One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes—one I love so much that I gave all my friends an illustrated copy of it—is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
So when the keynote speaker at the first Cleveland Single Moms Conference dropped this gem mid-way through her talk, I felt an instant connection. Robyn Hill, a licensed counselor with a practice on the east side of Cleveland, made Angelou the focus of her keynote, sharing with more than 75 attendees 11 insights from the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” seemed particularly apt.
Professor Michelle Rankins led a lunchtime session punctuated by two Angelou poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “I Love the Look of Words.” The discussion was so rich around the first that the group hardly had time for the second.
The group read “Phenomenal Woman” in unison, forceful and strong voices booming through the open air of the Cleveland Galleria. “When I read it, it made me think that beauty is internal,” one participant said. “When you find your inner strength,” another noted, “no one can touch you.”
Conference organizer Frechic Dickson, founder of the nonprofit From Lemons 2 Lemonade, reached out to Books@Work to create the session.
“We believed being able to have a table full of women expressing themselves through the pages of poetic literature could become a life-changing experience,” said Dickson, who oversees Books@Work for women in East Cleveland Municipal Court. “The Books@Work session allowed single moms to share their experiences, their interpretations, and most of all, their commonalities with each other through those poetic pieces.”
For her part, Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder and executive director said, “Not everyone works in a traditional company large enough to support Books@Work. Community programs help us meet people where they are–in their schools and libraries and, in this instance, their conference.”
The Single Moms Conference offered Books@Work the chance to reach readers who might feel isolated. “Moms spend so much time reading to their children, but they rarely have time to read for themselves – much less discuss what they read with others,” Smith said. “We wanted to change this, at least for one hour. And by selecting poetry we hoped to show that a reading session doesn’t have to be long to be nourishing for the soul and productive for the mind.”
One participant observed, “The world says [black women] are less than but this poem says what people should look at us and see.”