Respect Diversity + Inclusion

These two changemakers have created an inclusive space for people of color

BLCKNLIT co-founders Jasmine Pierce (L) and Priscilla Ward (R) Shaughn Cooper

Story at a glance

  • A gap in the market existed for elevated experiences that bring people of color together.
  • Priscilla Ward and Jasmine Pierce created a multiplatform brand that spotlights inspiration for black people via in-person and digital experiences.
  • The two believe in the power of a strong community and that those communities have the ability to enact positive change.

How do the most successful founder stories usually start? Most of the time, by setting out to create something they found a lack of, something they truly wanted to see in the world. Examples of this brilliantly simple philosophy can be seen everywhere — from Away suitcases by Jen Rubio to Outdoor Voices athleisure wear by Tyler Haney.

Such is the case for Priscilla Ward and Jasmine Pierce, the co-founders of BLCKNLIT. “One summer evening I said to Priscilla that we should bring her BLCKNLIT party to DC,” says Pierce. “A month later we hosted our first party at Hill Prince — a summertime backyard mixer on a balmy August night. I was shocked at how many people showed up and said they wished there were more things like it in the District. Since then it’s taken off. We really just host the types of events that we want to attend.”

BLCKNLIT is about so much more than parties, though. It’s a multiplatform brand that the two have used to elevate the voices of inspirational black people through events, online media, a podcast series and more.

We sat down with Ward and Pierce to chat about the future of BLCKNLIT, the importance of celebrating Black History Month year-round and other agents of change that they admire.

Tell me a bit about the concept of BLCKNLIT. How did you first think up the idea for the brand, and how has it evolved since launch?

 Priscilla Ward: I was living in New York in 2016 and working as a show page producer for BET. I had to come up with ways of supporting a show by highlighting four New York tastemakers on digital, so I used the platform to highlight people in my tribe who haven’t previously been given a spotlight in the media. I called it the Black and Lit List and it highlighted 30 black movers and shakers under 30 — everyone from lawyers to artists who were killing it in their field. The list went viral and I invited everyone on it to come out to an event to meet one another, which eventually evolved into a Brooklyn-based event series called BLCKNLIT, consisting of a DJ showcase and a number of memorable parties.

Jasmine Pierce: I first met Priscilla at her second BLCKNLIT event in Brooklyn in early 2017. The party was co-hosted by one of our mutual friends, to raise awareness for an international leadership trip he was embarking on. I remember walking into the room of this local Brooklyn bar and thinking how refreshing it was to see a room full of creative, passionate black people. Priscilla and I connected over both being from the DC area, and working in media. Over the eight years that I lived in NYC, I worked in publishing, radio and public relations.

PW: After launching the brand in 2016 at my desk in midtown Manhattan, I put it down and picked it back up several times over. In 2018, I ended up moving back home to DC.

JP: I moved back to DC in 2017 to be closer to my family and take a little break from nearly a decade of living in New York. I grew up in Prince George’s County and left when I was 18, so DC for me, while it’s always been home, felt somewhat unfamiliar. Many of my friends moved away already, and I was struggling to find a community like I’d built in New York. We hosted our first party at Hill Prince and I was shocked at how many people showed up and said they wished there were more things like it in the District.

PW: We’ve since hosted monthly events that foster community amongst artists, entrepreneurs, and tastemakers in D.C., including a photography exhibition, artist spotlight, music video launch, a blowout Halloween party and more. 

JP: We also launched a weekly podcast on Full Service Radio at the Line Hotel last year, based on an editorial series we created called “How’d You Get That Life?.”

Especially going into Black History Month, why is it important for inclusive spaces like BLCKNLIT to exist?

PW: There is something powerful about looking at one another and seeing our heroism regardless of age or socioeconomic status. The BLCKNLIT community celebrates the ways we shape history everyday by taking risks and creating the lives that we want for ourselves. It’s important that a space like this exists to both elevate and validate our wins and fuel our inspiration, so we can continue to reach back while moving forward. 

JP: We celebrate our blackness and our history every month. 365 days of the year. That’s what BLCKNLIT represents. Not waiting for the 28 days of February to celebrate us, but to create moments throughout the year where we can highlight our successes, discuss our lessons, and continue to elevate one another.

How do you plan to celebrate Black History Month this year? How would you suggest others inform themselves on the importance of the month and celebrate?

