Nicole Kenney has always been surrounded by aunties. Kenney is a communications strategist in Philadelphia who has worked for large nonprofits like the NAACP, the Urban League of Philadelphia, and PECO, the local utility. In 2016, she made a documentary where she captured conversations that she had with her “aunties,” both biological and not. These conversations showed the lifeline aunties provided to a young, stressed-out millennial who was just trying to figure out life. When nonprofits and churches began asking her to show her documentary, she thought about the connection to her own experience and the experience of other women in the community and the power of these intergenerational relationships.
Kenney’s work has centered racial, gender, and economic equity. So when she went to a conference that is focused on connecting more women of color in the tech space – she had an idea to help make more connections between young Black women and older mentors. She decided to create an app called “Hey Auntie,” an online platform for Black women to connect with older Black women, or “Aunties.” In July, a beta version of her app won $50,000 in funding to develop the app in the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia’s Well City Challenge.
Kenney has been touched by many aunties throughout the course of her life.
“I’m also a fitness instructor in the same YMCA that I was at as a child,” she says. “I was very deliberate about training because I want to get more Black women into strength training to improve their life and their health outcome. I would say half the women that I work with are over the age of about 60. I noticed in my work that I was surrounded by aunties. They would give me an answer. Here I am teaching them about strength training and here they are giving me life advice. It’s not just a biological thing. It conveys warmth. Aunties are a safe place, they are welcome.”
Named after the tradition in the Black community of calling out “Hey, Auntie” to older women who are able to provide a safe space and advice about a variety of issues, the app will connect Black women in Philadelphia across generations. Vetted women will be recruited to serve as (volunteers at first, but later paid) aunties for a variety of issues that Millennial women might seek help with. A preview of the app design shows a menu where users can select the type of help they hope to receive. Some of these reasons included are family, health, career, and love and relationships.
Hey Auntie’s advisory board is also made up of aunties. Dr. Deborah Roebuck, a public health expert with a doctorate in nursing practice (and also Kenney’s biological auntie who Kenney describes as a “second mom”) is serving on Hey Auntie’s advisory board. She’ll lend her expertise in women’s health issues to users of Hey Auntie. She was a safe place for Kenney when she was experiencing burnout in her early thirties, Kenney says. “That’s who she is for me and for other women in the family. She’s passionate about serving, and that’s the ethos I bring to the platform. She has been super valuable, it’s who she is as a person — someone who has spent her entire life’s work and her academic career to help women.”
Roebuck says her work in public health has demonstrated the value in intergenerational relationships. Roebuck says, “I don’t care what position you have. I just met a woman who was a judge and she said she couldn’t stay too long because she had to take care of the grandkids. Everybody is providing support to one another.”
Gallery: Hey Auntie!
Roebuck, now an auntie herself, reminisced about some of her own aunties. Her academic career was inspired by a neighbor who encouraged her to pursue her education. After Roebuck became a nurse, the roles changed, and she cared for that neighbor when she became ill. Roebuck adds, “I remember as a young woman, the older women would sit down and say, ‘Girl, let me tell you something.’ Things they told me 30-40 years ago, I still use these gems now in my life.”
Aside from the networking aspect of Hey Auntie, Roebuck’s role is also to educate app users on women’s health. Kenney and Roebuck have been planning Hey Auntie “master classes” that will touch on health topics that providers might not necessarily have time to discuss, or that women might not get from their mothers. Roebuck is especially concerned with the impact of stress on women’s health.
Hey Auntie is still in the early stages of app development and will roll out in Philadelphia in 2022. In the meantime, Kenney is planning for the master classes to start in September. Hey Auntie is also running a contest where nominated aunties can win a two-night stay at a luxury bed-and-breakfast. Submissions for the Celebrate Your Auntie Contest will be open until September 6.
Nia Norris is a Chicago-based solutions and culture journalist who contributes to Next City and Kirkus Reviews. Her work has also been featured in Ms., Romper, and Parents.com.