The first guests start to arrive at 8 p.m. Almost all the women arrive with their beverage of choice — most drink wine. All are dressed in varying shades of red, which is perfect for the theme of the night’s gathering, Virtual Quarantine Love Fest.
Prior to COVID-19, the 50 or so guests might have been meeting at one of the four organizer’s homes or possibly at an event space. But times have changed. And this group of black women are meeting via Zoom, a web-based video hosting platform.
As each woman’s face pops up on the screen — makeup done and hair coiffed with styles ranging from tight curls to blond and brown highlights — they are each immediately greeted like long-lost friends.
The Girl Power Happy Hour has become a much-needed weekly outlet for the participants.
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has been particularly tough on the black community. And Maryland is no exception. Despite making up 31% of the state’s population, black Marylanders account for nearly a third of the state’s cases, according to the Maryland Health Department and Census data.
“I don’t know anybody anymore who is not affected,” said Robyn Murphy, one of the event’s organizers, who explained that just a week before a girlfriend’s husband suffered a stroke related to COVID-19 a day before she dropped off food to their home.
She added: “For me and a lot of the women, it is in the front of our minds. In some ways it is a color and an economic disparity issue. People with better access to health care are reacting differently. There are a lot of layers.”
These weekly computer meet-ups have been a lifeline for many of the women — who are juggling work, children and marriage as well as keeping tabs on their own parents — all under the constant threat of the deadly novel disease.
“You are hearing about this killer disease and you get all these updates about all these people are dying. You need a support system. And the people who you would normally run to and have a Wednesday wine down, you can’t do that right now. You need that system of girlfriends and you need that right now. This fills that void,” said participant Nicki Mayo, a multimedia journalist who is president of the Baltimore Association of Black Journalists.
“It means a lot when you walk into a room and you see these wonderful melaninated faces. They are welcoming and sisterly,” Mayo said. ”
Professional networks — particularly ones that reach out to specific segments such as Girl Power Happy Hour — are vital, according to Raven Ellis, a licensed clinical professional counselor who lives in Columbia with an office in Elkridge.
These networks provide support and mentorship, which are needed because professional African American women have a unique set of needs that must be addressed, including: oppression and maneuvering through professional settings, according to Ellis.
“It’s also a place where we can discuss the challenges unique to African American women,” Ellis said. “We’re both invisible and we’re also hyper visible. Every mistake we make, there is a lot of pressure to rectify. There is also the pressure of being a representation for all black people."
These networks act as a safe space for black women, according to Ellis, who is part of two similar networks. One — composed of co-workers at a former job — meets once a month. The other meets weekly.
“In these networks you have the ability to run something by someone else. You are validated. They give you the coping mechanisms to move past it,” she explained. “The networks help. If you are someone who is laid off you can talk to folks about opportunities. You can talk about the things you can’t in other places.”
COVID-19 has seriously cramped the plans of Parkville resident Jessika Williams, one of Girl Power’s founders.
The group has taken her mind from the stress associated with the pandemic. She said that although she is lucky to keep her job, there have been pay cuts. Her creative outlet — she sings with two choral groups — has been limited because most of her gigs have been canceled. She was also named Mrs. Baltimore in February but was unable to compete in the Mrs. Maryland beauty pageant, which like many events have been canceled in the state and across the world. And a family member was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. They have recovered but still struggles as a result of the virus, she said.
“It’s good for us to have sister time,” she said.
Ninety-nine percent of the nights are about having fun, said Murphy, who is Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships at Baltimore Center Stage.
“We focus on fun stuff that keeps us together during isolation,” Murphy said.
These networks also provide much-needed moments of joy during stressful times, Ellis explained.
Ellis referenced the recent Instagram Live event for singers Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. She and her friends from her network coordinated a watch party around the event so that they could privately chat about the night’s entertainment.
“These networks, while they are professional, you built other types of relationships,” she said. “It keeps you connected in other ways than bad.”
These scheduled meet ups work for a variety of reasons as we attempt to thwart isolationism, according to Ellis.
“When you are isolating, you don’t have the motivation to meet with others,” she said. “But if the meeting is set, most of us are going to attend. It gives you the structure to engage your network. Once you are on the phone, these are the people that you know. The shared experiences normalize the emotions you have around this pandemic. There is a validation that comes with that. It is a reminder that you can reach out to others individually afterwards.”
The weekly event — usually held in the evening on Friday or Saturday — attracts around 60 professional black women from across the greater Baltimore area.
Even though there’s a core group of 40, regular attendees are encouraged to invite a friend. There’s no telling who will be in attendance.
A recent chat includes Robyn Dixon, one of the cast members of The Real Housewives of Potomac. Dixon, who is a longtime friend of Murphy’s, has attended the chat before. Tonight, she’s there to provide a testimonial about rebuilding her marriage to ex-husband Juan Dixon.
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The reality star spoke to the group about the importance of being her “authentic self.” She also informed them that she had reconnected with her ex-husband and that a proposal would be coming this season. She even told them about a new business venture — a line of satin-lined fashionable baseball hats for women called Embelished.
Each event has at least one special guest. Tonight’s love-themed event features licensed therapists, icebreakers and other activities meant to foster levity.
Past gatherings have included: a “gala” where participants dressed up; a formal afternoon tea; at home beauty hacks; and a pizza a pajama party.
The meet-ups are a look at the realities of the obstacles and joys that black women are enduring during this pandemic. Discussions range from the nostalgic — a warmth spreads over the group when they complete ice breakers where they name their favorite songs with the word love in the title — to practical.
Williams hopes that the group will continue even after things return to normal.