Uplifted and Empowered: Creating cards to “put our arms around the Black community”
In 2021, Mahogany released the 11-card Uplifted and Empowered collection, featuring timely, authentic, inspiring messages to support Black people emotionally through the heaviness of ongoing racial injustice.
A year later, the four Black women writers and artist behind the cards gathered to talk about the public response to those cards, the importance of Black community, and a new collection of cards with affirming messages arriving just in time for Black History Month.
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Revisiting the Uplifted and Empowered Collection
MELVINA YOUNG, MASTER WRITER
“The Uplifted and Empowered collection was born in the crucible of 2020, after the very public and camera-captured murder of several Black people—we’re talking about our sons and our daughters, our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our children, our grandchildren. And our community’s grief was palpable and inescapable. We wanted to address that pain, that hard reality, unequivocally.
“Then, you know, add to racial injustice, all the stressors that came with the pandemic. The disproportionate number of people in our community who fell ill and were lost, the job loss and economic strain that hit our communities disproportionately, and the inability to gather with and around one another as we always do in hard times. It was a lot.
“At that time, the meaning of this work to me was to be able to put our arms as Black women at Hallmark around our Black community and say: ‘We see you. We know your pain. More importantly, we are you. And we will speak up for us.’
“We’re going to speak to our humanity in these inhumane times. And the intent is to help us lift one another up and remind one another that even when we are ground down to our essence, we are still empowered by our heritage, by our faith, by one another. That’s one reason that the ‘We’re Each Other’s People’ card resonated like it did.
“And so, as we look around at what’s happening in 2022, as we pay attention to Black people, what we know is that we are going to have to be more grounded in all of those things—especially one another—more than ever.”
DEE ZOLLAR, MAHOGANY EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
“I must agree with Melvina’s comment about the necessity to be grounded in each other—both then and now. Looking back to 2020, I remember that what resonated with me so profoundly was this real sense of community we were forming as we navigated that space together. We’d had so many conversations and listening sessions in the company with several of our colleagues who were feeling all this despair and pain that was right beneath the surface of these professional personas we were struggling to maintain in the workplace. It felt like to get through any given day, we really had to draw strength from each other.
“And although living through this creative experience was personally challenging for all of us, it was deeply gratifying to know these cards we were creating would be providing something tangible that I could give to other people in my circle—something they could literally hold on to during those very turbulent times. Truthfully, I could think of people I could give each one of the cards to. But the one that personally resonated with me the most was what I call the ‘Bridge Card’ because it has such a powerful message of faith and hope.”
MERCEDES LUCERO, SENIOR WRITER
“I remember feeling so proud and comforted to know that the Uplifted and Empowered collection was received so well. Here is this collection that’s saying what on our minds and in our hearts in a way that feels real. I loved sending them to people in my life, too. One of my friends even ordered a bunch so she could frame them. They really are just that beautiful.”
Checking in with the Black community
“For the new cards, we were wanting to think through what had resonated with our consumers with the first collection—but at the same time, we were very intentional about having a conversation to think about where we were presently. What were some of the things happening or issues that were coming up? What is resonating—what is top of mind?
“People were taking a mental health check and saying, ‘I’m not doing very well. I’m struggling. Things are not good.’
“And then you have Simone Biles dropping out from the Olympics because she said, ‘I need to prioritize my own wellness.’
“That was something that we knew we needed to address. And we needed to address it in the context of the Black community.
COURTNEY TAYLOR, SENIOR WRITER
“We had the freedom to step outside the typical conventions and expectations. We were also allowed to be—or, rather, we insisted on being—direct and straightforward about racial injustice. That directness is vital because we’re so often expected to only speak of hope, to only look on the bright side of hurt. And if we do talk about hardship, the mention of hardship has to be so subtle—virtually silent.
“But in 2020, 2021, 2022 and, unfortunately, any year you can think of, our pain has never been subtle. We need and deserve cards that reflect the magnitude of our experience.
“That’s why the ‘It’s okay to say we’re not okay’ card means a lot to me because, right there on the cover, you have a direct message that can’t be softened, that can’t be reduced. The inside of the card talks about the importance of feeling our feelings in whatever way they come out: crying, screaming, checking out from the world for a while. And all of those expressions are healthy and important.
“That card is very similar to a new card we have in the collection that says, ‘Taking care of our mental health is a sign of Black love.’
“The statement challenges the stigma of seeking mental health care in Black communities. It makes way for vulnerability so that we can comfortably and confidently say ‘I need help, and that’s okay.’ I’m really happy about the cards in this line, like this one, that don’t mince words; cards that directly lean into the very specific nature of injustice and the difficulties we endure as a community.”
