by Janeen Ellsworth

When Cynthia Mendoza returned to Pittsburgh after a stint in New York City, her life looked drastically different from when she’d first left. She had three kids and a husband now. Her old friends from Wilkinsburg and the Hill District, where she’d grown up, were gone. She was rebuilding her life and recovering from postpartum depression.

She was eager to make friends with other stay-at-home moms, to share ideas and swap advice, but had begun to feel isolated in her community. So Mendoza reached out to a handful of women in “an attempt to connect with people over the age of 5,” she says on her web site.

Recognizing a need to bring moms of color together to share their struggles and their strengths, she launched Pittsburgh Brown Mamas, a group dedicated to making “motherhood and home-life enjoyable for brown mamas,” she says.

Mendoza kicked off Pittsburgh Brown Mamas by hosting meet-ups in her home for moms who were looking to connect with others in a nurturing environment. Simultaneously, she started blogging about her experience as a mother. It was clear that her message resonated: her blog posts became wildly popular and the group’s membership blossomed.

Mendoza quickly realized what these moms were yearning for and what it had become her mission to provide: encouragement, enrichment and reassurance.

“There’s enough out there in the world trying to tear us down,” Mendoza told Mom Talk radio host Denise LaRosa in an interview. So she’s made it her purpose to uplift other black moms while fighting negative stereotypes.

“As women-of-color our communities are often plagued with things we want to change, but I think the change we are looking for is right under our roof,” she says.

Pittsburgh Brown Mamas, now in its third year, holds a variety of events like Moms’ Night In, the Brown Mamas Book Club, and the annual Vision Board Party to engage women of color in building a supportive and inclusive network. The efforts orbit around brownmamas.com, a blog and online resource covering everything from relationship advice to gardening tips.

Photo: Ben Filio

To help jumpstart the community, Mendoza launched the Diverse Mothering Initiative with the help of a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund. Over the course of seven events, mothers come together to learn about critical issues like “family literacy, co-parenting, family planning, educational achievement and diversity,” says Mendoza.

“Rather than hold seminars or panels discussions,” Mendoza explains, “the Diverse Mothering Initiative utilizes social interaction and the creation of a greater community of women to drive a change in perspectives on motherhood.”

The program kicked off in September of 2014 with a “Makeup ‘N Martinis” event, where women were pampered on the outside and nourished on the inside while they focused on positive parenting. The Initiative will conclude with the unveiling of a Brown Mamas Bookstand on Perrysville Avenue later this year.

This summer’s Mastering Motherhood Workshop “is designed to assist mothers in enjoying motherhood by giving them everyday tools such as organizing, meal and financial planning to run their households effectively,” Mendoza says. Workshops begin this summer on June 27th, July 25th and August 22nd of 2015.

Building Legacy through Imagery

“Close your eyes,” Mendoza instructed a dozen or so women who surrounded her, pensively. She was speaking at the Pittsburgh Brown Mamas annual Vision Board Party at Alloy Studios in East Liberty on a sunlit Saturday evening.

“Visualize in your mind what the perfect black family looks like,” she said. “Now get rid of that image. Put your family in that picture. That’s the perfect black family.”

The workshop was designed to get women thinking about legacy: what practices they instill in their children; what values their families would take with them into the future.

“It’s important for women to lay out a plan for their kids,” Mendoza said. Through visualization and imagery, the women were asked to consider the question: “What do you want your kids’ future to look like?”

Photo: Ben Filio

Thoughtfully, the participating mothers and grandmothers, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies, pasted cutout photos and words onto blank canvasses that represented those ideals.

Images of graduates in caps and gowns, women luxuriating in bubble baths, blissful kids dangling off tree swings, and festive families gathered around dining tables came together, forming vibrant, motivational collages.

The Vision Board Party attracted women who had never met before and created an opportunity for the women to connect over shared experience.

“My daughter is 17,” one mom explained with a sigh. “I’ll pray for you,” replied another mom, and the whole group exploded into laughter.

Latifa, mother of two and a long-time Brown Mama member, said Mendoza “really wants what’s best for everybody.” Latifa loves the discussion board exchanges on the Brown Mamas Facebook page where moms throughout the region ask for and offer one another practical advice.

Shyvonne, mother of six, joined the group three months ago. “I’m the only one of my friends with kids, so it’s nice to meet other moms. You can relax here,” she said. “It’s a safe harbor.”