WELLNESS: HYPERLOCAL HUBS
A Mental Health Awareness Community for Women
FLOWER GIRLS MEET
Conversations with Jessica & Cynthia
Written by Cynthia Harry
Born in Cape Verde, West Africa, Vanessa Flowers was raised in a culture whose foundation centered around community and helping others. One could say no woman was her own island. After moving to the United States when she was eight years old, Vanessa realized that the community centered lifestyle she grew up with in Cape Verde would be hard to find in her new home — Boston. After taking English as a Second Language (ESL) in grade school, Vanessa quickly assimilated. Then Vanessa moved away from Boston, to Chicago, for grammar school. One of the things she couldn’t get used to, however, even after many years of living and working in the States, was how segregated communities were in Chicago. In building the community she was looking for, Vanessa sought ways to change the status quo by organizing diverse, expert-led mental health awareness events that were inclusive of all women.
How the Flower Grew
You came up with Flower Girls Meet, or FGM, when you worked for an advertising company in a male-dominated work environment, which you found both isolating and stressful. From this experience, you sought out a community, which led you to form a women’s group at work. Can you tell us more about how this group evolved to become Flower Girls Meet? VANESSA: I was seeking a diverse group of women, in the same fast-paced environment, who would be interested in getting together. I didn’t find a group that fit, so I developed one of my own. I think Chicago is very isolated, very segregated in many ways. Different groups don’t really mingle with each another, so I really wanted to create a diverse experience. I didn’t want to just talk to white people, or just Black people, I wanted to have all races getting together and talking about issues, because it’s amazing what we can learn when we mingle with other groups.
You have a unique perspective having lived in a few different cities before Chicago. Can you talk about your experiences outside the U.S. compared with living in this country? VANESSA: Growing up in Cape Verde, culturally, we had a lot of events. There were people at your home that you didn’t even know, it was a cultural norm to have people mingling, all the time. We’d have a lot of parties and I remember I was always excited about having conversations with people and asking them questions. I was mingling, and having fun, doing a lot of singing and dancing, even at church. There was a youth group that I was part of. I remember leading some events there too. So I’ve always been people-oriented, and it was important for me to have community in my life. As an adult, after going into the workforce, I really wanted to make sure that community was still part of my world. Maybe experiencing Cape Verde as a child contributed to my wanting that.
Forming a Garden and Normalizing Mental Health
How do you feel your work with Flower Girls Meet has enriched you as a person, and given back to the community it supports? VANESSA: I actually didn’t realize how much this effort that I’ve made for the past five years would enrich me. I felt that there was a need for professional women to get together. I was trying to heal my soul in cultivating this group — but my focus was also on how to help other people heal at the same time. I think testimonials have spoken to the efficacy of our initiative. The satisfaction people have expressed from the meetups is beyond what I had anticipated.
Initially, it was like, “Okay, let’s get together to talk about these different structures that exist in the workplace. How can we manage our mental health? What kinds of practices can we maintain, such as meditation or journaling, that can help us better sustain our mental health? Can we find a mentor at work to help us?” But later, it morphed into people really pouring out their hearts and sharing the deepest parts of themselves, even trauma and abuse. I’m not the expert in the room, in terms of being a therapist, but I believe that I’m a bridge. I encourage people to go to therapy or seek the right help for whatever their needs are.
It really morphed from conversation to actually helping people receive mental health support. It’s about getting therapy and talking about the mental challenges. So we’re normalizing mental health, for professional women, in a way that I have never experienced elsewhere. At FGM we’re talking about things that are deep. People are crying, letting themselves be free and also laughing hysterically. The impact has been phenomenal. I think I’ve really grown as a person through facilitating these conversations.
A lot of women have found opportunities through FGM as well. I tweet all of our events. One woman was feeling so in despair about her work situation, and after seeing an event tweet by FGM, she decided to attend an entrepreneurship event. It was a very intimate group of 10 people. Looking back now, I realize small groups are the most precious. When you can meet with only 10 people in a group, you’re bound to impact somebody in that smaller setting, and my goal was always to impact someone’s life. So the entrepreneur who spoke at the event, met with this woman afterwards and hired her. She’s still working there to this day. It’s been four years. So I just think, whatever you’re looking at in your life, you have to seek community, because you never know what could come out of that.
In building your community locally, did you use the same venue each time or did you move around? VANESSA: I developed a relationship with an incubator in Chicago, where I hosted events. It’s called TechNexus. Now that I’m partnering up with a Lululemon retail store, maybe once COVID is over, I could potentially, hopefully, in the future, post events there too — but TechNexus has been the main place that I hosted.
