When Your Life Prepares You For An Assignment: ESSENCE Festival 2019
My journey in creating 2019 ESSENCE Fest’s Wellness House & Health Hub programming
When asked how one knows their calling, Elevation Church Pastor Steven Furtick once replied with “you will know it by what you are doing today.”
Life lived today prepares you for tomorrow. Time invested yields crops, whether good or bad. Seeds sowed now reap harvests later. This concept resonated with me because my life, like many, has been spent toiling in my career field for 20+ years without a clear vision of where exactly this was going.
Although I’ve worked in marketing, sponsorship, advertising and live events at Leo Burnett, DDB, Ogilvy, Live Nation, iN DEMAND, Carol’s Daughter, VIBE Magazine, Translation, and my own consultancy Omerge Alliances for 24 years, quite honestly, I was just using my creativity and years of experience as the each assignment presented itself, until a unique assignment presented itself forcing me to live and toil more intentionally moving forward.
The Phone Call
In December 2018, one of Omerge Alliances’ clients, ESSENCE Festival, contacted me regarding 2019 projects. I never take renewals for granted. So, was appreciative of the call and assumed that it would be a repeat of 2018 experiences we led.
Not so. Unfortunately, this call informed me that Omerge Alliances was not being contracted for the Beauty experience as we had been the 3 previous years. Instead, we would maintain Entertainment All Access (Center Stage, Screening Room & Fan Zone — ok, a blessing), yet Beauty was being given to another firm while we were being asked to create programming for the “ESSENCE Move” Stage. Hmmmm…
Wait. Whoa…Why? Really…
Why was I (no longer depersonalized as “we”/Omerge Alliances, not being rewarded with Beauty this year?). Sure, there were kinks, but they were acknowledged with plans for improvement. No reasons were presented, it was an executive decision. Period.
So, I grappled with my next steps amongst my dearest friends and found a way to push through embarrassment and shame with colleagues per what felt like a loss and demerit. Having personally invested so much energy in my work (which was also a lesson), I felt personally rejected. I had to pray — a LOT — to accept the new scope of work, and find strength to hold my head up high, chalking it up to a business decision, all the while focusing on the work and no emotions <sigh>.
The ESSENCE Move stage was a significantly smaller and less shiny/glamorous consumer experience. It is no surprise that women are more ravenous about beauty than they are about health. So, I got the lemon — or so I thought.
However, in truth, as a long-time health lover and wellness advocate (and ahem, certified yoga teacher), marketer and produce-her, I was uniquely qualified to create health & wellness programming for ESSENCE’s target audience.
Creating first-year programs are tough and ambiguous. There is no precedent. Everyone has ideas. Yet, no one has a benchmark or the “right answer” to guide the process and sponsors are reluctant to support without proof of concept. And there is fear — lots of it — of failure and success.
This is where my life experience played a big role.
At age 65, both my mother and sister died of heart disease-related matters, while my maternal grandmother died of a heart attack at 68. Since the heart is the well spring of life, it was clear that the women in my family were not well.
Growing up, I went on daily walks with my mother starting at around age 9 to help manage her heart disease and also to raise funds for the American Heart Association (yes we did door to door solicitation in Midtown Memphis). I observed as she attempted to lengthen her life expectancy and improve her health through valiant attempts at exercise and diet (largely plant and fish based). And all the while, I also watched her endure a life of health complications due to multiple heart attacks, diabetes, smoking, gallstones, and other maladies because of relational hardships due to familial and life disappointments.
In 2002, upon entering my mother’s bedroom in our Memphis family home after her passing at Methodist hospital, I noticed a handwritten index card — apropos given she was a teacher — on her dresser that I will never forget. My mother, Delois, had listed the year, family or life trauma associated with contracted physical malady, e.g. 1985 — daughter addicted to drugs — 1st heart attack; 1989 — husband leaves — 2nd heart attack, and the list continued.
As I read the full index card, pain consumed me. I had a new realization for my mother’s pain endurance and a greater understanding of all she was doing to show up for me in life each day. Furthermore, I also understood that her death was due to an overarching lack of well-being. Similarly, my sister Sherilyn, who recently died in February 2019, had struggled with substance abuse since for 35+ years in large part due to emotional instability and heartbreak along the way. My empathy for her life and struggle with her for decades to break the addiction chains connected me to and informed me of the needs of women and mothers struggling with mental health and substance addiction.
The losses of my mother and sister compounded with living their lives alongside them greatly informed me subconsciously regarding how emotional well being has the potential to impact physical health and overall wellness.
What started as the ESSENCE Move Stage was morphing into not one, but TWO, distinct health & wellness experiences (Health Hub and Wellness House) with the potential to impact legions of women and families. #Joy.
Little did I know that the road ahead for me would include the opportunity to create a destination that could be a healing balm and a wellness outlet for women.
