"I decided that instead of being PC about Black creatives and about finding community and about creating a space. I was just gonna say it out loud, and I was going to boldly declare it because what happens is uncomfortable people will do the research to figure out why somebody is doing this space. The people that you need to come to you are going to gravitate toward you. And then the people that don't like what you stand for are going to find a way to depart, which are all good things.
"I think so many times people are afraid of conflict, and I don't think that conflict is necessarily a good thing. I think the culture that we live in and the communities that strive all thrive because of their differences. I just wanted to take an opportunity to highlight those differences and cultivate a community based on the likeness of differences."
RH: I think that's something that gets lost when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion: it's the inclusion of those differences. What's been some of the pushback that you've experienced when it comes to doing DEI work?
EE: "So for pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre-Ahmaud Aubrey, the first question I would get is: Why do you need to separate? People would say 'there are all these different places that you could go to that would welcome you, and that are nice and friendly.' Or they would say, 'These people are good people. They're not racist.' Or they would say, 'Why are you being separatist.'
"What I would explain to people is, yes, this company, or this organization, or this group, or this person may be fantastic, and I truly believe that. But there is something intrinsic that happens when a group of like-minded people get together. That is why we have churches, that is why we have organizations and community clubs and golf clubs, and small groups. That's why companies like Meetup are worth millions and millions because people want to be in the same space as people that they can identify with.
"I would also remind people that not everything is a threat. When you're in those groups of organizations, it sparks more creativity and more innovation. If I'm in a space where I can relax, and I don't have the fears that I typically have as a person that doesn't look like the majority, then I'm free to explore other parts of myself. And other people are free to explore me because of my liberation and my freedom state.
"It's a chain effect. Other people are empowered even if those who don't look like me. It's like being in a concert. There's a group of people who all know the song and you don't know the song. But even if you don't know the song, you feel free and happy because you see other people living free and happy.
"After the pandemic happened, and after all of those tragic incidences — which is not uncommon for people in the Black community; it was just on a grand scale because the world was paused — I think people got it. And if they didn't get it, they certainly hopped on the bandwagon and pretended that they got it.
"Either way, it works for the community because it offers support, and it offers empathy through a lens that I think otherwise people didn't see. It reminds people of our humanity. If they get to see a group of people thriving, it reminds them of their own happiness, their own gathering around their grandmother's table or their country club or their chess club or whatever it is. There's a likeness to it."
RH: I wanted to go back to The Culturist Union can you tell us more about what we can expect?
EE: "The first month of our opening will consist of a couple of things. We've partnered with the Greater Black Savannah Chamber of Commerce to bring back what was an old tradition about 20 years ago called First Fridays, where people would meet Fridays on River Street and network. So, we'll be bringing that back. I do believe that we'll be partnering with Million Cups to bring that back.
"We have our monthly millennial roundtable discussion. So, that will be there. We're also planning on having live music on Sunday. We're doing all of these things that would empower you professionally, socially, and spiritually. We do a monthly yoga session, so we're trying to explore what that looks like in the space. We are also looking for partnerships with Savannah State University and with people who share ethos."
RH: Why do you love the 912?
EE: "My mom convinced my dad moved to Savannah because she visited once and thought it was beautiful. She couldn't get it out of her head. So, everywhere we moved, she compared that place to Savannah. When we moved to Savannah, I was in the military and I visited. There was something very serene about being in this space. It felt like home, even though I'd never been here before.
"I don't know if it's something about the trees, I don't know if it's something about our ancestors, if it's a spiritual thing, or if it's just the good environment and weather — I just felt like the possibilities were endless here. I knew that it was going to take a lot of work, but I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be here. And I felt like there was going to be a community that was going to support me. I tested that theory and it's proven to be true. So, I love it for all those reasons."
The Culturist Union is expected to launch later this summer. It will be located at 702 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For details on the space, follow its Instagram page @theculturistunion. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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