Online Women’s Groups Building A Community In Real Life
With a foundation of trust and intimacy made possible by technology, many female-focused organizations are evolving their support systems off the web.
As a single Black mother in Toronto, Tanya Hayles had parenting questions, but no community to go to for answers. So, in 2015 she started Black Moms Connection, a local online group to share specific cultural experiences and seek support.
Soon Hayles started hearing from Black mothers across the world who wanted to join. “We created a space that was safe for women to share and not worry about having to sensor themselves. We went from 400 to 4,000 in the span of a few months,” she says. “We were adding hundreds of moms a day.”
In a world where it’s increasingly difficult for women to find safe havens, many are moving to the virtual space to forge connections and share stories. Online communities create protected spaces where women can let down their guard and freely express themselves.
The idea of free expression is the concept behind Women Making Waves, an online community for women “seeking inspiration and connection” to share stories about their struggles and vulnerabilities. Started by Charlotte Haimes, the group was born out of her own need for connection after moving from the United States to Paris for a new job.
“I [was] sure there [were] plenty of women out there who have stories of struggle, transitions, vulnerability, shame and who probably want to voice them out,” says Charlotte. “It comes down to wanting to find other likeminded women who shared this feeling.”
Seeking out a sympathetic community allows women to speak without fear of judgment or worry that some topics may be taboo.
“There’s this desire to connect with a broader cause and with women that you can trust,” says Beth Santos, founder of Wanderful, an online community for women who travel. “There’s a comfort in ‘let’s talk about women’s issues,’” she adds. “The fact that these experiences are so shared, there really is that feeling of sisterhood.”
Originally Santos founded Wanderful as a blog to give voice to issues regarding identity and safety as a female traveler. Discovering an audience in women who were also eager to talk about gender and travel, the site expanded and today boasts 27 chapters across the world as well as a global homesharing network. They organize several in-person events for female travelers to meet, bond and to learn new skills.
Black Moms Connection is so popular, that this past summer Hayles organized the group’s first-ever conference with expert sessions that gave practical solutions to parenting issues. Women Making Waves has grown such a significant following that they held their conference in September and have another scheduled for the end of this year.
The expansion beyond technological interfacing to real-life events and meet ups marks a significant victory for online women’s communities. These groups have managed to do the near impossible – bring the digital space into the real world.
This convergence is so important because, though internet communities can form connections beyond the restrictions of geographical boundaries, nothing quite replaces what happens to the brain when meeting someone face-to-face.
“The human brain is designed to look at somebody’s eyes, feel their skin, [see] their microfacial movements,” says Janet Crawford, CEO of Cascadance, Inc. and a thought leader on the science of bias and belonging. “Online, you’re extracting out a thin thread of what our brain can perceive so the level of connectivity and nurturance will never replace what can happen in person.”
The symbiotic relationship these groups have built between online and offline interactions creates safe, supportive communities where women can thrive without feeling isolated by technology. They straddle the best of both worlds, connecting women in new ways and allowing them to form deep relationships they can carry over offline. In some cases, they’ve actually created spaces where women feel connected, largely because of their technological interactions.
Santos believes that the relationships forged in her online community are what has enabled her offline events to do so well. “About five years ago people would say, people are using the internet so much it’s like the death of human interaction,” she says. “But from what I’ve seen in our online community, the online interactions enhance in-person interactions.”
“People meet online and now they really want to meet in person,” she continues. “There’s something about in person interactions that [technology] will never replace.”
Laurie Kamens is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written for several publications including The New York Times, The New York Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Flavorwire, Interview Magazine, and Long Island Pulse. Follow her on Twitter @lauriekamens.