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Jeneé Osterheldt

Can a black woman fly at The Wing?

Jeneé Osterheldt in conversation with Wing Women
Globe culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt talks equity and inclusion with the Wing's Culture and Diversity manager, brand director and head of communications. (Video by Caitlin Healy and Anush Elbakyan/Globe Staff)

When a posh co-working space for women and nonbinary people opened up on the 15th floor of a Boylston building, one of the bougiest blocks in Boston, I wondered if inclusivity exists at an exclusive club.

The Wing is supposed to be more than a co-working space. When the first location opened in New York in 2016, the intention was to be a women’s club of this era. The mission: the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community.

But can a black woman fly at The Wing in Boston?

A national survey commissioned by the Globe in 2017 found that among eight major cities, Boston came in as least welcoming to people of color.

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Netia McCray has seen police called on brown and black children learning engineering through use of drones at Copley Square. She’s gotten the stares at the Boston Public Library.

As founder and executive director of Mbadika, a Boston nonprofit bridging the digital divide by teaching tech skills to students from underprivileged schools, she sometimes works out of The Wing. There, she feels welcome.

“It’s that being able to breathe moment you don’t realize you need,” the 29-year old says. “I walk in and I am not met with a microaggression. I go and get coffee and no one is like, ‘Oh, she got that free cup of coffee.’”

Netia McCray works inside The Wing.
Netia McCray works inside The Wing. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s been only a month since The Wing opened in Boston, but McCray applied for membership in February. While visiting New York, her friend called The Wing her “sanity space.” Three days as a guest made McCray a believer.

People talked to her. Employees offered her water. It felt like “sane.”

The culture is the same at the Boston location. At game nights, potlucks, and events like “Unpacking White Feminism with Rachel Cargle,” people make connections.

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“It’s very hard to network in Boston because it’s a very masculine-leaning city,” McCray says.

“As someone who is the head of an organization, I want to see my sistas and collaborate but it’s difficult when the attention is on the men in the room because that’s where the power lies.”

Bianca Harris worked inside The Wing.
Bianca Harris worked inside The Wing.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

At The Wing, one day you might sit at a table and meet Ora Ana jewelry designer Veronika Payne. Another day, you might show up to listen to businesswoman Rebecca Minkoff in conversation with me. I’m not a member, but The Wing prides itself on cultivating connection and inviting different voices of the city to take part in the conversation.

Community requires inclusion. They create it not just through events, hiring, and scholarship, but by design, too.

Every location of The Wing honors local leaders. The Boylston office has conference rooms named after black Boston suffragist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and pioneering Chinese-American restaurateur Ruby Foo. Ayanna Pressley was in that conference room earlier this month.

Globe columnist Jeneé Osterheldt gets a tour of the Wing’s Boston location
Culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt tours the Wing, a women’s co-working and community space, where the mission is the advancement of women through community. (Video by Caitlin Healy and Anush Elbakyan/Globe Staff)

In The Wing’s free lady library, books by Zadie Smith and Brittney Cooper are on the shelves with Elizabeth Lee Wurtzel and JoJo Reyes. In the bathroom, there isn’t just Chanel and Glossier, there’s edge brushes and Pantene edge gel: tools women of color use to lay down their baby hair and fight the frizz around the edges of their hairstyles.

The little touches make a big difference.

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Atop the millennial pink spiraling staircase is tapestry art by Qualeasha Wood, a recent Rhode Island School of Design graduate.

The woven piece features a black woman with bibles in the background and reads, “In Black Women We Trust.”

It’s not a lie. The Wing’s leadership team in New York includes brand director Alex Covington, and retail director Laura McGinnis, both black women. The senior manager of culture and diversity, Yari Blanco, is Afro-Latina. Wing strategist Zara Rahim is Muslim-American.

These women, along with The Wing team as a whole, actively work to make the space more and more inclusive. They understand it’s an ongoing process.

When a few Asian-American members thought The Wing could do a better job at creating programs focused on their experience, Blanco listened and took action.

“We are intentional about creating space for marginalized identities because we know that the world is not just white and cisgender,” Blanco says. “We want everyone who walks through our doors to know that they belong at The Wing no matter their race, socio-economic status, age, religion, or body type.”

And it’s good for business, too. In less than three years, The Wing has grown from one location to eight spaces across the country and five more in the works — including one in London opening this fall. Nationwide, there are 10,000 members.

Hanna Berning, commercial marketing manager for Integrated DNA Technologies, works on the roof deck at The Wing.
Hanna Berning, commercial marketing manager for Integrated DNA Technologies, works on the roof deck at The Wing. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The founders have raised $117.5 million in funding. Valerie Jarrett, Kerry Washington, and Megan Rapinoe are among the investors. But the price of joining has brought about criticism over access, especially when women of color make less than most and the wealth gap is real.

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In Boston, membership is $185 a month. That includes access to every amenity, from the patio to the spa room to the free events. There are no designated desks. Members can bring two guests.

Similar memberships at WeWork and Workbar cost between $350 and $500 a month.

The truth: Not everyone can afford The Wing. So no, it isn’t the answer to the oppression of American women. But the cost doesn’t negate The Wing’s feminist work to hold space for women and gender nonbinary people.

Karen Cahn (left) and Kate Anderson of iFundWomen chat at The Wing.
Karen Cahn (left) and Kate Anderson of iFundWomen chat at The Wing.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

For thousands of members across the country, The Wing community is priceless.

Bianca Harris moved to Boston from New York three years ago. For the first time ever, she found meeting people challenging.

“I feel very out of place. I’m a female founder so all of the events and spaces I go to, typically I don’t see people who look like me,” says Harris, 30, founder of Skinary, an app to track skin health. “It can be a little weird when I come in and sometimes there’s looks. I’ll ask for more information or where I can sit and people are very accusatory as to why you’re there. Why wouldn’t I be?”

She joined The Wing in search of camaraderie. A month and a half into her Wing membership, she’s already made a few new friends.

“It’s nice to go into that environment full of women and know I have the potential to connect with them on a different level,” she says. “It takes more than saying you want to have diversity and be inclusive. You have to do the work to see the change and create the environment and I see that at The Wing.”

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Bianca Harris inside The Wing.
Bianca Harris inside The Wing. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s not just members who feel at home at The Wing. Dextina Booker, MIT grad student and curriculum lead for Boston Design Academy, has been there a handful of times as a member guest.

The Wing, Booker says, is a break from having to find a space within a space that is supposed to welcome you.

“I have been to other coworking spaces where people do not trust me enough to open the door. They don’t make eye contact. They look at their shoes and shuffle away. When I am here, it is expected that I belong. When I walk in here, it feels like an unclenching.”

In 1896 when the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was formed, the motto was “Lifting as We Climb.”

The Wing is borrowing a page from that book and trying to help folk soar.

Netia McCray (left) works with Dextina Booker, MIT grad student and curriculum lead for Boston Design Academy.
Netia McCray (left) works with Dextina Booker, MIT grad student and curriculum lead for Boston Design Academy.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee .