Book ‘Huddle’ by Brooke Baldwin

Read excerpt 'Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power' by Brooke Baldwin
How Women Unlock Their Collective Power
CNN news anchor Brooke Baldwin explores the phenomenon of “huddling,” when women lean on one another—in politics, Hollywood, activism, the arts, sports, and everyday friendships—to provide each other support, empowerment, inspiration, and the strength to solve problems or enact meaningful change. Whether they are facing adversity (like workplace inequity or a global pandemic) or organizing to make the world a better place, women are a highly potent resource for one another...
Publisher: Harper Business (April 6, 2021)  Hardcover: 304 pages  ISBN-10: 006301744X  ISBN-13: 978-0063017443  Dimensions: 6 x 1.01 x 9 inches

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A group of women in Selma, Alabama, gather to steel themselves for five days of marching. Their ancestors waged the battle for voting rights many decades prior, and today they will continue the fight. Tear gas and billy clubs await them, but together they summon their strength and courage for the journey.

One woman at a podium addresses the nation for the very first time as America’s first female vice president elect. Although she stands alone on the stage, she reflects on the generations of women who came before her—women who fought, struggled, and paved the way for her success.

Dozens of women in Silicon Valley enter their salaries on a publicly shared spreadsheet, encouraging their male coworkers to do the same—all in an effort to shine a light on gender-based salary gaps at their tech company. Later, the women team up with other prominent female peers to form an organization that will advocate to diversify their entire industry.

More than a hundred teenage girls board a flight flown by a female pilot and operated by an all-female crew. They are celebrating Girls in Aviation Day and heading to NASA in Houston, where they will meet female astronauts and begin to dream about their future careers in aviation.

Two women go surfing off the coast of Encinitas. One is suffering a recent heartbreak, and the other is there to hold her hand.

What do each of these scenarios have in common? Each is a huddle—a moment that brings women together in any time or place—whether on the front lines of a public protest or in a quiet church basement—to provide each other with support, empowerment, inspiration, and the strength to solve problems or enact meaningful change. “Huddle” is a word associated with masculinity and sports. But what if we flipped it on its head and feminized it? It’s a noun. It’s a verb. And it’s time for us, as women, to own it.

A huddle is a place where women can become energized by the mere fact of their coexistence. A huddle is where we can uplift each other to succeed, thrive, and if I may—get amazing shit done. And even though huddles are productive—they create the conditions for change, progress, and transformation—they aren’t always results-oriented. Sometimes they are a space where women can simply bear witness for each other, or quietly sustain each other’s very survival. And while there is certainly strength in numbers, there can also be incredible huddle energy between just a few women. Maybe you’ve felt the undeniable power between two women who make the simple and life-changing decision to lean on each other.

I know women aren’t always great to each other. When we compete or trash each other, we miss out on something incredibly valuable. One of the most potent resources we have is each other. I can’t say we are each other’s most powerful resource, because as I write this prologue in 2020, I think most might say the greatest prize for women would be more seats at the table (or maybe to just rebuild the entire table, as many women I interviewed for this book told me). And also, equal pay. Representation. Recognition of the intersecting parts of our identities (our race, class, religion, sexual orientation, age, illness, and disability) that determine our access to power and influence how we move through the world—a world that isn’t yet fair or just to all. But beyond those resources, I think women truly are each other’s most valuable asset.

And when I started to notice this, I found myself thinking, I can’t be the only woman thinking this, right?

Let me slow my roll and recognize the dramatic nature of that question. In my twenty years as a journalist and news anchor, I’ve learned to ask provocative questions; to look for incisive answers at the service of a public who needs to know more. But in reality, there are plenty of women talking about huddling right now. I just didn’t realize it. So I turned the question on myself:

Why haven’t I been huddling more intentionally in my own life?

Who’s in my huddle? Do I even have a huddle?!

Do I fully appreciate this incredible legacy of huddling I’ve been lucky enough to inherit as a woman?

