Ruby Clay hopes to expand her mentoring group to bring young, Black women together

Ruby Clay tries to be the resource she needed when she was young.
Ruby Clay in front of a mural about Black girls

Ruby Clay tries to be the resource she needed when she was young: that voice whispering in a Black girl’s ear that she is enough, that she is valued, that she is destined for great things.

Before the pandemic, when Clay would gather middle and high school girls in a circle for Saturday afternoon meetings, she’d share her tough experiences so they could learn from someone who looked like them — a rarity in Dane County schools. These kids were dealing with adult issues, and she’d been there. She offered practical advice, like don’t go thinking a significant other’s behavior is romantic when they show up uninvited at your job. But mostly she would listen, and encourage her girls to do the same. They would need each other to survive.

Her business started by accident. Clay works full time for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, or DAIS, and is working on her master’s degree in counseling education at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. When her daughters were middle schoolers, they seemed constantly embroiled in “girl drama,” and she found herself intervening at their school. It was painful watching these bright, beautiful girls tearing each other down instead of building each other up. After many conversations with a leader at her church, who finally asked her what she was waiting for, Clay decided to create a mentoring group.

In October 2017, Black Girls United was born.

Clay’s original vision was to mentor the same group from fifth grade through graduation, then set them up with college scholarships. She’d put herself through school as a single mother while enduring a domestic violence situation, and she wanted to guide girls down an easier path. But she soon realized the group needed to do more than talk.

“I remember asking, ‘Who do you see in this world making a difference?’ And I’ll never forget, they were like, ‘white people.’ It hurt me to my core,” Clay says. “That’s when my group shifted into the community at the River Food Pantry, at Second Harvest, feeding the homeless. Because if they can see that they are amazing human beings with hearts to serve, they could be the change.”

In fall 2019, Clay was accepted into UpStart, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s free entrepreneurship training program for women and people of color, where she developed a business plan. Then along came COVID-19, thwarting Black Girls United’s community service and weekly meetings. Her work at DAIS moved home, where she helped answer the domestic violence hotline. Clay stayed connected to her girls through texts and social media, but when they showed her a disturbing trend — livestreamed videos of abusers killing their victims — it all felt like too much. Yes, we’re living through a pandemic. But domestic violence and racism are deadly pandemics, too.

In September, while observing COVID-19 precautions, Clay organized an event for her girls and their families called Almost Didn’t Make It Out, featuring three Black survivors of domestic abuse.

It was powerful and well attended, and she hopes to do it again. She feels called more than ever to grow Black Girls United and plans to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) next.

“I want to expand, to be able to help. I look like my girls, and that representation matters,” Clay says. “I know their hurt, I know their pain, I know the lack of confidence and self-worth.”

Listening to Clay’s story, I can’t help thinking of other Black women change agents in the community. Entrepreneurs like Sabrina Madison and Brandi Grayson who, by their own accounts, stopped trying to fit within existing corporate or nonprofit systems and created the companies they wanted to lead. Out of barriers and anguish comes innovation. Entrepreneurs solve problems, and this country has never been more ready for new kinds of solutions.

“I just don’t want anybody to give up,” Clay says. Hopefully she will heed that advice, too.

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor at Madison Magazine.