Milele Chikasa Anana passed away on her terms, as she lived her life. I’m thankful I was able to see her one last time and in a moment of lucidity she told me as she always did, “don’t stop, never give up,” which we don’t.

Since I was very young, Ms. Milele featured my accomplishments in UMOJA Magazine which started as a two-page pamphlet and grew to a magazine with wide readership across the state and beyond. Ms. Milele was a disruption to the status quo. She walked into spaces that never saw anyone like her, spaces that were designed to exclude her, and she commanded respect. She changed the culture of those spaces. The people that dominate those spaces and tried to keep them “exclusive” (white), didn’t have to “like” her, but they had to respect her.

She earned that respect, not by being polite, never by being complacent, but because she knew how to engage power. Her audacious presence alone, in spaces that otherwise excluded certain people, flipped the script, reversing, even if momentarily, the inertia of anti-progress. The idea that being a Black woman might hinder her from getting something done didn’t faze her. She’d do it anyway. No matter what it might take. She didn’t stop.

On a personal level, she was a great inspiration to me, and, also a source of pressure. Not in a bad way. Rather, she holds the mirror up and makes you look into it, making you think about the ways you operate, reminding you of the accountability you owe yourself and the community. She was our village elder who worked to keep us all connected to our past, in tune with our present and always looking forward to our future.

 Ms. Milele has somehow always known what I’m doing, even when we’re out of touch for years. When many people around me thought that starting a chocolate company was a frivolous pursuit, Ms. Milele believed in me, and not because she was trying to be nice. She had her own way of evaluating outcomes. If she thought something was a bad idea, she would tell you. She’d randomly stop by my old shop to brainstorm ways to grow.

Not succeeding, was not an option.

She connected me with people who could open doors that were otherwise closed to me. Her networks were massive. You’d be shocked to know all the people she knows, and not on superficial levels either. She gave me a stage in our local community before anyone knew much about what I was doing. She made sure talent, especially Black talent, was recognized and celebrated, and if others wouldn’t recognize us, she created the stage. 

That’s what UMOJA was about. She bragged about the accomplishments of everyone in the Black community as if we were all her children. The amount of information her brain could retain is beyond comprehension, even up until the moment she passed. To this day, the best, most complete, most informative article written about my company, was an article in UMOJA Magazine.

She told me something two years ago that’s bothered me since. She said, “until you understand the importance of what you’re doing, you’ll never make it.”  I didn’t understand because to me, I’m just making chocolate which seemed much less significant than the practice of law. She saw something else: the importance of black enterprise. Ms. Milele recognized the critical need to close the racial wealth gap in America for black people to survive and thrive. She was a big believer in making your own table instead of begging for a seat at someone else’s. Especially when they don’t want you there. 

For me, the odds have always been against me as a Black woman professional in both of my occupations. She knew that, but she also knew that if you keep going with something and figure out ways to survive bad times without giving up, the odds eventually swing in your favor.

To her, supporting CocoVaa wasn’t about me personally, she saw the existence and growth of my company as part of black progress. Whenever you’re the first to do something, it’s always hard she told me, but you make it easier for those who come after, and that’s a responsibility we all share but don’t always appreciate. So, growing CocoVaa has had another pressure, and an additional responsibility, which I don’t always like – because all I really want to do is make some chocolate. Deep down inside however, I do see it as a mission, and I thoroughly enjoy the disruption it causes to the world of fine chocolate/craft food/“gourmet” foods   ̶ which have come to be code for “white.” 

Like Ms. Milele, I learned to be entertained by the resistance to something so seemingly benign as me entering these spaces and excelling. It’s clearly seen as a threat, which laughable but it can also be demoralizing and debilitating if you let it get to you. Brief chats with Ms. Milele as I’ve grown my business, kept me going, kept me from becoming overcome by self-doubt, fear, paranoia, and the “gaslighting” tactics of the dominant culture that attempt to convince those of us that “step out of line” that we’re crazy, make bad decisions, or don’t belong.

This is why building and supporting organizations like the Black Chamber of Commerce, which she spearheaded for many years, is so critical to everyone. It gives us a power base, a voice, a seat at the table we badly need and deserve, as we’ve been shut out of the economies of the dominant culture for too long. Black people have great ideas, products, businesses, that the world is missing by shutting us out. Ms. Milele spent her life trying to change this, finding ways to celebrate us.

Ms. Milele and the spirit she embodied, of perseverance, progress, her unwillingness to surrender to despair, or to run away, is the inspiration that fuels those of us who “step out of line” to pursue things in spaces where we’re told explicitly or implicitly, that we don’t belong. Spaces that are just as much ours as anyone else’s. Spaces that we built.

Right now, we need to seize this time of heightened social awareness, reaffirm our blackness, with all its beauty and talent, in all its shades and expressions, and we need to commit to moving forward. We need to channel the spirit of Ms. Milele, that spirit that teaches us that we belong where WE decide we will go, and we don’t stop until we get there. Neither did Ms. Milele, in this life or the next.