A conversation with Mary Burgess
Planning. Crafting. And internet friends. When I sat down to chat with Mary Burgess about the founding of Black Women Who Plan and Create, I felt like I was talking to an old girlfriend I simply hadn’t heard from in months.
From a Facebook group that exploded onto the social media scene to live online classes to its first conference, Black Women Who Plan and Create is a place for women of color to gather and share their
love obsession with creating, crafting and decorative planning. (If you don’t know what that is, just type ‘planner’ into Instagram.)
You are heralded as the queen of BWWPC. What lead you to BWWPC?
I was always planning. Throughout my high school career. I was just doing that naturally to keep myself organized. Growing up it was always deemed as “Mary just does these things that are not Black.” So it wasn’t ever seen as something black women do, and I kind of went along with it because I had experienced that so much within my own community. I thought I guess it’s just a white people thing I like to do.
Fast forward to 2013-ish. I started with an Erin Condren teacher planner. While I was waiting for it, I found a lot of groups on Facebook. The demographics of these groups are majority white women. And I just went along with it again. I didn’t really expect to see black women in those groups.
About 2015 when a lot of the killings were happening and was becoming a lot more seen through social media and television, I started using my planner as a form of therapy. I just started creating stickers that look like me, spreads that represented my feelings, and I would post them online. I would get a lot of feedback. Some good. Some bad. And that’s when I started noticing a lot more black women coming out of the woodwork. I thought, “Oh! There’s a lot of us in here. But why don’t we feel comfortable to talk? Why don’t we feel like we are a part of this?” We started talking to each other a little bit more. There was one particular post I was on and someone said: “We should just have our own black girl group because no one ever understands us.” So I sent out a link.
People started joining in droves. And it really– It still surprises me today, sad as it is, how many of us are out there. And how many of us feel like we can’t– We feel like we’re infringing on someone else’s hobby and that shouldn’t be the case. I love the group. I’m enjoying it. I’m still surprised how many people are in there.
You brought together this community. How does it feel having that following of black women who are into the same things you’re into?
A photographer for an event once told me, “You’re essentially changing the conversation behind things that people don’t even know about. Planning and this craft world is pretty much segregated.” I was just sitting there like, “Oh my God. Is that really what I’m doing?” I just thought I wanted some internet friends and people that do what I do and understand what I’m talking about and I’m not looked at as weird. It’s definitely an adjustment. I don’t see myself as the queen of anything. I’m just a regular person. But it’s amazing. It’s so exciting and it’s humbling to see that people needed this so much. And that they were so happy. That I was able to do this and create this for other people, I’m grateful. I’m glad to help everybody. I didn’t know how much it was needed.
It was definitely something that I needed so thank you for that.
I’m glad. I’m so happy. I’m so excited for you.
I was in the same boat as you were. I was called Oreo.
I want to change that conversation. With women. Within our own community. I don’t want to feel like have to put on a show or a facade in order to communicate with one another. Why is it that I’m speaking properly and you can call me an Oreo. That’s not fair.
I completely agree. I’m not turning on my white girl. It’s professional tonality.
The name is so on the nose. Did you ever consider having something vaguer as a name?
Really early on. It’s something I talk with my mother about. I talk with my mother a lot. (She’s my best friend.) I said to her: “Maybe I should make it women of color. Maybe I should make it brown girl that plan or something of the sort.” She asked, “Why?” I felt that other people would feel that they don’t belong. She said, “Well, so many of you felt like you didn’t belong for so long.” We still have that conversation about how we’re the community that’s looked at as the one that has to fix everything. Whenever we feel like we’re being slighted, we make things for ourselves. NAACP, the Negro Leagues. We make things for ourselves in order to be successful within our own community. We show our strength. And then in doing that we accept everybody else. But why do we have to do that? Why can’t every other group also do that for themselves? Instead of us always having to do the work. Then I was like, I’ll just leave it. We’re all black really. All these women of color, if they look back at their history, at their background, you have African DNA. Acknowledge that. Accept that. And then be a part of the conversation.
