This year’s Ebony Weekend Conference kicked off on Friday afternoon with the first two featured presenters, and closed on Saturday night with the main speaker of the event. The theme for the conference was movement, with speakers and breakout sessions covering both personal and social progress.
The first presenter on Friday was Lea Hortman, who has been organically growing her audience since she was a teenager. Born and raised on the Northside of Milwaukee, Hortman, who has birthed the name Lea V. Poetry for herself, is no stranger to the themes of poverty, violence and low self-esteem prevalent in the lives of young black and brown women. She has persevered through trauma, abuse and rejection, all the while evolving into the creative person she is today.
V. Poetry spoke from both her personal experiences, and the experiences of the at-risk youth she works with through Under My Wing, her all-girls mentoring organization.
After introducing herself and her work to the audience, she asked a few seemingly simple questions: what is your purpose? What solution do you have on the inside of you?
She gave audience members a few minutes to discuss the issues that catch their attention on a daily basis. She stressed the importance of a person’s social impact, or the direct effect they have on those around them. She asked: what articles do you see, immediately open and read? The answer, she said, is where your social movement begins.
“Your power has the audacity to ignite a whole generation… I have a whole generation connected to my movement,” V. Poetry said.
V. Poetry identified herself as a “radical atom,” or “the essential [component] for things to bend and move.” She manifested her purpose, and she had faith that everyone in the audience could do the same.
V. Poetry moved to a more in-depth discussion on social movement. She defined this as “looking to change the narrative of something,” or, more specifically, the narrative of the social norm.
“I come to change the atmosphere…I have something I want to change,” V. Poetry said.
V. Poetry is currently focused on changing the narrative for black and brown girls, using the pain she went through and developed out of to provide love and support. She channels those negative experiences into something far more positive.
She explained how people get burnt out simply living on passion, and how purpose is what drives people forward every day, even in the face of adversity.
“If you want to start a movement with anybody, you have to start a movement with yourself first,” V. Poetry said.
V. Poetry ended her presentation by choosing two men and two women from the audience to come up and participate in an activity meant to stimulate self-work. She shared that, reportedly, people can’t look at themselves in a mirror for seven seconds straight without looking away.
So, she had the audience members look at themselves in a mirror for seven seconds, give themselves one compliment, and state their personal movement. It was an incredibly emotional moment for everyone in the room, as one audience member looked himself in the mirror and said: “they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
The second presenter on Friday was Ajamou Butler, creator of the non-profit organization Heal the Hood MKE (Milwaukee). Butler was also born and raised in Milwaukee’s Northside and, having grown up in the notorious 53206 zip code, he is no stranger to the uglier sides of poverty.
However, Butler has always been one to progress from his pain. Coming from a place where little black boys are told that they are not supposed to dream, Butler has defeated this narrative and strives to push against social injustice and rewrite the narrative of inner-city MKE.
“I’m carrying so many stories on my shoulders…I cannot change the world, but I can change the world around me,” Butler said.
Butler has never forgotten the pain he’s seen and experienced, and he expressed to the audience how he can never be good until the people in the ghettos of Milwaukee are good too.
“To sit in rooms of broken souls and try to put them back together ain’t easy,” Butler said.
Butler advised the audience to be ready to lose sleep, to lose friends. “What if that same social ill you are working against shows up in your family?” Butler asked.
Butler described how he goes to the ghettos, places where people get killed on the street, and gets vendors and local businesses to come together for a block party. At these block parties, the neighborhood is provided services such as HIV testing, information on lead in the water and, most importantly, a secure place to eat and feel safe.
When Butler and his team go to schools, he focuses on helping black boys articulate their creativity and communicate their emotions via poetry. Butler shared that, when working with children and young adults, he tries to improve black literacy and black self-love. He promotes the image of black men in power and of black men putting their best foot forward.
“You don’t even know how much black men are going through,” Butler said.
After a short video message from Chancellor Shields, Saturday kicked off with three blocks of breakout sessions addressing Afro-Futurism, everyday people/heroes throughout black history, black women and the Suffrage Movement, black film movements and representation and blackface.
Afterwards, former professional football player of eight years and owner of Iron House Fitness and Tanning, Harvie Herrington presented.
He began by asking the college students in the audience if they knew what they wanted to do with their lives. He asked one student: what if you don’t make it? He encouraged the student to be confident in his answer.
