Women We Love: Chana Lawson by Conscious Style Consultant JeLisa Marshall

It was almost a day like any other. I was swiftly walking across campus to get to my next class when, all of sudden, Chana approached me. She mentioned having seen me around a lot, asked for my name and my academic interests then handed me a flyer with an invite to join a Black Student Union meeting. I was hesitant–student organizations hadn’t exactly been my thing, but decided to show up the following week based solely on her kindness. Little did I know, this brief interaction would change the course of my life. Forever.

One of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone.” -Bell Hooks

Research shows that women are increasingly taking up more space to lead and its impacts are immense. Today, 30% of presidents at colleges and universities in the United States are women. A recent analysis by S&P Global shows that women leaders tend to be more empathic than men, and empathy fosters an environment of increased peace and productivity.

I am reflecting upon my own experiences this Women’s History Month, noticing a common thread. The women that I admire, honor, and respect the most all embody this type of compassionate energy. Chana was one of the few people who shared my ethnicity, understood my dreams, and made a point to consistently engage with me on the campus–no matter how busy she was with her studies. I think about how it has pushed me to lead and be in service of others and, with so many threats against women’s rights currently across the world, how important it is to show gratitude and support for every accomplishment and create sacred spaces along the way.

This year, I partnered with The Cura Co. to do some of that with Chana–showcasing her beauty in a few consciously curated looks and chatting about the lessons and people in her life that have shaped the woman and leader she is today. In reading, I hope you’ll be inspired just as much as she inspires me.

You were so persistent in getting students like me to be change makers and culture bearers while at university, which greatly influenced my personal and professional trajectory. Why is community engagement so important to you? 

Community Engagement is important to me because it empowers people and gives them a voice in decisions that impact their life, their environment, and their community. It also builds trust and allows people to know each other and understand each other better. I also like to see growth in people and pass on knowledge that they can learn from, then take their own ideas and bring things to fruition.

I love that you've come full circle, bringing alumni and current students together for work at our alma mater. What made you loop back?

Hmmm, I have never really left my alma mater, even after graduating. I stayed around volunteering in some form or fashion and included other alumni in the opportunities along with me. I looped back in a different way this time deciding to work for my alma mater because there is always work to be done, and UW Tacoma is constantly changing, pushing toward innovations to make things better no matter what challenges arise. Things like new leadership have already made a great impact and continue to push the needle on things like diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, sustainability, community engagement, women leadership initiatives, plus more.

I can imagine the role involves a lot of relationship management. When encountering challenges, I often think... 'What would Chana do?' You resolve conflicts with such ease and grace. How do you do it?

I think persisting is key, but also knowing what can be resolved now and what needs to take more time. Being committed to not giving up but just moving on and circling back to work on it when the time is right is key. I reflect on things and don’t react too quickly when facing conflict. I state my case, have critical conversations and return to work on the issues time and time again. I listen, reflect, engage, and decide how to move forward.

Your energy is contagious! What inspires you–in life and in style?

In life, what inspires me is helping people achieve success in their lives depending on what they are working on or want to attain. At any given time, I have coached over 175 people per year, and I have mentored over 500 people from all walks of life in addition to that. I have been a consult to organizations, student organizations, groups, business owners, and grass roots organizations and more. I have done this many times voluntarily, but have also done it professionally within my career path. Helping others and impacting communities really inspires me. I also have had the benefit of others supporting me through coaching and mentoring me. The most profound role model for me has been my mother, Loretta Chism. She instilled many values in me and never steered me wrong. She was an amazing woman who was ahead of her time in everything that she did. From owning businesses to creating art and fashion. Many times people were not ready for her when she entered the room. She took action and was not afraid to be authentic and tell the truth. She was really down to earth, a salt of the earth type of person. Other role models, mentors, and advisors who have made an impact in my life were Louis St Cyr of the Black Panthers, Versa Alexander of the Black Women’s Caucus- Tacoma Chapter, my cousin Shirley Aikin, Lyle Quasim, Harold Moss, Karen Robinson, my cousin Richard Williams, and my uncle Forrest Chism II. I can’t name everyone here, but I continue to model the things that they have taught me in various ways.

