Dynamic Women Award 2019 Winner: Courtney Phillips
Courtney Phillips, based in Chicago, is a powerhouse entrepreneur and creative. Her future sister-in-law, Jessica Manning, nominated her for this award: “Courtney has become like a second sister over the past five years. She is a beautiful, strong, and intelligent woman with a mission to better the world. After a long and successful career as a model, she has now co-founded a multimedia company with my brother that celebrates the complexity of Black life. She also works with a cause that helps women of colour who have been sexually traumatized. It has been so beautiful to watch her grow into herself and find her purpose. I am truly inspired by the work that she does and I think she is so deserving of this gift!”
Phillips was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work via email. We are truly honoured to share a bit of her story.
You are the co-founder of Gumbo Media. Can you explain a bit about why you created this company?
Gumbo Media (@gumbo_media) was created to expand the narrative of Black life through the curation of content, experiences, and opportunity. Media in the past few years is starting to diversify in several ways and across different mediums, but we still see a large gap in the representation of Black culture, Black people, and Black communities. If you think of the images you see and the stories you read, how many of them centre around either celebrities and entertainers or stereotypes? Our goal is to be a storytelling platform that pays attention to the people with interests and talents that are not usually spotlighted, and to give space for folks to frame their own narrative with a bit more nuance.
Could you speak to the journey that led you to where you are now, and how you found your calling?
I’m still being called to new ventures and purposes in many ways, but I find myself where I currently am from following my interests. It sounds simple, and it is, though it’s not easy. I’ve tried my best to stick to what makes me happy. I have quite a lot of projects and communities in my life because I refuse to commit my energy to the things I’m not passionate about, or even worse, the things that suck the energy out of me. It may sound silly or irrational, but it’s my truth.
I’m passionate about Black culture and media, and helping creatives bring their visions to life, so I’ve worked with the intention of creating a path that allows these interests to become my (paid) profession. It hasn’t been easy, but it has pushed me to go beyond what others expected of me, what others taught me, and even what I used to think I was capable of. This journey has taught me that no one’s opinion of me or my life matters more than my happiness.
What would you say are the main goals of Gumbo?
The main goal for us is to bridge gaps in representation and bring people together within and outside of Black culture by engaging around honest and purposeful conversation—using the humanness of storytelling to reveal the common threads that tie us all together. With so much threatening to pull us apart, we want our work to be a platform that celebrates positivity and creative diversity.
In your opinion, what are some ways average consumers can start to become more inclusive and diverse in the media they pay attention to?
When speaking about social media in particular, what works for me is first identifying what I want to learn more about and then intentionally seeking out platforms that are well-rounded in that representation. I also want to be inspired by what I see. If your media isn’t inspiring and pushing you, whether on TV, news, social media, etc., then you should seek out new content. I do this on a recurring basis and over time, the content I consume has become more and more diverse. Looking at who and what is on your timeline, for example, is an easy way to assess what you’re absorbing on a regular basis. If everyone looks and talks like you, then maybe it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone, explore, and learn something new.
This principle goes for all other forms of media for me as well. Whether it be books, movies, magazines, events, etc., I love doing things that push my frame of thought out of what I once thought was “normal.” Being open to the different ways in which people think and do things opens us up to empathizing with people on a human level instead of resorting to immediate judgment.
You also work with an organization that helps women of colour who have suffered sexual traumas. How did you get involved with that and why was it a particularly important issue for you?
Yes, The Body: A Home For Love (@thebodyahomeforlove) is a project created by my friend Deun Ivory. This project is a community series (soon to be non-profit) that centres healing through visual storytelling and dialogue around sexual trauma and the Black female body. In April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are launching a multi-city, three-day series using the visuals and letters that were documented during Deun’s VSCO grant program.