Read Melvina’s post, Self-Care for My Sisters: Letting the “Strong Black Woman” Rest, and try Mercedes’ Journaling Ideas for Self-Care.
“I love that we included teen mental health—the card that’s like, ‘I wish you didn’t have to go through this.’ Just a straight up acknowledgement of, ‘Hey, this is tough. I’m gonna be here for you.’ By addressing and acknowledging these hard truths, we’re opening up that conversation for Black mental health, especially for young people. I think that is so important.
“Who wrote that card—that was you, Melvina, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that was me, and I came from a place of—obviously, being a mom—but also being a person rooted in the Black community. You know how for some of us growing up, we were raised by everybody in the community. The elders looked out for us, guided us, cared for us, supported us. I was acting in that capacity, showing and sharing love for my child and my brothers’ and sisters’ children, too.
“And I was thinking about the fact that our children are not allowed the privileges of childhood. They are not extended the presumption of innocence, often being treated older than they are. They are not allowed to make the same mistakes as other children and be treated with love and compassion and care by the larger society.
“I was thinking about what it’s like to be a Black child taking in all the news, seeing the social media images, hearing what’s being said about Black people who are just like them and the people they love. I was thinking about what’s it’s like to be a Black child in a classroom, hearing teachers and others say things that demean Black lives and that are both inaccurate and disrespectful. I was thinking about what it’s like to be a Black child who is bullied on the playground because of all the tensions around us.
“I was thinking about what it’s like for that child to come in through the door of their own home at the end of the day, and just be like, ‘I can’t do it, Mama. I can’t handle this, Daddy. It’s too much.’
“And I said to Dee, I think we need a direct message that lets a parent say, ‘I see that. And I’m proud of you. But also, you don’t have to carry all that, because I’m right here.’”
“That was definitely powerful for me in a personal way, too. I was balancing that against the other talk that Black parents were having to give to our kids. I’m the mom of a teenage Black son and it both breaks your heart and makes you so angry to have to have that talk about how to act and stay safe in places where they should automatically be given safety.
“So this was another kind of talk: ‘You know what, I hate that you have to go through this. But I see you—still navigating, still showing up, still doing your best—and I’m proud of you.’
“When my mom was visiting us this past summer to spend some time with her grandson, I showed her that teen card and she actually got emotional reading it. I think it gave voice to those feelings and concerns about her grandkids she had been storing up over the past couple of years and helped her express those to him during her visit.”
TEJU ABIOLA, ARTIST
“I think what makes Uplifted and Empowered special and different than other projects I get to work on is—like, I always say that it’s easier, because it’s just natural. It makes sense. And it’s not easy in that I don’t care about it—it’s easier because I care so much. I care so much, and it means so much to me.”
“A lot of times when I’m creating something outside of Hallmark, let’s say a poem, that poem is really a means of self-expression. It’s art that, first and foremost, reflects some truth or some reality that I see as vital. In the first drafts of a poem, I’m not necessarily thinking about the eventual reader. Instead, I’m thinking about what I need in that moment.
“The starting point is similar for Uplifted and Empowered because I’m asked to rely on my own strength and power as a Black woman to draw inspiration for the cards I write. In that way, I’m writing for myself.
“But the key difference is that, ultimately, my cards are meant to serve another person, an entire community. I keep that in mind as I revise. I ask myself questions like, ‘How do I need to reframe this so that it’s applicable to as many Black people as possible? How do I need to revise this so that it’s reflective of various relationships and situations?’”
Bringing individual perspectives to universal truths
“What I really love about this particular project—about what we do in general—is that I can see each of these writers’ authentic selves shining through their art because they are creating messages that are grounded in their real lives.
“And that’s what makes it resonate, right? I mean, we don’t want them to create some alternate reality, but at the same time, it does have to appeal to a much broader audience. That’s where my role as editorial director comes in, to help expand the narrative so that it can speak to multiple people’s truths. But I can appreciate the vulnerability and the honesty that comes from all of these artists, speaking from their truth—that’s what we want them to do.”
“Any time I write for Mahogany, I start from a place of my own authentic experience—never more so than with Uplifted and Empowered. But it’s not just about whatever I feel or whatever I see. It’s also what I hear rising around me in the voices of my brothers and sisters, about our truths, our relationships and our emotional lives as Black people.
“One challenge of card writing is that you want to make it as culturally and personally specific as you can, while also making sure there’s something big enough about it that will let thousands of people see it as true and meaningful for their lives.
“It’s also important to understand that for us, much as our Black heritage and history give us in common, there is diversity amongst us that needs to be represented too. It is about understanding that there are some Black experiences that I have not had and may never have. But I’ve still got to have an empathetic entry into them.
