Zora’s House started nearly eight years ago as little more than an idea in a notebook.
From there, founder LC Johnson wholly invested herself in bringing the vision to life, constructing the original 2,000-square-foot for women of color on an abandoned lot on Summit Street in Weinland Park. In the years since the building first opened in 2018, Johnson’s idea for the community hub has continued to flower and grow, leading to a forthcoming expansion into a new, 10,000-square-foot space, construction on which will begin following a groundbreaking on Friday, Feb. 3.
“When that original vision of Zora’s House was starting to come to fruition, it was just myself,” Johnson said. “Now, it feels surreal, because this has become a dream that is much bigger than my own. … This isn’t just mine anymore. It belongs to so many people. And that makes it really exciting.”
In addition to the continually expanding staff of Zora’s House, this time around Johnson has enlisted the assistance of Moody Nolan, the largest Black-owned architecture and planning firm in the country, as well as the woman-owned construction firm Marker, Inc., which is tasked with the build. (Zora’s House 2.0 is being constructed at the corner of North Fourth Street and East Eighth Avenue in Weinland Park.)
While launching a project of this scale would lead many to pause and reflect on just how far they’ve come, Johnson said that looking backwards isn’t in her nature. “I think part of it is that I’m a Black woman leader who has come up in a lot of predominantly white spaces, and oftentimes I felt like I had to continue to prove myself, to prove that I was worthy of being there,” Johnson said. “So, it’s kind of become second nature to me to be like, ‘I gotta keep accomplishing.’ You can’t rest on your laurels.”
Though Zora’s House will now inhabit a much larger physical space, Johnson said its core mission remains the same, deepened by the experiences she has shared with its myriad members over the last five years and existing completely detached from any structure. This reality hit home for the founder in the aftermath of Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd in May 2020, at a time the Summit Street space was closed by the coronavirus.
“People were hurting, and we were like, ‘We need to organize some healing circles for the women in our community,’” said Johnson, who quickly moved . “And we had these circles, and they were so powerful. It felt like Zora’s House. People laughed. People cried. The energy was high. The vulnerability was there. And that was a moment that made me realize Zora’s House isn’t a house. It’s this. And that was a reminder of who we are at our core, when the space is taken away."
Part of Johnson’s experience in building toward the next iteration of Zora’s House has involved challenging deeply embedded stereotypes. When she started fundraising for the new space, for example, she said she was sometimes confronted with organizations hesitant to contribute, professing to have already committed funds to programs geared toward women of color. Questioned on the programs they funded, Johnson said, the answer was often homeless shelters, food pantries and similar initiatives geared toward poverty.
“And it became very clear to me that for many people in our community, especially those in the nonprofit and funding sectors, 'women of color' was synonymous with low income,” Johnson said. “One of the first things that needed to change was people in power recognizing that women of color exist outside of poverty, that we exist across a wide spectrum. And the way they were thinking of women of color was only as recipients of services, and not creators of programs, leaders of initiatives. Folks who are shaping things and are able to contribute and not just receive.”
The last five years have also been filled with painful reminders of the countering forces against which Zora’s House exists as a bulwark. The murder of George Floyd lent a sober tone to the space's virtual pivot. An April 2021 morning that started with Johnson celebrating the success of Zora’s House ambassador Storm Estes, who had just partnered with the community hub to launch , turned tragic soon after with news breaking about Columbus police killing Black teenager Ma’Khia Bryant. And even the groundbreaking for the new building will unfold against a backdrop of tragedy, taking place a week after the Jan. 27 release of video footage that showed five Memphis police officers brutally beating Tyre Nichols, leading to his death.
“It can’t just be work for me, and for so many other people who are part of Zora’s House. With Tyre Nichols, and the videos and the images, at the end of the day, I have Black children, I have a Black husband. Racial equity isn’t a buzzword; it’s critical,” Johnson said. “I was talking to somebody recently and they were like, ‘Oh, we fund basic needs.’ Racial equity is a basic need. Don’t talk to me about affordable housing and don’t talk to me about food insecurity if you’re not also willing to talk about racial equity as a basic need, a basic human right that all people should have.
“Zora’s House is not a luxury, and that’s something I get fired up about. People will be like, ‘Oh, Zora’s House seems like something nice to have.’ It’s a fucking need to have. … The work we’re doing is hard, and it can be hard every day. But I think that makes us even more committed to seeing it unfold, because it has to happen. It has to happen.”
When Johnson first posted on Facebook more than a year ago about her plans to construct a massive new building for Zora’s House, she referenced the advice given to author Zora Neale Hurston by her mother, who continually reminded her daughter of the need to “jump at de sun,” accomplishing great things previously thought impossible. With the groundbreaking looming, Johnson said she’s embraced this mantra, while also accepting that the work is far from done.
“For somebody like me, who considers myself, yes, an entrepreneur and CEO, but also an activist, I don’t think I will touch the sun in my lifetime,” Johnson said. “But it is so important to me that my feet get off the ground, so that things are different for my children. … I think most activists have to believe wholeheartedly in futures that we’ll never be fully a part of. So, no, I definitely have not touched the sun. But I do feel that my feet have gotten off of the ground, and I’m really proud of that.”