Did you have plans for the website from the beginning?
No. It was literally just a Facebook group. And then it started to grow. People started telling me I was on the cusp of being able to do something for our community and how I needed to wake up and realize what the hell I was doing. I thought, Let me refocus my self. We got a website. We’re in the process of going toward nonprofit status. I’m trying to get us in with Baltimore right now to be able to get into the high school and teach these kids how to use their planners, just to help them with their day-to-day lives.
Then there’s also the aspect of raising something at each one of the meetups. It always bothered me that I was spending so much money on this hobby of mine, but what was I doing to help my community? If I’m so interested in helping my community and bringing this to as many black women as I could why am I not pouring some aspect of myself into helping those in need? So now at meetups, you can bring something to give to any place that’s in need. and give [the community] back a little more rather than only worrying about ourselves.
Community-driven fundraising. It sounds like it very involved.
A lot of different moving parts, but it’s fun where it is right now.
What challenges did you face starting the group?
There was a lot of backlash as far as other groups. White women saying, “Why can’t we have a White Women Who Plan and Create?” People calling me or the group racist.
I still see myself as me and not necessarily the face of a group. but I need to kind of change that thought of myself which is hard and sad at the same time. I am vocal. I am my own self. I’m quick to cut somebody off if they’re pissing me off, quick to go at them. But I have to realize that I’m essentially a brand now. I have to represent not just myself but 15,000 other women. That’s a really big thing for me. Being able to work with different people, that’s always a thing that you have to be able to do. Luckily, I do teach.
So being a teacher comes in handy with that?
Yeah. I’m able to use my skills with being able to manage a whole entire class and manage other staff in my room in order to help with that.
Which part came the easiest to you?
The friendship. The conversations. The people that you meet. I feel like I have a lot of internet cousins. That’s why I’m excited for this conference. It won’t be like those stuffy conferences that you go to for work where it’s like everyone’s in their corners and taking notes. It’ll kinda feel like a family reunion. I’m excited to meet people that I’ve grown close with, developed relationships with, and get to know them and for them to see who I am from behind the screen. We’re all just people.
Since we’re one the topic of the conference, when did you have the idea to create this?
We started talking about it in May of last year, and we had a lot of ideas bouncing around and then we finally really serious about it. In all honesty, it was terrifying for me to actually say that we were going to do this because above all else, my name is on this as far as paperwork and contracts and money that has to go out. That’s my name. That’s my credit. I was terrified that we were going to put this out that nobody would come. That nobody would buy the ticket and then we’d be in a hole. I didn’t think anybody would really want this. I knew people were saying let’s do a conference but I knew the cost and didn’t think people wanted to that money out. But low and behold, a month away and….
[Mary goes silent]
Don’t do that. I will cry with you. No one cries alone in my presence
I’m gonna be a mess that weekend. I already know that. It’s crazy. I didn’t know that this was something people wanted. I didn’t know that this was something that people needed. But they did. It’s kind of intense and scary in a way. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want people to not feel fulfilled. I don’t want to drain them. I want to feed them. I want to give them space where they feel appreciated and loved.
I’m gonna say this now, thanks for the wonderful time. To go from being called white girl to finding this community of women who say, “We got y, u sis. We accept you for who you are and what you’re into.”
It’s like “You understand me!”
You can drop your vernacular and people to don’t look at you funny.
Do you consider this a business?
