“Sisterhood next to mommyhood is the best ‘hood,” Deborah Joy Winans told a group of women at the YOU Retreat in Los Angeles this past Sunday morning (April 23) while in conversation with sports journalist and longtime friend Jemele Hill. “Sisterhood” would be a theme throughout the daylong event presented by Black Love as multiple pairs of women took the stage and shared their stories of friendship and how those relationships carried them through life’s ups and downs.
“In 2019 I was meeting so many people and my friends and myself who were struggling to get our heads above water and having emotional and life challenges,” Codie Oliver, the host and creator of the event, told ESSENCE. “I just wanted to take time out to say, ‘Focus on you,’ whatever that looks like, from talking about mental wellness to talking about work to literally overcoming obstacles and understanding that we all have them. And even though it doesn’t look like you’ll get to the other side—and maybe the other side doesn’t even look like you thought it would look—you’ll get there. You can get there.”
Oliver, who created Black Love and the popular relationship series of the same name with her husband, Tommy, had planned to host her first YOU Retreat in March of 2020 until the pandemic forced her to postpone it. In 2021, the brand held a hybrid retreat and was finally able to host its first live, in-person event this year. The highlights of the gathering were the vulnerable moments of honesty shared between friends during the sisterhood conversations. Oliver was diligent about bringing together notable women who have relationships in real life.
“It’s very easy to call upon actors to talk about anything. I like to very intentionally research them and understand, are they vocal about what they’ve been through? Because I know that seeing famous people who have experienced depression or who have experienced self-doubt and hearing their journey through it is really important,” she explained. “Then I make sure that those conversations are happening with people who are actually sister-friends because they’ll push each other to share and open up a little more.”
That dynamic was evident between Winans and Hill as they spoke about not always receiving support from others as they walk in their purpose. Winans specifically discussed her family’s disapproval of her desire to become an actress.
“Acting to my family did not seem like a way to serve God,” said the member of the famous family of gospel singers. As a result, she added, “I felt like my family wasn’t going to be as proud of me as I was of them.”
For Hill, who’s often found herself the only one in many rooms being a Black woman in sports, she’s taken on the responsibility of standing up for people when others don’t. “I take stock of who speaks up and advocates when it’s convenient and who does it when it’s not,” she said. “What I try to be intentional about is doing it when there’s nothing in it for me.”
Real-life sisters and WNBA players Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike had a candid conversation with former pro-athlete Koya Webb about what life looks like when your health pays the bills. Having all experienced injuries that sidelined different career goals, each woman shared how they pushed through those moments of physical and emotional anguish.
“I had reached a very low point when it came to self-worth,” Nneka confessed. “Looking at myself in the mirror and knowing the answer to ‘are you worthy?’ I had lost that. And this is where I discovered true sisterhood. A lot of people in my community were an example of the support that you need when you literally can’t pick yourself up.”
Webb, a former track and field star, had a similar journey, sharing that she experienced suicidal ideation when a stress fracture derailed her plans of participating in the Olympics. “Yoga changed my life and it also changed my relationship with God,” she said. Now a holistic health coach and yoga instructor, she talked about her learning curve when it came to the practice but also the sensation she felt when she first leaned into it. It was the same one she felt when she was baptized. “Yoga taught me the difference between pain and discomfort.”
Remarking that there’s often a lot of “pressure to be performative when it comes to wellness and self-care,” Nneka said the most important lesson her therapist taught her is “give yourself grace” – even when it comes to carrying out those rituals, like journaling or working out, that are a part of your health regimen.
After lunch and a stretch break coupled with breathing and affirming exercises led by fitness trainer Mercedes Owens, the sisterhood conversations continued with a talk between music artist and advocate Neelam Hakeem and actress Sierra Capri. The friends, though more than a decade apart in age, developed a bond over shared purpose and a commitment to achieving success in two difficult industries on their own terms.
“There’s no class to prepare you for this,” Capri stated. “The biggest challenges for me is not letting the business of show business distract me from the reason I got into this in the first place.”
Echoing that sentiment, Hakeem, who’s made waves as a Hijabi rapper, remarked, “It’s annoying watching people take the elevator up. But I’m going to keep taking those steps.”
Authenticity was the focus of the next chat between actresses Shoniqua Shandai and KJ Smith, as the Harlem star very early on in their session remarked, “Authenticity is freedom.”
Through tears, Smith opened up about her long journey to healing and how her desperation to “make it” in Hollywood led to poor behavior.
“You’ll make decisions in your depression that you wouldn’t be okay with in your happy state,” she said. Now, five years into her mental and physical wellness journey, the Sistas star has a completely new perspective on her career and life goals.
“How can I be afraid of reaching my full potential when I have the power to do that?” she asked. “I don’t fear anything anymore.”
Oliver and This is Us star Susan Kelechi Watson closed out the day with a talk on being “Unapologetically us.” The conversation between the women spoke to Oliver’s hopes for the You Retreat going forward.
“There’s so much I would love to do,” said Oliver of her impactful event. “We’re going to have many more conversations with a lot more people so we can talk about grief, and we can talk about joy, and we can talk about really specific things. We want to have a real jam-packed day of options.”