In 2007, my doctoral advisor wrote a paper entitled ‘on being comfortable with being uncomfortable; centering an Africanist vision as a gateway for global health.’ In the paper, he had an image of a child neither romanticized nor diseased, representations that are typically the norm in discussions in anything concerning Africa.
The paper goes on to discuss the misrepresentation of African identity and how part of that framing lies with researchers who would rather interpret Africa as disease-ridden and crisis plagued rather than humanity that populated the region. It was for this reason that the paper asked the question ‘can you define who you are without referencing what you do?’ Most researchers are very comfortable speaking about their identity based on their profession and incapable of defining who they are outside what they do. The paper goes on to discuss how African identity should be at the center to research on African health and development. Also how we need to deconstruct conventional assumptions and theories used to frame public health and solutions for Africans. I share all this to say that this paper helped me define the gate through which I enter research. I value research where knowledge production, including the acquisition and distribution of it is affirmed by those who own the knowledge, including those traditionally underrepresented in research.
This paper also remains one of my favorite papers and a source for daily inspiration whenever I need the assurance that I am fulfilling my destiny in academia. See the past three months have been brutal. Not only did I work as a homeschool teacher as as mother to 4 children under 8 years of age, I took on the Herculean task of submitting 2 NIH grant proposals back to back with me as a lead. I have been here before. The work isn’t a problem for me. If you know my history with NIH grants, then you would know that I am most comfortable being uncomfortable with submitting 2 grants at the same time. The reason I went to my advisor’s article today after submitting the second one (the first one was submitted last week) was because I needed to read these words to myself and I’m paraphrasing “continue to propel yourself to new levels possibilities are endless.’ My advisor pushed the need to not conduct research from a deficit model, but from one where people are represented just as they are. Not diseases or romanticized beings, but people with possibilities that are endless. The two grants that I submitted are a reflection of these possibilities. Of course lord only knows the outcome, but I am satisfied with myself and my never ending quest for possibilities that remain endless. Keep this for yourself.
A friend shared this quote yesterday in the middle of a crazy work schedule: “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”― Patanjali
I will share insights from my journey the past month with writing the best grant of my life. I obviously don’t know whether it will ever get funded but it was pure joy writing this one. Reading this quote shared by my friend helped me a lot during the last mile stretch of the grantwriting journey. As if the universe also knew I needed further encouragement, I was taken to the book of Isaiah this morning, chapter 41 verse 10. Not only will God call you, but when he does, he wants you to not be afraid. He is God and nothing will terrify you. He is prepared to make you strong and help you. He is also prepared to protect and save you. He is ultimately the Lord your God and when you live in his purpose for your life, nothing will terrify you. I am not afraid to live in my purpose. The past month solidified it hence why I am keeping this here. Keep living in your purpose and trust God.
Audre Lorde once shared in her phenomenal book Sister Outsider ‘that the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live and upon the chances which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized.’ Grant writing for me is light. It is the space through which all my ideas are given permission to simply flourish whether they make sense or not, whether they get funded or not. It is through grant writing that I give names to ideas that are nameless and formless until they are about to be birthed and even felt. The distillation of process by which grant writing springs to birth new ideas, as the new ideas births new concepts, and the new concepts birth new knowledge is the key to understanding. I am in the business of light making because grant writing first called me. Keep being light.
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)…
If we keep doing what we have been doing, the odds of getting the same results will be high. It’s for this reason I am drawn to grants that ask for innovation. Transformative ones too. Today, I sat through an NIH webinar focused on a transformative grant application to address health disparities and advance health equity. I was curious to know what the NIH was interested in. For starters, they want the most innovative and most impactful research. It must have the potential for transformative impact. No preliminary data is required too. Bring your best ideas the NIH says and when you do, may they be transformative, as such activities are urgently needed to prevent, reduce, or eliminate health disparities and advance health equity.
