We believe in the power of routines and finding meaning in the ways we sew comfort into our everyday surroundings. Drop Ins is a series that explores just that, taking a dressed-down look at the lives of people who inspire us.
Naj Austin has been busy. Ethel’s Club, the BIPOC-focused social and wellness space she founded in Bushwick, had been open for just four months before Covid forced her to close doors on the popular meeting place. “Our north star has always been: How do we provide more space?” Naj says. “How do we empower more people? How do we get more people more agency in terms of what they’re looking to do in their life? Closing wasn’t the hard part; the hard part was creating a digital clubhouse in a couple hours. But we did it.” And membership has skyrocketed — from 198 Brooklyn members to now over 1,500 worldwide. “On day three, someone from London emailed and said, ‘Why are there no time zones on any of these events?’” she says. “That’s when I was like, Wow, we’re not just in Brooklyn anymore.”
Between managing her team and overseeing a steady lineup of healers, creatives, and experts who fill Ethel’s Club’s robust online event schedule, Naj has been hard at work on an app called Somewhere Good. “It’s a social platform that connects people of color with all of the communities they love,” she says. With so much going on, you wouldn’t fault Naj for being permanently glued to a screen, but that’s not necessarily the case. She’s intentional about creating time for herself — and making sure her team does too. From journaling and hiding her devices to a mellow post-work tea ritual, here’s how Naj navigates the blurry territory of running multiple businesses from her Brooklyn apartment.
The thing we cared most about when the pandemic hit was how to show up for our community. Obviously they don’t need to be together, so what else could we provide them? Within an hour of chatting as a team, we pretty much decided to launch a digital membership. We went from this cute local brand trying to shake things up to this global resource for people of color all over the world.
So that past few months have been about understanding that and stepping into that. How can we be there for someone who lives in Iowa who has completely different problems than someone who lives in L.A. — or someone who lives in the Netherlands? Because we have members there now too. How do you continue to build events around that? What we found was that no matter where you are, you still have this feeling of wanting community that centers your identity and who you are. And we just continue to make space for that.
What I've learned over the last year is that when you have someone who is coming from a marginalized community and/or identity, and you show them that there is an online world that can be kind and helpful and thoughtful and full of intentional connection, this idea clicks in people's minds: Wait, why isn't my life like this in all the ways? Why is it only for wellness events at Ethel’s Club that I feel so good about life. Why can't I have this all the time?
So that's what brought us to Somewhere Good, which is a social platform that connects people of color with all of these amazing communities. Say you wanted to sign up for a woodworking class or a find Brooklyn dog moms group, for instance — there are people out there creating these really intentional, thoughtful, forward-thinking communities, but they're spread out all over the internet and kind of hard to find. Somewhere Good is really trying to create a new way that people of color can live their life online.
Because living online as person of color or as a Black person is not so great, you're usually stumbling and tripping over racism and misogyny and discrimination. And my big ask is can there be a place that doesn't have that? Can there be a place where you can spend all of your time—on your phone, your computer — but it's not necessarily met with that same kind of anxiety and depression that people find on the other platforms. Once the app launches in early 2021, it should be really easy to join a variety of communities or start your own, if that is something that you want to do.
We did one with this facilitator named Iman. It was called Afro-Futurism Visualization Through Journaling. I was thinking: I like all those words, they all speak to me, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. She had a three-part event, and I loved it. I’m bad at journaling, but when I do it, I'm like, why don't I do this all the time? This was a different way of journaling. I tend to treat it like a diary of recounting things, whereas this was much more about manifesting and thinking about the future and what does that look like for me and how am I working towards it? It was much more of a visualization, which I don't normally do. I think I was mentally stuck and didn't realize it until that event.
I try to leave my phone in a different room most of the day. On the weekends, I literally hide my computer from myself because it's so easy to say, Oh, I just want to watch that funny dog video. Next thing, I'm answering an email, then Slack is open, and it's over. I try to put myself in a position to not even use it.
I'm also very thoughtful about my team with hours and when we work and when we don't and expectations of one another that are completely, you know, humane and take into consideration all the other things that are happening right now. Those things have helped. But it's still hard because when I am online, there's a lot of information, most of it not great, so it adds another layer of anxiety and stress. I always take a break for lunch where I'm not on my computer. I try to always close my computer by 6 p.m. There are obviously days where I work late, but I always take that break at 6, then I'll come back to it from like 9 to 10 p.m. to finish anything else.
I go for a walk every morning. I’ve kept up with the visualization journaling since Iman’s event in September. And CBD’s this thing that I've slowly embedded in my life. I have an oil that I normally take a few drops of in the morning, and I always drink tea that has some in it. Today, it's freezing cold outside, so I'll probably have my CBD tea around six tonight. I’ve created this ritual to take a break and have this tea. It breaks me out of that rat-race mindset, and helps keep anxiety at bay. Now I can't take calls at 6:45 p.m.—that’s when I'm having my tea. I'm busy.
It has to be deeper than just me doing it. There’s so much internalized unlearning that needs to happen. As much as I say to take a mental health day, no one takes them. And if there was ever a time to need a mental health day, this is the time. But I think that everyone here really loves what they do, and we have such a pure working environment, so that separation can be harder. Back when the clubhouse was open, I would tell people to leave their computer at home on Fridays. Anything that is happening can totally be answered on Monday. But it's definitely harder now with Covid. There are times where I will Slack everyone and say, I'm having a really hard day, I don't feel like taking any meetings today. And they’re like, cool, and now they do the same. Always being super transparent and talking about it is important.
This came up for me on Twitter recently. I was talking about it with a friend on there—we both decided to keep journals of the moments that bring us hope because they’re easy to forget. I definitely was hopeful last week, but I have no idea why. I think it's about a lot of little things versus a large overarching thing. I was at one of our online events with different mutual aid leaders and activists. Seeing people make a broad change on a grassroots level politically is really hopeful and inspiring to me. That was the most recent thing where I was like, we're going to be okay. Then, you know, the next thing happens and I'm like, nevermind! So it comes in waves.
Naj Austin was photographed (safely, from a distance) at her home in Brooklyn on October 8, 2020, by Makeda Sandford. You can keep up with Austin over on Instagram.