In pandemic days, East Winston women find strength in CSEM program begun in 2018

Women from the Emotional Emancipation Circle, a program started in 2018, still bond during the coronavirus epidemic.

In pandemic days, East Winston women find strength in CSEM program begun in 2018
October 14
14:32 2020

By John Railey

In the summer of 2018, in that long-ago time before the pandemic, several Black women from East Winston came together in a research project. They gradually bonded as they confronted the long-standing issue with which they struggle daily: trying to build a decent life for themselves and their children in the face of big challenges of child care, jobs, education, transportation, food deserts and health care. 

The eight-week program was the Emotional Emancipation Circle, based on national models and established here in that summer of 2018 by Michele Lewis, an inaugural Research Fellow at Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM). The ties the women made resonate to these days of the pandemic, which has aggravated the challenges they face. Two of those women want to see the program spread.

Recently, those two women, Velma Terry and Lakesha Jones, talked about the program. Terry said: “We built a trust. We built a bond. And now, we‘d like to see these circles grow, to talk about all the things, all the struggles, that happen on a daily basis.”

Lewis, an associate psychology professor who has dreamed of expanding the circles, would welcome that: “I felt that several of the women whom Ms. Velma gathered possessed psychospiritual wellness (co-active, spirit-based relationship skills) despite their challenges regarding economic mobility,” she said.

In the program, Lewis explored whether “optimal decision-making and motivation” are “compromised by poverty.” The research indicated that did happen, but the women’s resilient nature, especially as they bonded, was powerful. They networked, and some from the Circle continue to do so, to solve their problems.

In the beginning, CSEM Associate Director Alvin Atkinson invited Terry to participate, realizing that her job with the Guiding Institute for Developmental Education’s (GIDE’s) DIVAS programs for parental engagement made her an ideal connection. Terry, the community coordinator for DIVAS, in turn, contacted Jones and others.

Jones, a mother of three, remembered the start of the Circle program. She got out of a van cradling her one-year-old (Terry coordinated transportation) at the Enterprise Center on Martin Luther King Drive, where the program was held. Most of the women knew each other, but not well. They exchanged small talk and nibbled at snacks, and then the program began. 

It was a little tense at first, Terry and Jones said. Gradually, with Lewis moderating and leading them through lively discussions of Black history, Black womanhood and other issues, they began to talk. Jones, a mother of three, said: “I’m a big believer in knowing your history. From Martin Luther King to Africa, everybody has a story.”

Research interns that Lewis recruited from WSSU assisted.

The women began taking deep dives into the things that mattered most to them, most important, their children and identity as mothers. Often, women held their babies and toddlers on their laps. If one woman started talking and her child became fidgety, another woman would gently take the child and offer calm, Jones remembered.

Terry said: “It was powerful. We talked about Black history and the role of Black women in community, the role that we play in society. Being a parent is central. Just coming together as women, as parents. … being a Black woman is not a bad thing. Being a Black woman is a beautiful thing.”

Terry, a mother of seven, said the anonymity of the Circle was crucial. “What was said in the Circle stayed there,” she said. “It was like learning to love. Black women just leaning on each other.”

For her part, she said, she talked about a drug addiction she beat 22 years ago. “I talked about my addiction, which I had not publicly talked about before. But if I wanted to earn trust, I had to offer a part of myself.”

Terry said she used drugs back then to make the pain of life “go away. But when that wears off, the problem is still there. Being a recovering addict, I can attest to that. I was running from me. I didn’t want to face reality. I used so I would not feel the pain. I used drugs to mask my feelings. My daughter took the part of being a parent. I had to get high, by any means necessary.”

They talked about other challenges as well, including transportation. 

“No one has a car,” Terry said. “And the buses are really hard to rely on. For PTA meetings, doctors’ appointments, teacher meetings. You have to call around and find a friend for a ride. And that’s a struggle. It’s hard. You get aggravated. And then you throw up your hands. And then you get in trouble with your child’s school … it falls back on you. The system says I’m being lazy. But I just don’t have the tools to do what I need to do.”

Jones said: “It’s loving yourself. I started so young … As Black women, we have a lot of challenges.”

Lewis said that not all of the “women were close to one another, yet there were pairs and trios of women who seemed to look out for one another and really trusted one another. This was obvious to me and the research students as we made systematic observations and listened to their weekly commentary. Psychospiritual wellness is a health-benefit in African-Centered Psychology and Transpersonal Psychology. Psychospiritual wellness can be expanded upon for the women who show moderate to high levels of psychological wellbeing (PWB).”

That, she says, could go beyond expanding the Circle program, as good as that would be. “Women in this program strong in PWB, despite life challenges, would be ideal for collective property ownership with a small group of other families they trust (and who also possess PWB and psychospiritual wellness),” Lewis said, “Ideally, housing stability would be accompanied by other programming brought to the shared living space: ongoing PWB counseling for the women and their children; financial literacy mentors, education advisors and employment/career coaching. What I’m suggesting is a Living, Owning and Learning (L.O.L.) Community. The LOL acronym is appropriate because it denotes laughter/happiness in community, particularly as the families have support with learning about home ownership.”

Terry and Jones welcome those ideas, calling Lewis “a beautiful sister.”

The program, Jones said, made her “trust a little bit more.”

Terry said, “Now these women are the circle. They do love one another.”

Interviewing for this story was done by WFDD and CSEM at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts. WFDD’s pending radio report will be linked on the CSEM website,

John Railey is writer-in-residence for the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University and can be reached at

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