Ever since I came across this request for application, I have been struck by 2 things: 1) what does the word ‘transformative’ mean and 2) by whom. One of the best grants I have ever read once stated the follow and I’m paraphrasing; ‘individual researchers innate tendency to group think often results in homogeneous ideas that are then implemented on communities without an understanding of whether these interventions are truly what communities want in the first place.’ Ever since I came across that grant, I have always wondered whose agenda truly wins in the end. Certainly not the communities as many of them do not have the necessary skills or time to write such complex grants in 2 months. You guess it. You only have 2 months to write this particular grant. Meanwhile, communities have more pressing issues to deal with like today. Then there is the word ‘transformative’, by who, another researcher, another member of the academic community with their views on what is right or wrong that is often not in alignment with those of communities. It’s for this reason that I adore my background in culture. For starters, as my advisor would say, I don’t have any answers. It’s a privilege to even work in communities. Our research approaches communities from the standpoint of communities themselves having all the solutions to their problem. They live in and love their communities after all. We get to come in and out but communities remain with or without us. Making sense of what then is transformative would be futile if the community is not invited to the table in the first place.
So back to the request for proposals. What does the NIH want? You guessed it, transformative research to address health disparities and advance health equity. And how will we know that a research is transformative. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. But if individual researchers innate tendency is to group think, then what is transformative would indeed be subjective since it left to researchers to decide what they feel per your scientific rationale of course. Now when you bring in the lens of communities, when you tell them that it’s up to them to decide just what they believe is transformative to them, then maybe we may get to the bottom of health disparities. It’s why I am drawn to these types of request for proposals and ask that you pray for our success. Keep communities designing transformative interventions by communities themselves not researchers in mind with our own agendas. That to me is where transformation begins.
One of the key micronutrients for plants essential for stabilizing cell walls and membranes is calcium. It also acts as a second messenger helping plants sense and physiologically respond to environmental cues. So a soil’s calcium content is crucial for plants and their survival. Enter flowering dogwoods, a key source of calcium.
One of gems along the street by our home is an array of flowering dogwoods. Spring seems to be their time to shine. And they do with their bright pink colors dominating the sidewalk. Flowering dogwoods are best known for their high calcium content. Their foliage, twigs, and fruit are high in calcium and contains amounts that are above those needed for adequate skeletal growth by other species in the environment including birds and deers. But it’s their ability to improve soil content that I want to dwell on today. Flowering dogwood are known as soil improvers due to their calcium pumping technique. When their leaves litter, not only are they a rich and important source of calcium for soils, but they decompose more rapidly than other species making its calcium content more readily available to the soil below. Yet regardless of it abundance, only about 16% of its calcium content are sequestered to the soil and other species. The rest are retained within flowering dogwoods. The only way soils can tap into 84% of its calcium content is when the leaf litters around it. Let this sink in for a moment. For soils to access the rich intracelluar content of a flowering dogwood, the tree has to shed its leaves. Otherwise the calcium content remains within flowering dogwood. Which is why for me and today’s keep, motherhood for those who work and care for others is like a flowering dogwood.
The past few days of my life have been busy with me delving into a grant-writing full time. For the past seven years, most of my grant writing occurs during the Spring semester and my process is like the story of a flowering dogwood. On the surface, I’m just as pink as can be, truly bright and radiating with ideas that are as splendid as a flowering dogwood. Something about Spring season makes me feel alive and full of ideas hence grant writing. But can I be honest? No matter how much I write, my grants only get 16% of my time. Like flowering dogwood, despite being abundant with ideas or calcium in their case, none of that will come into fruition unless reviewers understand our 84% potential.
Most mothers in academia and elsewhere maybe relate. We give our all, often a small portion of our existence, yet we are only fully vindicated when others see or know for themselves the full breath and merit of our potential. Nothing in my grant will say how I wrote this while homeschooling or being a mother to four children. Nothing will shed light on all the multitasking it takes to write grants. Nothing will even highlight all the meetings, all the phone calls, all the assistance, all the sleepless nights it takes to put just one grant together. This is why I can honestly say I consider gender greatly when I review grants. For to be a mother, to put in just a fraction of your existence into any grant, is a tremendous feat alone. I’m not saying or asking for grant reviewers to be partial to mothers or women, but when the statistics shows that most successful grants are by men, flowering dogwoods should come to mind.
Of course men are successful, they can put in 84% of their best foot forward while women actually give 16%. Take a look at the graph below from a paper I usually share at the start for my grant writing course. Men remain in funding pools at rates higher than women overtime. The funding longevity for women are low, with women holding fewer grants in general, submitting fewer applications and successfully renewing grants. Let me repeat this again for emphasis, flowering dogwoods and their potential should truly come to mind here. Of course the statistics are worse for researchers of color but that’s another post for another day. Our resilience is out of this world, not only as a mother, but as a black woman in academia. I usually joke but maybe it’s isn’t a joke, but if only I had a space to go away and just write my grants, maybe a weekend getaway or sorts with no kids crying or no after school games to schedule, then every grant would get my 84% just like soils get the full calcium content of flowering dogwoods when their leaves litter.
