Sometimes, it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways. I firmly believe this. To see the true manifestation of this word, also means you divorce yourself from the experiences and people who created or enabled those painful experiences to emerge in the first place. I wholeheartedly believe this. All the looking into why things happened or even why you let them happen is not the main crux of the issue. I am learning to believe this. Rather it takes a clear sense of you, to see yourself clearly in the situation. I am slowly believing this. Last year for me was full of pain on so many levels, both personally and professionally. Some of the pain were self-inflicted. I talk to much so I know that it can land me in trouble with people thinking I am belittling or undermining them. Far from it. My weakness remains a gift that can create pain. I am learning from this. Some of the pain lingers on, unable to fully detract myself or fully come to terms with why I feel like a black sheep in a room that once was inviting, celebratory even. To see how folks take their time to exclude you, take their time to remind you of how they even paved the way for you is unbecoming at times. It’s strange to see this all unfold too. But I wouldn’t even be writing this if it wasn’t meant for me to heal. I choose to believe this. Pain comes with rejection. I get that. It also comes with exclusion. I see that too. But most of all it comes with change. I am fully embracing this. It has taken me awhile to really say it to myself and out loud. But enough is enough. I choose me. I choose change. This one I believe. So if you don’t see me, if you don’t hear me, if you don’t even know me anymore. It’s not you. Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways. I am changing my ways so that I be. This one is for me. Keep learning from painful experiences.
Something about a new school year keeps me hungry and restless to learn something new. A new strategy, a new framework, a new innovation, a new story. This school year, I am taking lessons from the master storyteller herself. Though she is gone, Toni Morrison’s many many literary treasures continues to teach and inspire and help me soar to new heights, new possibilities, new dreams. Today, I am dreaming of a time when schools began the tumultuous journey to integration. Many may take it for granted that black and white children can go to schools together today. But there was a time this wasn’t the case. Toni Morrison’s book ‘Remember’ is a historical work for young people, full of archival photographs that depicted what happened after the U.S Supreme Court declared segregation in schools unconstitutional.
Through a fictional account of the dialogue and emotions of students who lived through the era, Morrison reminds us all to remember because and as she noted, ‘it’s the mind’s first step towards understanding.’ And so we begin a journey towards remembering, towards a time where there was as much hate as there was love, as much anger as there was hope, as many heroes as cowards. This fictional account of ordinary people living ordinary lives takes us to new journey, new friendships, new kinds of fear, and old kinds of emotions. A wide road maybe ahead, but the path towards it was narrow, often closed, before we even see a path. This was also a time when children had to be braver than their parents, when pastors, priests and rabbis walked with strangers. It’s this time that I choose to remember. Not because of the difficulties of this period, but more so for the path that unfolded, the brave people, brave children that walked through them, through closed doors into possibilities that make today glimmer with hope. We cannot forget this time and I urge whoever you are reading this to keep remembering too.
I remember the day we met. I was summoned to a meeting at a faculty office by the Director of Health for Student Services. He was a close friend to my family. I say summoned because I tried to excuse myself from it. My excuses too were valid as I was on maternity leave. I just had my second child a month ago. I knew he meant well when he said it was for a student and she needed help. I arrived at his office promptly. Something about helping out a student in need keeps me standing always. Upon my arrival, I met the student and her uncle. They explained her situation and asked if I would take her on as a mentor for her masters degree. I felt I had no choice seeing that I was summoned and reluctantly said yes. I had no clue as well where to begin, as I would be on maternity leave while she navigated being a student. That was nearly seven years ago.
Today, that student, boarded a plane to begin her tenure-track career as an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. Our relationship has now come full circle. We worked together extremely well in ways that make me even wonder how I would fare as she leaves. I remember the beginning days of writing with her. She has always been a writer but need a little bit of finesse. It took time, with revisions, and discussions, all from a place of wanting to bring out the best in her. She listened, revised, listened some more and wrote and wrote.
