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.
I have taken plenty short trips in life. But few are as unforgettable as the past 4 days in Lagos. Imagine arriving to blue skies. No soon after we arrived, even after all the chaos we encountered at the airport, I arrived to skies perfect and blue.
I entered Lagos too with clarity. Day after day, I saw myself opening up to the wonders of this place. Opening up to the young people nurturing its greatest hope. We came for them. Came to witness all they could offer for themselves and those like them. We called it PrEP4Youth. They called it life changing. And one by one I saw as young people came up with ideas of how to care for each other. Ideas for girls without hope and boys out of hope. I saw how they told stories of themselves, told stories of their peers and dreamed of ways they could all live in a land where the skies remained perfect and blue. I kept saying nothing about you without you. They kept showing nothing for them without them. For where they come from, their is no need to ignore them, no need to divide them into those that receive or complete, no need to act as if they cannot lead things for themselves. The past four days left moments of joy, from teams exceptional and finesse, from youths thinking outside the box, in red shirts, or green shirts, braided hair, or faded cuts, Godswill, or rising up again. I saw all this and more with fullness for tomorrow. Nothing about young people without young people. Nothing about people without people. This is the change they want.
If you want to decolonize anything, start by stepping out of the way. Then proceed with this mantra, ‘it is not about you.’ Nothing for people, communities, health systems, anyone, without them. Some may write papers on this, some may even have stories to tell. I saw first hand in Lagos, the need to step out of the way, so people themselves tell their own stories. This is why I firmly believe and will continue to do my best to ensure that we are all storytellers. No degree or peer-reviewed journals required. Just come as you are. I am on a mission to build platforms for storytellers in health who dare to dream.
To lead, when one has never led, is courageous. Risky and daring, but with courage. To see it’s outcomes, it’s possibilities, so rich, is divine. To know that I lead this, keeps me on my knees. I am nothing but the grace of God and so full of thanks today for the risk, for daring and for leading courageously.
While watching WAHL street recently, I heard top pioneers in entrepreneurship share the following: ‘Are you prepared to put the work in and honor what you don’t know. Believe in your self. Believe in your idea and dive in head first. People love to tell you what you can’t you. Because they don’t want you to win. That has to drive you.’
These words personify my 72hour weekend in Lagos, Nigeria as part of the 4youth by youth 3rd Designathon focused on youth-led strategies for PrEP. I listened and watched as young Nigerians put in the work to honor what they didn’t know. I saw them believe in themselves, believe in their ideas too. I marveled as they dived in head first, to think outside the box for their ideas. I was impressed with their drive overall and all the work they did.
Today, 15 teams came together to pitch their ideas. Of course many wanted to do mobile apps, but there were board games, ideas focused on settings based ambassadors, awareness based strategies using local groups and pharmacist based ideas. We were awed, moved, inspired to see what 72 hours can do. They surprised me, elevated me, and made me feel thankful that I get to call this work. It’s more than work, more than me, this platform that I can’t believe I lead. I can’t believe how I got here too. I told that to the first team that pitched and well didn’t adhere to the 5 minute rule. They seemed dejected that their time was up before they could finish sharing ideas. I saw the look in their eyes and felt that look for myself. I have been rejected so many times. Cut off too before I could articulate my ideas. My ideas no matter how well I drafted them have also failed. I told them it took close to 30 failures to get here. If I am quiet, if am not busy or seem amazed and looking, it because I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe I get to lead this. I know failure all too well and I encourage them to not let it get to there. There are lessons in failure worth celebrating. Hold on to it as it’s more valuable than winning. I am a living testimony. They smiled I went back to my seat, still looking in amazement that I get to lead this.
I have no idea what may come next. We have one more year of this project. But if this is all I get to lead, I am grateful. Bill and Sonia, thank you for taking a chance on me. Joe and Oliver, this was our first venture together. We were strangers when all this began and to think we end as family keeps me speechless. Thank you both for believing in me when I had no idea what I too was pitching to you. Chisom and Titi, we are of course nothing without you, thank you for leading all the way with clarity and ease and light. Isioma, well you know the beginning. This is still only the beginning and so much more is yet to come. Thank you for being in my corner always. Everyone at NIMR, so many of your from Dr Musa, Oladele, David, MMartins, Ifeoma, Nurudeen, David, Naco, I know I will miss so many other names, but thank you. Ucheoma, well you know the failures, thank you for going through them to also witness the success, you are truly a gem. Amanda and Alexis, you too capture my passion in ways words often fail me. Thank you for believing and seeing so much more in me. All the 4YBY team, all our youth ambassadors, all our judges, all that passed through us from the beginning, my mouth is speechless so I will pray. God alone knows the plans for you and I use this space to say they are good. Thank you for believing in me, when I never knew where to begin. Dr. Afadapa, we go way back. Thank you for your love and friendship. Drs. Airhihenbuwa, Ogedegbe, Conserve, Belue, Katie and Nora, Khadijah and so many others within ITEST, CCHUB, Pinpoint Media team, Chris, all of you that made all this happen, thank you.
