My son drew a picture of himself at school today. He was dressed in a blue cape and black pants. I asked if he was inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog given similarities in the shade of blue. He shared that it wasn’t but rather it was a picture of him with a cape full of precious jewels. There were nine of them scattered all over his cape and in all shades of colors from green to blue, brown to black and pink. I asked why jewels and not something else. He noted because jewels are his favorite rocks and he wanted to draw something he loved that was close to his heart. He is only five. This image is my keep for today as it’s a reminder to keep what you love, close to your heart.

For my son it’s jewels. They come in all shapes and colors but they are nevertheless precious to him and worth keeping close to his heart even if in the form of a cape. For me, these days it’s anything that allows me to serve, like my love for grant writing. Commitment to writing grants is a commitment to service. I rarely write grants for the glory. Sure the accolades are nice when they come. But more than anything, this idea of a grant being in service to others is what’s close to my heart. I don’t do it for the reward. The sleep at the end of sleepless nights are much better. I’m also not interested in whether it becomes an icing on the cake for my academic career or not, none of that is important. What moves me instead, is whether any of the grants I write can be of service to others.

I also expect them to fail and the failed ones are just as significant for the insights they add that in my opinion are often not ready to be judged by reviewers, but yet powerful. Imagine a sustainable marketplace for HIV prevention or defining what implementation success entails or even a sustainability scale for resource limited settings. Yes, those are some title of ideas in service of others that may never come to life but they continue to inspire me even though they failed.

My grants then for me are a site of service. It’s my most innovative, my most pioneering and often my most audacious work and to think that I do it for others, keeps me grounded. It’s that notion that allows me to juggle one grant at least every other month. The irony is that I may seem like I’m not busy. Kids will take up all my time, but wait till I get a vision for a grant in service to others with a deadline, and we’ll it will be written in a week or two. It won’t be perfect as then the editing begins, but they will have something close that will make editing either seamless or painful. Commitment to writing grants in this way is often not successful. It’s a competition after all and may the best grants win. Plus even if it fails, there is always another deadline and a commitment to make the grant better all because of the people it’s originally in service for.

I expect my grants to always be at odds with what mainstream folks want and well when you subscribe first to service, expect your grants to seek first to challenge and change anything the dominant ideology suggests should be the norm. It won’t be easy, but writing in this ways helps me to remain accountable to those that matter. It also opens my heart and mind to conditions that allow us to last beyond one or 5 years, conditions that honor what matters to you, conditions I keep close to my heart always, just like my son and his jewel covered cape. I will never dominate whether the grants succeed or fail. It was never the intent. Rather, with each success or failure, I look forward to asking the question over and over again; how can a grant be of service to you? These are the things I keep close to my heart with grant writing, like a set of jewel covered cape.

I am always mesmerized by an interview Chinua Achebe gave on NPR back in 1988. In it he told a story about a tortoise and a leopard. The leopard meets the tortoise on a lonely stretch of road. He had been trying to catch the tortoise for a long time. Tortoise, being a trickster, always found ways to escape. But on this day, he was cornered by the leopard. Even the leopard said to him, ah-ha, now I have got you. Prepare to die. Tortoise said to the leopard, can I ask for a favor, give me a short time to prepare for my death. Leopard, looked around and said, I don’t see why not. Go ahead. But instead of standing and thinking as the leopard had expected, tortoise began to dig a hole and scatter sand all over the road, throwing it in all directions. Leopard asked, what’s going on, why are you doing all of this. To which the tortoise replied: I am doing this because after I am dead, I want anyone passing by this spot and seeing all the sign of struggle on the road to say: a man and his match struggled here.

To Chinua Achebe, the moral of this is the importance of struggle. No one is going to guarantee us the outcome. Nobody is going to say if you struggle, you will succeed. It would be too simple. But if even we are not sure how it will end, whether we will succeed or not, we still have this obligation to struggle. It’s for this reason that I conclude with the following. I want my life, this blog, to be a living testimony of this struggle, whether I succeed or not.

So I see smoke everywhere.

As fire transforms to dust.

I see my people are everywhere.

These days my eyes are closed.

Finding God’s voice is all I know.