Why am I not devoting every moment of my spare time outside my day job at CNN investigating this incredible phenomenon that is happening all around me?

After being stirred by these questions in 2017, I made a decision to pay closer attention to what women were doing in America. I created a series for CNN Digital called American Woman, and then I launched the journey that became this book. Was this a professional decision? A personal passion? Both? I didn’t know exactly. But as a career journalist, I felt compelled to follow my gut and see where that aching question might lead me.

I was born and raised in the South in the 1980s—a time and place where upper-middle-class white girls rarely huddled for anything that didn’t involve sequins or tap shoes. From a young age, I always felt my calling in journalism. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001, I moved to small-town America, where I worked holidays, weekends, and overnights, often writing, producing, and anchoring my shows while rolling the teleprompter with my foot. And when I clocked out, I rarely had any good girlfriends to hang out with. Several moves to various other cities and a decade or so later, I landed back in my hometown of Atlanta, where at age thirty-one, I became one of the youngest people—male or female—to anchor my own show at CNN.

Since 2008, my career at CNN has taken me all over the world to report on everything from natural disasters to shootings and terror attacks. I’ve also had the privilege of meeting presidents and interviewing former first ladies, members of Congress, scientists, teachers, nurses, astronauts, actors, activists, rock stars, and ordinary Americans who’ve found themselves in extraordinary circumstances—such as surviving mass shootings, hurricanes, or COVID-19. And, of course, I spent much of 2015 and 2016 covering the wildest presidential campaign we reporters thought we would ever see in our lifetime—until 2020 rolled around. Since my show airs in the middle of the afternoon when news tends to break, I am often live on camera, experiencing historic moments in real time right along with the rest of the nation. I have lost count of the number of times the teleprompter had gone blank and I began ad-libbing a major breaking news story with just bits and pieces of information coming in from the control room.

I love my job and the opportunity it gives me to connect with other people. I feel privileged to have a front-row seat to history, to engage in difficult dialogue, to celebrate our victories, and to broadcast the moments that shape our collective conversations and memories. I’m especially grateful for this window to the world, this opportunity to listen and observe. And during some of the most remarkably “newsworthy” years of my lifetime—these last five years—I’ve noticed something vitally important was happening with women. But it doesn’t surface on the news often enough.

In examining this phenomenon of women huddling, I also began to take stock of my own life—my family, my friends, my community, and my occupation. I realized that as someone who considered it the greatest compliment to be called a “woman’s woman,” I had ironically picked a career where I was surrounded by men. Like many white-collar jobs in America, journalism is still largely male-dominated. In the hierarchy at my job, I report to several men, and my most accomplished peers are and always have been men. The greatest portion of my show every single day has always been dedicated to covering some of the world’s most powerful men. In fact, in the time since I began writing this book, one man, Donald Trump, not only dominated the news, but he also turned the entire news cycle on its head. Most journalists will tell you, regardless of their politics, that their jobs look very different today than they did in 2015. When you add the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement against widespread systemic racial injustice, and the uptick in climate-fueled natural disasters, there isn’t a lot of room left for good news these days. People used to stop me in the airport (you know, in the Before Times when we used to fly places) to ask me, “How do you do it? How do you stay sane?” And even though I always had an answer (that I believe in capital “J” Journalism and seeking the truth), what I really wanted to say was: I wear a hell of a lot of emotional armor at work, and also, I really have no idea!

But in reality, the process of writing this book has given me that answer. I have learned that women can be a sustaining force in my life, and that they have contributed to much of my success. I have learned that leaning on female friends, mentors, heroes, and colleagues is how I can get through almost anything. I’ve learned that groups of women are also changing the face of this country—and long before Americans elected the nation’s first female vice president, women have always had a very strong hand in shaping our history. But sometimes these stories don’t make the headlines and historians don’t always focus on the huddles of women who have helped change the world.