For now, 16% will do. That’s the lesson I am keeping from flowering dogwood. To still do my part to improve the public’s health, even if all I can give is 16%. It’s for this reason I ask you to keep working mothers like flowering dogwood in mind. We can give 84% if only conditions are right. But rarely are conditions ever right, so what you see from us is only 16% of our potential. And when that 16% thrives, when you come across a working mother who makes the most out of her 16%, get out of her way and watch as she blossoms like a flowering dogwood.
What if we could dream up the perfect research or project? What will it entail and why? Who will you partner with and why? And how far will you go to create something innovative. The grant writer in me dreams of opportunities that allow me to wet my soul literally speaking. I am a sucker for grants that want innovation. Those that demand for it make me weak. Grants unafraid of researchers willing to go there are my weakness for I will. I have the tenacity and determination to think up crazy ideas if only they will make it out of my head and into something easy to understand. Yesterday, brainstorming with my team was one such rare opportunity where I let my mind and heart dream of the perfect research experience. They asked what will it entail. Before I even knew what it would be, I said of course something on storytelling and grant writing. Anything that lets you know whoever you are that would want my services, that I would be willing to join you on this adventure called life. The journey is yours, but mine too. We came up with a name. It’s in praise of an endless journey. One that I would take for the perfect grant. If only those exist. Till then, keep dreaming.
I call myself a grant writer. It’s written all over my professional bio. It has also given me two essentials truth to living: humility and humanity. By humility, I think of grantwriting as a journey into becoming fearless with failing. If today’s questions like how might we end a global pandemic or persistent public health issues with equally devastating disparities is burrow deeply in your mind, then a viable alternative is how can we become the vehicles through which we bring change. And in the course of change, how do we become fearless with failure. Grant writers have a monumental responsibility to bring healing , while also becoming prepared to fail. Many say there is an art to grant writing. I agree. But almost all roads lead to one or two or in my case more than 24 unfunded grants.
Yet still, I have learnt to value each failure as they occur. It’s the deep sighting necessary for the journey to becoming a grant writer, one where humility is key. I am not afraid to fail. I realize that the ideas I have may be ambitious, but I am willing to tell the story again. In fact I am compelled to write a new version of the story because humanity desperately needs ideas that last. By humanity, I think of grantwriting as a journey in service of others. If I am lucky, to create programs that last, lucky to tell the story of why sustainability matters, lucky to give the best of my ideas to the world, lucky to bring healing to people, many I may never meet, then I will forever be committed to ensuring that they attain their highest rights to health. Grant writing cuts in both directions for me, one that I will always remain patient as my story continues to unfold. Do I have all the answers? No. But humanity deserves those that committed to telling the story for however long it takes. I am prepared for the journey.
Perhaps the greatest gift grant writing has given to me is a never ending desire to learn. I am always in awe of the depth of learning that occurs with each grant I write. I come out of the process with each grant, changed even though the journey was emotional. I trust the tensions they allow, something I recently learnt as part of altMBA. The failures are uncomfortable and can be disheartening given all the agony and effort that goes into a grant. But it’s journey of going again, writing another grant, learning once more why this story matters, for whom and how it will unfold, whether I succeed or fail, that keeps me alert. The serenity I get once the story starts to unfold cannot be fully put to words. And it’s the mystery of that story, the way it would be framed, with nothing to hide, that makes this process a joyful one for me. The true destination of grants and their writing of them is life. I live my best life whenever I write new grants. They have changed my life and continue to transform it into higher possibilities.
I’m on the journey again with humility and humanity as my guide. I am preparing to also take wings and soar with this one. It really feels good, the writing of it. I have spent over a month many sense of one page, the most critical aims page, something I call a purple cow. I have draft version one. My colleagues pushed me. I drafted version 2 and shared with them yesterday. They will review on Monday. What they don’t know is yet is that I’m on version 3. I already see the problems with version 2 that they haven’t even reviewed and I have moved on. The journey continues to unfold. I woke up this morning ready to blog hear but the story for the grant kept haunting me. So I spent my morning trying to make sense of my Why for this grant. I almost missed church but I get it know. I can see things clearly now. Hence version 3. Will I fail? Yes. But I also realize these days that each grant chooses me so that I can serve humanity even if I fail. I have been chosen for the journey. I am prepared to move in whatever direction it takes. I am also keeping this one here because I can’t wait to share how grants continue to help me rewrite my life story. Until then, keep humility and humanity with grantwriting.
