Presented with three options, Angela Davis picked a session on mental wellness at the Black Women’s Leadership Conference for a simple reason: she needs to breathe, she said.

“Our daily lives are very stressful and I just need to breathe and figure out techniques for coping with being a professional black woman in Madison,” Davis said.

“You can’t breathe, you’re always ‘on,’” she said. “Just walking in here, you can exhale.”

Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison, creator of the event and the founder of the Progress Center for Black Women, worked hard to make it that way.

“This is not that conference, where it’s like super uptight,” she told attendees. She already proved her point by getting the crowd to stand up and dance for a group photo first thing in the morning.

“That’s why I created the conference, so you guys can have a space that reflects you, that reflects your leadership, the content experts look like you, and so you come in here and swag surf in the morning, that’s just normal,” Madison said.

The 2019 BWLC runs Thursday and Friday, May 2 and 3, at University of Wisconsin-Madison's Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St. This is the fourth annual conference, which aims to empower and equip black women and girls through education, networking and leadership training.

Attendees were happy to be surrounded by black women and soak in what one called the “positive energy and vibe,” but the conference was also meant to help them tackle tough topics. Thursday morning started with speaker Angela Russell, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at CUNA Mutual Group.

Attendees called on Russell to answer questions about how to navigate the often uncomfortable experience of being black in a predominately white workplace, dealing with microaggressions or more blatantly racist comments. Russell gave examples from her own work experience, like a man who posited it was better that black people came to America as slaves rather than remaining in Africa.

Russell answered questions about deciding what battles to fight and when to partner with white allies. Anger may be justified, but it will not always serve you strategically, Russell said.

Madison said she has witnessed women who visit the Progress Center, and it seems like “they have escaped work.”

“What I get from those women is they can’t be themselves in their work spaces, that there’s this switch that happens when they get in the door, and this switch that happens when they leave,” she said. “And because they don’t necessarily get to be themselves in between when they’re at work, they’re suffering silently.”

These struggles are exactly why this type of conference is so needed, attendees said.

“One of the reasons I love this conference — and it’s my must-attend conference every year — is that I come here pretty empty. I do social justice work, and here I get full. I get fed. I get to spend time with women who look like me and understand my experience,” said Tracey Robertson, who runs a social justice nonprofit known as Fit Oshkosh.

Robertson said she particularly enjoys the authentic way women at the conference network.

“People put a card in your hand, and they hold your hand, and they look you in the eye and they say, 'If you need me, call me,'” she said.

Alicia Chaney agreed that the conference atmosphere was “amazing.”

“I can look to my left and my right and know I have an amazing support system of women that don’t even know me,” Chaney said. “I see that in every woman’s posture in how they speak to me. It’s just a really amazing experience especially for my first year.”

These common stressors also pushed Madison to offer sessions on mental health at this year’s conference. According to a recent report, black women say they experience "a looming state of stress in ‘living while Black’ in Dane County,” which can contribute to poor health outcomes.

“I wanted to make sure I was super purposeful in including that this year, so people could take away some strategies,” Madison told the Cap Times in an interview earlier this year. “Even though we might have fun on these two, three days or whatever, you've still got to go back to work into that space that might be unhealthy or toxic for you.”

Attendees took advantage of this service; the conference had to bring in more chairs to accommodate the attendees for an “Ask the Expert” session with licensed professional counselor Lakiesha Russell.

Myra McNair, executive director and founder of Anesis Therapy, also gave a talk on mental health and broke down the necessity of boundaries. She instructed attendees to analyze a relationship where they struggle to set healthy boundaries.

“It needs to be healthy for you,” McNair said. “It may not feel good for the other person, but they’re not living your life.”

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