The journey that took me all over the country to write this book sparked some of the most life-changing conversations I’ve had in my life. Like any good traveler, I took a lot of photos and notes. I had hoped I’d be more an anthropologist than tourist. But by the end, I was even more than just a studied observer, more than just the objective journalist I’d trained to be. I became a part of the story myself. And beyond the physical travels, there were a lot of internal departures and arrivals as well. I learned more than I ever imagined I would.

Embedding myself in so many huddles and bearing witness to the accounts of so many women who were changed by their connections with each other made me a better huddler myself. I sometimes joke with my friends that huddle has become my religion, and that’s not far from the truth. Through the process of writing this book I’ve learned not only how to summon my own huddles at work and in my personal life but I’ve also tapped into the vulnerability required to let myself lean on others. I’ve built up the courage and intentionality required to better tend my female friendships, and it has changed my life. I now have a support system that allows me to curse, vent, and ask embarrassing questions. I have women who challenge me, who link arms with me on social justice issues, and talk politics in a safe space. I show up to my huddle deeply vulnerable now, which makes me truer to myself, and thus anything I put out into the world as a journalist.

Toward the end of the writing process for this book, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. It quickly shined a bright light on the systemic racism and socioeconomic disparities that have always existed in this country. I can’t imagine how much differently I would have experienced all of this without my newfound belief in female collectives. I watched from my news desk (and my own sickbed when I got COVID) as groups of women organized to feed, nurse, and teach the nation through the pandemic. They also came together to lead and protest the heinous acts of police brutality and widespread injustice all around us. With so many other challenges swirling, they—particularly Black women—still managed to rally for the 2020 election to help increase voter turnout, which reached numbers not seen in a half century. And after the election, women celebrated together all the hard work they had done to help elect the nation’s first female vice president. Kamala Harris, a Black and South Asian woman, the daughter of immigrants, said as she addressed them for the very first time as their vice president elect that she stood on their shoulders, that women like them had paved the way for her over several generations.

Even though 2020 will likely always be defined in American history as a year of extraordinary hardship, it might also provide an example of the kind of adversity that is not too daunting for women to overcome when they have each other. As we make our way through the unprecedented challenges our nation faces, I find huddles more relevant than ever. I am inspired by my new awareness that women are positioned to weather difficult times because they are bonded not only through hardship but also through friendship, motherhood, sisterhood, mentorship, sponsorship, self-care and healing rituals, career, education, political change, and so much more.

I want to legitimize the notion that women are each other’s greatest allies. That we have each other’s backs and then some. But I also know that a gathering of females does not necessarily a huddle make. It’s not always harmonious and positive when women come together. For example, there are plenty of instances—both historically and present-day—of white women joining forces to fight for “women’s rights” at the expense of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color (BIWOC). As a white woman myself who has grown up with a lot of privilege in this country, writing this book has taught me the ways that we white women have sometimes collectively betrayed or abandoned BIWOC—and still do, to this day. Some of the conversations I had for this book also taught me that women sometimes compete and tear each other down in the workplace or elsewhere. But a true huddle is a place in which women hold space for each other, and lift each other up, regardless of our race, religion, class, or sexual orientation.

I am writing this book because I want to challenge myself to make a very deliberate commitment to huddling, and I hope to inspire other women to do the same. This book is for women who want to join me—all women (cis, trans, and non-binary). This book is for those of you who want to learn how to huddle, and those of you with mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers who have been doing this right for generations. This book is for anyone with a daughter, who wants to pass along this important practice to the next generation. And this book is for men too. Most of you have a wife, daughter, sister, mother, or other women in your life you care about. You too can help create space for women to empower each other. This book is also for those of you who may already have a huddle in your life but just aren’t sure how to activate it. I hope you will read these stories and hear the clarion call to find your sisterhood and unlock its collective power. I hope you will discover the same “huddle lens” through which I now see the world. I hope we have something in common, reader, and huddling will change your life too.