The Creation Process
As I understood it, the vision to create the inaugural ESSENCE Wellness House was that of ESSENCE Ventures Owner Richelieu Dennis and 22 Day Nutrition Founder Marco Borges. The driver of the Health Hub was ESSENCE Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks. And ESSENCE Festival & Live Events Executive Director Candace Montgomery had a very specific aesthetic and experiential direction she had in mind (down to the staff uniform) for all experiences. So, alignment with them all was critical as I headed into creation station.
Due to the volume of work on the other Festival experiences, let alone other clients <sigh>, there was no time for primary research on what women would want at this new experience. At ESSENCE Communications, there were lots of ideas and opinions, many of which I highly regarded, especially from ESSENCE Relationship & Wellness Editorial Director Charli Penn and Associate Lifestyle Editor Jasmine Grant. But as we all became distracted with our insurmountable respective daily responsibilities, I knew I had to pull it through. So, sat at my meditation seat one evening at the foot of my bed asking God for guidance on how, and was guided to ask Candace if I could take it from here. And I earnestly and humbly did, the next morning.
Candace agreed, for which I was grateful, and with prayer and divine guidance, I thought about what kind of wellness experiences and information black women globally needed (quickly). I asked myself, ‘if my mother or sister were able to attend this event, what could they walk away with that would better their lives?
A group of incredibly dedicated and talented health & wellness advocates, creative & production professionals joined forces with me to create incredible experiences for all.
Just to mention a few, the Wellness House offered an expanse of fitness routines to try in a safe environment. such as yoga, pilates, dance cardio, body sculpting, and cardio kickboxing by teachers who looked like them and who were also renowned leaders. Stacii Jae Johnson & Mashonda Tifrere led a transformational heart-healing intensives guiding women to re-write their love stories and hear from other women that they too were on the path to wholeness. Melanie Fiona led attendees in a session using a crystal singing bowl guiding attendees in writing down the one thing they would release to have a greater path forward in their lives. Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, Founder of Therapy for Black Girls and Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn shared valuable mental health gems, while Dr. Columbus Batiste imparted heart health expertise and Dr. Safiya Lyn-Lassiter shared the benefits of CBD and medical marijuana. Dr. Jess led a #BeWell sister circle. Attendees experienced morning workouts , conversations, nutrition advice from Beyonce’s very own nutritionist and my partner-in-crime Marco Borges, free massages, free wellness soufflés from The Oil Bar, readings by The Hood Healer and Simone Bresi-Ando.
The weekend culminated in a festive Before I Let Go (Maze & Frankie Beverly Tribute) Dance Party on Sunday, AND featured a Slutty Vegan pop-up across the street on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Health Hub, held in Hall E of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, focused more on disease state issues such as blood pressure monitoring, STIs and also mental health & renewal after abusive relationships.
The Wellness House sold out a week in advance. Gayle King mentioned the Wellness House experience at her near-sold out Superdome interview on Saturday night with Michelle Obama, and attendees stayed all day and experienced all the Wellness House had to offer. The Health Hub line was standing room only throughout the weekend. So, turns out, health is more demanded than I originally thought, and through the grace of God, I was able to channel my experiences and insights into programming that people wanted and which I hope will change lives for the better.
I had no expectation or goal other than to offer a space and information to enhance black women’s well being. And looking back, all I needed was my life experience.
The next time a door shuts OR you question why something doesn’t pan out as you intended, I invite you to trust God, the universe or your inner divine (whichever is applicable to you) in the knowing that your life is being magnificently orchestrated and that everything you need to meet your assignment exists inside of you.
This 2019 ESSENCE Festival experience forced me to think less of what others are doing or receiving, and instead tuning inwards to ensure that what I am doing is right for me based on my interests, skill set and life experience as well.
I look forward to creating more wellness-oriented events, and hope to be invited back by the ESSENCE team. The challenge will be protecting the experience’s integrity and specialness and the interests of the audience in a sophomore effort. Yet, I feel confident we can do it, again, given my life experience.
My hope is that you will be inspired to trust your life experience to confidently and intuitively meet assignments which present themselves to you and that you will channel life’s losses (whatever they are) into legacy, service and benevolence.
Gratitude & Props to Chem Creative for designing & producing a beautiful consumer experience, ALL TALENT participants, Martha & Duane of The Lighthouse, Sandy & Gordy of Altitude 748 (Formerly Rebellion Bar & Urban Kitchen), ESSENCE Leadership for entrusting me and Team Omerge, ESSENCE Creative, Promotions, PR, Ticketing Teams and to Malissa Anthony & Frederic De Jesus for being the best Wellness House on-site experience managers I could ever have dreamt of, and to Carl Capers, Kareem Hodges and Nakeisha Joiner for leading the Health Hub magnificently (mostly with my presence).
In grace & gratitude,
Olivia F. Scott
Founder, Omerge Alliances, Creator, Freedom At The Mat, NYU Adjunct Instructor. Lover of life, faith, joy and abundance.
Lifetime recipient of grace and favor.