I told my husband yesterday that I was the Beyoncé of grantwriting. He laughed. I was serious. Imagine breaking records with all the grants in my head, the same way she broke the record for the most Grammy wins for any female artist over the weekend. Something about what Beyonce said in her acceptance speech made me realize that it has always been inside of me, this desire to be creative. It’s why I am drawn to grantwriting. I have been asking questions all my life that the only logical way to creatively ask them and get paid or call it a career is through grantwriting. So I am keeping this one here for the moment when I too start to break records. It’s coming. I put in the time. I do my part to be truly innovative. Not the type to recycle ideas, but the type to think outside the box literally. One of my favorite grants of all time written by a dear friend noted the following and I’m paraphrasing: ‘individual researchers innate tendency towards homogeneous ideas, are part of the reasons why we find ourselves in the mess called health.’ His words about all of us being homogeneous is seared deeply in my soul. He is also right. It’s the reason why I deliberately look for new people to collaborate with. Deliberately even sell failure to them when we begin so long as they are willing to begin. It’s the reason why I always seek change. For if you want to be Beyoncé, then you have to be prepared to change the music all the time. I am.
In my years of grant writing I have noticed that even the well funded researcher recycles their grants all the time. They get funded so why change. The ideas may be couched under different titles, but it’s the same ideas. That they even get the funding isn’t the answer either because when they are done, nothing really changes. I used to be enamored with the funding but these days my eyes are open and I’m telling the truth. Nothing is also sustained. ‘Why bother with a grant or yet another study if it will only be fleeting?’ Another quote form one of my favorite papers on sustainability. I can tell you the ending from day one with studies that won’t last because, well they have been consistently telling us the ending from day 1, if only our eyes were open long enough to see.
I prefer to be different even if it means failing or being called ambitious. When sustainability is your mission, your ideas will ambitious. All my earlier grants deliberately had the word sustainability in their title. Even though they all failed, they made me a better grant writer, one that I might add is better off than those who get all the funding. For failure let’s me keep dreaming, keep fine tuning the ideas. I prefer this process too of reimagining what it would be like if we tried this way or move in this direction or even throw everything we know out of the door and start afresh. I long for innovation. I am not afraid to go talk to an entrepreneur, to ask how did they come up with their ideas in hopes that I can bring it to my field. I have done so a lot. Recent example, altMBA.
As if my plate wasn’t already full, last Thursday I graduated from Seth Godin’s altMBA program designed for people who want to make a difference in the world. It was an intensive 30 day program. It also changed my life. I was in a learning community with thought leaders from Facebook, Shopify, people with their own business, people making music, all of us with the intense desire to be the difference, to be the light, the world desperately needed. I learnt more than my soul could even take from people with ideas and perspectives vastly different from my own. They opened my eyes and my ears to the possibilities inherent in ourselves if only we believed that we are capable. I understood my assets and boundaries a lot better, made sense of my narratives, publicly spoke for change and achieved my goal written from day 1, about 4 days before the deadline. By the end of the program, I knew in my heart that my journey through this life is only beginning. And I am the Beyonce of grantwriting, one much prepared to dance with fear, prepared to do the hard part even if I fail, prepared to make a ruckus for a sustainable platform for research. As if I don’t have enough to do, I am also the next leader, of what working mothers should keep. All my stories will be told as I continue to do the emotional labor necessary with telling the truth of our experience for our silence, for our survival. Keep being the Beyoncé of your field.
One of the first priorities I learnt early on in academia was survival. Armed with the determination that my career and journey would have shape, I enlisted the support of other women and men too. Maybe it’s the fact that they were women, mothers themselves, women or men of color, I knew they would lay bare the expectations inherent in survival. For far too long, Black scholars, particularly Black women have had to carry the burden of other people’s desires. We are always working on other people’s agenda, whether it’s with their diversity and inclusion criteria or with their desire to become more equitable. No other scholar in academia, carries such burden. We are accustomed to being ignored, accustomed to repressing our feelings, accustomed to feeling invisible within a system that demands we remain silent. Afterall, we are the lucky ones. Yet, many of us are beginning to learn and relearn that even our silences will no longer protect. That and the fact that nobody will tell our stories our way, whether we succeed or fail.
