I sat through my first pre-commencement graduation at Saint Louis University today. There were many many highs and tearful moments. Some made me smile and others brought tears to my eyes. Imagine working so hard for your degree, even knowing what you will do upon graduation, just for the Lord to call you back home. I cried. No parent should ever bury their child. I sat through my first post-humous graduation too.
Seeing many of my now former students receive their diplomas also brought a bright smile to my face. We all did it. There were no models. Every single one of them persisted on their own. It’s my hope that they keep persisting beyond today and to the rest of their lives. Congratulations class of 2022.
The images you have of me. Mother, researcher, doing work in far away places. All of them are true. But those that are invisible. Everything hidden, under, and in between the lines like Toni Morrison’s invisible ink, are the bones that keep me tall and erect. One day, I will leave you hoping to see just how the story unfolds. What scenery passes through my window daily or whether i truly kiss the night air. Only that it would just be the beginning of the day in which all that I am to become, everything buried deeply within me, oozes forth like an ache.
I am possible, today, tomorrow, and forever, because I know my dreams, and my dreams go on dreaming, unbroken, unfettered, unafraid. They look to rivers and mountains, parks and creeks for inspiration that some call ambitious. Then they see struggles, all sorts of strife and pain lurking by the doorway, asking if we would like to come in. We do. Falling deeply into depths we pray will not leave us powerless. Not when we know what lies within us, all that cries out to arise from these depths we find ourselves in. We do, reaching for the skies above, hoping this wasn’t a dream. Dreams are always wasted if you don’t dream again. So we do, dreaming still that what lies hidden, everything under and in between the lines, remain unbroken, unfettered, unafraid, now that we touch all that aches within us.
Being rooted in all I do is free. I know my roots. I know my struggles too. I have lived through their lessons. Freedom takes a long time. With despair and fear, and a sprinkling of failure buried deep within. I have seen darkness of what it means to work. Roots buried deep only know dark. They know too that light takes time. I am beginning to know light. Both have taken a long time that I know first hand when the rain began to fall on me. I know too that you do not talk to a horse and wait for it’s reply. Whether it’s falling rain or neighing horses, I can testify that words are not enough to describe work. Neither are sentiments on papers. Only stories will do. Only the stories, with inward testimonies, of all the ways you reconciled shattered dreams with hopeful visions will do. Now that my roots pierce deeply into the soil, I look forward to shaming the devil as I speak my truth.
Ambition to me is tied to what Ngugi wa Thiongo once described as a ‘quest for relevance.’ It is a search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and to the other selves in the universe. He would go on to suggest that this question depends on the choice of material and the attitude to or interrogation of that material. How we see things, even with our own eyes, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to it. To him, any strong desire to achieve or do something is inherently laced with a language of struggle. And this struggle starts even from the beginning.
Sustaining global health, becoming ambitious with whatever you choose to do in this field is all about taking a leap into the land of struggle. It’s that struggle that ultimately makes you begin wherever you are, do whatever you can, to become part of the generation crazy enough to think they can change the world. I am very ambitious with global health, naming it, sharing it, so that I not only see myself clearly but work with like minded people to make the global more relevant than ever, changing how we all see it too, one story at a time. And yes, it is full of struggles, full of thinking that I can really change the world with fully-funded projects that last. How I am working to mobilize people to embrace these crazy ideas with global health is at the heart of my upcoming talk on Tuesday April 26th. It’s my hope that if you join us, you may learn ways to sustain your crazy ideas with global health, even in the midst of storms.
Dreams begin here. With people like you. Sitting and pondering. Drinking and eating. Laughing and living. Loving and living life, our way. A dream, to sit by the ocean and think for self. To live among others like you keeping things worth keeping. To simply live. All will do. For where dreams begins, life lives as it intends. I am in a space between dreaming and living.
But know that your straight up sharp, single handled ignorance of my light, whatever you choose to call it, will not provoke this fire burning within.
Not when we are legions.
We are not bent or broken when life insists on us.
To be black, female and invisible in academic spaces. That’s my keep for today. I have always expected it. Audre Lorde warned me about this in her book Sister Outsider. I have even reflected on it in my medium page here. But to go through this experience over and over again makes me angry. Not because I know it’s not fair or that maybe I should be the loudest so that I won’t be invisible but more so because of the price we pay. This experience remains rent-free in my head for awhile. I have gotten it from white counterparts, funders and senior research scientists alike. My take home. Know that your silence will never protect you. As a black, female in academia, keep flourishing in academic spaces with love and light the way too.
