For our final Seattle spotlight this January, we are honored to feature Michaela Ayers of NOURISH - a social impact organization advancing anti-racist education through experimental learning and human connection.
We met up with Michaela to see her work-from-home life & discuss how NOURISH started and what it will look like for this next year.
I created Nourish in reaction to the 2016 presidential election. For me, and so many others, that moment was an awakening when I recognized that as a culture, we don’t know how to have hard conversations - especially when those conversations are about race. It is so rare that individuals have a chance to directly name how racism has impacted their lives, in fact, these are the conversations that we are often told are too ‘taboo’ or rude to talk about it. But when we avoid these uncomfortable conversations, we let the systems of white supremacy and anti-black racism continue.
So I set out to create a middle ground. I started thinking about commonalities; what are the things that everyone has in common? What are some traditions that every culture shares? And I realized that it’s food. In my own family, it was around the dinner table that I got to witness vulnerability through storytelling and learn how members of my family overcame obstacles. So Nourish began as a series of dinner parties where community members could come to build community and talk about race. I fully admit that not all of the dinners went great, I had to learn by doing. When you’re trying something new, failure is almost certainly guaranteed. While these conversations can be uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean the experience can’t also be deeply meaningful. The intention of the dinners is to create a space where people can share their individual truths and learn from people who are different from them. There is a lot of power in simply having a conversation.
There isn’t a single word to describe what this journey has been like for me. I am on a mission to make the world more just and less racist, which means that everything I preach, I have to practice first. As a black woman, the path of unlearning the conditioning of racism, confronting unconscious behaviors, and acknowledging my fears have fundamentally changed how I move through the world. As the historian and scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi says, anti-racism is not a state being, it is a state of doing. So I’ve been doing a lot lately, in terms of trying to reimagine ways to identify and eliminate racism in my life. Everyday feels like sitting in the front car of a roller coaster - equal parts scary and exciting.
How has your role and vision for Nourish transformed since you started it?
Over the past four years, Nourish has evolved significantly. Outside of the dinners, which are still a core part of my offerings, Nourish also hosts inclusive events and provides diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consulting services to mission-driven organizations.
Can you talk a little about your focus on connection and cultivating relationships through anti-racist education?
When it comes to my work, I am most interested in creating opportunities for human connection and curiosity. Because let’s be real - addressing systemic racism and challenging racist beliefs is hard work. It can get messy, mistakes and miscommunications are bound to happen. And people aren’t going to do it if they have to do it alone, it takes a community to make change happen.
So whether it’s a community event, dinner party, or anti-racism workshop, I design experiences for connection and inclusion. I try to get people to skip the small talk and engage on a human level. It’s a practice of not making assumptions, asking good questions, and putting people first. I blend methods from design thinking and action learning to get people into a creative conversation with meaningful actions. This allows participants to build trust and cultivate genuine relationships.
What brings you the most joy in your daily work?
I love watching the personal transformation that takes place after a person acknowledges how race and racism have shaped their life, and what they want to do about it. The people who participate in Nourish are the ones who want to do better. There is an element of vulnerability and bravery that comes from being willing to reflect and share cultural experiences like disagreements with a racist family member. There is also a feeling of liberation and empowerment that settles in after someone expresses their authentic truth.
To not be ruled by the fear of saying the wrong thing or the fear of open conflict also brings me joy because as a collective, we must be willing to try. In order for us to address the intergenerational issues of economic inequities, systemic oppression, and climate justice, this look in the mirror is essential. It brings me joy to see people lean into this awareness, and tap into the complexity of their humanness.
At what type of events & engagements do you speak? Who is your audience, and do you ever team up with other speakers?
I am really passionate about bringing conversations about DEI and anti-racism into the art and design world. I have a background in fine arts, Art history specifically, and all throughout my college career, I never saw my experience reflected. I was consistently the only black person in the room. Art and design are traditionally taught from a very western, euro-centric, and patriarchal point of view. This reinforces a very narrow lens in terms of what cultures are perceived as beautiful, significant, and valuable. To me, this fixed mindset is the opposite of innovation and ingenuity; it is homogeneity and it is dangerous.
Art is powerful because it is inclusive, it communicates the complexity of humanity. I bring the energy of the arts and creativity into my work as a facilitator because it provides a platform for creative possibilities. In order for us to build a more just, inclusive, and equitable world, we must engage our imaginations. I love having conversations with designers and artists who are trying to evolve out of the western canon and decolonize their art practices. As an experienced moderator, I design panel discussions for advocates and leaders who are interested in equity and inclusive design principles. We are facing a crisis at every corner of our democracy so there has never been a better time to get creative. As an artist myself, I really believe in the power of the arts as a tool for social change. In the coming year, I’m hoping to do more speaking and engagements around this topic.
What does Nourish offer on a day-to-day basis that community members can become involved with?
There are a number of ways that community members can engage with Nourish. Right off the bat, I recommend that folks who are interested in practicing anti-racism join one of our Digital Dinner parties. During these quarantine times, the dinners are a fun way to connect with other people in the community who want to be a part of the solution. These gatherings are a mixture of small group conversations and large group discussions about what challenges people are facing when it comes to confronting racism, what people are learning, and how the community wants to move forward into the future. The intention of the digital dinner parties is to give people an opportunity to share stories and build their confidence around identifying and eliminating racism in their personal and professional lives.
Outside of the dinners, Nourish also offers cultural events. Currently, I am gearing up for my third annual Black Her Stories community event which is my absolute favorite thing. This event is all about celebrating the role of black female leadership throughout history and in modern times. This year, I am highlighting Black women in literature and I am so excited to dig into the rich history of black women writers, poets, and storytellers.
While I absolutely miss hosting events in person, I’m excited to host Black Her Stories virtually this year to see if we can expand the conversation outside of Seattle, and include other communities in the conversation. For folks looking for another way to celebrate Black History Month, don’t miss this event!
What can be expected from Nourish’s new year relaunch? What’s new?
Folks who are interested in joining the Nourish community can look forward to more community events and opportunities to get into direct action. I love surprises, so I can’t spill the beans! There will be more regular offerings of dinner parties, cultural events, and anti-racism workshops. And plenty of opportunities for individuals and organizations to engage in building the world that we want to see.
NOURISH x Westerly