These days, all I do is give a sense of the topic, and she is off soaring. I don’t even have to discuss much, let alone revise. It’s perfect. That’s what I mean by full circle. That as mentors, those we guide, will do better than us, greater than us even, and beyond our wildest reach, our deepest depths. I have come across mentors who prefer you remain a mentee. Some are also willing to stifle your drive because you dared to thrive. Possibly without them too. Yet, they too forget, that the greatest gift they can give to those they guide is the circle. Once it’s complete, mentees should become ready to soar, even if they stumble along the way. Still rise on eagle’s wind and soar.
That’s my keep for you today. That as you start this new journey at Wake Forest, as you close one chapter of your life and open another, that as you complete this circle and begin another, that you will always rise like an eagle and soar to new heights. Reach to for what is highest within your capacity and quietly make your name known. You may be overlooked, even underestimated but the future belongs to those who dare fly. Fly Dr. Ucheoma Nwaozuru. It’s your future.
We have orange day lilies in our garden. My kids and I spotted them. Their beauty greets the eyes in an unexpected, but magnificent way. It is impossible to stop staring at them. Nothing about them is hidden from view. Their distinctive orange color, in a sea of green shrubs, bores down into your soul. They truly demand that you notice them. And you will, even if for a brief moment. Not even your eyes will deny their communion. Yet for all it’s beauty, for all its dazzling mist which permeates your being in slow bursts, these blooming orange day lilies lasts for a day. For some reason, I keep dreaming about ways we in public health can become like day lilies, even if for a day.
This is because we have been dragging our feet through concrete floors for too long. Making no sound as we walk. With footsteps followed only by us and not the public. Our beauty is hardly known by the public, by us even. Ahead, knowledge of how things should be with no change in style or substance. Not with our curriculums or courses. Not with our frameworks or theories. None of it speaks of multiple layers of racism and the daily realities that even the public demand that we do something about. Behind, a new generation of learners, listeners, activists, gazing out to the field. Wondering whether this is truly what they signed up for. As they draw nearer, they too look outward to the direction of our gaze. They too become aware of a sharp disconnect between the public and the public’s health. We have not dared to glance behind us even though we know they are near. The new generations and us are inseparably linked forever by what the public demands and what we do even if for a day. Each failure to advance who we are, what we do, or why we do it, is deadly for the public, inaction with racism and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, being a clear example.
I keep wondering, why public health keeps being left behind. We got left behind during the pandemic. Our messages on wearing masks or practicing social distance was viewed by some in the public with suspicion. For their own health too. Our messages on getting vaccinated whether old or young, was also viewed by some in the public with suspicion. Even still for their own health. Our papers do not reflect the realities of every day people, including the insidious impact of racism in all spheres of our influence. Nothing in our introductions, methods, results or discussions humanizes the public either. We have grown accustomed to presenting findings that serve us and not the public we serve. No sane person talks about their health the way we do.
But now, the pandemic and acknowledgement of the pervasive role of racism has wrenched the doors wide open demanding that we do something. Demanding that we walk, so our footsteps maybe felt by people, not institutions or open sources. Will we wave our hands in surrender to the public, or will we keep walking, with no sound, along concrete floors?I suppose time will tell. For now, dreams of daylilies will do.
In a 1989 conversation with Charles Rowell, Chinua Achebe shared a story about the goddess of creativity.
He described this as the earth goddess, called Ala or Ani by the Igbo people. Not only is she responsible for creativity, he mentioned that she is also responsible for morality.
For her, art cannot then be in service of destruction, in service of oppression, even in service of evil.
Art is simply not in service of immorality he mentioned. And morality he noted is not about being good or going to church. Rather it is manifestations such as with murder.
That is art, cannot be in the business of committing murder. It does not mean only angels or good things are portrayed. Rather things that humanize us are vividly illustrated.
For even hero’s are just as human as everybody else. No matter how fuzzy things may get, we still need to make a distinction between what is permissible and what is not permissible.