Of course the system is designed so you remain behind the scenes. I share this because the one of today is so insidious. Imagine being in a meeting with faculty and fellows and a senior research scientists decides to put all the faculty on the spot. Every single one available is called up except you whom your last name even implies difference. Imagine again too where you are the leader of a group, which means every single planning for the groups meeting should have your blessings and yet, somehow, the meeting agenda is formed without even your Oxford Comma. I don’t mean to brag, but lord knows I am the hardest working, baddest implementation science researcher I know. Some of the things people are talking about today, I have written them as grants and yes failed at them long before they became mainstream. My hard work ethic has no description. I can write a grant in the morning and go to a tennis match in the afternoon with the same vigor as the morning. I literally write academic papers, especially if the results are ready in 1-2 days. Writing is a gift for me. One that I am grateful for the source. So when I get dismissed or undervalued, I keep saying to them, your loss. Like really, your loss. If only you know where I am coming from, if you then add to the fact that I was not meant to be, then you will understand that my presence is a blessing to you and your life. We, all the ancestors that came before me and me, literally bring light to your dark world in every single way you can imagine. So we will not be silent. Just because you think we are invisible. We are legions and like Mary, we are blessed among men and women alike. Keep knowing that which is in us is truly lit for you. And without us, well darkness is all you will know.
How might we make scientific writing inclusive? How might it move beyond its style and form, beyond its static blueprint to adapt to lives that are constantly changing?
How can we speak of advancing racial and ethnic equity in science, health or medicine, if we continue to court tools and language that remain colonized?
How can we create meaningful space for those marginalized from writing, if the space only continues to sustain and nurture the status quo and not their voice?
Where are our spaces of open dialogue, spaces where we illuminate our past, brighten our future, or build strength for these present times?
Since the start of the pandemic, some of us in public health have been experiencing a kind of rapture for remembered words.
From Baldwin’s reminder that we must accept our struggle and accept it with love, to Lorde’s assertions to transform our silence into language and action.
From Wa Thiongo’s reminder to decolonize our minds, to Morrison’s eloquent Noble Prize Lecture on why language is the measure of our lives. We argue that the time for radical openness with scientific writing is now.
If the goal is to truly include voices of people experiencing health inequities, truly encourage contributions from scholars from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who remain systematically excluded from publishing in scientific journals, then scientific journals will need to begin by experimenting with new forms and style of writing.
I imagine we could do like Ryan Petteway suggested and use poetry for resistance, healing, and reimagination. One where even our scientific writing can become more responsive to and representative of people’s daily realities, and not an academic language that excludes or silences them.
I imagine, we could also engage in healthful narratives, leveraging arts and culture, like Shanae Burch suggested to advance health equity.
Derek Griffth and Andrea Semlow also suggested that art can be one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see they world in radically different ways.
Art may facilitate critical reflection, unlearning, relearning and perhaps most important, connecting, something public health desperately needs.
We could create more spaces for the exchange of letters, a genre, Green and Condon, argue enables deep listening as well as honest, hard, and tender dialogue necessary to the work of anti-racism.
Letters provide an opportunity for scholars often underrepresented in research to write from where they stand and for others to attend to their stories even when they seem uncomfortable.
We could also do as bell hooks once suggested in her book, teaching critical thinking, and use imagination to illuminate spaces not covered by data, facts and proven information.
Imagination can help us create and sustain an engaged audience, particularly with scholars from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who have been systematically excluded from publishing in scientific journals.
Racism are real conditions and very present in the way we write as scientist. We cannot be asked to draw a map, then lead the way down a path that leads to ending the many forms of racism, if the path we use belong to the masters. We may temporarily go along the journey with you, but we do so knowing that it will never lead to genuine change.
I maybe daring to speak to the oppressed and oppressor in the same voice, but language is now a measure of my life as a public health researcher and a profound site of resistance, one I intend to use with anyone interested to serve and support communities underrepresented in research.
If we are to truly illuminate and transform the present, or brighten the future, then we need an unfettered imagination of what can be. We decolonize scientific writing when we use tools that are different, tools we know will work for our beloved communities, work also to advance racial and ethnic equity in health, or simply spread a burst of light.
So allow me to introduce a new space within public health dedicated to hearing from you the public, on ways we can center back the public in public health, using tools that make sense to you, tools you feel will help us critically reflect, unlearn, relearn, and ultimately connect with you. Join us and simply come as you are to bear witness and use language and art as the measure of our lives and health. https://light4ph.org
Imagine taking seven days to frame the entire world. The kind of patience it would take to ensure that the stars and the moon are in the right place. All sorts of fishes or sea monsters swim the oceans. Mountains and hills are perfectly framed with volcanoes ready to erupt as they please. Having such a patience with fine details would be sterling. Something that only the universe can accomplish on their own without any interruptions. Well I’m no universe and it’s taken me nine years to finally make sense of this dance I have been dancing with words. One that only fully came to reality in 1.5 years. So for close to 7-8 years, this dream that I had to simply write, was dormant. In fact, dead. Of course I wrote. But for others, not myself. Of course I will always write. But again for others, not myself. The dance with the mind, the communion between the writer and the reader is one that we must all guard at all cost. When I noted earlier that I was writing, truth is I was writing in the way others told me to write. I wrote in a manner that was pleasing for the scientific community. A style that required us to have sections that we called introductions or methods or results or discussions. Master this style and you have a career. I have made a career out of this style.