If Jabez can pray, I can do the same for blessings, for taking away pain and everything else that weighs me down.

I am a child that came for a journey.

He knows I walk miles he ordained.

Yet, I am restless these days. struggling to come up for air.

Knowing too where there is pain, there is life and dreams, and possibilities for tomorrow.

The story above was also from Chinua Achebe’s book: Anthills of the Savannah.

This is not for your feelings. Or mountains burning with fire. Or places dark and gloomy. Or unending winds and storms. Even if trembling or afraid. Smash those feelings against a rock. For this is not about you.

Rather, this is for those approaching Mount Zion. Those dwelling in the city of God. Those surrounded by thousands of angels. Those with harps singing. Those blazing like the setting sun.

This joyful gathering. This myriad of festivities. This celebration you feel cannot be shaken, cannot be moved. Not when he calls us by name.

I am in awe always of Hebrews 12: 18-24. I remember when a colleague of mine, Edmond Moukala read it at work (UNESCO days). He read it out loud with intensity. At that time, work was terrible and a group of us gathered over lunch to mediate on the word. These were some of the best moments of work. But of all our gathering, (his rendition of the Lord’s Prayer being another favorite of mine) this reading held a special place in my heart.

I still see him reading it with the conviction the words carry. You have not come with your heads bowed low. He didn’t say it this way of course, but that was always my take on it when he started. God did not create me to be small. Rather, like his child, I have approached his throne with the grace that he bestowed on me from the moment he called me. Again, my rendition but that’s what I truly feel whenever I hear this chapter and verses read. I had to make it my own in words that personify my mood these days at work. This isn’t about you or your feelings. We live in a world full of mountains of egos. Your feelings are yours. Keep them to yourself. Rather, when you come near me, know that Mount Zion resides in me. God’s city and all that adorns it, is me. I hope you leave with the sprinkle of blessings that he showers around those he calls his own. My mood for this year. I pray this year is full of better things than the last. All because of where you have come to. Mount Zion. Those he calls by name.

A couple of days ago, my daughter shared a drawing of all the things she loved. She call it her tree of love. Her name was nestled in the middle of a big green tree and surrounded by all the things that matter to her like playing music, writing, sleeping, swimming and doing somersaults. This image, though simple, is my question for today for all of us in academia. What do you love and how do you intend to keep it?

My daughter’s art.

For me these days, it’s writing as the spirit moves me. The words of the late bell hooks provides some food for thought: ‘if we fail to privilege critical writing about work that emerges from a progressive standpoint, we will not see a change in how that work is critically received.’

I value critical writing whether as a grant or story or anything else. I started this blog to do so with my parenting and productivity in academia. The idea of centering the public, even our lives in all we do, needs our critical attention and regard. Needs also to be witnessed. I’m in a phase of my life where witnessing academia as I see it is all that matters. The ability to courageously speak my mind, to talk about my work, my life, as the spirit moves me, is the point of this blog. I don’t do this for impact factors or references. I do it to call attention to all that moves me at whatever time I like and in whatever format I choose, knowing no one owns any monopoly on anything, not storytelling, not poetry, not art, not even grants, my medium for real, equitable change that impacts lives. Learning to see is the foundation of my work here.

Within academia, we have all been taught to value papers. We were taught that no matter what, publish or perish and ensure that whatever you publish ends up in a journal with high impact. If the spirit has given one the ability to write, then don’t write one or two, try 6 or 10 or whatever the spirit ordains that exemplifies plenty. Many of us listened and proceeded with the onerous and laborious process of writing papers that no one in the public reads.

I’m in a phase where this task, while still important, isn’t the only thing I do anymore. Very few have been taught that the engine that moves our field, lies in the funding you bring. Few have been taught about ways to interrogate this other form of life in academia. The form focused on creating spaces for the affirmation of critical grant writing about all that ails our people. If you want to make a change, real sustained changed in people’s health and well-being, don’t write another paper. Instead, get a grant.

