June 4, 2020

Naj Austin is Building Spaces & Products that Help People of Color Experience Joy, Feel Seen & Find Inspiration

In the times of COVID-19, I have discovered a certain level of appreciation for human contact. I’m having a lot of trouble accepting the fact that I will not see most of my friends and community in real life, for what is likely to be the rest of 2020. Maybe a sense of community isn’t as important to some people, but as someone who engages in spiritual-religious community, music-related community, and other forms of gathering aimed to celebrate and embrace life’s many ups and downs, this is a difficult time.

If you’re like me in that sense, you might find relief in the discovery of Ethel’s Club—a Brooklyn member’s club for people of color which opened in November 2019, founded and led by Naj Austin. But what kind of relief is there to find in a clubhouse that nobody can safely go to? From the beginning of New York’s PAUSE order which required all non-essential businesses to close down, Ethel’s Club made it clear that they were going nowhere. The club pivoted all its program offerings to an online hub where members pay to access exclusive, thought-provoking, and intimate programming. Some examples include: a podcasting workshop with writers Jenna Wortham and Kimberly Rose Drew, a conversation with comedian Hannibal Buress, therapist-led group sessions for sleep hygiene, and a performance by Sudan Archives. They’ve also collaborated with local cultural institutions like Atlantic Records and The International Center for Photography.

In the months that followed, the team went on to launch Somewhere Good, a family of brands amplifying creators of color and centering audiences of color. The portfolio includes Ethel’s Club, as well as Form No Form, a 24-hour interactive visual channel that by and for POC, with the option to purchase art directly through the site itself. The platform was built with the intention of giving support and dollars back to artists of color, streaming short films created by POC, 24 hours a day.

Austin and her team’s swift and seamless decision to shift from in-person to digital programming and offerings was what caught our attention. While other clubs struggled to understand how they could position themselves during this time to help their members, this team saw an opportunity to offer its community support in a holistic way via digital means.

Read on for our conversation with Austin where she discusses her relationship to technology, the present, the future, and Somewhere Good.

Q. How has your relationship to technology evolved in the past year? 

I’ve learned how to intentionally use technology over the last year, which has felt very freeing. The thesis behind Ethel’s Club was grounded in the idea that the internet is toxic and full of noise and creating space outside of that is important. I’ve learned to not paint with such broad strokes and instead pay attention to how I can create safe spaces, everywhere, designed to center people of color. The internet, when used for good, can be amazing in terms of granting access, connecting like-minded people, and creating joy. 

Q. What’s the why and how behind what Somewhere Good does? 

My life’s work is built around creating spaces where marginalized consumers feel heard and seen. I dream of ways to give us more agency, bring us more joy, take up more space, whether it’s in a physical location or online. 

Ethels Club

So much of the world was designed without considering marginalized communities. We started to think — what does the world look like when it’s built by a team of Black and brown folks who are invested in each other’s well-being and joy? 

I knew Ethel’s Club would be an important part of the solution, but I also understood that we needed a new, broader approach to answering these questions. 

Ultimately we want to solve two things: 

  1. We want to make it easy for people to divest from corporations and organizations that don’t value their dollar and invest in people and brands they believe in.
  2. We want to create intentional spaces and products that help people of color experience joy, feel seen, and find inspiration in their daily lives.

We created Somewhere Good as a one-stop solution for people looking for thoughtful brands that center who they are. 

Q. Name 3 ways technology has changed the game for you and the work you do. 

Technology has allowed us to broaden our community around the world. Our digital clubhouse has members as far as the UK – it’s forced us to take a more intentional look at what we’re creating and how we’re doing it. 

I’ve also started to look into intentional practices when it comes to technology. How can you take away stress? How can you embed a sense of purpose within technology? How can we help people co-exist in a healthy way. We have a lot of programming virtually but we also encourage members to get offline and spend time with themselves, loved ones or nature. 

Q. When you started Ethel’s Club, you probably had a specific vision and goal in mind. How has that evolved in light of recent global events, and what are some unexpected benefits from this moment, for both you as a founder, and members of the club? 

It was important that we build alongside our community and audience. That has been one of the biggest benefits as we grow — listening to what our community loves, what they’re responding to, what they want to see more of. We build in their light constantly, and it’s been such a motivator to continue creating. 

Q. What helps guide you when the future feels uncertain? What do you lean on for support? 

I’m a cook. I close my computer and take time away to think or sometimes to not think. It leaves me refreshed and eager to get back to work. I also lean on a community of Black female founders for support – with them, I find a sense of connection that is hard to find elsewhere. I also play Animal Crossing when I can’t sleep at night. 🙂 

Q. What are you meditating on for the days ahead? 

I’m meditating on what the world will look like when it’s built and created by marginalized communities. A future where we aren’t a second thought or last-minute thought. A future where we are the prize. How can we build towards that world? What are the steps needed to get there? How can my team create that? 

Q. What are you tapped into at the moment? 

Since launching Ethel’s Club, I’ve spent a lot of time listening. Listening to our members, to our communities, to my team. Even listening to my inner self; what brought me joy and what frustrated me. I heard so many grievances about how so many products, brands, and spaces made people of color feel less than. I thought—my team knows how to build intentional and inclusive spaces designed to celebrate people of color, let’s explore what that looks like across different industries and verticals. 

Ashley Hefnawy

I'm Ashley Hefnawy (pronounced, Heff-Nah-Wee). I'm a multi-disciplinary writer who currently resides in New York City.

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