This year, I’m am 2 papers away in this style with earning my 100th paper. I discovered that just the other day as I finalized my performance review for last year. Many scholars would be thrilled to say that have 100 scientific papers, yet I felt truly sad for myself. Not that none of the work isn’t important but more so, because i have been dancing this scientific dance to the detriment of the minds I would rather serve. What I mean by this is that, in science, in science writing in particular, there is no communion with the average community. Of course, we dance with other researchers, many who themselves are prepared to dance like you. But honestly, I would rather that anything I write be in service of you. Anyone and not just researchers in the scientific community. I would rather that I dance with words for people who would never think to download any scientific paper but are curious about ways to stay healthy. It has taken a pandemic for me to get here. But now, I want my writing to be in service of humanity. I want to use words to change the world. It sounds like a dream and well, I am prepared to dream and work to make it come true.
When writers and readers manage to touch another’s mind through reading, the intimate, sustained surrender that is felt, without fear or interference, this dance of an open mind, fosters a particular kind of peace that requires vigilance. Securing that peace, the peace of a dancing mind, is our work. ‘There isn’t anybody else’ said Ms Toni Morrison in her little book ‘The Dancing Mind.’ I totally agree. She may be gone, but her words, are my source of inspiration. I hope to use this blog to help you experience your own mind dancing with my own. Securing this peace, the peace of the dancing mind, is now my life’s work. Rest In Peace Ms. Morrison. The dance continues…
I imagine when we meet. When our hearts and minds connect our steps will move to the rhythm of the beat. Our minds may wander. Your beauty is like thunder. The sound of cars beeping will bring us back to the reason for our meeting. If I must confess, you make me dream. You make me soar to high points through words that allow me to dream. Clouds maybe grey. Sunrise distant. But your brilliance, your ability to outshine grey clouds, is the reason life doesn’t frighten me at all. The reason I want to keep dancing with you. For these are unpredictable times and only our furious dancing will do.
I liked a paper shared on Twitter yesterday. It focused on why decolonizing geosciences mattered. I loved everything I read that I felt it was critical to keep some. The fact that we have been told that certain ways of knowing and doing are superior resonated deeply with me. That and the fact that for eons we have been told that local or indigenous ways of knowing are inferior. That experts are only outsiders with resources, and if they are coming from the West, even better. That expertise can’t come from insiders, those who carry treasures of their life within their core. Yet to address harm and change how science is done, we must deeply recognize how colonialism have benefited experts and not those with expertise for whom knowledge first belonged to.
This paper is a perfect example of why stories matters with any attempt at decolonizing anything and any field. The hunt has glorified the hunters for too long that all we know are the stories of the colonizers, the stories of the experts, the stories of the hunter. This is my attempt at changing this with this article and the work of many great minds as an inspiration. I simply call it tell your story with decolonizing anything, somethings, or everything. We have nothing to lose these days and so we might as well strut like the lions we are.
With decolonization, tell your story, they say.
While the legacy of the hunt lingers.
Tell your story, they say.
Or the hunt will continue to glorify the hunters.
Tell your story, I hear. The hunter has failed everyone, including those being hunted.
But you can’t decolonize anything. You can’t decolonize somethings. You can’t decolonize everything.
It’s a myth.
It’s a myth.
It’s a myth.
And decolonizing should mean much more said the powerful as they wield their power in powerful spaces they erect and maintain to keep telling the stories of the hunter, to maintain their power.
Yet, we know that we can’t decolonize powerful spaces.
We can’t decolonize powerful people.
They are hunters. Their weapons are mightier. Their impact last longer than a day.
But while the debate about the myth of decolonizing remains, while the powerful even join and lead the debate, are we supposed to be silent?
Are we supposed to watch and stare as they continue to cast their shadow?
Are we supposed to live as if we don’t have our own historians?
Are we supposed to continue to forget that we are lions? No.
Rather, the time has come for the lions to tell their story.
The time has come for the lions to have their own historians.
Like a tale by moonlight, let me begin with the following;
Writing grants has taught me how to fail 30 times. I look forward to the 31st time. Counting failures is something I do now. Something I embrace too. The hurdles or the joy. The writing. The waiting. The bearing witness to, how things we believe in crumble, for lack of funding. And I have believed in so many things that failed. Poured my blood into missions that ended before they even started. I am learning to love all the pain they entail, all the sadness too, or the weight of each failure. Not because success isn’t better. But more so for the lessons every failure teaches. The doors and unexpected journeys along the way they open too.
I wrote a grant on ways to arise, on ways to let minds often ignored thrive. Failing with that grant broke me down that I became the opposite of what we sought to do. My mind failed me too for awhile. Until I started to see the beauty in failing. See that grant would have changed my life but failing it too has opened new and unexpected doors for me. I expected to scream that we got funding to do great research but now I scream we have no funding, but impactful work continues. In fact the most important work you will do, is the work you do for free. The work you wake up everyday to simply do because you have too. The work you use to connect with each other as humans. The work you do to provide light to dark spaces. My grants are often for the eyes of few people to see. But the most impactful work I have done are free, open and accessible for all to see. It cost me nothing to use words, my words to change people’s life. I may have failed to secure funding for my grants, but every day and through my words, I secure hope that connects us to each other. This is the beauty of failure worth spreading. (ps another grant is being reviewed today as I type this, I may get my wish before next week with my 31st failure. Accepting each one gets better with time).