The Mother of All Huddles

On January 20, 2017, I stepped outside my Washington, D.C., hotel to a drizzly winter morning. The air wasn’t nearly cold enough to turn the condensation into snow, so I prepared to spend the day on camera in this chilly, wet mess. I had already encountered a lot of gloom in this city, and not just on that day. Ten years earlier, I lived in D.C., at the age of twenty-seven, in a close friend’s basement. I slept on a mattress on the floor with my pug, grateful for this temporary shelter while I figured out how to turn my freelancing job at WTTG/FOX 5 into a full-time gig. It wasn’t the most glamorous moment of my life, but for me and my dog, it was home.

And now, the same city where I had spent so much time paying my dues as a reporter was about to be home to the forty-fifth president of the United States: Donald J. Trump. And it was my assignment to cover his inauguration in the presidential motorcade.

It had already been quite a year in my job at CNN. There had been terror attacks in Istanbul, Nice, and Orlando—all of which I was sent to cover. That summer I had traveled to the Middle East, embedding with the U.S. Navy waging the War on Terror. Brexit happened. And back home, there was this presidential campaign coming to an all-out fever pitch.

I’d crisscrossed the country countless times, covering an election defined by surprise and uncertainty. I’d ridden on the back of a Harley-Davidson, interviewing the Bikers for Trump in Ohio. I felt the voltage of so many young people at a Bernie Sanders rally in Iowa. I’d interviewed countless women expressing their hopes and dreams with tears in their eyes as they imagined the possibility of the nation’s first female president. Today was the culmination of many things, the last leg of a journey that had delivered a very surreal ending.

There I was with all my various color-coded press credential lanyards dangling around my neck. I came equipped with my rain boots, my new cherry-red down jacket, and the steadiest balance my two legs could muster. I would need it that day, since I was stationed on the back of a moving flatbed truck just feet in front of the new president’s limo. I focused on keeping my footing as we bumped along Pennsylvania Avenue flanked by Trump supporters who’d come from far and wide to get a glimpse of the reality-TV-star-turned-president. I watched and narrated as people craned their necks to the sounds of the military brass bands coming closer. It was a lot of pomp and circumstance for a man who just a few months earlier had been heard on an old tape boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy.” He had enraged millions of women—including many from his own party—by bragging about his sexual conquests and frequently using demeaning language toward women. As a woman and a journalist, I too was troubled by his record with women. Nonetheless, upward of 52 percent of our nation’s white women still voted for him. It was a frustrating reality for so many.

I told myself to stop thinking about that and focus on the task at hand. I planted my feet as if I were on the world’s saddest surf-board, white-knuckled that mic, and did my very best to perform my job. The rain spat intermittently. Clashes broke out among the protesters. Several people tasted pepper spray that day and a limo was set on fire. By nightfall, two hundred had been arrested.

The next morning, a new day had dawned in D.C. Despite the cloudy cold, the sun was shining through. A faint drumbeat cut through the damp air. The day before I had been surrounded by men in black suits; today, I found myself in a sea of women in colorful T-shirts. They raised homemade signs above their heads as they sang, danced, cried, laughed, and cheered. It was as if I was living in the “bizarro-world” version of the previous day. The red MAGA hats were now pink pussyhats, and everything—the sounds, the colors, the clothing, the mood—felt like the opposite of Inauguration Day. I was experiencing more than just a little emotional whiplash.

But I had to pull myself together. I was on the clock again for CNN and busy speaking to women who had come from all corners of the country to be together at the Women’s March. It was an event like no other in recent history. Although it would receive a lot of fair criticism in the months and years to follow (which I touch on later in this book), the stated purpose of the march was to “harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change.” The march organizers had been deliberate in trying to create an intersectional movement, collaborating with women from all walks of life, representing various ages, races, religions, nationalities, and sexual orientations.

I tried to take it all in as I stood there among the enormous crowd that ballooned to half a million. I interviewed dozens of women that day, including celebrities, politicians, and what I like to call ordinary-extraordinary women from all over the country who had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to be there. Attendance exceeded everyone’s expectations. It was, without a doubt, one massive huddle.