The system will want to exploit and oppress you and remind you that you need papers for tenure. Agree with them, then work for your grant. The system will count your papers, tell you that you don’t have enough in high impact journals. Tell them you are working on it, and focus on your grants. The system will judge you harshly if you are a woman, Black like me and within a child-bearing age. Accept their judgments, even when it comes from women like you, and still work on your grants. They can remind you, count for you and even judge you. But, they can never take what belongs to you and that is the idea in your head that birthed the grant in the first place. Not the money. That too will pass and you will be judged whether it’s $10k or $3million. Nothing is ever enough.

I am learning that everyday. Imagine sitting in a meeting where folks are talking about clinical trials and you share your opinion and you are told your trial doesn’t count because it’s a population based trial. That’s what the system will do. And when it’s comes for you (it will, in due time) just remember the words of Bessie Head, ‘ we tolerate strangers because the things we love cannot be touched by them.’ Remember the things you love about your work. It comes natural to me in the grants I write. Hold on to them, care for them, as they are all that matter in the ends, like this blog I keep, to remind me to keep what matters to me.

Of what use are grants? If you think about this deeply, you will discover that it’s use are infinite. Of course some use it for their research. Some to propel their careers. I have always believed they can be used to tell stories.

I remember the very first grant I wrote over 14 years ago. I was a doctoral student then at Penn State and I was very keen on understanding how to succeed as one. I was working as a graduate assistant with Dr. Rhonda Belue and I asked her that question in the fall semester of my first year. She noted 2 things, write papers, get grants. Looking back, my mind latched on to both things and proceeded to make sense of grad school. I asked to see sample grants and Rhonda connected me to a doctoral student, Brandi who graciously shared her F-31 doctoral award. Brandi also introduced me to another doctoral student Melissa, who also shared her F-31 award. So from the beginning, seeing examples of what types of grants I could write has been critical for me.

My doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa, also had a grant and I was mesmerized by how it allowed us to work in South Africa to understand HIV stigma first hand. It also allowed me to write a paper with guidance from the research team. Dr. Rhonda introduced me to Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe and he had an R03 grant in Nigeria focused on hypertension. Together, I learnt firsthand what it takes to get successful global health grants focused on doing what you love. They would both ignite my passion and vision for doing great work that impacts lives in global settings I call home.

Also, I took a qualitative class focused on teaching aspects of grant writing. This was my first actual foray into grant writing. Yes, it was with esteemed Nursing professors who taught the art of writing grant but from a qualitative research perspective. I was in awe. They taught me first the meaning of storytelling with grants. Qualitative research will do that to you. Make you understand first the stories you hope to tell, whether is through a paper or in this case grants. We were taught everything about qualitative research and told we could turn our ideas into funded grants. I did. I spent that semester learning about ethnography and proceeded to write a grant focused on how I would use ethnography to understand child malaria in Nigeria. I was born in Nigeria and I figured if I would do research let it be at home and with something I knew first hand, from experience. Malaria was ingrained in my head from child hood and I figured then that if I am going to change the world, we’ll why not begin with malaria and yes using ethnography. I gathered all the documents required using Brandi and Melissa’s example F-31 as a guide. Then used my ethnography research paper on malaria as my entry point for research. I was going to work under esteemed researchers focused on malaria in Nigeria, like Dr. Mrs Falade at the University of Ibadan and my doctoral advisor would guide me every step of the way as I made deep understanding as to why child malaria persisted using culture and ethnography as a lens. I was ambitious and my ambition for being among the first to end child malaria gave me the confidence to submit an F-31 grant focused on using ethnography to understand child malaria in NIGERIa. It was rejected.

The second most important thing I learned from this first experience, was feedback. Not from those that know you, but strangers who only care about what you propose to do. They taught the value and significance of the art of feedback. So alongside beginning first with storytelling as grants thanks to my qualitative teachers, I learnt the importance of feedback from this experience. I took it all in, continued to work on my dissertation and made the choice to revise and resubmit the grant. I was in my 3rd year or so and technically with a year left in doctoral school. But I revised not with a desire to use it in my doctoral work but to gather more feedback just in case I failed again. I expected to use that feedback to continue to perfect my grant even upon graduation. I buckled up for a long journey with grants. The second version was revised and this time rather than using ethnography, I asked to gain skills in mixed methods research. It was funded and this began my journey towards becoming a grant writer.

