By Nichole Miller-Strachan
As a young Black Woman working in the 501c3 sector in the late 90’s early 2000’s, there was a name that came up in every development meeting, Gwen Winston. If there was a grant to be secured, you called “Gwen Winston” to eloquently paint a picture empowering and captivating anyone whose eyes scanned the pages. If there was a desire to create a political campaign to reach the soul of the people promoting justice and challenging antiquated systems, get “Gwen Winston” in the room. She is a woman with a deep river of wisdom and power required to shift the energy in all spaces, elevate the consciousness of the next generation, and rebirth missions and causes towards the gift of Life. When the opportunity came to write this article, I was excited! I thought what an amazing tribute for me to create–discussing the impact that she has made in my life and the lives of so many more. However, I decided to shift my focus to the life and legacy that is of Gwen Winston instead. Therefore, I am honored to have the pleasure to introduce and tell the story of Gwen Winston as she once again re-event herself in her 70’s calling for radical Self-Love and Healing Justice.
Gwendolyn Bailey Winston, born and raised in Detroit on the Northend not too far from Hamtramck, went to Moore Elementary School and to Sherrard Jr. High. One of four siblings, Gwendolyn knew that she held the ability to create the space for the desires of her heart and the empowerment of her community. The essence of her purpose in womanhood continues to propel Gwendolyn beyond societal limitations.
When she was in the 7th grade, her parents Anna Louise Johnson Bailey and John James Bailey bought a house on Pilgrim Street in a middle-class neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Her elementary school gym teacher lived across the street and drove the finest white Thunderbird convertible! This lifestyle impacted her and for a moment she thought “Hey, maybe I will become a teacher”.
Gwendolyn recalls her first job as a member of the business co-op program where students worked ½ days for pay during their 11th and 12th grade years. Gwendolyn worked for Plymouth Congregational Church, an upper middle class black church that included a white, liberal Congregational denomination, heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Working at Plymouth Congregational Church prepared Winston to work across a spectrum of people in Detroit, particularly black and white, and to know there was such a real thing as class, color line, and gender biases. Gwendolyn recalled: “It was at Plymouth where I got to know firsthand the power of the government to confiscate land. It was called urban renewal then”.
When the powers that be determined that Detroit’s new Medical Center would be located within a vibrant Black community in all its forms, six major black churches existed. Scheduled for demolition, the black ministers of those churches organized and won the right to the land, remained anchored and built new low-to-moderate income and rehabilitated housing.
Fighting and winning against systemic racism was a unique and lived experience for Gwendolyn in her 20-something Self. Gwendolyn became responsible for site selection, development of specifications, qualifying development teams, writing proposals, and determining construction costs. She learned more organizing by participating in the black contractors and trades movement, the union rank and file movement—all in the context of urban housing development–and learned, somewhat, political fundraising as a result of Plymouth’s Senior Minister running for and winning a seat on the City Council to becoming the second Black Councilman in the City’s history. Plymouth’s housing development spun off a housing management company, Koinonia Management, where Winston became a HUD certified housing manager. Along the way she was tapped by Councilman Hood to join his City Council staff where she started as Executive Secretary and eventually became Chief of Staff after refusing to train another man to be the Councilman’s Executive Assistant and high donor fundraiser. Twenty-six years later she earned a master in public administration from Central Michigan University.
Winston’s work speciality (pre-COVID), was small and large group facilitation, designing and leading racial equity and justice dialogic processes for organization development, civic and community engagement action planning for nonprofits, health, government, academic, social justice initiatives, and organizations led by African American women engaged in community and human renewal and transformation. Winston became Executive Director of Wisdom Institute in 1999 and founded “G. Bailey Winston Enterprise” that was the Institute’s funding source. This initiative was also the return to challenging systemic racism, white supremacy, and gender injustice.
