KATARA MCCARTY is the source and inspiration for EXHALE, a well-being App for Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color. In December 2020, she was interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT about her life long journey creating resources for some of the most marginalized people in society, and her approach to spirituality.

Q: I want to make sure I’m pronouncing your name correctly. It’s [kuh-TAH-ruh]?

KM: Yes! How do I pronounce your name?

Q: [MUH-muh-thuh]

KM: I remember the first days of school, when they would come across my name. I would know that I was next because the teachers would pause, look at the list, and dodge it. You can probably totally relate. I remember being little and having to teach my teachers how to say my name. My whole life.

Q: That has been me my whole life. Inevitably someone follows up with, “Can I give you a nickname?” And I always say, “No! Learn how to say my name. It’s not that difficult.”

This has been a very interesting year, a very difficult year for the Black community. How are you doing?

KM: With the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty in the beginning, and being quarantined I lost over half my clientele. I’m a public speaker and all events were halted. I also coach companies and organizations. In a couple of the companies, I was the first thing to be cut, because they were trying to stop the internal bleeding. I felt a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and then what was happening with COVID in the Black community was really, really stressful.

Q: I know a lot about the last eight or nine months, but over the last few years what has really influenced you now in your career? I would love to hear about the origins.

KM: I spent a lot of my adult life partnering with my husband. We launched a non-profit organization in our small town here in Indiana – after-school programs for some of the most marginalized under-represented, under-served kids in our community. We also built a school in Zambia, Africa. That work, which I did for eighteen years, was about showing up for those who were on the margins of society. Then, I became a certified coach and started my coaching practice and public speaking. While I was getting certified, I was the Director of Culture for one of the largest Verizon Wireless retailers in the nation. After being there for a few years, I then started my own practice. So first it was nonprofit, then the corporate world, and then I started my own practice coaching individuals.

In 2019, people started approaching me to speak on diversity and inclusion, and my message was, “We can’t have true diversity and equity unless we really focus on inclusion.” What does that look like? I have challenged folks not to only check a box with the number of Black and Brown people of color working for them, not to only invite them to the table, but to give them a seat and give them an opportunity to speak and listen to them.

When I looked at my roster, I remember sharing with my husband and my girls, “I feel like I’ve drifted away from my core values.” While I was still delivering a message for people on the margins, I was no longer working with them. I wasn’t in the neighborhood anymore. I wasn’t with the families anymore. And while I was building my practice, it wasn’t really aligning with my values.

So I began sitting with myself and asking: “Wait! How did you get here? This is not where you want to be. You need to pivot some things.” I started thinking of ways to offer my services and my coaching to Black people, Brown people, and then COVID hit and we were quarantined, so I lost all my previous clients anyway. I thought, “Okay. I think the universe has done it in a funky way, not that it was ordained. All my clients are pretty much gone. So what now?” This was an opportunity for me to truly pivot.

When we learn to be centered,
it removes stress from the body,
so we won’t get as sick physically.
There’s a whole science to it.

To manage my stress, I was reaching for Apps, but it felt like a disconnect. I asked myself, “How can I show up in my community? I have time now. My clientele has been washed away and I have a clean slate. I’m available! I have resources that can help. What can I do?”

I remember being invited to a Zoom call with a lot of community leaders – political leaders, civic leaders, social justice leaders, and artists from the rap community. I asked myself, “Katara, what can you do?” over the next few days. Then one day I went to meditate without an App in my basement, focusing on my breath, and the idea came, “Katara, what if you use the tools and resources that you give your clients – advocating for them to prioritize emotional well-being – and put them in an App that is easily accessible and specific to Women of Color, some of these most marginalized folks in our community?” And that includes folks who are gender nonconforming, non-binary, LGBTQIA+. What if you create something that will help them manage their stress, their anxiety, their trauma, from regular life, and also those stresses compounded by systemic racism? So the idea for the App came. I knew immediately that I wanted to name it “EXHALE,” because I feel like that’s been our cry for 400 years. Because of racism, we can’t breathe.

My experience is that when we learn to connect back to our breath, we can remove stress from our bodies, we can remove anxiety from our bodies. We can’t control out there, what’s going to happen when we walk out the front door, but we can control our breath. When we learn to be centered, it removes stress from the body, so we won’t get as sick physically. There’s a whole science to it. I wanted to give my community a resource to exhale and breathe, to find our breath, because there’s power in our breath.

Q: Obviously, wellness is important to you, and that’s what you want to give back to your community. It makes me curious to know: What was your first experience with meditation? How has it helped you in everyday life, and also in dealing with the immensity of everything that’s going on right now? What has driven you to help people understand how beneficial meditation is in bringing a sense of solace and inner peace?

KM: It really started in my early twenties. I’m 48 now. I was pregnant when I was 19 and had my daughter when I was 20. When they put her in my arms, everything, everybody disappeared in that moment except for her and me. I was so young, and I remember really having a spiritual moment. It was an awakening for me. In that moment I knew I had to shift my life. It was a moment where I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got this baby. I mean, she’s a newborn, I’m holding her.” You know when they open their eyes and they’re cute and you’re just like, “Oh my God, this is a real being!” And I remember stroking her nose and her forehead and her little fingers, and thinking, “Oh, wow. Somebody is depending on me,” not just for food and shelter, but depending on me to be a solid individual, having a sense of who I am, being grounded and centered. I didn’t have the language then. I have it now. I just remember thinking, “It’s time to make some shifts.”