"The most profound role model for me has been my mother, Loretta Chism. She instilled many values in me and never steered me wrong. She was an amazing woman who was ahead of her time in everything that she did. From owning businesses to creating art and fashion. Many times people were not ready for her when she entered the room. She took action and was not afraid to be authentic and tell the truth. She was really down to earth, a salt of the earth type of person."

Some women struggle to have the type of confidence you exude. When do you feel the most comfortable in your skin?

I am usually not uncomfortable anywhere because I make sure that I am authentically me. I don’t want to struggle to be who I am in any given situation. We all have different personas- when to be professional, when to be more casual, etc. and that’s good but ultimately being the person that you truly are is important no matter what setting you are in. At the root of everything, what are the characteristics that you uphold consistently? If I can do that, I am the most comfortable in my skin.

I appreciate your willingness to try something new. You're the perfect model to represent Cura, and you bodied the looks! Which was your favorite and why?

I had a few favorite looks! The ribbed dress with [my] blazer hugged my curves and yet was very comfortable,

the red blouse–red is my favorite color. It made me feel very powerful yet feminine and playful. The black jumpsuit! It was so classy and sexy. It fit so right and was comfortable at the same time. Regarding accessories, I loved all of them, but the SHE/HER and the power fists were wonderful pieces that were my faves!

You are never without your bold, red lipstick! What else is a part of your signature style?

My style has changed a little due to pandemic impacts. In the pandemic, I just wanted to be comfortable and casual. I put on a few pandemic pounds like everyone else, but I am pushing to ensure I go back to being active and partially elevate my fashion choices. I would say that having some embellishment of ruffle, lace, and bling whether it is on my shirt, blouse, pants, or slacks is something I do. I love to have that because many times it is not expected in casual or professional settings, and it signifies that there is more to this person that is interesting.

What are a few qualities you look for when adding pieces to your wardrobe?

Great material that is high quality because it lasts longer when it is high quality, something different that stands out and makes the style “pop”, and things that fit close or well on curves but are comfortable with some give in them but don’t look like there is give in them. 

We have had many conversations about the need for fashion to be more accessible, ethical, inclusive, and sustainable. In that vein, what is one thing you want to do to bring more versatility to your style this year?

Go for one-of-a-kind type items that may be from years past, like the cut of a shirt our blouse that has something nostalgic to it. Finding new brands that are designed by designers who may not be known to the larger market but they are doing amazing work while being conscious of making fashion more accessible, ethical, inclusive, and sustainable.

What is one local or global change you would like to see happen this year?

More care for our environment, things like using clean energy, bringing a voice to the need for clean energy and helping to support other voices via the community and legislative efforts around increasing clean energy in Washington State.

Being in touch with you now, as an adult, has been such a blessing. It is or can be challenging to find values-based leaders for friendship and mentorship. You have shown me the power of connection, consistency, and intention. What advice would you give to women who want to, like you, give back and make a positive impact?

Thank you for letting me know about what I have shown you. My faith in God keeps me on the right path. My advice to women is to give back where you can through your time, philanthropy, and support to the causes that are authentic to you that you feel are necessary. Do your research to find out ways you can give back. Women don’t have as many resources as men to give many times, and it can seem overwhelming when you look at what you want to do to make a difference. Start small, taking small steps at a time. When you give to something commit to one thing you can do, and then add on as you can over time. Also, collaborate with others to make an impact. For instance, maybe you can give only 1 hour to something but you really think 5 hours would be best. Ask 4 other friends to join you in the commitment, and you now have a total of 5 hours given to the cause even if you do it all at the same time on the same day, or the friends you invite schedule different days to give 1 hour. You just made an impact by bringing more people on board giving time to the cause. It’s the same thing with giving financially to a cause. If you are limited in your resources but want to give more, you can bring other friends on board to give to the cause to match your level or above, then you can meet a goal that you set for giving to make an impact.

Does Chana remind you of any of the women in your life? If so, who are they and what are their stories? If not, who are the women in your life that make you feel seen and heard and hopeful? I encourage you to show your appreciation, this month and beyond. You can always find gifts of gratitude at Cura, which is a female-founded social enterprise supporting women empowerment through artisanal crafts and clothing. And, if you see something you like on Chana, you can shop the curated collection directly below. Don’t forget to share your finds online by tagging #curainthewild so the team can return the love!

Photo: Nico Hammond

Styling: JeLisa Marshall