by Collins Laatsch

A House United

It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams. – Zora Neale Hurston

You can count LC Johnson as one of those dreamers.

When she moved to Columbus three years ago, she wanted to throw herself into living in the area. Exhausted from the constant hustle of self-employment—she had been a blogger and consultant back in Durham, North Carolina—she missed the place-based peace of being rooted where she was living.

But when she looked around for folks who looked like her, she realized she was surrounded by white people in her job and in her neighborhood.

“I had a really hard time finding other women of color that I could connect with,” she said.

So, she took matters into her own hands, wanting to create somewhere that women of color could feel at home. The result was Zora’s House, the first coworking space for women of color in Columbus, located on Summit Street across from Weinland Park and set to officially open this month.

Johnson has high hopes for her new business; not only does she want the next Jeni’s Ice Cream or city council person to come out of it, but she wants it to contribute to the roadmap of how mid-sized cities like Columbus can grow. And, she wants hers to be the first of many Zora’s Houses across the country.

“Columbus is in a huge period of growth right now, which is awesome, but [it] still has to figure out how it’s going to grow in a way that’s equitable and that allows all people to really grow and thrive in this city,” Johnson said. “[Zora’s House] is about the women who are here, but it’s also about teaching cities and communities how to make those women feel at home, make them feel invested in the community, and make them feel like the community is invested in them.”

More than 500 women around Columbus have already been part of Zora’s House events. Anita McSwane-Williams is one, and she’s been there from the very beginning: a book club meeting at the beginning of 2016 to talk about The Year of Yes by television producer Shonda Rhimes.

The meeting was the first gathering of Zora’s Daughters, a meetup group Johnson created to figure out if Columbus actually had a market for such a project. It turned out that lots of other women of color, particularly those who were transplants to Columbus, had similar experiences to Johnson, and about 30 women came to that first book club meeting. They were pulled in, like McSwane-Williams, by Johnson’s positive vibes, the potential to make to friends, and the opportunity to be authentic—plus, books and wine.

“I was like, this is it, this is how Zora’s Daughters kicks off: with a conversation about saying yes to yourself, with a conversation about women of color and black female identity,” Johnson said.

For McSwane-Williams, who joined the meetup after having lived in Columbus for three years, Zora’s Daughters offered her support that she missed after leaving her home in California. She’s gone to letter writing events, brunches and arts and crafts events over the past year that she says have helped her get to know the city.

“Honestly, it makes it bearable to be here. I’ve thought about moving many times, and Zora’s House, the concept of Zora’s House and being able to attend the Zora’s Daughters events, it’s made my overall life in this area more positive,” McSwane-Williams said.

Of course, like any young business, the road to opening has had its share of potholes.

Johnson and her husband both work full-time, and they drained their savings to start the business, funding almost all of it on their own. They had a baby one week before construction on the building that would become Zora’s House broke ground. At some points, Johnson worried if she was asking her husband for too much, jumping on board this new even less-stable dream after a period of instability and tight funds.

Now, though, her coworking space has a common work room that can fit 16 people, a library that will feature women of color authors and artists and private offices upstairs that she hopes to use as an incubator program. She’s designed the space with a comfy girly rustic feel, with beige walls to highlight decor that represent diverse women.

“Zora’s House is a space that centers women of color because we’re often in spaces centered around whiteness, centered around maleness—that’s just the way that our world and our country and our community have been built … women of color are used to navigating spaces that aren’t about us,” she said.

In the way she has had to navigate other spaces, she also welcomes people from other backgrounds to Zora’s House—as long as the activity isn’t meant for only women of color.

“Come here and learn how to be in a space that’s not about you; it’s about learning how to be in community and be in support of community with women of color, and anyone who’s interested in doing that is welcome here.”

Zora’s House (1131 Summit St.) will have their official launch party March 15 from 6–8 p.m. For more, visit zorashouse.com.

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