Feb 28, 2023, 5:00 am UTC
Q&A: Nicole Kenney on the healing power of intergenerational connection
Nicole Kenney was a high-performing and highly independent millennial embedded in the hustle culture. She didn't recognize that stress was corrosive to her physical and mental health until she hit an all-time low. Even then, she stayed silent, treating her friends and family "like a luxury, not a lifeline."
Then, a series of conversations with her auntie proved transformational. Her auntie's stories led Kenney to get help and rethink her personal and professional priorities. They also led her to create Hey Auntie!, a digital wellness platform and community where other Black women could get the kind of intergenerational support she had received. Through group connections, tools, and resources, Hey Auntie's members navigate the everyday stressors associated with their racial and gender identities together.
We spoke to Philadelphia-based Kenney about the power of storytelling, the connection between stress and health, and her ambition to help Black women thrive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
wmnHealth: About 8 years ago, you reached a breaking point, which completely changed your trajectory. Can you describe that time?
Kenney: Eight years ago, I was in my early 30s. I'm like a geriatric millennial! I'd been in high-pressure environments pretty much all my life and never thought anything about it. It seemed normal. But in my early 30s, it came to a head. I was still highly functioning: I worked out, ate okay, and had family and friends. But at the same time, I noticed issues with my body that didn't make sense. My doctor told me it was stress. I just didn't believe her. I hadn't heard of anyone who got sick from stress and assumed I could continue functioning despite my body breaking down. But the more and more I couldn't show up how I was used to, the more ashamed and isolated I became. I just thought there was no alternative.
Your aunt came to your rescue — and that experience served as a catalyst for Hey Auntie! How did her support make a difference?
Kenney: My auntie — she's like our second mom — had gone through similar experiences. She's also a nurse and a women's health expert, so she noticed things weren't okay with me. But instead of saying, "Something's wrong with you," she just started to share stories. And it was her stories that began to resonate. So that is how she opened the door for me to talk.
First and foremost, she validated me because I didn't think anyone would believe me. She gave me language because I didn't know what I was going through. And then, she gave me the safety to ask for help.
Once I started talking to her and to more women, especially Black women, I noticed these larger trends and themes that researchers are now beginning to pick up on. That was the genesis of the health journey that has brought me up to this point and my decision to create Hey Auntie!
What trends and themes in the lives of Black women and in health research are you seeing?
Kenney: You're starting to hear conversations around allostatic load — the accumulation of the persistent and chronic stress Black women experience, right? You're hearing about weathering, so this idea that Black women's bodies are aging faster. So much of that can be attributed to stress. You're also seeing more conversations around the impacts of racism and sexism in medical institutions and science journals, whereas, in the past, you didn't feel you could talk about it.
How have you changed due to your health crisis and the support you received from your aunt and communities of aunties?
Kenney: I've let go of the idea that I can do it alone. It's almost funny because now I realize that that's the worst messaging ever. Think about history. This whole concept of individualism is so new and different from the past. For thousands of years, we've been community-oriented. My revelation was that you can do nothing on your own. But also, you shouldn't. You need people. And the more I've leaned into not only needing people but also allowing people to need me, it opened the door for me to blossom.
When did you decide you wanted to help others foster the kind of intergenerational connections you've benefited from?
Kenney: When I came home to Philly, the very first thing I did was a community-based documentary. I captured my aunties and my mom and other women telling their stories, and I saw people connecting to the stories that I was getting. Eventually, in 2021, I won the Well City Challenge, a social impact competition run by run by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. They were looking for ways to address millennial health. That was when I put the gas into Hey Auntie!
Why are women turning to Hey Auntie! and the connections it provides?
Kenney: We have women from their 20s to late 70s and find that there are many more commonalities than differences. They are there to talk about self-esteem, finances, family planning, careers and entrepreneurship, life transitions, and different types of caregiving. These are all women who are interested in becoming better versions of themselves, and they want to be around like-minded women who are interested in doing the same thing.
Recently, I heard someone talk about Hey Auntie!, so I'll use their words: It was nice to know they could speak to someone without the stigma that something's wrong with them. So that's one reason. Why we focus on Black women is for cultural competency. Black women often stay silent because they don't feel they will be believed.
Another reason why folks like Hey Auntie! is because it's fun. Women, especially Black women, don't get many spaces to have fun, not feel like it has to be work, and not have to prove themselves. My ultimate vision is to create a place where I can be fun, be myself, be loved, and learn.
It sounds like the relationships are reciprocal — that Hey Auntie! isn't just about older Aunties passing down their wisdom to younger women.
Kenney: Absolutely. There will be seasons of life where you give more than you receive. Still, the women who join Hey Auntie! are looking for meaningful connections and relationships. They want to learn, and they want to teach.
What's your ambition for the platform?
Kenney: My audacious vision is to be global. I really want it to be a platform that eliminates all the barriers and limitations to Black women thriving, where they can connect and exchange resources and tools. Philly is a great place to start creating a hyperlocal model, and then the goal is to expand it.
What advice would you give people looking for genuine connections who don’t have access to something like Hey Auntie?
Kenney: If you're looking for community, volunteer because you're typically going to be with like-minded people. People who like to serve. If you put yourself in environments where you have something in common with others, you will naturally form relationships.
The second thing is that everyone's looking for a friend. What I mean by that is to be kind. Something as small as asking, what are you watching? What are you doing for fun right now? Who are you listening to? Those questions light people up, and it goes back to my earlier point that people love to add value. So, when you give people an opportunity to help, even if it's giving you a little advice on what to watch, it helps build a connection.
The last thing I would say — because it has served me very well — is follow-up. If you have met someone and you think there's some connection, shoot them a follow-up text and set up a time to meet again. It won't happen if you don't get it on your calendar.