For example, he mentioned that it is not permissible to stereotype or dehumanize our fellows. Rather, we celebrate them, whether good or bad. We celebrate them whether rascals or not, for all of us abound in the world and are all part of its richness.
Achebe stated the following during interview: “We are engaged in a great mission, and we attempt to bring this into storytelling…People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives. They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.’
I wonder today if we can say they same about what we all do in public health? This is my keep today, my plea to return the public back to public health.
It is a serious matter and the public expect us the professionals to illustrate the fabric of their lives in ways that help them find a way out. So this is a serious matter. Put the public back into public health.
I am in the business of light making. It is messy, very complex with turns that keep winding.
When rich countries get 40-60 percent of Covid vaccines and others, especially countries in Africa, get only 3%, you will understand why I choose light.
When racism, especially structural racism is at the heart of why we consider some youth to be deficit rather than as asset, then you will get why I fight for light.
When people are denied deep sleep for centuries, due to trauma inflicted generations ago from the sins of enslavement, then you will understand why deep healing through light becomes the only way.
What would it be like to live in light, to live in a space where the pursuit of our healing is not defined by others but us.
Audre Lorde once noted that ‘our battle is to define survival in ways that are acceptable and nourishing to us, matching it with meaning, substance and style.’
This is my attempt at a doing so, by being a burst of light for public health.
Though the road ahead is rough, I remain committed to this business. It is forcing me to reach out to unlikely partners. The public demands that we do. The public also demands that we listen as we reflect and act on this long-overdue renaissance necessary for public health.
We are convinced that the only way forward is to intentionally put the public back in health. Not in a way that oppresses them or consider them to to be the problem only, but in ways that build, ways that uplift, with every single thing we publish.
I am in the business now of doing what Petteway and Bowleg asked that those of us committed to the public’s health should purse. Not with using the master’s language only, but with using and finding tools that serve the every day realities of all the people we want to serve.
The process is messy, complex too. But I am committed to dismantling the ways we disseminate information on health to the public.
Who needs impact factor when the factor we seek to impact is more important than words that never connect to daily realities.
I am in the business of distributing light instead, not as p values greater than .05, but as people values that allow people to thrive.
I keep wanting to run away from it, to ignore it, hoping that the itch would go away. But I am drawn to it.
To become one with light is bravery undefined, love unfiltered, for possibilities unquestionably misunderstood.
So I follow the paths it illuminates along this way for the course of being different. Everything in my mind says we are on the right course. This feels right too and if I’m not sharing much yet, know that the time has not come for me to unveil all that is happening behind the scenes. But in due time, we will tell the story. Of how brave folks fought for light, with all their might in-spite of the all the fear that held them in a grip so tight.
We pushed through.
For when you are in the business of light making, the only way forward is light making, no matter how long it takes to make the light you seek to inspire.
I am in the business of becoming that leader that will work to ignite the healing and transformation necessary for the public’s health. I don’t have an answer or solution yet. But I want to keep this here for me as a reminder to keep being in this messy, complex business of making light. We just may become the burst or pacemakers for this renaissance.
I usually write in the morning. It’s my best time for thinking. But the past few weeks my mornings have been preoccupied with work. I have been in grant writing mode since the start of March. It’s has been a painful and bittersweet journey to get back into. The last time I went on this journey was about a year ago and well, I failed. So to get back on it again is full of trepidation. But still I continue. When your mind is as chaotic as mind, grant writing can truly become an obsession. Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Beautiful Struggle noted how when he obsessed, he wanted only what he wanted and gave no attention to other matters. Grant writing is like that for me, a beautiful struggle that keeps me transfixed whenever I begin. Someone asked awhile back to a catalogue my grant writing process. How do I begin and how do I end?
