For the past two and a half years, Sagashus Levingston has been trying to flip the script on how black mothers’ stories are told.
Now, for the capstone event of her “Infamous Mothers” campaign, the writer and entrepreneur will be trying to shake up preconceived notions of the roles those mothers play in the context of a conference.
Levingston’s first Talk Back conference, which kicks off on Thursday, Feb. 22 at the Marriott Hotel in Middleton, will feature 18 workshops and 9 panels primarily led by “infamous mothers” — women of color who have navigated adversity and emerged as creators, leaders and change-makers.
“These are women people often see as takers. But they are business owners. They have college degrees. They are counselors. They wanted to be able to present information to the community that only they are capable of presenting,” said Levingston. “It’s about interrupting the norm.”
The scope of the programming is broad, encompassing social issues, pop culture, autobiographical storytelling, art and entrepreneurship. Levingston herself described it as “a weird hybrid of things.”
Carmella Glenn, a program coordinator with the Madison Area Urban Ministry, will hold a talk on women and incarceration. Author Felicia Clark will host a panel on the literary genre of Afro-futurism. Edwina Robinson, a substance abuse counselor, will hold a workshop on self-care.
Keynote speakers will include state Sen. Lena Taylor, who will give a talk on the practice of shackling pregnant inmates to their beds during childbirth; Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell, who will discuss trauma-informed practices in courtrooms; and Ohio State University Professor Elaine Richardson, who will talk about her story of escaping human trafficking and substance abuse to thrive in academia.
Levingston herself will hold a talk called “Get Your Hand Out of My Panties,” on the way that institutions from social work to health care can contribute to sexual trauma.
“We’re talking a lot about the individual acts of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein,” “I want people to think about … how institutions can come together and make a woman feel as powerless and as raped and as traumatized sexually as some individuals can.”
A major point of the programming, said Levingston, will be flipping norms when it comes to who speaks, versus who listens, at conferences. The usual experts and authorities — technologists, business people, professors — will be in the audience at the Talk Back. Infamous mothers will have the floor.
“If key decision-makers could sit at the table with these moms, they could construct models for them to succeed,” she said.
Levingston founded the Infamous Mothers company in 2016 as an outgrowth of her English doctoral research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The mission of her work has been to counter the typical narratives of suffering, victimhood and criminality often ascribed to black mothers in the media, and to recognize them as influencers in their own right.
A focal point of her campaign has been the publication of a coffee book called “Infamous Mothers” last year. The book features photography and autobiographical writing from infamous mothers. Some of the women in the book will be among those giving talks at the conference.
She spearheaded an ambitious campaign to get copies in the hands of 10,000 women last year. While that effort fell short, she said she was still able to distribute $25,000 worth of books through a grant supporting her work.
While the conference represents the end of the initial phase of Infamous Mothers, Levingston’s company will keep busy throughout 2018. Levingston plans to launch Infamous Mothers University, a program that would offer training and resources to the women she works with.
In addition, the company is working with local software maker BendyWorks on a lifestyle app for infamous mothers.
“Normally we think about technology, we think of white men,” noted Levingston. “White men create toys for other white men. But what happens when black women are the ones who are targeted?”
Also on the horizon: A play based on “Infamous Mothers” — a staged reading for which will be performed at the conference — and a new project called “Infamous Men.”
Registration for the inaugural Talk Back conference ends on Thursday, Feb. 15.