After doing this for five years, what does the demographic of your initiative look like? Do the same members come back, like a core group that’s been with you all five years? How do people sign up? Is it a membership? VANESSA: I use emails, or “e-blasts”. I do not offer a membership per se, because attendees are unofficial members. Pre-COVID I did have a “Flowership Fee’’. This fee ($85) would pay for eight annual events. There have been 50 to 100 core people since 2015. I’ve picked up people from past jobs and from networking events. A lot of the time attendees would return and bring a friend with them.
FGM is pretty diverse. I did a survey in 2019; we have women between the ages of 24 and 63 all coming from various employment backgrounds. FGM consists of the cashier from your local Target, entrepreneurs, producers, and those who work in corporate America.
Tell us more about self-employment and Flower Girl Studio. VANESSA: Flower Girl Studio is my social media consulting service. I keep everything under the Flower umbrella. Flower Girl Studio officially launched during the pandemic.
Is Flower Girl Studio now sustaining you full-time? Is this a big change? VANESSA: Yes. I’ve been doing social media since 2008. I never changed my career path, knowing that I love social media and remaining in a role related to that. I think that all my experiences have led me here, because with social media you have to know how to moderate and respond to people who are saying insane things. You have to always be ready to have a positive response to any comment. So moderation was one of the first things I learned, in addition to blogging, and content creation. Working in the agency world, where you’re creating content all of the time for different brands, you start to learn what the lingo is, and what would get people excited about a brand. All of these contributed to my journey. It is definitely a big change and there’s so much I’m learning about myself in running my own thing.
Creating More Space in the Garden
You’ve been moving very quickly and have done a lot recently. How do you envision FGM expanding and growing in the next few years? And what impact do you want to make in that time span? VANESSA: I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made. For a long time I was like, “Oh, it would be great if we did more and more,” but at this point, I think I would be happy if it stayed this way. I would like to move to a platform where people can mingle more with one another. I feel that when we physically come together, when people are getting to know each other, it’s really wonderful, but relationships also have to be cultivated outside of being able to physically see each other. I think, unless someone feels comfortable and bold enough to say, “Hey, I heard you speak, you were phenomenal. Let’s stay in touch,” you have to push for it.
What I’ve missed a lot about meeting in person is the interaction. For one of our events I teamed up with a gym to teach us self-defense, because I think women should be equipped for anything. They showed us self-defense moves and [even] recorded videos!
2020 just really blew my mind, because I usually plan in December, a month before the year starts. All these physical events were already planned at the end of 2019. So I had to reach out to people keeping the planned events in mind and in a virtual setting. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, I may have never partnered up with Black Girls with Gardens, an online community run by Jasmine who’s based in Florida. Our event on how to grow plants and friendships was one of my favorite conversations ever! It’s interesting because she’s also a therapist, so we were able to dissect the similarities between cultivating plants and friendships. During this pandemic, the virtual events have been wonderful. While you miss some things, you ultimately have to be flexible with event management.
How are your FGM plans this year different from last year? VANESSA: I would say that I ask more for donations now, as opposed to actually paying for the events. I hesitated for a long time about charging women, because if they are feeling really vulnerable, the last thing I want them to think about is money. But at the same time, I thought about how much time I was putting in and my husband and I were both self-funding a lot of the events by buying food and catering. I actually had a friend who was donating wine. So there were a lot of things we were providing.
When you contribute to something, you feel like you are actually a part of it. Now with virtual events, there are so many that I would rather you make a donation as opposed to being forced to pay full price. When I finally asked for donations, I made maybe $200 or $300 per event — not bad. Usually, I donate the funds, or I just pay for our overhead and different things that I use as resources, but it’s really not about making money with Flower Girls Meet. It’s about giving back in whatever way I can. Thinking about 2021, I think that the theme is “giving back”.
Vanessa started Flower Girls Meet with the primary goal of bringing together a diverse group of working women to discuss mental health. For the past five years, Vanessa held events that offered a safe space for women to share and grow, even with the challenges of this year’s pandemic. When we last spoke with Vanessa, she shared that she has developed a following outside of Chicago and hopes in the near future to offer both in-person and live streamed events. In 2021, Vanessa has brought to fruition some of the goals she shared with us in a series of interviews over the course of several months. For example, her online community is now up and running so that long-time members have more opportunities to interact in a virtual space.
Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.