, and I would love to move away from that, and start to have things feel like a leveled playing field.
J'Maica: Yeah. I mean Kalu literally took the words right out of my mouth. I think at some point for both of us, we've really felt like it's almost kind of exhausting to keep hearing about all of the firsts. You know what I mean? Like it's some kind of trend or something that we haven't been operating businesses, we haven't been tapping into our creativity, we haven't been at the forefront of fashion and all of these industries. I would really love to see the world take a really deep dive and a closer look at what people who've been doing, not the first to do X, Y, and Z, but people who've been doing community organizing, people who've been at the forefront of design and fashion, people who have been at the forefront of architecture, who have been at the forefront of politics, and all of these things.
It's not new just because someone decided we're all supposed to pay attention to it. I think really giving credit where credit is due, and honoring and recognizing the people who sort of laid the foundation for what you're able to see now because our reach is so much wider and we have access to so much more information, and at such a rapid pace, and all of these things. To say, "Hey, this is not a new thing. And here are some people, organizations, and all of those things that really sort of set the groundwork for what it is that you do now, for the ways that you're able to conduct business, or the way that you're able to reach people, all of it." To really see those things and those people who've been at the forefront, rather than just sort of picking things like we just started, and some sort of upward take or brand new trend. We've always been here. We've been doing the work, we've been creative, we've been innovative, we've been intelligent, we've been groundbreaking. None of that is new. So I think paying a lot of attention to the people that have sort of set us in motion is something that I would personally love to see.
Anj: Finally, we'd love to end with action steps and takeaways for our readers.
Kalu: For me there's two organizations. There's the Bring the H.E.A.T. initiative which basically focuses on defunding racist police departments and cops, and really focuses on retraining. That initiative is based out of the Bay area. So I think that that's a great one. And Masks for the People is another great organization, and they're providing preventative gear and stuff to incarcerated people, people in areas that are not getting access to hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, and so on.
In terms of taking action, petitions have shown that they work. We're seeing collectively when we're deciding where to put our money and what to finance, I feel like that's when people stop to listen and want to take action, including large corporations. So staying diligent with that, and understanding that collectively we have a lot more power than I think people are giving themselves credit for.
J'Maica: The organization that's near and dear to me is called the Roberts Family Development Center, and they're located here in Sacramento, and they provide after school and summer camp programs for kids in historically underprivileged neighborhoods. Making sure that they have somewhere that's safe to go after school, that they can have help with homework, that they have a plethora of enriching activities and different things that they can learn about, whether it's people coming in to speak to them about certain subject matters like community gardening.
I've worked with them before and I know the two founders personally, and they're doing fantastic work. They always have done it. And so that's something that I would just love to see a lot more support put behind, especially during these times. The other organization I'd love to share is the Miss Black Sacramento Scholarship Pageant. My mom was a former Miss Black Sacramento, and has emceed and/or volunteered with the pageant as a mentor for over 20 years.
And then as far as action items, I'm going to just mimic what Kalu said, and say put your money where your mouth is. That's what people respond to the most, and the quickest it seems like when dollars are being threatened, when your income is being challenged because that's when the higher-ups start to perk up and pay attention. Being really aware and intentional about where you spend your dollars, about how you choose to support various organizations, whether it's for personal things, things for your home, things for your kids, whatever it is somewhere along the way. There's a way to think about that to just kind of position yourself for the greater good. So that would be my call to action as well.
Kalu: And call out the BS. It's on everyone to call out racists, to call out people who are sexist, to call out misogynists... That whole "time's up" thing, I love that statement. We have to collectively continue to expose those that are not working in a manner that supports humanity.
Photography by Aubrie Pick for REP CO.