“Because you know, writing a card is basically telling a story of a relationship. Every time someone picks out a card and they give it to somebody, they are saying, this is the real and right story of me and you, somebody I care about.
“And one of the privileges of being a part of these conversations as writers is that we get to act as the poetic kinswomen to our community. We get to take up the language that our sisters and brothers use and take up the things that they care about and put them in a form that can be shared and then held on to.
“So it’s not just a text. It’s not just a phone call. It’s something tangible that says, ‘You and I matter. We matter. And what we go through and share matters.’”
“I love what you said about a card being the ‘story of a relationship.’ That is so true and I find that even in the creative process, I’m often thinking about what I would want my friends to hear and read. I always start with the relationship and let the words follow. There’s so much more resonance when it starts from a very real place of authentic emotion.”
“Usually, the writing is done before the project comes my way. So I’m responding to that. I just think about the intention and the sending situation—who’s gonna receive it, who needs to send it. And then especially with this collection, I can be in both those categories. I can put myself into it.”
“I just want to put a little shine on Teju a little more. She’s introduced not just new kinds of Black aesthetic into the pieces, but she has infused them with emotion. I’m thinking about the work you did on ‘The Sisterhood Card,’ and how we have sisters of different shades, sisters of every size, different hairstyles, different kinds of beauty. That’s your aesthetic.
“But then you bring emotion into it with how you bring movement and motion into the art. You’ve got sisters leaning on each other, and holding each other up, and encircling one another. I know that you know the talent that you are, but I still want to make sure that you know that’s the beauty of what you did.”
“I second that so much. That sisterhood card—oh my goodness. That’s like one of the cornerstones of the Uplifted and Empowered connection.”
“That card is one of my favorites. The first time I read it, I’m like, ‘I know this. I feel this.’
“And everyone that I put in there, they’re people I know. It’s like, these are my people. These are the relationships that I have.
“It’s like I get to show us from us, like from a perspective of someone who’s not perceiving you. I am a part of this. I’m not, like, observing anything—I’m participating in it. And I want that to come through, like when you see a figure on the card, you’re like, ‘Someone is seeing me.’”
“Occupying the subject position, not the object position…that’s empowering in and of itself. I like that.”
“I have to add on to what Melvina and Teju have said about the sisterhood card. Years before this card was created, I experienced this type of sisterhood with a group of Black women who were from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds but who had all landed here in Kansas City, MO, together. We called ourselves the sister circle, and to us, sisterhood was a real place where you felt safe, you felt heard, and you were affirmed and supported. We don’t often have those kinds of spaces that we can inhabit as Black women in the workplace, right? I mean, it’s not the norm.
“So, it was vitally important to my sense of self then, and I can appreciate it even more now—being able to work on such an important project with women who are on this journey with me. This card embodies that sister-circle experience in such a beautiful, artistic, meaningful and authentic way, and I love that it was born from this rich, creative collaboration between Black women.
“We’re not all the same; we come from very different backgrounds and experiences and points of view. But collectively, we can inhabit this space that we call sisterhood and really, truly lean into each other’s strengths and elevate each other in ways that are unique to us as Black women.”
Creating, healing and reclaiming joy
“For me these cards are redemptive—in part because I was thinking about how words have always served our people. I mean, our very freedom has been built by the power of words. The ancestors called this Nommo: the power of the word to bring something that’s never existed before—like our freedom, in this case—into being. And we are the heirs of this power.
“And as I write, I always remember that this power is mine to use in creating these messages that help remind us of our humanness. That we matter, and that with every breath we take and every step we make into the future, we survive, thrive—we transcend.
“It was one of the privileges of my professional career and personal life that from this devastating moment, emerged this powerful collaboration with all of my sisters, in which all our love and our pride and our desire to help heal our community came to the foreground and could not be denied.
“Because one thing that I want to say, just forthrightly, is that you’re always vulnerable as a Black woman when you speak your truths. Because it can be hard to speak and even harder for other people to hear, and it costs us something each time we do speak, whether we can see what the cost is or not.
“But with this collection, as Black women we decided to take that chance, we decided to be true to our truth. We put out the call and our community responded.
“And as we go forward with this new collection of Uplifted and Empowered cards, we will keep that boldness about ourselves.”
“I’m most invested in unapologetic expression. I just love being able to write cards that carry a sense of pride and unbreakable confidence.
“Like the ‘Color of my skin, content of my character. Both on point’ card. It’s a play on Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous line from the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. I think of this altered version as a modern way of saying, ‘No one can take away the belief I have in who I am.’ I love that this statement appears on the cover. It’s the first message you receive even before opening it.