Gwendolyn rose as a voice advocating for her community that had seen several transmutations in her lifetime. Gwendolyn Winston ultimately became a founding member and Executive Director of the Wisdom Institute. Wisdom Institute is a progressive grass-root-womanhood-girlhood cultured organization seeded and conceived by African American women, who were first generation college students at Lewis College of Business (LCB) located in Detroit Michigan. LCB was one of two Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the North. Over the years Gwendolyn’s work has evolved from developing political campaigns to advocating for pregnant and parenting teens, and elevating awareness on multiple causes that impacts the African American woman and girls. In 2019, Gwendolyn tapped Cicely Allen, Program Director, and me as Communications Director to forward the mission and vision of the Wisdom Institute. Gwen then focused on developing an Everyone Counts Detroit Street Team that reached 10,000 doors to protect the vote and get Black women to the polls in 2020 and activated Passing the Torch Preserving the Flame Project with women artists-advocates.
Winston has reconstituted the leadership of the Wisdom Institute for a “power with” context. Art, storytelling, movement, music, and the oral tradition are infused in Wisdom’s “real time” advocacy and relational organizing work and activism creates space for women to have a community voice using art. This form of organizing and advocacy is a tool that opens the way for women and girls to bring their full creative selves into the room.
Wisdom Institute is spirit-centered, women-centered, womb2womb-centered connectedness. “Our path-making work is to assist, and at times guide, diverse women of color in communities to lead the way—with vision, strategic intentions and strategic execution—with transparency and accountability to generatively co-create the power of standing for the human right to water, water affordability, revolutionary evolutionary love, gender and healing justice.”-Gwen Winston
Gwendolyn’s unique style “real time” approach is grounded in “The Creator Model”, a facilitation approach engaging the whole system in the room and undertaking a search for the ideal future. This foundation creates space to actualize the collective vision of and pour into the water warriors in our community. Together strategies are built on the power of place, increasing staff/community/member engagement, and promoting recognized principles of racial equity organizing and operating systems are foundational. The model runs against traditional mindsets that often rely on prepackaged or one size fits all Consumer Models.
She was contracted to develop racial equity hubs in Flint, Benton Harbor and Keweenaw Bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where safe, clean, affordable water emerged as harbinger issues. As a seasoned Future Search: Whole Systems in the Room Consultant Facilitator she landed at strategic statewide coalition and collaborative tables led by African American and Indigenous Women of Color–water warriors with grass root sensibilities. Her relational organizing expanded her purposed service to the Great Lakes states and with it, expanded the resources, reach and work of the Wisdom Institute. She has spent the last five years strategizing with We the People of Detroit, a woman-led organization that has quantum leaped into the global fight for safe, clean, accessible, affordable water as a human right at the intersection of gender justice, revolutionary evolutionary love.
The Wisdom Institute is organizing an ancillary Speakers Bureau of Water Warriors on behalf of WTPD as a sustaining tactic. Also, there is programming in place where those impacted by drought in their home and community have a place to rehydrate their mind, body, soul. The Listening Partners are healing ears in the community that listen to the water warriors, community, and movement makers, with the belief that “everyone deserves someone who will listen to them without judgment”.
During the next three years, the Wisdom Institute and our network of spirit-centered healing justice advocates and womanist theologians, are creating a Womanist Praxis. This development and practice of the womanist voice and language creates opportunity to radically imagine Human Rights in Detroit and beyond while addressing the State of the Black Indigenous Woman and Girl for a Gender Just Detroit. Gwendolyn is loving passing the torch to Cicely and I as we move forward to preserve her flame and ignite our own as we ramp up relational organizing to embed a water affordability plan in the City Charter. We bodaciously stand in our power to transform systemic racism and gender injustice.
Nichole Miller-Strachan is an Ordained Ministerial Counselor and certified Health Coach. Divinely aligned, Nichole facilitates experiences that lead to the uprooting of unhealthy thought patterns to initiate change. She is dedicated to making space for anyone that makes the choice to experience and embrace new thoughts of wellness that lead to the inner and outer transformation of one’s own optimal health. In 2019 she established Divine Roots, LLC a company that promotes the alignment of Mind, Body, and Spirit. She also partnered with the Wisdom Institute as the Communications Director to support and empower African American women and community With 20 plus years of experience as a public speaker, workshop facilitator, and community program developer Nichole will continue to create and expand spaces so that everyone experiences a safe moment to grow and heal spiritually.