My path was the Church. I didn’t grow up in the Church. We went at Christmas and Easter, but we weren’t consistent churchgoers. I would say my first real encounter with meditation came in the form of what Christians called prayer. I remember taking it home with me and sitting in solitude and silence. While the Church teaches you to talk a lot, make requests and pray for people, my prayer life didn’t always look like that. I made it my own. It was an internal journey: Why am I doing the things I do? Why do I think that way? Why am I having those thoughts about myself? It was really about being with myself from a place of curiosity, a place of wonder, and a place of shifting, adjusting and guiding my life in the direction I wanted, and that was empowering for me. I would say that’s how it started, and I was very consistent throughout my 20s and 30s.

Since then, in my 40s, I’ve had a deconstruction of faith and it’s morphed and evolved and changed into what it is now, although it’s really not that different from what I was doing in my early 20s when I started. It’s a way to ground and center myself. It’s always been a way for me to journey back home to the truest most authentic me. Back then, it was about connecting myself with the higher being. Now it’s about, “I am one with all that is.” It helps to center and guide and ground me in every present moment, whatever that looks like.

I make a point to meditate every morning. Then, throughout the day if something crazy happens, or something unexpected, and I feel anxious, I have a resource: I can pause and do breath work, or I can close my eyes and focus on my breath. It’s not about focusing on other things, other people, or a higher being. It’s about focusing on my breath, and how that centers me. It has become a daily practice for me.

Now it’s about, “I am one with all that is.”
It helps to center and guide and ground me
in every present moment,
whatever that looks like.

Q: I love that you’ve put it all into an App. There are a dozen and one resources that already exist, but I love the focus of EXHALE. Would you share some responses you’ve received from the people using it, and the direction you’d like to see it go?

KM: One lady said, “This App has changed my life.” She was sexually assaulted earlier this year and was really traumatized, and with the pandemic as well she was super anxious. She said, “I cannot tell you how much I needed this, but I didn’t know I needed it.” I’ve heard that more than anything else. She said, “I look forward to the notifications. I feel like you made it just for me!” I am so glad she feels that way, because that was my intent. She passed it along to her therapist who loves it and has now shared it with a hundred of her clients.

We keep getting messages like, “I had all of this stuff going on, and I didn’t know that I could manage it through breath work and meditation.” With the meditation, I talk about the parasympathetic nervous system, so one response is, “I really love the science behind this. I love knowing that something is actually impacting my body in a positive way.”

Every time I hear something like that it’s a breath of fresh air, because my intent was to truly help people. We want to do Version 2, where we build a community for Women of Color to engage with each other, not just with the resources in the App. There’s so much value in community.

I started my own tech company called Katecha, which I’m really excited about. I’d love to launch an App for Black and Brown children and students. To build community for them is also important. I’m really excited to see what 2021 has to offer.

Q: The practices that you’ve been implementing, for yourself and for others, are a great way to remember that life is always going to throw us challenges, so we can’t expect, no matter how much we plan. If we’re grounded in ourselves and in our breath, if we’re grounded in the energy that is our birthright – our mind, body, and soul – then we have everything we need within us. Amidst all the chaos in the world, the simplicity that you just described is a beautiful concept – to know that we are truly given everything that we need in order to feel safe within ourselves.

Now it’s about, “I am one with all that is.”
It helps to center and guide and ground me
in every present moment,
whatever that looks like.

KM: Absolutely. It’s a journey home to ourselves. Because the world and the way we’re conditioned pulls us out of our bodies, so we become disembodied, disconnecting from our soul, disconnecting from our emotions, disconnecting from our physical bodies. Black women, in particular, have been conditioned to pull away from ourselves, and these resources are our journey back home – being in our bodies, being with our emotions, being with ourselves, trusting ourselves. I’ve been on this journey for many, many years, and I feel more at home than I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s my hope that EXHALE is a resource for that journey. As long as we are centered here, we’re good. It’s about journeying back home, for sure.

Q: That is the fundamental concept of the Heartfulness practices – finding our way back to the naturalness that is us. That is one of the goals of meditating on the heart. It’s always so beautiful to connect with other people who have the same ideals. It’s a lovely reminder that we think we are so different and yet we are so similar.

KM: That is absolutely true.

Q: Katara, I’m so glad you could speak freely about everything you’ve been going through, and the ways you want to keep going. Thank you for educating me today and helping me see how much we have in common. I want to use that commonality to keep going forward. Thank you.

KM: Thank you. That is great.

Interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT

Katara McCarty

About Katara McCarty

Katara is an entrepreneur, a leader in both non- and for-profit organizations, a sought-after coach, author, and podcast host dedicated to cultivating spaces where Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color (BIWOC) belong. She is committed to amplifying the richness of BIWOC and their stories, while also providing emotional well-being resources for them through her App, Exhale.

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