Yes and no. I am told I need to see it as a business. But I don’t want to because I feel that when you start to think of it as a business you tend to lose the essence of what it is. And to me the essence of this group is sisterhood. It’s a place where you can feel welcome and safe, and feel like people understand what it is you are and what you’re about. I feel like if it solely focused on the business part it would be removing that from the group. I’m very careful with the steps that I’m taking moving forward. I’m trying to be careful with it because I don’t want somebody coming and saying we can do this, this, and this and make this into x, y, and z. I don’t want to lose the foundation of where we came from. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about going nonprofit. People are extremely excited, but it’s like you can see their face change from the awe of what you’re doing to the money signs. I’m not in this for money. I’m not in this to make a quick buck. These are actual women who need this place, need this platform, and I don’t want to take that away from anybody. So I’m very careful with who I deal with and what I do with the group. I don’t want to solely become a business brand.
Who was your support?
My mom, kind of. She didn’t understand, but she said to do it. She’ll listen. She’ll give input when I ask questions. She was a big supporter of mine. I don’t have her in the group for a reason. I need her to my personal soundboard. I have some other non-black supporters. A planner friend of mine that I met in Planners Gone Wild [Another Facebook planner group] about 3 years ago and she’s been awesome support for me. And more people who are willing to listen and understand what I’m doing. They give me advice and are there when I ask.
Tell me about your admin team.
We have Candice Gale of Nacho Caterpillar Co, Lameka Alston of Pink Bow Ties, Heidi Hemphill Samples who is a working mom and BWWPC live class teacher. We try to get women from different walks of life who give input and help along the way. Our moderators Chevonne Thomas and Mayte Lisbeth in NY, Sahara Sahar in Boston, Jameelah Jones in Kansas City, Kathryna Clarke in Atlanta. They are awesome!
Tell us about a day in the life of Mary Burgess of BWWPC. How do you keep it running?
A dead phone. My phone dies three times a day. Keep a charger, a fully charged battery pack, and a computer on you at all times. It’s constant notifications, constant people messaging you. Constant contact. I literally wake up and the first thing I do is check the group. I need to really take a step back and do you some deep meditation in the morning. I check the group chat, make sure everything is still going good. Then I message people as they message me. I get a lot of messages. People who are upset. I get a lot of questions. I get a lot of people demanding my time. Sometimes you get people who are very upset and you have to address what they’re saying right then and there or they’re going to say things are not ok. If I don’t message somebody back quick enough, they can go off into a tailspin. That’s pretty much the day. We have our group chat where we are constantly talking about things that we can do in the group, reminding one another what to do, or what to post in the group to get involvement from the members. Ideas or concerns are brought up.
You’re all volunteers, correct?
Yeah. No days off.
You’re supporting and promoting all these women business owners. Do you get anything from the shops?
No. We don’t get anything. We don’t even get free things. I don’t want free things. A part of me always wanted to help the business side of the black community. Being able to strengthen that black dollar. For me, it’s giving my money to a company or business. It’s a constant circle of development and growth in our community. We don’t’ get any cut or goodie. The only cut we did get was from the logo, but we don’t get a cut from what they make.
So you license the logo?
Anytime I see that afro and that crown, I am here for it. Who created a logo?
An illustrator. I drew out what I wanted from an idea I had and the illustrator made it happen.
Mary does it all.
What advice do you have for other women out there who want to start a biz?
Research. Learn about what it is that you want to offer. See what other people are already doing. See what they’re doing, what they’re not doing. And then go out and provide your product. I don’t want people to put out the same exact thing all the time. There’s so many different facets, so many areas of what people need in this world and we sometimes feel as though we’re not the right the right ones to do it but we are. You just have to take the time to learn about what people need and give them the product. If you continue to push it– if you continue to put effort and time it will be a success.
Any comments for our readers?
I am a person, a human being. We all make mistakes. In life and in business, you make mistakes. But don’t be afraid to acknowledge them. Get back up, dust yourself off and keep going.
Whew! We made it. I told you we talked like old friends! If you loved hearing about Mary, don’t forget to check out the rest of the Ladies in Leadership series.
There’s a lot more to come from Mary and the BWWPC crew. Be sure to follow and keep up with events like their annual conference, curated sales, Planning After Dark, and more!