On March 13, 2020 the Jane Club, a women’s private membership community, was at a crossroads. Los Angeles, the site of their physical location, was going into lock down and they would need to close, for what they imagined would be a week or two.
Dori Howard, Director of Cultural and Political Programming for the Jane Club vividly remembers meeting on that day with the rest of the leadership. While she says the idea of closing as a “small scrappy start-up” was frightening in itself, the group was most concerned about their members (who they call “Janes”) going into an unprecedented isolation. As a club, they have always wanted to make life easier for women, and one of their tenants is to “take care of women who take care of everyone else.” They knew life would not get easier in isolation, during a pandemic, when women often take on the primary caregiving role. They also knew women’s mental health would be at risk. So, they asked themselves, what can we do to help?
Enter Zoom meditation and a new group called Community Connection. Although they had never used the technology and the club had never done anything online, the very first Monday that people were in quarantine, the Jane Club shifted their daily meditations from their physical location to an online space. Additionally, thinking of the people who lived at home and might not see someone else for 2 weeks, or might be at home with their children and want to see an adult, Dori says they created Community Connection as a space for all of their Janes to meet daily with each other. A key premise of the meetings was accountability, or, as Dori explained, making sure “we’re not laying around in pajamas all day, that we’re waking up, that we’re eating breakfast, that we’re brushing our teeth, that we’re not devolving quickly in isolation.” In other words, it is a way to have behavioral activation during a time when it is easy to lose your schedule and concept of time.
The Jane community (both on Zoom and over Slack channels) is also one that is authentic, safe, and open. They value inclusivity from the inside out and try to be proactive in calling people in, where necessary, even if those conversations are hard ones to have. Shawnta Valdes, Chief Community Engagement Officer at the Jane Club who leads much of the programming, notes that in her groups people do not apologize for coming late or leaving early or their dogs barking or kids coming in. This creates a space that adds more trust and honesty within the group and is something new members always point out. She explains, “There’s no part of your life that needs to be hidden from us. We respect your boundaries and respect your privacy, but you don’t need to hide anything from us, it’s not necessary.”
Lynn Chen, an actress/filmmaker and member of the Jane Club, vocalizes this is one reason she loves being a Jane. She says, “I’ve always been a bit of an extrovert trapped in an introvert’s body, so being able to hop on/off Zoom all day and chat in the Slack with an active, supportive community when I want to has been the ideal way for me to handle the ups [and] downs of this pandemic. It helps knowing that I can be in pajamas, no makeup on, eating a bowl of cereal at 3 p.m. with zero judgement (in fact, I often get applauded for this kind of behavior).”
For the club, two weeks turned into months and the interventions that were initially just “band-aids” for the community are now, 10 months later, the backbone of the program. They have also expanded their reach and grown by over 400% to around 500 members. While previously only people within 5 miles of the Los Angeles location could be a member, they now have Janes in 35 states and 4 countries, and their physical location is actually closed. They even have a West and East coast Community Connection.
June Diane Raphael, actress and co-founder of the Jane Club, feels that the principles of the club have stayed the same despite the shifts to online and other changes over Covid-19. She says, “Although we had a physical location pre-pandemic we would always say that Janes came in for childcare, but ended up staying for the community. The pandemic has really proven to us that although childcare and a workspace were important – building community is what we are experts at.”
It is no wonder they have seen such an increase in membership as that is just what women need right now. Shawnta has noticed that most people are just looking for a place to be able to let out real emotions, like crying, and tell someone how they are actually feeling about their day and how bad it was. She tells multiple stories of Janes supporting each other through challenges like job loss or even the holidays this year. She says that they really love each other and did Thanksgiving together and kept all of the programming running when the leadership took the December holidays off. She adds, “We’re all looking for that authentic connection. Everybody just wants to feel seen and understood and I think when you show them that this is the place to do that and drop that mask and drop that armor, they become their true selves. It’s really quite a beautiful thing to witness.”
Dori adds that it really is a benefit to realize that other people are having challenges in their day to day lives and you are not alone with your problems in your relationship or in eating too much or too little. It helps to see that the Instagram images that you have been bombarded with are skewed, or flat out wrong. She adds, “That feeling does wonders for mental health: “It’s not me. It’s everybody.” Shawnta emphasizes that even if you can’t change what is happening, it can be helpful just to have people to listen to your challenges and be supportive. In other words, instead of isolating alone with your feelings, you can feel bad with some company.
As the Jane Club looks towards the future, they will continue to grow and respond to the needs of members. One thing they are looking forward to is helping the Janes process and cleanse from a very difficult 2020 with their first ever retreat this weekend, January 16 and 17 (learn more here). Dori describes the retreat as answering the questions, “How do we get rid of this toxic year and bring back something better? How do you refresh, renew, and restart, and take control back?”
As a community, supporting each other, of course. In the end, even if you want to do everything yourself and can do everything yourself, it is important to ask others for support and help when you need it. Shawnta, who often herself subscribes to the solo attitude and enjoys meditation for that reason, notes that you don’t need to go through life alone and it is harder that way. Instead, she has become aware over time, “More connection is always the answer. Even when I try to wiggle out of it, it is always the answer.”