Last but not least my family. Zobam, none of this is possible without you. I am only stronger because you saw greater things in me. Love you beyond us. I bless God too for us. My children, my better me, love you all and thank you for being patient all these years as mummy traveled for work. Mama, without you, none of this can happen. Thank you for taking care of all of us. My brothers and sisters, my in-laws, Chukwuma, Yusuf, you all have been my support and I know my words may never be enough. Thank you. 4 youth by youth to the world. This is just the beginning. Watch us now roar as we pave the way to greatness. As always. The lessons of failure are me and through this project, I can see it’s grace too.
The scene was full of brilliance. Young people answering to their names. They see their light. They know their season too. This is it. See them rise, past all expected. Entering their destiny without error. Standing in rooms they own. Full of grace for all they know. Blooming on their own, like a promise made to flowers. Nothing about them without them they say. We have been patient for too long, they note. It’s our future after all, they share. See as we illuminate it our way, they finish. We stand, saying nothing all. Nothing we say matters. Not when their clouds are full of rain. Not when we watch them think outside the box.
I am overwhelmed and tired. Trying to stay focused but exhausted. I feel like I am running a race that never ends. I want it to end, but I keep running. There will be days like this I am told. Today is one of those days, I see. Nothing brilliant to say expect that all I need right now is rest. This maybe the most brilliant thought I have held all day.
I hear you are very persistent. Prone to reinvade even when removed. I hear you are highly resilient. Thick dense branches push out others who compete with you for water, soil, space, sun. I hear some call you invasive. Birds love your fruit, spread your seeds and you rise up unbidden again. But I see you bloom in spring. Early spring in clusters of white rounded flowers that stay close together. Like us. We may be persistent, resilient, invasive even, but still, like callery trees, we stay close together, blooming together.
They past week has been rough. Tough too for multiple reasons. I persisted though. Became resilient for what I knew was coming. In the end, many will not understand. Some may question commitment. All I can say is that Spring is my season. And the plans he has in store for me requires that I persist, remain resilient and become invasive. We are literally on the cusp of changing the world. And all of that like being a callery pear tree is required.
‘My mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.’ Adrienne Rich.
I need to reach you with words. To make words that I use touch whatever site of joy or suffering you find yourself in. I find myself doing so with language that isn’t mine. Language that may not touch you. Yet I need to reach you.
I think about these words often when I find myself in circles where people espouse their authority over anything. Forgetting even their authority may or may not still be accessible to people. I realize we can touch people with the works of our minds, with our words too. But yet, even the language we use may not be accessible to people. Of course we can make language and our work do what it is supposed to do. Or we can take the oppressors language and turn it over its head. It’s something that I have been toying with. Liberating my self in language. Choosing to close this with no wahala. I go change how I speak to una one day.
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
But slowly turning to be as smooth as the mold of eba.
Lol. This is my attempt at poetry writing. I have been expanding my writing with poetry, trying to fuse my life as a mother, as a researcher using words that connect. I long to break free from the prison science writing has kept me in for too long. I’m in the mood for my writing to move beyond the space we call science. To move beyond the limits of the journals in our field. To reach people, especially those that look like me. Those in search of ways to find healing. I’m in the spirit to reach you and teach you. That our healing is a collective experience. Ours is a journey we can begin together, begin too from a place of love, whether different or the same. I’ll rather you stay just as you are. Stay different if it pleases your soul. I have no answer. Nothing I have been taught will free us from the prison we find ourselves. So I’m in the mood of going along the journey together with you. Watching as you discover all that is in you. All that is in me too. Listening and learning because we choose this path. Holding our hands together through the struggles and triumphs. I expect the struggles and I hope you prepare for them too. But most of all I am prepared to love us and I choose this place as our starting point. Plus the light that came to Lucille. And we are not done yet. We will continue to continue. Where we have been, all our lives is where we are going. With this collection of cares, this collection for us we begin to keep with love.