“I need to hear you say, ‘I’m going to make it’,” Herrington said.
He told the audience to have something, a personal why, to fuel their confidence in what they want to do.
Herrington shared the importance of dreams because, without a dream, there is no direction. He explained how dreams motivate goals, and how knowledge leads to the completion of necessary actions.
He said that a person’s dream gives them focus. He defined the difference between a job and a career, saying that “job” stands for “just over broke,” while a career is something that a person loves. When someone is just doing a job, they are miserable and so they make everyone else around them miserable.
Herrington described trauma and negative experiences as baggage that we carry with us and as chains that we lug around. He shared that, growing up, he really wanted and needed a dad. He told the audience how his dream is the only thing that kept him from letting learned bad habits become his lifestyle.
Herrington let the audience into his personal life and told them how he had to fight a false charge for a murder he did not commit. He told them how his coach excused him from a football game because of the warrant, but he showed up anyway. He explained how this decision was fueled by his dream, and how his dream-driven ambition led him to where he is today.
He spoke on how the chains we carry do not ever go away.
“I prepare myself daily for war that goes on in here [inside],” Herrington said.
Herrington told the audience how he had to “prepare himself against his past.” Now, he finds his purpose in raising young men up.
“The hood is not an excuse,” Herrington said.
Herrington advised the audience not to shy away from failure because, without failure, there is no success.
“You can be afraid of [failure], but fail anyway,” Herrington said.
The conference ended on Saturday night with the main speaker of the event. Sabrina Madison, founder of the Progress Center for Black Women, was affectionately given the name Miss Progress by her father and his friends when she was younger and has adopted the title in her professional life.
Miss Progress chose progress as her personal movement. She shared how people do not often hear about the struggles of a movement.
Her father was what she calls a black history buff; he knew black history up and down and carried it close to his heart. She recalled to the audience how he often paraphrased his favorite black historical figure, Frederick Douglass, telling her, “You are the progress that came from my struggle.”
Miss Progress shared her family history with the audience, identifying it as dysfunctional. She reminisced to the audience about how she would sneak to the phone booth to call her dad from Milwaukee to Chicago, and how, the last time she did so, she found out he had died. At the time, she did not even know he was using drugs.
Miss Progress’ father had two degrees and worked at a bank consistently. Because of this, she identified him as a functioning addict. After her father passed, Miss Progress made the decision to never do hard drugs.
“I didn’t want to be left, and I associated drugs with being left,” Miss Progress said.
She articulated for the audience her experience as a teen mom. She shared how she never had a loving relationship with her own mother. Her brothers were already in and out of jail by the time she was fifteen and pregnant; it was expected of them to sell drugs to help pay the rent. Her grandma told her that she was just getting a baby for her sweet 16.
“I [didn’t] want my son to have the same life I had,” Miss Progress said.
So, to prevent her son from ever being in the place she had been, Miss Progress made another conscious decision to give her son a different life.
Now, her son is a software engineer. He may not have a relationship with his father, who recently received ten more years in prison, but he has his mom right there for him whenever he needs her.
She told the audience that, if they do not like the way they were raised, they have to parent differently than they were parented.
Miss Progress decided to start protecting her peace. She was working in a white space where people would get upset with her confidence in her success. She drew a hard line through the term “microaggression,” defining it as a fancy way of saying “racism.” Her friends started changing as her light grew, and she began cutting the negative people out of her life.
As she continued to work for black women and choose herself, she garnered more and more recognition, making the Women 2 Watch list of most influential people in Madison, Wisconsin.
Eventually, after presenting at leadership conferences that were meant for black and brown women but only ever turned out white audiences, Miss Progress decided to create her own leadership conference for black women.
Miss Progress started to notice that black people, specifically black women, do not seem to own much of anything in Madison. She contrasted this with Atlanta, GA., where she said, “Everybody is black, they look like you, like black, and it feels good.”
She wanted to create a place of ownership for black women in Madison, so she did. She started her $150,000 fundraising project only knowing for certain that black women needed a space to thrive. Now, the Progress Center for Black Women provides them with that space.
She also advised black people in the audience to leave a space that may not be comfortable for them every once in a while to recover, and just be somewhere they will feel good and comfortable. Or, if that is not an option, she said to make a home, a place of sanity, wherever they can.