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Arise Firebird: Women of Color Transcending Workplace Trauma and Finding Joy

By Ling Liao

AWIS recently held a screening of the film, Arise Firebird, an insightful and inspiring documentary directed by Jimi Okubanjo which focuses on the stories of three women of color who navigate toxic racism and sexism in the workplace. Following the film screening, AWIS also hosted a live Q&A with the director.

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The documentary, Arise Firebird, features the stories of three women (Alisha, Ngozi, and Jimi) to bring awareness to the experiences of Black women professionals. According to the Women’s Leadership Resource Center at the University of Chicago, only 17% of Black women feel included in their workplace.

The film was originally titled Vanishing Women, because women of color often leave their toxic workplaces due to the mental and physical toll of microaggressions. However, Okubanjo also shows that women are able to heal from the trauma they experienced, change their career trajectory, and rebuild their lives.

Okubanjo decided to change the film’s title to Arise Firebird in order to reflect the empowerment and resilience of these women in the face of adversity. The title signifies their transformation from being hidden and oppressed to emerging with strength and purpose, embracing their unique qualities, and finding joy in their pursuits.

Responding to Unfairness and Mistreatment

Okubanjo emphasized that women commonly respond to unfairness and mistreatment by working harder. This leads to burnout and other health problems such as anxiety and depression. The women featured in the film recovered by stepping away from toxic environments, creating space for themselves, and redefining their identities.

Steps to Building Collective Strength

The film highlighted three crucial steps the women followed to gather the strength to begin the healing process and advocate for themselves:

  • Understand that you are not alone.
  • Find a community to support your personal and professional growth.
  • Surround yourself with cheerleaders who uplift and support you.

Okubanjo encouraged individuals to speak up for themselves, to stand up for their identities, and to recognize their worth. She added that building networks of allies and continually striving for progress are key approaches to navigating these challenges.

Personal Growth and Healing

The director also shared her own ongoing journey toward regaining confidence and healing from trauma. She emphasized the importance of being kind to yourself, refusing to feel guilty, remaining determined, and continuing to learn.

AWIS’s Q&A session with Okubanjo shed light on the importance of addressing toxic workplace environments, of finding strength through collective support, and of embarking on personal healing journeys. The stories shared in Arise Firebird offer hope and inspiration to those who have experienced similar challenges. Okubanjo also wanted to educate leaders on their responsibility to make a safe space for employees and underscore the struggles that women of color often face in the workplace. To watch the recording, click here.


Ling LiaoLing Liao is a PhD student majoring in bioinformatics at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Medicine. She is passionate about promoting equity and recognizing women in science.



This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.