I got involved in this project from knowing Deun personally and also being a prominent project manager for creatives within our community. As I mentioned, one of my passions is to support audacious creatives in bringing their visions to life, so when Deun said she had plans to expand upon her VSCO project and wanted my help, I was all ears. This project is especially important to me because it centres Black women. We all know sexual assault sees no boundaries, but Black women in particular tend to be overlooked in discussions of healing and awareness of sexual assault and sexual trauma. Simply giving Black women the space to be vulnerable and to be supported in light of the traumas they may have endured is so needed.
You probably do not have much spare time, but when you do get it, how do you like to spend it?
As intensely as I work, many people close to me are surprised by how much I value rest and self-care. It’s sacred to me. I’ve learned that overworking myself only sets me up for burnout, and leads to unproductive work anyway, so I’m intentional about ending my workdays around five or six in the evening and enjoying the vacant weekends I have, as work-free as possible. Specifically, I love travelling, cooking, working out at the gym, and going for runs outside. When it’s warm, I’m always going for walks and sitting by the lake when I can. Meditation and stretching are core values in my life, so I experiment with a variety of practices within that realm often. For me, free time is my wellness time.
How long have you lived in Chicago? How do you feel that your city informs your life and work?
I’ve been in Chicago for almost four years now. My fiance and I moved here from Minneapolis. We currently live on the South Side in the historical Hyde Park-Kenwood neighbourhood near Lake Michigan and we love it.
I love that Chicago is such a vast city with so many neighbourhoods and cultures. Many have asked why we’ve started a media company in Chicago of all places, but anyone who takes the time to understand the history of this beautiful city will see it’s the perfect place to centre media on Black lives. Chicago is the birthplace of the Johnson Publishing Company (makers of Ebony and Jet magazines), not to mention The Chicago Defender, the historic newspaper whose messages of economic opportunity circulated in the Southern states and helped spark the Great Migration. We couldn’t think of a more fitting location.
Additionally, the Black community in Chicago is often solely looked at as violent by media at large. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone whose association to the term “South Side Chicago” or “West Side Chicago” wasn’t negative. This goes back to that binary system of representation we currently see: entertainment and monoliths/stereotypes. We rarely think about the beauty in these areas, the history and culture. And even for the violence and poverty that does exist, we fail to take into account Chicago’s oppressive history of red-lining, white flight, bombings, divestment, discrimination, over-policing, etc. that have plagued the Black community since before the Great Migration. Nothing about Chicago’s design and current community structure is accidental.
But, through living here and meeting Chicago natives from the West and South Side, I see so much more than that. I meet creatives and community leaders who are making a difference every day, refusing to let the negative narratives that surround us be the only stories that come out of these neighbourhoods. This is what Gumbo means when we say we’re broadening the narrative of Black life. We’re here to capture the stories, share the art and creative expressions, curate new experiences, and be a platform for Black people to reflect themselves with all the humanity and all the passion they have to give the world. We’re shining a spotlight on all the brilliance people never see.
Self-care is different for everyone—what does it mean to you?
At large, self-care to me means taking time to be fully present. Taking time to go within and maintain alignment with my inner self. Filling my cup first, before pouring into others. Sometimes this calls for meditation, getting fresh air, or a spa day, but sometimes it’s just taking time to breathe. Whatever it is, I like to have my self-care meet me where I’m at. Doing the thing or things that are most needed in the moment. Self-care is a fluid process, and it’s not as linear as we sometimes make it sound.
What is one of your favourite or most memorable pieces of advice?
“What is for you cannot be taken from you.” It’s a simple but powerful truth. It’s helped me feel confident in my horizon, even on the tough days. It’s also helped me shrug off the things that clearly weren’t for me. Not taking life so personally, and trusting that my passion, energy, and sincere work will take me where I need and want to go.
Is there anything else you would like to share? The floor is yours.
I just want to say thank you for this feature, I really appreciate the time vitruvi is taking to spotlight winners of the Dynamic Women Awards. I feel seen. I’m also beyond grateful for the nomination from my soon-to-be sister-in-law, Jessica. She inspires me every day with her style and authenticity. She deserves this award just as much as I do. Love you, sis!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To learn about the other 2019 Dynamic Women Award winners, click here.