How growing up surrounded by my black girlfriends changed me.

“When are we gonna start the discussions?” Nichelle asks impatiently as the rest of us stuff our faces with chocolate-filled crescent rolls and blue Sour Patch kids.

All bras are off for the night, and all hair is securely fastened in bonnets. Everyone is talking at once, and even though our bedtime isn’t until the sun begins to rise, each of us has already claimed her sleeping territory.

We are at a sleepover. We are grown-ass women.


Looking back, I never minded being the token black kid at an elementary school filled with mostly white and Chinese students.

At times, I think I even preferred it — it was just one more thing that made me feel special. This isn’t to say that I was exempt from typical 9-year-old token black girl frustrations (like not being able to wet my hair at slumber parties and feeling uncomfortable when my peers would ask me if I was related to MLK), but overall, I was fine. I thrived both socially and academically.

In 1996 or 1997, I started dancing on a praise team at a small black Pentecostal church, and I made a new group of friends.

This began sleepovers every summer and winter with the other dancers in the group, a tradition that we continue to this day. During the early years of our sleepover tradition, since we saw each other four or five times during any given week, our sleepovers always felt like a capstone of sorts, celebrating another successful few months of being friends, of dancing, of going to middle school, to high school, to college.

All photos by Kenzie Kate Photography, used with permission.

These days, we’re lucky if we even see each other every other month. Our sleepovers have shifted into something equally fun but more intentional, weighted with a more tangible significance: a time to celebrate weddings, babies, and career moves. A time to cry about failures, losses, and relationship mishaps.

"Discussions" are inevitable these days, too — lengthy and usually heated conversations about everything from relationships and dating to politics and corporate America. These discussions have become a highlight of our adult sleepovers, second only to quoting "Mean Girls" in its entirety.

All of this is to say: Having black friends is important, y’all.

This may seem like a given, but it’s something I didn’t realize until fairly recently during our last sleepover, when we were time-traveling and laughing about stories from our almost two decades of knowing each other.

Growing up with a solid group of black women as friends has empowered me in ways that I am still discovering. Here are a few.

1. It is important that black women have a space where they can be angry black women without being labeled and written off as an angry black woman.

I am afraid of being a stereotype. In non-black circles, I overcompensate often: I speak of my love of country music and swimming, I enunciate well and emphasize my i-n-g’s. I limit saying anything that could be interpreted as me using the (non-existent) race card. I fear being labeled an angry black woman.

But at our sleepovers, the subject matter is always candid and nothing is off limits. We make our disapproval for someone’s significant other known, we debate the perks and downfalls of going to a historically black college, we talk about black men dating white women, we talk about why we should move to Atlanta, we talk about why we should not move to Atlanta. We don’t have sidebar conversations. If two people are arguing, we are all there. If someone is crying, we are all there. And we know that no amount of yelling or arguing or ranting or tears could ever make anyone else in the room doubt our intelligence. We know that we are all smart.

2. It is important to have a space where you don’t feel like you are speaking for the entire African-American population.

Whether in corporate America or in a university classroom, as a black woman voicing an opinion, you are speaking for all black women (and sometimes black people) everywhere. People will take your opinion as truth: as "the black perspective." I have been asked to give "the black perspective" on multiple occasions. That is a LOT of pressure. I do not know all of the black people in America. Yes, I have insight into a black perspective, but too often, people mistake it as the only black perspective.

On many past occasions, as a result of being the sole black perspective, I have failed black people. When given the mic, I have been quick to say the easiest thing, to make the people around me comfortable, to manipulate the truth, to not be the downer in the room. When I’m with my girls, I am only required to speak for myself. My opinion only belongs to me. There’s so much freedom that comes with that.

3. It is important to have a space where you don’t ever feel like you’re talking about race "too much." It is also important to be in a place where wearing a scarf to sleep is the norm and ain’t nobody wettin’ their hair.

Whether we like it or not, hair is a big part of young girls’ lives in America, no matter what race they are. Your hair feels like your beauty, and your hair feels like your identity. As a little girl with barrettes, as a preteen with cornrows, and as a high-schooler with braids, it was my truth. It was all of our truth.

On the playground, I remember the envy I felt watching all the little white girls put their hair up in ponytails to play soccer and then taking the ponytails back down and splashing some water in their hair to go back to class. It was magic. My hair had to stay in its four ponytails, hair balls hanging on ends, lest I receive a beating when I got home. My hair was not magic.

But on Saturdays, as we’d prepare to dance at church on Sunday morning, my mom ran a pressing comb through all of our heads, gelling down our kitchens, changing afro puffs into curly ponytails and loose edges into defined twists. Our hair was magic.

Even still, as adults, we revel in each other’s hairstyles: the bobs, the braids, the afros, the twists, the locks, the ongoing discovery of how our hair can shape shift into something else. Our hair is magic.

We are magic.

Growing up with black girlfriends meant growing up surrounded by mirrors: reflections that looked just like me and constantly showed me who I was and who I could be. They were mirrors that knew me for me and constantly reminded me that I was magic.

We don’t see each other four times a week like we used to, and our phone calls and text messages are sometimes far and few between, but we hold on tightly to our bi-annual sleepovers, because we know that we need each other to survive in this world.

Black women need each other in this world.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."