For starters the beginning is full of doubts. I try to find any reason not to write a grant, not to put myself through the process, not to even think that I may have any idea and that the idea may indeed be valuable. In the beginning, I dread the grant writing process. But then slowly it’s like I am bitten by a bug. A grant bug. I look for the deadlines. If it’s 2-3 months away, then it’s potentially doable. But more doubts creep in. Who are co-conspirators? Is it worth bringing them along? What will they add? Why even bother? There are more doubts in the way of starting any grant journey. They key is to wrestle through it with different folks until the bug bite becomes an itch that simply won’t go away. The more you scratch, the more the ideas start to make sense until you plunge headfirst, into a grant writing abyss that takes you on an never ending journey towards many unknown. I am currently on that journey. They doubts are still intense but the people I keep meeting across this journey are the fuel I need. Take for example today. I was in a room full of black scholars. All seven of us have one degree or the other and we came in all shades of brown skin so divine, that it makes you want to join Beyonce and say just how beautiful we are when we come together for our people. I have no idea where this particular grant journey is taking me. I am also prepared to fail. That’s another part of my process that I share with every one I encounter from the beginning. We may fail but I would still rather go in this journey with you. It’s is a journey after all and like I always say, I am glad I have a plan. Surrounding myself with the right people, learning from them, adapting or changing the course of the grant where necessary all while nurturing that which makes us unique is the reason I absolutely love grant writing. I keep diving head first to as it’s it’s a journey from the head to the soul for me and with the right people, i am prepared to fail. But what if we are transformative. That then is the start of an endless journey, once that the destination is still unknown. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else (singing Brown Skin Girls)…
One of my favorite aspects of the novel Anthills of the Savannah’s by Chinua Achebe is the focus on the power of the story and the storyteller. In it Achebe reminds us of ‘stories being our escorts, and our guides’ through life. Some people, the novel notes, have been given the gift of leadership, summoning their fellow citizens to rise to the sounding and timing of battles. Others have been given the gift of fighting, the gift of putting on war-time garbs and going to engage in the battle. But still others have been given the gift of waiting for the battle to end. Waiting to take over to tell the story of the battle. Achebe shared that the sounding of the battle is important, the fierce waging of the war too. But of all this, it’s the telling of the story that is most critical. The story as Achebe pointed out, ‘boldly takes the eagle feather.’ Stories are indeed connected to all aspects of our lives. Our being and becoming, our penetration and preservation, even our silence and survival or ability to enlighten and empower depend on the stories we tell. It is only the story that continues noted Achebe, beyond the war and the warrior. It’s is the ‘story that also saves us, so much so that without it, we are blind.’ Sustainability or the ‘continued use of program components and activities for the continued achievement of desirable program and population outcomes,’ are like stories.
Sustainability is connected to all the life cycles of research from initial conceptualization to implementation. Sustainability draws attention to the struggles, the values, even the quest for efficacy or effectiveness that binds a research team and how all these intersect to enable their intervention to ultimately remain. It is also where the collective memory of an intervention resides. Not the memories as with steps delineated in a protocol, but in the minds of all people influenced by the intervention. It informs the process through which an intervention defines itself from its beginning to the end. It raises awareness and builds consciousness of key values or adaptations that can take evidence-based interventions forward. It highlights the role of key people and resources necessary for any attempt to sustain an intervention, capturing key processes and outcomes that future researchers and implementers can rely on. Finally, sustainability helps implementer to re-imagine and reframe their own stories on what it means to last. It’s their for the telling and they have the capacity and ability to affect and inform the outcome, if only they know their power.