“Having card covers be little mantra statements means someone can look at it every day and be inspired. I love that Mercedes mentioned that her friend frames these cards. That’s exactly how I imagine these cards serving others, being daily reminders in their lives.
“Having cards out there that affirm our unapologetic expression despite societal expectations, despite respectability politics, is critical. By being proud of who we are, we’re allowing the world to see us in our true, uninterrupted light. We deserve cards for that.”
“It’s been humbling. It’s been powerful. It’s been an anchor. It’s been inspiring.
“I think especially just being around, near, working, collaborating with other Black women—us all being in the room contributing and making decisions—that is an experience that feels refreshing. It feels empowering. And it feels really…what’s the word? Vital…to have been in those spaces. So I feel really grateful. I constantly feel like I’m learning and growing.”
“There’s still trauma that people are still trying to navigate, but at the same time, there is this thread of hope and healing that we’re trying to also put out there in the world.
“And one of our cards that speaks to this is Courtney’s piece that says, ‘We’re going to be joyful, regardless.’
“That is the message that I literally speak to myself every morning when I get up. I mean, for real. I believe the word ‘regardless’ is necessary because waves and waves of chaos continue to roll out on a regular, right? And the card says straight-up, ‘there’s all kinds of mess in the world that tries to steal our joy.’
“To be clear, I’m not talking about a pasted-on smile and a phony, ‘feel-good’ kind of state you fake yourself into. I’m talking about the kind of soul-filled joy that comes from a higher place and surpasses any joy the world has to offer. And I feel like people can use these cards to empower themselves and empower others, to reclaim that joy.”
“I agree with that, Dee. I think these cards function as distillations of Black self-love and empowerment. Both the collection from 2021 and our new collection for 2022 where we’ve added new messaging to support our community in new ways.
“In addition to the ‘mental health is self-love’ card and the card supporting teens, there’s a new card giving the brothers some shine, love and gratitude, and a card that Courtney and I co-wrote celebrating our community as a space of joy, resilience and safety because we have one another.
“So, when you’re looking at an Uplifted and Empowered—or any Mahogany card—you will see the celebration of our color, our beauty, our dignity, our bravery, our vulnerability, our humanness, our wholeness. These cards can help re-empower us at every point of disempowerment and they can help us to love ourselves as Black people.”
About the creators
Teju Abiola is an Artist at Hallmark. She frequently contributes artwork to Mahogany as well as other Hallmark brands. In addition to her illustration, she paints vibrant, colorful watercolor and gouache portraits. In her free time, she loves to bother her cat, Happy, and drink London Fogs.
Mercedes Lucero joined Hallmark after interning in the summer of 2018. Now a Senior Writer, they serve as a liaison between the Writing Studio and Global Trends and Innovation Group as well as contribute to GenNext consumer strategies. When they’re not writing, you can find them snuggling with their kitty, Grace Jones.
Courtney Taylor is a Senior Writer at Hallmark where she writes greeting cards, gift books, TV scripts and more. She is also the Lead Writer and Community Manager of Mahogany’s social media platforms where she creates content and engages with followers. Her work has been nominated for the Greeting Card Association’s Louie Awards and featured on NPR’s Life Kit, CNN, Black Enterprise and elsewhere. Outside of Hallmark, Courtney is working on her first collection of poems.
Melvina Young and her work have been featured in the New York Times, on CNN.com, theGrio, Emmy Award-winning daytime talk show The Real, and elsewhere. An academic expert trained in African American history and Black cultural studies, Melvina Young is a Master Writer, Creative Writing Studio Liaison, Cultural Sensitivity Consultant, Mahogany Brand specialist, and Brand Ambassador for Mahogany and Hallmark Cards. She is also the creator of Vibrant Voices, an in-house blog focused on diversity, inclusion and empathy.
Dierdra (Dee) Zollar has been a part of the Hallmark Creative Community for over 20 years—first as a writer whose writing was featured in the original Mahogany Uplifted! collection, and currently as the Editorial Director for various card lines, including the beloved Mahogany line. Dee is a Mahogany Brand expert, co-chair of the Insights and Ideas committee for the Hallmark African American Leadership council, and is passionate about honoring and building on the legacy of the Mahogany and Hallmark Brands. When she isn’t dreaming up new ways to create product that uplifts and empowers the people who love these brands, she enjoys hanging out with her husband and teenage son.
Get a look behind the scenes
Watch as the five Black female creators behind Mahogany’s Uplifted and Empowered collection share more about the inspiration behind these cards, how the creative process made them feel, and their hopes for how the collection will be received by the Black community.
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