On the stage speaking to this sea of women was Tamika Mallory, a Black woman and one of the march founders. She addressed the portion of the crowd who were new to marching and protesting, reminding them that this was not a concert, parade, or party. “This is a resistance,” she said—and one that required their focused and enduring solidarity. She anticipated what might have drawn many women to D.C. that day and offered a wise warning: “Some of you came to protest one man. But I didn’t come for that,” she proclaimed. I took her point. Trump might have activated and angered a whole new group of (mostly white) women—who were likely not as accustomed as BIWOC to experiencing regular assaults on their humanity—but he shouldn’t have been the sole reason for our being there that day. Now was the time to tap into a deep well of unity we may not have known we possessed. Women were facing many threats to our rights, our safety, our well-being, and our dignity, and we would need each other to dig our way out of this. Mallory explained that now was the time to take care of each other and to stand up for the most marginalized among us.

Although many women were there to represent specific causes—the climate crisis, immigration reform, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, and so much more—the widespread demand for change that day was no less palpable than the overwhelming spirit of togetherness. Change and resistance were certainly in the air, but unity was the fomenter for that change. That sense of unity—the sheer joy and force of it surging among us and binding us together—was what felt new and different. All around me, women were energized by each other, feeling the kind of motivation and possibility that is only realized in the presence of others.

When then senator Kamala Harris took the mic, she proclaimed, “There is nothing more powerful than a group of determined sisters.” Janet Mock told the crowd she was there to speak up for her fellow trans women who were plagued by intolerance and violence in America. “I am my sister’s keeper,” she said. Angela Davis, the political activist and scholar, called for “an inclusive and intersectional feminism,” and Gloria Steinem, who had commented that the energy at the gathering was “like none [she] had ever seen in [her] long life,” reminded everyone to stay linked to one another, to learn one another’s names, and make plans together for tomorrow. “God might be in the details,” she said, “but the goddess is in connections.”

So many American women have their own specific memories of this day, whether they were in D.C. or in any of the other cities around the world where millions of women gathered to be together for the largest single-day protest in American history. Some women followed along on Twitter. Some considered it a joyful day and others bonded over their rage. Some—including the more seasoned activists and BIWOC—were rightly skeptical about whether or not this moment would turn into a movement. As for me, I stood there deeply compelled and surprised by the simple fact that so many women had purchased plane tickets, split tanks of gas, or rented buses just to be here in person, together.

As a journalist I knew immediately I had to dig deeper. But as a woman, I felt so much more. I’d never been surrounded by so many other women—not in my entire life. This was the energy and potential I had never fully tapped into. This was my purpose. These were my people.

And yet, at the same time, in this vast sea of women, I was standing on the sidelines. All day long, I watched groups of women dressed alike, holding hands and sharing snacks. I witnessed clusters of women representing various political, social, and religious groups embracing each other; I saw sisters and friends of all ages crying and comforting one another or waiting in those godawful long porta-potty lines to pee. Standing there clutching my microphone, I wondered who I would have attended the march with had I not been the journalist assigned to cover it. Would I have attended at all? I had lots of great female friends, a few who were absolute touchstones throughout my adult life, but did I have a crew of girls I would have made plans to march with, the way all these women had? Did I belong to any organizations that brought women together like this? Would I have been likely to board a bus of strangers to make the trek here just so I could experience the unity of this huddle? I wasn’t sure, but I knew something had been sparked in me.

I knew I needed to bring women into sharper focus—in both my career and my personal life, to do my very best to unlock this collective power in my own life. It was like a religious moment. I wanted to figure out why being in the midst of half a millionwomen inspired me like that. Was I the only one who felt gobsmacked by all this? I wondered if this sense of unity and empowerment could be felt anytime women gather and why it had required a massive historic protest for me to take notice. Had I been missing out on an amazing resource all these years? I knew I had to find out.

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