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ULOAH/YES – Youth Empowerment Retreat

United Lesbians of African Heritage (ULOAH), a Los Angeles based Black lesbian organization held its first Youth Empowerment Retreat the weekend of August 27, 2004, for young women between the age of 16 to 25. Considering the number of young people visibly out in high school, or younger, this was a much needed retreat for young people to come together, exchange ideas, network, talk, and meet other young women like themselves.

ULOAH’s new program entitled YES, for Young Empowered Sisters, was the first retreat of its kind held for young women. Space at the retreat was limited this year to 20-25 women. Because of the overwhelming response received, ULOAH considered expanding the number to include more young women. Lisa Powell, Director of ULOAH stated “out of the retreat, we hope that young leadership will drive ULOAH/YES on an ongoing, year-round basis.”

Women arrived from as far away as Nevada to as near as Los Angeles and surrounding counties and truly spanned the age category from 16 to 25. In typical ULOAH style, like SistahFest, the retreat was held at the beautiful Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course at Laguna Beach. The women stayed in townhouse-style suites with two bedrooms and 1 ½ baths. Each unit housed 5-6 retreat attendees with shared bedrooms (two per room), sleeper sofa and, if necessary, an additional cot. The suites were equipped with full kitchens, fenced patios and cable TV. Again, like SistahFest, ULOAH knows how to find the nice spots allowing women the ability to relax and enjoy in the company of their sistahs.

I think I counted approximately 16 young women in the group session I sat in on Saturday night. Saturday night’s session was facilitated by Kharyshi who addressed several issues pertaining to sexuality, heterosexuality, racism, homophobia and gender. She encouraged them to consider and discuss these issues and the women were not shy about expressing their opinions and feelings.

I was impressed with their level of understanding pertaining to sexuality and how they identified themselves. One young lady, who might have been about 16 years old, engaged everyone in an interesting debate on one of the signs posted around the room relating to gender issues. The sign pertained to how one “acts out” or “displays” their sexuality.

The young woman raised a valid point regarding the terms used. She said her form of dress is more in accordance with the way she feels and is not an attempt to “act out” a particular role or identity. Though some might look at her and term her “butch,” she said her attire is more representative of what she feels and who she is. She preferred the word “display” over the words “act out” and others agreed to strike the words “act out” while keeping the word “display.”

This launched another discussion on sex or sexual identity as the women dealt with various terms used to describe who they are and how they “display.” At one point, Kharyshi asked the ladies to form a line across the room and the women were asked to get into line in accordance with how they see themselves. Butch- or stud-identified women took their place at one end, “centered women,” as they described themselves or androgynous women, were in the center, and femmes stood on the other end. There were more butch and “centered” women than femmes – only two – on the line.

What was most interesting, a few of the women I would have considered “butch” actually considered themselves more “centered” or “androgynous.” I later learned there were a few in the “butch” section who said they have no problem expressing their femininity and have at times dressed accordingly. I learned, sexuality and how one “displays” can be fluid.

The women were then invited to form a group within their section to discuss their choices and how those choices affect their lives. After the individual group discussions, the women joined in a larger group discussion and discussed issues that arose within their individual groups.

Sun Ray, a poet out of Long Beach, provided the group with a wonderful history lesson on butch/stud-identified women, before and after Stonewall, and why they dressed or displayed the way they did. She also talked about the violence these women experienced. It was an educational discussion that, for me, was enlightening.

The session ended with a question: how the young women could further support one another going forward. The women vowed to keep in contact with each other but, the overwhelming response was for more retreats or similar meetings. I have no doubt there will be more meetings, particularly after what I picked up from Lisa Powell who said this was a powerful weekend and she was impressed with the weekend’s activities. I do not believe it was powerful only for the young women in attendance. I was certainly impressed with these young women during the short time I was there and I could see future leaders in that room.

I applaud the women of ULOAH, Lisa Powell, Jeannette Bronson and Kharyshi for giving of their time for young women. The unfortunate murder of 16-year old Sakia Gunn last year and the news of 15-year-old Natalie Young, the teen who eventually won her suit against the New York public school system for her “Barbie is a Lesbian” t-shirt, opened my eyes to the realities of young women, in high school who are boldly coming out.  We need to support these young women and provide them not only with mentoring, but a way they can utilize their voices towards empowerment.  ULOAH certainly made a step in their direction with this retreat.

For more information on ULOAH, SistahFest or YES, you can contact them via the web at, by email at, by phone at 323-960-5051, or by mail at ULOAH, 1626 N. Wilcox Ave., #190, Los Angeles, CA 90028.

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