Of course sustainability cannot be separated from the social, ecological, historical or political forces in which evidence-based interventions are implemented. In a seminal review by Pan-African Studies Professor, Tavengwa Gwekwerere on the Anthills of the Savanah, like stories, sustainability ‘binds the past, the present and the future together, making inroads into the past to inspire the present, narrating the realities of the present to imagine the future, all while preparing the future for potential struggles and aspirations with attempts to last.’ Sustainability’s connections to the past, present and future, prepares researchers and implementers to make sense of ‘where they have been, where they are, and where they must go.’ It’s for this reason that having a plan becomes critical. By plan, I mean working with the right people to learn how to adapt and nurture aspects of an evidence-based research so that it lasts. It’s no surprise then that sustainability remains a threat to all statue quo form of research, so much so that those who seek to make this a career are actually called ambitious. But why even bother implementing any research if it never lasts? Keep sustainably in mind and have a plan while you are at it. That and keep remaining ambitious. Sustainability requires, no demands that you remain ambitious. So keep it as well.
There is a Black exodus happening in academia. It is female, oppressive, and recursive. The latest, Dena Simmons of Yale University. She left the university citing ‘racism and years of bullying.’ She didn’t feel ‘valued’ or ‘protected’ at Yale. I spent my Sunday afternoon reading brief but concise social media postings on Dena. They were mostly by Black women. Some still in academia. Some gone, and off to start their own enterprises, in spaces and places where they would feel safe and protected. There is a Black exodus happening in academia now. But it is a site of power. Black women are reclaiming, restoring, even rekindling their God given power to exit spaces and places that do not value or protect them.
But how do we bear witness to a moment that is often not recorded, not discussed, not visible, not even in mainstream media, but yet a lived experience of many black women in America? Writing, is the one place where we can retrieve, restore, recover and give voices back to the unknown and unshared invisible, experiences of all black women, those in or not in academia. It is the one place where our silence will not protect us. It is the space where no one tells us what to do. It is the place where we can create rooms for our own unique experiences. All the words I write, every phrase and every structure, is mine to do as I please. If I wanted to control the narrative, all you see and hear about me, even what my social spaces, or social interactions may look like, at home, at work, even at church, then I would have to be radically open and write from my soul. For it is in writing that we bear witness to our history, our stories, our ways of being, our lived reality, our gaze.
Bell Hooks shared in a glorious piece entitled ‘the oppositional gaze,’ the power inherent with looking that is in opposition. Our ‘gaze’ she said, has been and remains a site of resistance. But it can also be a site of power, a site that breaks silence, breaks constraints and makes us the subject rather than the object of dialogue. Yet one thing black women don’t do enough though, is value our process of looking, enough to publicly name it, she stated. Even when we have our own reality, our own history, our own lens, our imaginations, one that sees the world differently from anyone else, Hooks stated that we do not name it or even describe this experience of seeing things rather differently. Even when we create alternative lens, based on our own unique ways of contesting, resisting, revising, and interrogating the dominant ways of knowing and looking, we still do not define our realities. Yet, how we see ourselves, whether at the center or the margins of our stories, how we look at ourselves, Bell Hooks notes, is most is important.
So to is my writing, the place where I am most free to be myself, to see myself. This blog has become a space of agency for me and for every reader, both old and new. Know that every keep, every word written, is my way of looking at myself, my way of using my lived reality to know the present, and imagine the future. Every keep is my way of reclaiming, restoring and rekindling my power. So though there may be a Black exodus in academia right now, for those of us still around, do keep an oppositional gaze.
In the spirit of Black History Month, my family and I have been reading about Anna Julia Cooper, the 4th African American woman to earn a doctorate, something she accomplished in 1924. Anna Julia Cooper was as fearless as she was powerful, as sublime as she was effortless in her discussions not only on the plight of black women in general, but the need for women to attain higher education. The professor in me is always alert to women who paved the way for me to call myself a professor. Women like Anna Julia Cooper, with her profound book ‘ A Voice from the South’ which urged black women to not be mute or voiceless, but happily expectant and ready to add our voice to the experiment and experience we call America. One statement she wrote in the book that made me alert is: ‘Woman, Mother, your responsibility is one that might make angels tremble.’ This statement was eloquent then as it is perfect for me today. I look forward to the future always with zeal, knowing that the many words of Anna Julia Cooper will be my guide. Keep her in mind.