PW: During Black History Month BLCKNLIT will feature various members of our community who are building community through their work on our Instagram feed. We also plan to host a happy hour mixer celebrating the ways we are reshaping the narrative.

JP: As a black person, I think it’s important to learn about your family history, not just during Black History Month, but sure, you can start there. Spend time talking to your relatives and elders about the past and where you come from. So much of our history and identity has been erased by design, and so much of the past is painful and traumatic, so it’s common for black families to not openly share stories, but it’s important to know where your history lies and to hold on to it and pass it down for generations.

PW: Anyone should celebrate by spending time at your favorite cultural institution learning about a new aspect of black history.

What accomplishment from 2019 are you most proud of?

PW: I’m proud of the launch of our weekly BLCKNLIT podcast on Full Service Radio at the Line Hotel. Each week we get to sit with some of the coolest people in our community.

JP: I am so proud of our podcast! We really pushed ourselves far outside of our comfort zone and created something that not only brings us joy personally, but provides a platform for people to share their stories, and allows listeners to gain valuable advice and inspiration to light their own paths. We’ve had notable people like chef Kwame Onwuachi, music producer TRAKGIRL, and artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards. Sometimes I listen back to our interviews and I’m like “Wow, I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”

What’s another important cause to you right now? One that you believe more people should be informed on?

PW: As communities in Washington, D.C. continue to gentrify, I’m concerned about the rise in the homeless population, and how we are best meeting the needs of those who have been pushed from their homes. I’m also concerned about the preservation of our history and culture in our communities. We can’t afford to have it erased.

JP: I’m very passionate about solving the food insecurity issues in the District, specifically in Wards 7 and 8 where I was born and generations of my family have lived. It’s entirely unacceptable that in some communities in Southeast, the nearest grocery store is over a mile away, and fresh, affordable produce is scarce. People in other areas of the city take for granted the fact that they can walk a couple blocks to Trader Joes and pick up affordable healthy food, but that’s not the same reality for black families on the other side of town. We’re working on planning a fundraiser dinner event to contribute to organizations who are working to change this.

Who do you think is the biggest Agent of Change in your field and why?

PW: There are so many agents of change in the BLCKNLIT community. However, there are a few voices that particularly stick out, writers Ta-Nehisi Coates, Touré and our forever first lady Michelle Obama. They continue to use their voices to inform, challenge, and reshape the way that we see ourselves, our community, and define our purpose.

JP: I really admire the work that Elaine Welteroth has done, as a black woman in media and publishing, by highlighting the issues of black and brown people in a major fashion publication, which hadn’t been done on that scale before, and being a positive role model for black girls looking to pursue a career in an industry that hasn’t always been inclusive. Also I really vibe with Issa Rae, and appreciate how she depicts life as an upwardly-mobile black woman in America. It’s so refreshingly accurate.

What movie, book or song inspired you last year, and why?

PW: Music plays a big role in my life and how I draw inspiration. These are not from last year, but “Legacy” off of Jay-Z’s “4:44” and “F.U.B.U” off of Solange’s “A Seat At The Table” are two songs I constantly return to. They remind me of who this work is for and the power of building a legacy through this work.

JP: Can I add podcast to this list? I’m a huge fan of Oprah’s Super Soul Podcast. I had a lot of highs and lows last year, and somehow there was always an inspiring episode to help get me through whatever it was I was dealing with.

What do you have planned for BLCKNLIT in 2020?

PW: This year we are working to continue building and growing our community in DC. We plan to offer our tribe opportunities to acquire skills training through workshops and classes. Additionally, we have a mini-film festival on the horizon, wellness programming, and plans to collaborate with some of our favorite brands. Not to mention we plan to continue recording our weekly BLCKNLIT podcast on Full Service Radio.

JP: On top of what Priscilla said, I think our goal in 2020 is to try to make a bigger impact on our community. We’ve been fortunate enough to amass an engaged community of people who support BLCKNLIT, but I really want to give back and provide tangible, life-changing resources.

If you could wave your magic wand, what one thing would you change for 2020?

PW: If I could wave a magic wand and end gun violence that would be powerful. It’s 2020. The guns need to be put down.

JP: If I could wave my magic wand, I would replace this current administration with the previous one. Just imagine how wonderful that would be.

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