The Unplug Collective community members Ayo and Blossom, photographed by Sabine Ostinvil

The Unplug Collective's Digital Healing Circle

Helmed by Amanda Taylor, the collective is a space for Black women and gender expansive people to share their stories.

by Sophie Kemp
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Aug 14 2020, 9:30am

The Unplug Collective community members Ayo and Blossom, photographed by Sabine Ostinvil

Amanda Taylor, a junior at Barnard College who grew up in Jamaica, started the Unplug Collective in her dorm in the winter of 2019 as a freshman. Taylor, who is a Black woman, had started free therapy through school for the first time, and shortly after, began to envision a resource for Black women and gender expansive people at Barnard, Columbia, and beyond, to be able to heal together through writing and art-making. Through this dreamwork, the Unplug Collective was born.

Alongside her close childhood friend, Zara Harding, who is a junior at Columbia just across the street, and a small team of other Black women at college campuses across the country, Taylor grew Unplug from a small digital healing circle to a much larger one. The Unplug Collective now has over 40,000 followers on Instagram, and also has a robust web presence, regularly featuring essays about issues ranging from body discrimination to living with mental illness, and more. GARAGE spoke to Taylor and Harding about what it feels like to create a new kind of space to heal.

You started the Unplug Collective as a resource for Barnard and Columbia students. What have you learned about yourselves and your campus community through doing this work?
Amanda Taylor: I definitely learned that I have the tendency to want to completely ignore how I'm feeling, and to just hope that it disappears. Even when I do talk about it, it's so much easier to speak from an authoritative place, and I don't think that's necessarily the right word, but from a place that is already processed. So when people put opinions out or write pieces, it's really easy to say, "This is what I think, and this is why I'm right," or, "This is how I processed this." Kind of voicing things as though there aren't other truths. I'm not like, "It isn't super messy." I think I've learned the power of vulnerability, and also that when you do share, there are so many other people who are willing and open to open their arms to you, and say, "I'm going through that, too." And that shared experience is unmatched.

Zara Harding: I would just say the person-to-person connection is something that is just unmatched in anything. Seeing the energy of the community has really taught us, or taught me as well, there's nothing that is more powerful than two people being able to look at each other and say, "I see you, I hear you, and I feel you,” and then being able to learn that and absorb that from the community. A lot of what I do is facilitating connections within the [Unplug] team, and giving tasks and doing check-ins. The difference that it makes when you can connect with somebody as a person and not just as a character or as an employee, and just be able to speak to them in a really candid way and say, "I hear you,” has influenced every other part of my life, and has really had a profound effect on how I can connect to people. I have so much of that to thank the Unplug community for because the way that people really show up for each other is just inspiring, honestly. And seeing that and being able to learn from that, I think, has affected my life in so many ways.

Who are some of the people who you've come into contact with since starting Unplug?
AT: So many. Starting with the Black Barnard community, of course, and then all of the other communities that fed in after that. So you might have a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend who doesn't go to Barnard, but you might live in New York. It might spiral from there, and so just in terms of all the cool people we've met on the Internet, what I love seeing is recurring names in the comments; people who you know because they're always the first or second person to comment and say supportive things, and then on a larger scale, we've had pretty wild things. Tracee Ellis-Ross DM'd us, saying that she loves the page. Kylie Jenner [has been supportive]. Bella Hadid, and Janelle Monáe have liked our stuff, and The Shade Room has shared our stuff.

I think what it is for us is the fact that the work we're doing is actually pretty unspoken about. For example, we did a post called “Dear Doctors, This Is How BMI Is Medical Discrimination,” and we're getting into the history from the 1800s about how it started, and how it disproportionately affects Black women, and how it affects health and mental health as well. This whole idea that physical health should be seen and treated equally as mental health feels new, especially within our communities, so when anyone reaches out, whoever we meet, the fact that that's the way that we're connecting and what we're connecting about is what has been the most special thing.

How do you pick and curate the topics discussed on the Unplug Instagram and website? 
AT: A lot of it is that it's also our own life experiences. Some of it isn't, but some of it is. We also like to be really guided by what people submit. I have said from the beginning this is a space that is prioritizing the stories of Black women and gender expansive people. What has happened is when you say that, a lot of the stories ended up having to do with what it is like being in the body of someone who's a Black woman and gender expansive. Even if it's not necessarily about body image, it might be about their mental health. It might be about the way that their body is perceived. We didn't coin the term body discrimination, but I'm not sure there was a term or a buzzword to encapsulate what it means to have stories about the body. So we ended up saying, "This is a platform that focuses on healing from body discrimination," and we're also kind of trying to find the best way to communicate that.

Unplug is a space for body healing. A lot of the stories end up being about that in some way. So that's why usually we try to line up the stories with what the conversations are on the page; there's a thread, and we definitely want our Instagram to almost feel like a digital healing circle or space where you walk in. You click the app, and you can feel the thread, and you can feel the vibe.  So that's why we can have a community conversation about how “you've gained weight is not a greeting,” and then have one about how “catcalling's not a compliment,” and then post a story about how the objectification of someone's body led to her having an eating disorder. Because the stories are so nuanced and have so much there because of how much Black women deal with on a daily basis, that makes it pretty straightforward for us.

ZH: When Unplug started, so many of the stories really were centered around this topic of body discrimination and body healing, and just people's lived experiences in their bodies. It got to where we posted lots of different stories about lots of different things, and then circling back it's like okay, there's obviously a need for this because the bulk of the stories that we're getting are centered around people's experiences in their bodies. It's so clear, based on the stories that are being told, that this isn't being talked about enough, and that it's affecting people's lives in a really, really, profound way, that we're not paying enough attention to as a society.

You’ve known each other for years. What is it like to work with somebody who you've known for all of your adolescence, basically?
ZH: It's definitely not a coincidence that we've ended up at the same place for college. Being in the same school has allowed us to do this work together. It’s honestly unmatched because it's not just like a regular professional relationship. We work and we bust our asses and get stuff done, but there's also an element to it where if there's any conflict that arises, anything that Amanda feels stressed out about, or literally any conflict that comes, when we talk about it it's just like it's sorted because I know her so well, and I know how to talk to her about that stuff. So it just works really well, honestly.

AT: It's just a blessing, honestly. It's been a blessing from the beginning. I had this idea. I called a friend, her name is Chelsea. She also grew up with me, and we also went to school together. And I said, "I have this idea. I don't really know if anyone will respond. I don't have that big of a social media platform," and she was like, "Set a date. Just set a date, let's say January 10, and just launch it. Let's see what happens." From the moment that it was launched, I've had such an outpouring of support that I just did not expect at all, and then even to have Zara working so closely, she literally was just someone who I was saying, "Hey, what do you think of this picture on my feed?" and is now running and re-imagining the entire workspace. That is not something that I could've ever dreamed of. I couldn't be like, "Hmm. My goal is for this to happen," because it's just so above and beyond my expectations. At the end of the day, it gives me comfort knowing that someone so close to me is so involved and aligned with this because it just means if I care for someone who is doing this work, I believe so much in that person and they're also believing in this work. It all makes it a lot less lonely.

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