Although diverse communities in cannabis are growing, for black and brown women, the old adage rings true: “All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave.” Supernova Women is turning that reality on its head. Founded in 2015 by three black and one multiracial woman, the Oakland, Calif.-based organization creates gateways of equity in the weed industry by offering women of color empowerment through community education and advocacy.
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho, 32, is a former attorney at an international law firm based in San Francisco. She believes there is a moral imperative to fight for racial and economic justice in implementing programs and policies that will begin to tip the scale from prohibition to an open, regulated market in cannabis.
“Just as diamonds bear the taint of centuries of colonialism and supremacist thinking, so, too, does cannabis,” Lencho explains. “For me, seeking to expand business opportunities for people of color is essential to the creation of the cannabis market.”
Amber Senter, 36, is a marketer who formerly worked with Fortune 500 companies on major designs. A U.S. Coast Guard veteran, Senter moved to California’s Bay Area in February 2014 after being diagnosed with lupus and needing safe access to medical cannabis. Once in California, she began networking and using her marketing background to help elevate cannabis brands.
She started Supernova Women with Lencho and Nina Parks in 2015 after seeing a need for people of color to have space in the industry. Senter now owns a cannabis-infused products company, Leisure Life, along with a prerolled joint company, California Rolls.
Nina Parks, who turned 33 on the auspicious date of April 20, is a creative with experience in community organizing, rehabilitation and re-entry, and youth support programs in San Francisco.
“As a mixed-race woman of color who grew up in the communities now being pushed out of San Francisco by gentrification, with family members that were incarcerated for cannabis, the fight for inclusion is personal,” she says.
Andrea Unsworth, 36, is a former bond analyst for a major rating agency in San Francisco. When she started her delivery service in 2014, Unsworth experienced firsthand the incredible hurdles that cannabis businesses face. She was acutely aware of the lack of support that local jurisdictions provided those populations who were in most need of assistance in starting an operation. Shortly after this experience, Unsworth joined Supernova Women.
The $7 billion cannabis industry is one driven by gatekeepers. Many states won’t allow you to apply for a cannabis license if you have had a misdemeanor or arrest for possession of any drug—including marijuana. There aren’t many black people who have at a minimum $1 million to invest in cannabis’s exorbitant licensing fees. At this point, there are a few states in the South that have legalized medical marijuana, and none recreationally.
In 2016, Oakland City Council Member Desley Brooks led an effort to add amendments that would effectively pick the winners in the Oakland marijuana trade—mandating that half of all new pot-business owners come from a few areas of East Oakland. With gentrification at a peak in Oakland, this posed access concerns for the black and brown families that have legacy in the city.
The challenge with the amendments that Brooks proposed are the effects on medical-cannabis operators of color who live in West Oakland, or for those who may have avoided incarceration through plea deals but now are disadvantaged for licensing, as well as medical-cannabis operators of color who do not reside in Council Member Brooks’ designated “priority” areas in East Oakland. Supernova Women introduced six alternative amendment options to establish Oakland as a model city for a “Socially Just and Equitable Medical Cannabis Policy.”
In response to Supernova Women, the Oakland City Council established a Race and Equity initiative, chaired by Darlene Flynn, to conduct and analyze the city’s cannabis industry. Flynn’s report, informed by the amendments introduced by Supernova Women, was published in February. It examines the effects of the cannabis market on unemployment, poverty and arrest rates for various racial and ethnic groups. It also provides ways that the city can build equity in the sector.
On March 7, members of Supernova Women testified before the Oakland City Council on its recommendations. Now the city of Oakland is implementing the Revised Medical Pot Program in phases, starting with residency and income requirements, such as that the applicant must have lived in a designated Oakland neighborhood for 10 of the last 20 years, and the applicant must also have a salary at or below 80 percent of the city’s average median income. In addition, people arrested and convicted after Nov. 5, 1996, can apply as an equity applicant in the sector, too.
Moving forward, the Supernova Women say they are going to ramp up their fundraising to expand faster into areas where they know there’s a need for local networking, advocacy training, and educational support and programming. They will be hosting a Southern California summit bridging the state and national conversation on cannabis on July 22. To elevate their national profile, they partnered with the National Cannabis Festival on April 22, where Lencho spoke. And, of course, they will continue to advocate in the Bay Area for inclusive licensing, including pushing for delivery services.
“With [U.S. Attorney General Jeff] Sessions and 45 in charge of this country, the presence of people of color in cannabis in appreciable numbers is needed now more than ever. If you have thought about starting a cannabis business or ancillary cannabis business, now is the time,” says Lencho.
“Network with fellow people of color in the cannabis space. Host friends for a listen-and-learn session. Attend a free webinar and start searching YouTube for tutorials and informational interviews,” she advises. “Follow brands and advocates on social media. And most importantly, hold lawmakers accountable for their promises. Read the regulations, read the statutes and call your governors, council members and other officials when they seek to curtail expansion of the industry.”