So I started telling my own stories to bear witness to my survival. In Chandra Ford’s bestselling book on Racism and Public Health, I began the journey to uncover hidden experiences and long overdue silences of life as a female Black scholar in academia. I recalled vividly the day a colleague, another faculty of color, informed me of my predecessor’s departure from our department. She was the second Black scholar in the department at that time. She left the program and a position as an Assistant Professor for a post-doctoral position at another institution. Her sharing of this experience, deeply ingrained in my soul a sentiment once shared by Audre Lorde, that ‘we (Black women) were never meant to survive’ in academia. That a Professor would feel compelled to regress her position made me alert to the difficulties of a successful career in academia for Black women scholars. The candid conversations about my predecessor’s departure with faculty members of color made me reorient attention to myself. I knew that if I constantly focused on what academia does to Black women scholars, then I would give it more power than it should have.
Granted academia is a powerful institution, but I believed in my heart that I was more powerful, even if the journey feels lonely at times. I used affirmations, particularly powerful Words to enlighten my inner self. Still very few can escape the firm grips of the institution. So I decided to pivot, to move in an oppositional direction, towards what strengthened me. Like the image of the sole figure with the red umbrella below, I surrounded myself with people, like tall trees that I knew would provide cover for me. If the Western myth noted that Black women scholars are never meant to survive, then it was up to me to deconstruct the notion of survival, to create my own shade, my own strategies through the academic jungle. The strategies I employed to survive were designed to feed me, nourish my soul, my serenity, the spaces where my intellect resided. Nkemjika, or the idea that what I own is the greatest, steered me through the jungle. I decided early on that I wanted to have a career that was meaningful to me. Like a pot of soup, I wanted to be permitted to put in ingredients that make sense to me and not others. So my academic soup became full of ingredients focused on nourishing my soul.
The first ingredients were my family. I am nothing without my family and from the beginning they were and remain the center of my life. Everything revolves around them. The fact that I was a woman of children bearing age in the beginning of my foray into academia meant that motherhood was central to my being. In fact by the time I started my career at my first academic institution, I was a mother to a 15 month old toddler and pregnant with my second child. I wasn’t going to withhold motherhood for anyone’s purposes, not even tenure. Still I recall being told to attend meetings, to make more efforts to present the outward front that ours was a diverse group of individuals passionate about inclusion and equity whether 8 months pregnant or not. I did my part to help maintain the front and appear collegiate. But the I took took it a step further, to claim my space within the institution. I reoriented and recommitted my attention to getting my own resources through grant writing. Prior to the start of my academic position, I was a predoctoral scholar at my doctoral institution, having worked under the guidance of my advisor to put an extensive grant portfolio together. After two tries, the portfolio received funding and I became hooked. Grantwriting was my most crucial way of surviving academia, my knowledge that what I owned was the greatest. Nkemjika!
From the moment I learnt about the significance of bringing your own resources to an academic institution, I became determined to triumph at or fail at putting grant portfolios together. My assumption was that people who don’t like your work will never fund it. But when you come across those who do, if you can convince them that you are onto something, then that something, however you choose to define it, is the greatest. What I own, Nkemjika, as my Igbo culture would insist, is the greatest. Grantwriting was my Nkemjika. It was were my curiosity for learning flourished, where my love for endless questions thrived, all free from the encumbrances of academia. If academia was on a mission to destroy my essence, grantwriting was preoccupied with saving my soul.
Every grant I wrote, the few successful ones, made me realize that my knowledge was powerful. But it’s the grants that I failed at, the many, many grants described by strangers as ambitious, lacking merit or impact, that enabled me to survive academia on my own terms. The battles within the system are many, by Nkemjika, what I own, even my failures, are the greatest. This is because every single failure was mine. Every failure helped me reorient my consciousness to the power inherent within me. Every failure moved me into new heights, new ways of thinking, even new insights on my abilities. Every failure liberated me from academia’s tight grip. Many may be committed, obsessed even with attaining yet another grant. That isn’t me. I am determined and continue to remain committed to get better at grantwriting, whether I succeed or failed. But Nkemjika! Even my failures, all of them will always remain great to me. Keep Nkemjika in mind, whether you succeed or fail.