There are very few of us in academia. It has also taken me years to see myself as one. Yet grant writing like music, or poetry is an art. Of course the science matters. You need tight science and rigorous review of research, but you also need storytelling and mastering the art of persuasion and persistence for that story you hope to tell one day. Academia did not prepare many people for storytelling as grant writing. I figured it out my way. I benefited from teachers and mentors whose life work is grounded in stories and culture and anti-racism and yes all of that combined is the reason I call myself a grant writer today. Grants for me are stories. They have always been and will continue to be stories. Reviewers may reject them. In fact most of my stories, including an actual grant on storytelling have been rejected. But I am focused on using the oppressors language for good.

In the words of Lorraine Hansberry, my dreams with grants as stories remains largely outside myself. And I am happy to keep dreaming in this way, to keep living my dream. Not for a career or to keep up with anything. But to work freely and do the things I want to do. Becoming a grant writer focused on telling stories are the things dreams are made off. To be at the cusp of the work that awaits me keeps me grateful still to so many and God. Nothing but grace personifies my life’s work. I can’t wait to start the semester teaching what I mean by grants as stories. Teaching too, why failure is always an option. Teaching the art of feedback. Teaching students to simply do as Lorraine Hansberry asks and ‘write as they will,’ what they know about their idea, what they think it ought to be and must be if their stories about their ideas are to last. I intend to teach grant writing as writing stories to a point. Writing about people and stories begging for their attention and funding. We all need the art of grants as stories. I intend to perfect it for them

Ms Lorraine Hansberry, my forever muse on grants as stories. Imagine using her as a guide. I am in awe of my goals for this course.

Failure is always an option. That’s my mantra these days. I have failed in so many aspects of my life. The one that I keep doing these past days is motherhood. No, mothering is not easy. It has never been. It takes effort and patience and moving in some direction even if it seems like you are making no movements at all.

A great friend of our family visited over the weekend and together we made a local native soup made out of water leaves and kale called Edikaikong. While trying to figure out how to make the soup, I shared with her that back in my dissertation days I kept a blog focused on mastering the art of African cuisine. Not just Nigerian cuisine, but all things African. It taught me a lot about spices for example and I will always be grateful for the addition of cumin in my life thanks to that blog. But it failed. Or rather I failed. I never really mastered the art like I intended and well before you know it, the love for cooking fizzled away.

From there on, life got in the way. I finished my dissertation, met my husband, graduated and moved our family to Paris. I spent 2.5 years working in Paris and just as I was leaving, I started a fashion blog to curate all things I loved about African fashion. It was the bane of my existence then. It taught me so much about African fashion. I even dreamt it would become like an African Vogue one day. I also discovered Ify and her Ladymaker brand. That blog, like the one on cooking, changed my life and I still see African fashion from this lens, though the dreams of fashion have long since fizzled out.

As we discussed, I realize that starting and stopping, or even failing with my initial ideas were commonplace. There was once a love for beading jewelry. I still love to make jewelry though for myself but there is a story on failure there as well. There are the never ending desire to become a childrens story book author. I have enough manuscripts to last me a lifetime, some published but for my family’s eyes only and some dating back to when my daughter was still in my womb and yes 10 years later, I am still far from achieving that dream in all the ways I had once hoped.

So why reflect on failure now and why does it matter. As I prep for my grant writing course, I am truly humbled by the mantra that keeps coming in my mind and it is simply that ‘failure is an option.’ Nothing personifies my life more these days than all the numerous grants that taught me how to fail successfully. I know it seems hard to imagine and yes, with motherhood, you will fail. I keep failing and I am learning from my mistakes every day. The latest is with my five year old and lord knows it seems like no matter how hard I try, I keep failing with him. Take for example an incidence the other day at school where his teacher queried the motives of his classroom drawing. Yes my son had depicted himself laying in a pool of blood and I stood by him crying. On probing further with him one on one, it turns out that the blood was actually strawberry juice and that I was not crying because of him, just upset with some blue marks on my shirt.

My son’s love mom drawing depicted with crosses.

