Cover: LC Johnson builds community, culture with Zora's House

Erica Thompson
LC Johnson

LC Johnson opened her November talk at TEDxColumbus with a question for the white attendees, who made up the majority of the audience. “When was the last time you were the only white person in the room?”

“Clearly not at TEDx,” she riffed.

For the next 10 or so minutes, Johnson was funny and frank, showcasing a personality as effervescent as her floral-print blazer. Referencing everything from Beyoncé to affirmative action, she seemed confident in presenting her full self, informed by her culture, experiences and talents — while being one of few women of color in the room.

But that is no easy task for Johnson, or most women of color, as they navigate spaces outside of their homes. Whether it's sitting in a high school class reading the n-word inAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, working in corporate America or visiting a local coffee shop, being “the only” comes with a cost greater than one's temporary discomfort.

“There is an invisible brain drain on this country,” Johnson explained during her presentation. “It happens when minority or marginalized people are forced to use extra energy on the burden of representation, tokenism and micro-aggressions instead of creativity or innovation.”

Without that cost, imagine how many more Jane Cooke Wrights, Mary Golda Rosses, Frida Kahlos and —yes — Beyoncés there might be, Johnson said. And with women of colorprojected to comprise 53 percent of the population by 2050, the issue should command the nation's attention, she added.

To effect change in Columbus, Johnson founded Zora's House, a co-working and community space — “or if your favorite coffee shop and your homegirl's house had a baby,” she said — in April 2018. Located in Weinland Park, the house has plenty of space for working, meeting and lounging. It's decorated with art by women of color, and includes a library of books by women of color. And, starting next year, Johnson will experiment with renting out bedrooms for overnight stays.

Named for novelist Zora Neale Hurston, the social enterprise allows women to purchase memberships that provide access to the space, private events, discounts and more. Select ambassadors volunteer to maintain the space, as well as host and interact with members on a daily basis.

“I think about Zora's House like a people incubator,” Johnson said. “People do whatever and create whatever work they're meant to do. So that might be a business, and that may be research. That may be giving you courage in the job that you have now.”

With intentions to educate, elevate and connect women of color, Zora's House hosts events like community dinners, a monthly Writing Circle and various workshops.

“The programming doesn't have to be that unique,” Johnson said. “We could literally do the same programming as a community center, but it will be a transformative experience because most of the places we go, we're in the minority.”

She also invites artists and business owners to present their work and sell their products.

“Most of our events are open to everybody,” she said. “Women of color are used to navigating spaces that aren't about them all the time. So we welcome white women to step into spaces that are not about them and to be in practice on how to support and center women of color.”

The same goes for men, she added.

With Zora's House, Johnson also has the opportunity to partner with institutions seeking to connect with women of color. For example, the Mount Carmel Doula Program hosted training at the venue to encourage more women of color to pursue doula certification.

In just eight months, Zora's House has generated a buzz, with Zora Neale Hurston's great-great niece speaking at the launch party, and people of all ethnicities donating money and attending events. And in addition to giving the TEDxColumbus talk, Johnson spoke at the Women's Fund of Central Ohio Keyholder event and co-hosted 100 women as part of the Columbus Foundation's “Big Table” conversation.

That visibility as an entrepreneur of color in the city is important, she said.

“There aren't a lot of Jenis out there, period,” she said of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams mogul Jeni Britton Bauer. “But there definitely aren't a lot of black Jenis.”

The impact is apparent among women who enter Zora's House.

“You see the wheels turning in terms of both appreciating this space and then also them realizing, ‘Oh, I can also have my vision turn into a similar reality,'” said Zora's House ambassador Amber Evans.

Johnson credits a portion of her success to luck and resources; she was able to buy the lot in Weinland Park from Campus Partners at a low rate, build with a residential construction loan because she lives on the property, and find a low down payment. She lived with in-laws to save money, and donors stepped in at the right moments.

“I don't know that it's replicable,” she said of the possibility of building Zora's Houses in other cities. She pointed to the lack of land and property ownership among communities of color following decades of systemic racism. “It's one of the biggest challenges of entrepreneurs of color. … To tackle that is to tackle the wealth gap in this country.”

Zora's House is also made special by its community. Finding validation in their identities and dreams, ambassadors and members are starting new businesses, launching artistic endeavors and setting goals designed to empower others. Read on for a few of their stories.

LC Johnson photo by Tim Johnson