A new co-working and community space opens in Weinland Park

Columbus entrepreneur LC Johnson learned the importance of having safe, supported spaces designed for people of color as a student at Duke University. There, she found herself gravitating toward the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.

“That was where the black community was. That was our hub,” said Johnson, who graduated with a degree in women's studies. “But it also highlighted … something that has been on my mind ever since, which is that, as black women, our experience is distinct from black men in certain ways.”

That realization was also sparked by the highly publicized 2006 Duke lacrosse case, during which a black female stripper accused three white members of the men's lacrosse team of rape. (Charges were ultimately dropped.)

Johnson had begun her freshman year in the midst of the frenzy. “People [were] just having these conversations about the way that race played out [and] the way that gender played out,” she said. “I kept realizing that there were some things that black women struggled with around rape culture and around disrespect … [even] within the black community. … And so that encouraged my continued exploration on how women's experiences were different.”

Johnson's passion culminated in Zora's House, a co-working and community space she created for women of color in Weinland Park. (Johnson lives in a house on the same lot with her husband, Sheldon, and son.) The venue will officially open its doors with a launch party on Friday, April 13.

The idea for Zora's House was born when Johnson and Sheldon moved to Columbus in 2015. Johnson struggled to make new friends, and found networking events didn't foster the types of relationships she was seeking.

“I told my husband, ‘There's gotta be some place where I could go to meet other women of color,'” she said. “‘I don't want to network with them. I want to hang out with them. I want to talk to them. I want to help them with their work. And I want to brainstorm with them.'”

Failing to find such a place, she resolved to create it herself. She started with a meetup group and newsletter, Zora's Daughters, named for novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Johnson said she admires how Hurston celebrated “imperfect” black women at a time when African-Americans were trying to be as pristine as possible to demonstrate their humanity. And she was inspired that another black woman writer, Alice Walker, brought Hurston's work to the forefront.

“[I like] the idea that one woman of color lifted another one into the light in such a powerful way,” Johnson said. “That is what [Zora's House] is meant to do.”

It's an effect Johnson achieved before the house was built. For instance, Camisha Chambers remembers feeling empowered at her first Zora's Daughters outing — a “vision board” event.

“I felt like [Johnson] facilitated an event for us to be able to cultivate dreams and passions, and reinvigorate us to a degree,” said Chambers, who moved to Columbus in 2016. “A lot of times we [as women] get lost while we're helping others. … Zora's House is a place where women can come to find themselves.”

Once Johnson built clientele and broke ground on the previously vacant lot, she launched an online campaign to raise money. She received an initial surge of donations, but by the last week of her campaign, she was less than halfway to her goal.

“I was really at a place where I was like, ‘I'm gonna give up, this is embarrassing,'” Johnson said. But she decided to write one last letter to galvanize her newsletter subscribers and social media followers.

“I was like, ‘Listen, I put this out into the world and I didn't do it because I needed it. I did it because we all need this,'” Johnson said. “‘We are in a moment in our country and in our history right now where we need to cherish the most vulnerable among us.'”

Johnson exceeded her fundraising goal. “I remember this guy who I'd never met made this $1,000 contribution, and he was like, ‘I believe in women of color,'” Johnson said. “People really showed up.”

Going forward, Zora's House will operate on a membership basis, with patrons paying monthly fees for varying levels of access. They will have space to work, read in the onsite library or rent out offices on the second floor. There will also be events and workshops to further build community.

Additionally, Johnson hopes to partner with other businesses and organizations that want to connect with a more diverse demographic.

“Cities who want to stay ahead of the curve need to figure out how to make women of color feel like they can be at home,” she said. “It's a learning opportunity for Columbus to figure out, ‘How do we house these women more effectively — and not just their bodies — but house their ideas [and] house their passion?'”