In the course of reprimanding him about his drawing, I found myself telling him to curtail his public drawing as people may take it out of context. He listened and now my five year is very sensitive about what he draws for fear that people do not take it out of context. As a mother, I really failed here as the last thing I want is for my son is to never feel like he can draw anything he wants. I am slowly working with him to regain his love for drawing and even if it entails gory scene, these days I am like fine. At least, I know what’s in your head and we can talk it out. Will I fail again with him or any of my children. Yes. Failure is always an option. But after failure, comes lessons, experiences, and anything else that personifies learning. These days, I submit to whatever failure sends my ways. It is always an option.

Ooh and the soup turned out right.

Thank you Chidinma for reminding me once more that failure is an option. By the way, watching the sunset over a lake with our families is a thing and I think I will be adding more of this our lives.

‘Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries.’ These opening lines of bell hooks essay on ‘Language’ in her book Teaching to Transgress is my muse for today. Not only for the meaning behind these words, but for the simplicity of the lines. I am in the final stages of prepping for my grant writing course for this Fall and beginnings are my muse.

I love grants with beginnings that are effortless. Beginnings that are open, inviting and quite simply refreshing. They usher you in like a wave. Force you to pay attention to the rise and fall, even the moments where you actually dive in to catch the wave. I am inspired by words that take root in my memory. Those that refuse to be forgotten. Their presence in a grant, especially in the beginning of a grant startle me.

If you want to really master the art of grant writing, invest deeply in beginnings that are unforgettable. Begin to with beginnings that disrupt. Those that force connections and spaces for alternative thinking and innovations. We touch one another in language. Excel too with our grants through language. Grant ideas like desire, with language that refuses to be contained are the core of well-written grants. Mastering beginnings of such grants is my muse this fall.

Grant writing is writing full of misery. Suffering, despair, anxiety, pain, torture, even hell. It has taken years to see that this too is a gift, not pleasure. But a gift.

I am on a quest to understand the purpose of this misery and why it matters for writing your best grants.

Not your most successful. Since success depends on humans and we know how fickle we are.

But your best, whether it fails or succeeds. I understand too that these words alone cannot describe the untold misery you will experience with each grant.

But as someone who has failed with so many grants, these days, the pain of each failure, has propelled me to work hard with grant writing. Know too the joys of suffering.

I could easily have stopped after each failure. But rather, I set them aside and worked to understand what I did wrong in other to get better with the next one.

I never expected to know the beauty of failure. Never planned to learn the glory of misery. No one sets out to intentionally play with fire.

But these days, I am dancing under the shadows of the sun. Learning too, the use of misery and why it matters for grants.

Anyone that tells you they love to write grants, often omits all the misery that accompanies it.

It’s this dignity of misery. It’s ability to teach, to re-secure a dream, a vision, or a goal, like a fly trapped, that keeps me longing for it’s ache.

The gentleness of freedom, the hope of mercy, for trapped flies, is the grace I hope you find for yourself with each grant you write.

So the gift, the one great gift that grant writing gave to me, despite all the pain that accompanied each grant I wrote, is openness.

Beyond the misery, with grants you will be receptive to new ideas. Innovations too. Old ways of thinking will gnaw your mind, until they become distant, like golden sunsets.

But mastering this openness comes at a price. Imagination being one of them. I have imagined grants I had no business writing. They sounded good in theory. I still love and stand by them. One of them for example, called sustainable marketplaces and why they matter for health, HIV in particular for many at the base of the pyramid. I was truly open to learn marketing, used novel concepts from the field of entrepreneurship, that reviewers told me over and over to stop wasting time.

I did the moment, I understood the lessons of misery. A lesson repeated often and available to those willing to try new things. Those unafraid of the unknown. Those in search of simplicity with anything, my own being health. And those passionate about lasting. This gift of misery and it use, birthed openness and countless reasons why all my ideas remain possible.

Finally, this day of grace, so amazing, has arrived. This day will forever be etched in my memory now. Not because of what I get to call myself from today, A full Professor, but more so for the untenable reality I molded for myself, reduced to manageable, transforming essence, my way, now my knowing so deep.