With Black History Month coming up, I will try my best to perfect write poems, not as luxury, but to pay homage to many beautiful, black, gifted writers, that have gone to their heavenly rest. These they all did theirs best, I am entirely grateful that their words remain for all of us to keep. The next month is dedicated to keep words from them for me, for you.
At the end of his book Health and Culture beyond the Western Paradigm, my doctoral advisor ended with these words: ‘To engage in a healthy culture project is to question one’s location constantly, always remembering that wherever something stand, another thing will stand beside it.’ It’s from Chinua Achebe and to him, it meant that there was no one way to doing anything. If there is one point of view, fine, there will be others as well. This to me is at the heart of the problem with they way we write in academia.
We have all been trained to use a one dimensional style and form to anything we seek to publish. If we dare to deviate from that style, no matter the topic, then the odds of being rejected are high. In this next phase of my career, I am prepared to offend many Emperors. If your goal is to end racism in health, to decolonize the field as we know, while advocating for those that look like me, many who remain voiceless, then you too would be prepared to offend the Emperor. I want to spend whatever time I have writing from a place of liberation. See when you join the ranks of those whose minds see clearly how what we do actually perpetuates the problem, then you would be infuriated.
The opportunities we have squandered with the public’s health are enormous. They keep looking to us for solutions and we keep giving them papers they can’t read. They keep asking for our interventions and we keep saying wait for the results after the intervention ends. They keep seeking for clarity on what they should do, and we keep drafting protocols. So much assistance could have been given to the public. So much time spent truly elevating their lives, yet all of us in our field spend countless energies writing papers the public will never read. We have been blessed as a field to have resources many dream to have, yet it doesn’t translate to much for people who need this the most.
It’s for them and only them, that I seek to chart a different course. Of course we cannot write in this manner within our journals. We cannot say to any of our editors too that writing as we do is racist and only serves the Emperor and not the people it actually doesn’t represent in his research. If our field is inundated right now with falsehoods and so many misinformation, it’s the bed we unfortunately made. If our writing has only been in service to ourselves, then it should not come as a surprise that folks with their own disingenuous motives will speak to them to the public we have neglected for too long. This isn’t the first time we have experienced a pandemic. There was one over 100 years ago and what if anything did we learn then? The researcher in me has perused through the articles we wrote back then. I have also written about it too here in the past. We remain blinded and weighed down by so much knowledge that serves no one. Too many experts want to speak and speak about what they think the public ought to be doing that they too now sound like a broken record.
These days the only thing keeping me sane are my family, my children and their love for all things that fly, including dogs like paw patrol with skills to save the world and not humans as the world expects. Don’t blame me, paw patrol has a new movie and my kids have ensured that I sit through it as well. I am glad I did. The ability and flexibility of dogs reminded me of why I choose to become a public health researcher and it’s to first serve the public through tough times, through good times and when all seems impossible. I have always know this to be the true calling of our field, one we have neglected for so long.
We are failing the public by not bringing them around to speak in a language they understand. We are failing the public by not telling our stories too of the struggles inherent in our field. We are failing the public by not creating spaces for dialogue, spaces too for radical openness on ways we have actually failed them. We are failing the public by not listening to them. We are failing the public by not looking out for them. The public needs us and we cannot keep neglecting them. The least we can do is be there. I started out by questioning my location within scientific writing. But now, I know where I stand.
As an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn State (loved that school too much), I received 2 Bunton Waller scholarship and fellowship. The Bunton Waller scholars program were named in honor of Mildred Settle Bunton (1932), recognized as the first African American woman to graduate from Penn State, and Calvin Hoffman Waller (1904), believed to be Penn State’s first African American graduate. The scholarship is given to students who enhance the broad and diverse student population at Penn State. The Bunton-Waller Program attracted students from various backgrounds who have demonstrated academic potential and are eligible to attend Penn State.
Most of my friends through college and in life were Bunton Waller scholars. Imagine all of us living in the same dorm our freshman year in college. That was our experience in a predominantly white institution. The program allowed us to see ourselves and not get lost in the shuffle of what it means to be a racial and ethic minority. And we all thrived. When I look through the profiles of us, those I keep in touch with and I those I don’t, majority have doctoral degrees. It gives me chills to see the amount of doctors that came out of the program. One of my close friends from the program is an anchor woman at CBS Philly. Another group run Fortune 500 companies as top leaders, while some simply own their business. Such is the beauty of university programs that begin with diversity in mind. Not just in words but truly with efforts to train the next generation of scholars. I will be speaking about my experience as a diverse scholar next week for National Institutes of Health and if you can, do register to join us here. https://nih.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_eQ-zp0WMRnC2yQRRN658aQ