Lori Wilson, cofounder of Athenian Press and Workshops, is in need of a soulful dose of the divine feminine. As the country faces civil rights upheaval and an urgent need toward progress and policy change for marginalized voices, including survivors, women, immigrants and Black and brown people, the pandemic isn’t necessarily making it easier to connect, empower or heal.
“I’m desperate for a community space right now that promotes intersectionality and empowerment that prioritizes the safety of women and femmes,” Wilson says. “I think we all need that feeling of community, solidarity and growth. I’ve had several people ask me, ‘How can we make this happen?'”
Wilson answered by resurrecting the nonprofit’s famed Femme Speak Out, set to take place on August 9, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m., at Long Leaf Park. The last speak out was held at Cameron Art Museum in October 2019, featuring 60 attendees and 10 performers. Wilson is planning for 10 to take the mic this go-round, too. With the help of local writer and former Athenian volunteer Fairley Lloyd, the two put out a call for writers of all scope and talent.
So far participants include Bri Mellott, Delthea Simmons, B’Ellana Duquesne and Livity the Poet. Duquesne will present an updated version of her piece “The Tarot Reading.” It will be staged with the help of three performers. Livity the Poet will present two pieces, including an updated version of her poem, “Justice,” which addresses ways in which the justice system fails us. She also will unveil a new untitled piece. “I started thinking about how often people tell me I’m a strong and independent woman,” Livity describes. “I wanted to dig deeper into what that means and question if that’s all I am.”
Wilson hopes to sign up five or so more performers and encourages new faces to attend. encore interviewed Wilson about the event and what’s new with Athenian.
encore (e): Catch our readers up to speed on what the Femme Speak Out is actually—how it started, why, how many to date you’ve hosted, participants involved, etc.
Lori Wilson (LW): Our first Femme Speak Out was part of our fundraising campaign when we first incorporated Athenian in November 2017. Wow, so long ago! The event is a showcase of women and femmes, who are invited to speak out in a safe space in forms of poetry, comedy, song, monologue, rant, theatre, or whatever they want. Each performer is given about 10 minutes on the mic, but there is no minimum time requirement.
Through creative expression, we empower underrepresented voices grounded in experiences of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Because we’re dedicated to intersectionality and social justice, we always try to diversify our performer list. Athenian has defined what “femme” means to us: anyone has been oppressed because of a past, present, of preferred feminine experience. That includes transgender voices and nonbinary voices. We envision a world that honors the unapologetic narratives of our communities at large. This event gives our community a space to heal and to advocate for themselves. Every time, I feel transformed just as a listener.
e: So tell us what has happened with Athenian since you guys shuttered Athenian House a few years ago.
Lori Wilson (LW): In September 2019, our cofounder Khalisa Rae was preparing to move to Durham, and we held a combined going-away party and Femme Speak Out (FSO) a couple weeks before she left town.
Athenian as an organization lives on. We haven’t dismantled or anything like that. However, we’re unable to commit to regular events like we used to. We’ll see how well this speak out goes, and depending on the turn out and the support we receive, I may be able to organize it monthly again, but I’m not ready to commit that yet. Right now, I want folks to know that Athenian is available to other organizers and creators. If they have an idea, and Athenian would be a likely place to host the event/workshop/project, then the community has access to our website, mailing list, followers, etc. Even if I don’t have the time to operate as much as we used to, I don’t want to halt others from being creative. If Athenian is a good avenue or host for organizing something, then folks should reach out.
e: Why launch another FSO now? What all has happened to spur this resurrection?
LW: We considered hosting another FSO as protests began in town. Former volunteers began offering help to organize one. Honestly, I was sort of nervous to open myself to that organizing work again, partially because of COVID, but also because I wanted to do some of my own healing and reflective activism before co-hosting a public space again.
Perhaps this is too much to share, but I’ve been dealing with a harassment case with a former employer. They tried to silence me by getting me to sign a release statement denying my claims in exchange for money (for the record, I didn’t take the deal). It hurt so much that someone wanted to take my voice away from me as a way to cover up the harassment I and other colleagues experienced. I began speaking with friends and constantly posting on social media about violence and oppression against women and femmes. In addition, a group of women have been informally collaborating to address the problems of predators in our activist community, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with them.
e: Why did you choose Long Leak Park? How will it be set up to ensure social distance guidelines?
LW: In celebration of the racist name (Hugh MacRae) being removed from its title, we’ve decided to host the event outside at Long Leaf Park, a.k.a. Alexander Manly Park. I’m so glad for the name change because we can finally feel OK about hosting events here. We’ve rented Shelter 6, which usually houses 100-plus people, but the parks are only allowing 25 people in each shelter due to COVID, so there’s plenty of room for social distancing. If we reach the 25-person limit, folks can sit or stand outside of the shelter. It won’t be about first-come, first-serve. We’ll encourage the attendees to check in with their privilege and reserve the shelter seats for folks with disabilities, for our older crowd, for kids, for people of color, etc.
All guests, whether in the shelter or not, will be required to wear face masks. We will provide masks if folks forget theirs or don’t have one. We will also have hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. The microphone will be sanitized after each performer.
There is a public bathroom facility nearby, but we encourage folks to only go in one at a time. I’m not sure the parks are setting this rule, but we’re setting it for ourselves.
If the forecast predicts rain, then we’ll have a couple extra tents for shelter as needed.
I’m grateful to have so many volunteers eager to help, who will ensure that all these measures are respected.
For those people who don’t feel comfortable attending in public for health reasons (which I totally understand), we will be recording the performers on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. However, there may be some performers who ask us not to record them live, since speakers often address sensitive issues, and of course we will respect their wishes.