I think about the Late great Toni Morrison’s letter to women, girls, daughters like my own, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, mother in law, herself, often. But especially today. To that letter I would add fathers, mentors that are male, brothers, uncles, friends that are male, my sons and my husband. All of you have been the rim of my world, my beginning and everything that personifies the word primary.

When I stepped into academia 8 years and 11 months ago, I knew it was not ready for women like me. Those dark like me. Those that will not stop motherhood for anything. Those also prepared to do the damn work necessary. So I battled demons. Literally did as Psalm 23 noted and walked through the deepest darkness, never forgetting that I have everything. I lost friends along the way. Mentors too. Lost loved ones, one of which whose death is still as painful as the day she died 11 months ago as if it was today. Before the journey began, I laid the path that I knew I would follow my way and followed as I knew how best too, stumbling and getting up along the way. There were plenty stumbles. But also many rising up too. Silence tried to keep me down. It succeed for a minute until Audre Lorde reminded me it will never protect me. Suffering was plenty. Not just with work but also at home. But still, like Ms Morrison would remind me, I am like no other. Not in the way I suffered or stayed silent. But for what I did through both. I was never the most loved, not the most celebrated, maybe the most silent and of course the least eloquent about my experience in academia. But I did it all my way without blinking and that way still agitates me over and over again. Even on this day, even in this moment, I am so grateful for Ms. Morrison’s letter and for the reminder that I did all right. I celebrate today with grace knowing that my sweep is grand. I will forever be endlessly refreshing when it comes to the work I do. They can say what they like but I know the work will change lives and if you don’t know yet, learn my history. I come from a lineage that was not meant to be. The word perseverance was etched in our soul, and it runs through my veins. I know Papa and Mama and Angi would be happy with me as they celebrate today in heaven too. You have done alright Isioma (my middle name), they would say, the one for whom we literally named knowledge. You took this thing many fear, passed through it and even danced through it your way and in the best of company, all of you whom I call my people. We did it. I thank all of you that got me this far. You are so many and my heart is full. I thank you for crying when I cried. I thank you for celebrating when I celebrated. The birth of my children, my marriage, failed and successful grants, new and old jobs, thank you for walking alongside me through this journey. Thank you for being there even when I could not be there for you. There is still movement in the shadow of the sun. I am still coming from the rim of the world. I will always remain that disturbing disturbance you all know so well, neither hawk nor stormy weather, but now as Professor Juliet Iwelunmor-Ezepue, a dark woman of all things. I intend to keep rustling, like life. Thank you Ms. Morrison for this knowing so deep. Thank you to my community. This one is for you all.

What is your Dharma? It’s the one question Jay Shetty asks in his book ‘Think like a Monk.’ What is that thing you are good at? The thing that agitates you, helps you thrive, keeps you grateful or helps you serve others meaningfully. That thing that is a sprinkle of passion with some skills and purpose?

I am finally getting a sense of that thing for myself. It has taken a while to get here, but I know with little doubt what I am called to do. It is everything that I am. How stories bring me closer to my most authentic, confident and powerful self.

This morning I was asked to review a small grant for a new scholar seeking funds for their research. I had four kids to shuttle to summer camps. I managed to get their things ready, shoved them to Dad to do the running around and then joined the meeting a little late. I asked to go next as this was my first review and I wanted to get the flow first from others before I came on. I listened as Reviewer 1 did a splendid job. Then I came on and spoke from my heart. My take was there was no heart to the application. What’s your story? Why should I care? Sure you did a great job putting this together? But nothing sticks and well I have other things to do. I found myself stating back all I teach in my grant writing class. I stopped and let other reviewers give their feedback. One audience member sent a direct message to me thanking me of the way I explained this. I was taken aback at first because this is all I know. Then it hit me, it’s your Dharma. Not the idea of grant writing itself, but more for people to anchor all they do in the stories they want to tell.

Everything I need for this journey with this next phase of my life is already in me. I marveled at how I can rush four kids off to their activities for the day and jump on any call and speak from my heart as to the heart of the matter for them. My dharma is already in me. It has always been with me. It is woven into my being and I intend to keep my mind and soul open to let it announce itself always in this new season I find myself in. Find and keep your Dharma.