The Sisterhood Behind When We Gather

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Photo by Tommy Oliver.

Tia Lowe, Howard University News Service

Despite their prominent roles, women have been hidden in the shadows of the most groundbreaking moments in history. The recent presidential election is no exception. Women around the world all contributed to the ground-breaking election of Vice President Kamala Harris, even if their roles aren’t prominently displayed.

When We Gather, a film, was created as a result of a vision that came to multi-talented, artist María Magdalena Campos-Pon, after Vice President Kamala Harris was selected as the Democratic nominee for vice president in November 2020. 

The film is, “a multi-generational presentation of women,” said Dr. Nikki Greene, host of the When We Gather virtual screening held on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Of the several examples of symbolism in the project, there was a focus on three themes: Heal, Unite, and Create.

With the intent of making her vision a reality, Campos-Pon sought out the help of other artistic women such as Okwui Okpokwasili, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Dell Marie Hamilton, Jana Harper, Lisa E. Harris, and Samita Sinha, who have been actively involved in honoring women in their daily lives. Each of them highlighted throughout the film in a separate scene. 

Campos-Pon used the seven women to personify each of the knots tied in the displayed fabric. “I learned the traditions of the seven knots at home. I use seven in many pieces like the seven Yoruba powers, said Campos-Pon.

The women involved come from all walks of life and professional backgrounds, but a number of them, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, have one commonality — they are all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (AKA). 

The sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University on Wednesday, January 15, 1908. The organization has played an integral role in the advancement not only of Black women, but also the Black community. At the time of its inception, women were not able to vote and just five days after its 113th anniversary, it was recognized for its capacity in the most significant historical moment of the century — electing the first Black, female Vice President of the United States of America. 

A member of the sorority and award-winning journalist, Jennifer Thomas, was an essential part of the production in her role as supervising producer. 

She wanted women of color to be represented on screen as well as behind the scenes, “It gave me a great sense of pride and hope. I was very humbled by [the film],” she said.  In addition to Thomas’ responsibility of overseeing elements that would be implemented into the film, she was tasked with finding a director that would tie all of those elements together. 

With the help of an all female-identifying staff, 10 directors were initially chosen as contenders for directing the film. “All of them had experiences from commercials to episodic production,” said Thomas.  After narrowing down the prospects, the team asked the final three directors to submit a treatment of their idea of the proposed film. 

A unanimous decision followed their submissions to move forward with Codie Elaine Oliver, CEO and co-founder of Black Love, Inc. and an AKA member as director. 

Oliver was initiated into the sorority years after Thomas.

“That’s the beauty of the organization, there is an immediate sisterly connection and unspoken understanding of one another,” said Oliver. The intersection of sisterhood and common passions meet at the production of When We Gather. Oliver said the theme of healing was the most important to her. “All are equally important, [but] healing is the number one thing that women and our country need right now,” said Oliver. 

Under Oliver’s direction, she decided to include archival photos at the beginning of the film as well as contemporary women at the end to tie it all together; a tribute to those who paved the way for women today.