Michaela Ayers

Words: Brandon Scott Herrell

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Last year, our friend Michaela Ayers took a look around her corporate office, and was dismayed to find she was the only black woman on her team. After working with the Seattle-based technology company on their diversity task force, she was dissatisfied with the status quo for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and cut out on her own to found Nourish. In her own words - “Nourish is a social impact organization that drives cultural change through human connection. My mission is to advance anti-racist education in corporations and in communities.” Michaela achieves this through an engaging series of dinners, panels, training, and networking events with an emphasis on giving people the tools and opportunity to talk productively about race and racism.

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The transition from working in a corporate office to self-employment presents a host of challenges. Nourish particularly positions Michaela as a conduit for others’ experiences with racism. “When I tell people that my job is to make the world less racist, what happens more often than not is they immediately tell me about their racist experiences.” There’s an emotional weight to this work. “I did not have the tools to hold all of that and it definitely impacted my spirit. That’s why I’ve been so dedicated to my self care this year. Because I want to be able to be strong essentially, and hold all that space.” Humans are at the center of what Nourish does. The contrast between the corporate office and Michalea’s new mode of working is clear. “I’m trying to center inclusive design in terms of how I build my business… How do I want to do business? As somebody who is actively not inspired by capitalism, I’m really trying to find practices that feel equitable and respectful.”

 

From her artful, modest apartment on Capitol Hill, Michaela starts each day with a walk around the neighborhood, stopping regularly to observe the trees, including one giant cedar a few blocks from her place. These walks accompany a meditation from an app called Liberate, which provides guided meditations for people of color. “It really helps ground me in my day, in terms of showing myself love and compassion and integrating that into how I show up for other people.” We stopped along the route a few times to notice the early signs of spring. Vibrant greens are appearing in the neighborhood’s lawns, and some of the trees have started producing delicate buds in soft reds and pinks. After her daily walk - “Breakfast is very important. It’s like an event to me."

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Art is also essential to Michaela’s wellness routine. Having studied textile design, she has a keen eye for the interplay of color and texture. Recent collage works render figures in lush dreamscapes of florals and found scraps, often cut from vintage LIFE and Nat Geo magazines. “I’m trying to focus on women of color, and creating other worlds for them to exist in… Wanting to imagine another world where there isn’t just one standard of beauty.” Integrating a consistent art practice has proven important for creating and growing the emotional space that Nourish requires. “I’ve noticed a significant shift in my energy when I’m around it or creating it on a weekly basis."

 

Recent inspirations come from the works of early 20th century Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, and the contemporary works of Kerry James Marshall. As we sat and talked on a surprisingly sunny February afternoon, we flipped through volumes of each artists’ work, noting af Klint’s pre-modernist minimalism, and Marshall’s bold use of color and storytelling. Particularly inspiring to Michaela was Hilma af Klint’s insistence that her work not be shown until 25 years after her death. “Art is not always for everyone’s consumption. Art sometimes is really for the artist.” When Michaela says this, it sounds personal. This topic surfaced several times in our conversation. “Art or some type of creative practice is really healing."

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For Michaela, clothing is a form of expression too. “…I want people to feel right when they see me that I’m a fun, creative person… I’m attracted to pieces that express that in some way, and don’t take themselves too seriously.” She’s creating a lifestyle where she can carry her personal style into her work. “More and more I don’t want them to be different worlds. It’s all the same. I’m not performing for my professional clients by wearing different things. It’s just who I am.” Her human-centered philosophy appears throughout Nourish and in the pieces she chooses. “... A human made this, and a human wears it. I’m very anti-perfection in everything I do.” Michaela explains this while wearing a floor length poplin dress from Mr. Larkin, embroidered with faces, planets, and abstract florals. When she says “fun and creative,” she means it.

 

It’s a lot to believe you can change the world and Michaela is doing the work to be ready for it. “I have every intention to help people become less racist. I believe that I can do it and I believe people want to move away from it.” Cultivating curiosity is essential to this movement. “I try to stay away from the small talk questions, because I think our brains are not working when we’re talking about some bullshit thing like the weather. Seeing how we’re all connected, that’s really what my brain is trying to put together when I’m interacting with someone new or even somebody in my community.” I asked where we can start to become curious about other people. “It doesn’t have to be anything radical… for example, I say good morning to people on my walks and it helps me get over the anxiety of talking to strangers.”

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Incorporating a spirit of play feels essential to Michaela in her work in anti-racism. “I’ve learned that for what I do - It can’t just be hard, because no one’s gonna do it… I’ve been to a lot of diversity trainings that have felt bad, and I’ve seen harm happen.” What helps Nourish to stand out is Michaela’s devotion to a technique called ‘Radical Play.’ “My use of radical play is trying to create human-centered experiences where people can integrate inclusion, love, and play into their community and into their lives so they can show up in a more human way… We’re not allowed to fail anymore, or admit that we don’t know and to me, that’s what play is about and that’s what can make anti-racist work actually work. If it’s not associated with fear and shame, it is actually associated with love and play, then it has a chance to become a successful movement.” After all, she says, “Love is the connective tissue of the universe.”

 

If you’re interested in attending a Nourish event soon, you can join Michaela for ‘Black Her Stories’ at The Riveter on Capitol Hill. “I feel like it’s my version of the Super Bowl. It’s celebrating blackness and black women specifically.” The panel discussion aims to “...Honor the bold womxn who have found strength in the struggle, overcome obstacles, and made a meaningful impact on our culture.” Michaela also hosts a series of dinners at The Pantry, which gathers participants to share a meal and discuss the effects of race and racism in their lives. Visit the Nourish site here to find tickets to these events and more.

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