Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? This question has always haunted my spirit. It’s from Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, The Salteaters. It is also apt for today. That and what does being well mean for the public’s health, from a social justice lens, radical wellness too and not from experts alone, or those who have credentials, but from you the general public and with your fiction or nonfiction?
Who are your go to references for being radically well and how do you even begin to define wellness for yourself? Of course it led me down a rabbit hole, one where I am now obsessed with how people, those in fiction and non fiction, those with expertise and none, define what they mean by wellness.
I have been struck by the myriad of ways people define wellness, especially those focused on people of color. It matters to me these days that for the public, we define what wellness means, not just from what the dominant literature may tell us, but from everyday people who continue to struggle with answering the question: ‘Are you sure, sweetheart, you want to be well.’ So, from what I gathered from the Bettina Love’s profound book ‘We want to do more than survive’ wellness is:
A type of freedom that comes when you let go of your fears and move your anger into a space of healing.
Wisdom and being well is hard work.
Part of social justice work.
An inner life that refuses to be treated less than human.
Finding the roots of your own Black Joy, Black love, and humanity.
Choosing to see ourselves beyond illness or disease.
Having an inner self that can be quiet and enjoy life.
Recognizing the pain of our ancestors knowing the beauty and resilience of that pain lives on in us.
Knowing who you are regardless of what is thrown at you.
Different for different people.
Healing that is unrecognizable to White people and different from them.
Being your best self while fighting injustice.
Fighting racism with life, grace, compassion.
Having mental space and freedom to dream, give hell, and retreat to one’s community of love for support, fulfillment, and nourishment.
Bringing your full self.
Joining others in the fight for humanity and antiracism in love and solidarity.
Confronting internalized White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Isamophobia, fat phobia, classism, ableism, and the rage that comes as a result of these hateful ideas.
Keep doing more than surviving with these radical wellness definitions in mind.
Why do what we do? Why get in the game even if you don’t know how to play? My answer is simple. If your know your vision, nothing will ever get in your way. And my vision is bigger than me. What you think you see or know about what I do is only 30%. What you don’t see until time is another 70%. Sensible people keep quiet about what they know. I am learning that every day. I never start a journey because I expect it to be easy. I never start one unless the plans are bigger than me. If I am not dreaming, then I am not living. And even when it seems like a dream has come through, I am like a blue ocean that refuses to be still.
So what do I want out of this path I find myself in called public health, more. That’s it. The late Kobe Bryant in his commercial with Kanye West acted this best. I really want more. More grants and all that it takes to succeed or fail in them. More stories too about how you even begin to write them. Of what use is public health if you don’t master the oppressors language and use it for good. Grant writing is me doing what Lorraine Hansberry asked that those young, gifted and black do with all the gifts the have: Write to a point.
I am writing to a point with each grant I write and yea prepared to fail too. Of what use also is research or anything we do in public health without funding. Entrepreneurs never start a business without funding. Churches never go a Sunday service without asking for offerings. How much less public health? It is so much bigger than the papers we write. So much bigger than requests for papers or all the variants advertised about them these days. Which is why I am in the business of ensuring that everything I do in the field begins with the funds in mind.
My vision is to do great work that impacts lives and lasts. I am calling it an ILL (Impact Lives & Last) vision these days because it will need lots and lots of funding. That is why I always begin with grants. Begin to with the process of perfecting the art of writing one. The public deserves this. I will never underestimate the hard work it takes to write one. But when you remember your vision, you keep writing and perfecting the art to a point. Even when the public sees the 30% of the outputs of any grants I write, understand the remaining 70% you don’t and may never see is where dreams are made off.
I am dreaming in public health and doing so my way. Nearly all of academia doesn’t elevate dreams. Nearly all. But if you find yourself in a place or space where dreams are allowed, I hope you dream to a point and give people a reason to want to do more.
Yesterday, we gave an update on LIGHT to our steering committee and I can’t help but envision all the things we intend to do more off. LIGHT is leaders igniting generational healing and transformation with a vision to center the public in public health. The 30% you see of LIGHT keeps us humble. But the 70% you don’t see, is my keep for today. We don’t call ourselves LIGHT for nothing. The public in public health demands LIGHT and we will dream to a point to give it to them. So welcome to our more for LIGHT. Our goals and dreams are to give you more reasons to love poetry, stories, art, letter writing or whatever else the public deserves. Enough of the experts. No offense and yes, myself included. We want to also give more reason to include the public in writing for about their health and those of people they love or care for. More reason to increase demand about the public in public health. More reason to reorder realities in new ways. More reason to fundamentally shift perspectives. More reason to see for ourselves the times we didn’t see. More reasons to hear for ourselves all the times we didn’t hear or listen. More reason to paint pictures about health our ways too. More reason to build on our common values, however long it takes to include the public in public health. This is only our 30%. The 70% of LIGHT unknown to the public startles me. You can be part of this with our new open call below:
In killing rage, bell hooks talked about the need to heal our wounds. Not to be misconstrued with moments where we survive with grace, elegance, or beauty, but rather the wounds that are often hidden or fundamentally traumatic. Living and coping with the ongoing pandemic is fundamentally traumatic and we are all not okay. I have always known this. Tried to move past it too. There is so much as stake and stopping to hold myself longer was never really an option when so many people are relying on you to be strong. Relying on you to be okay. But yesterday, in the middle of watching snow fall and learning about how trees withstand freezing rain, I realized that I have been holding on to a collective wound for too long.
It may seem trivial, but there was a time, I was always on the go, traveling from one country to another in the name of Global Health Research. Research for me was never to be done in the US. So I travelled whereever and whenever work called. I have not travelled for work in 2 years. The last time I did was to South Africa in January 2020. I call myself a global health researcher. I describe myself too as one who learns about global health in person, connecting and weaving stories about our field with people themselves whose stories I am privileged to tell. Such an approach focuses more on the dynamics of the story listener, which is as equally important as, if not more important, that those who tell the stories. I have not listened to stories in person in 2 years. I have not seen people as I normally would, to listen and learn from them in 2 years.
I have also stayed in the shadows with the pandemic. Not spoken eloquently like others or even written eloquently in academic papers about it. Honestly, I am exhausted with the way research is framed in academia. I am tired too with who gets to tell the story for others and who doesn’t. I am also longing for new ways to listen to stories and tell the stories I hear in ways that do not silence or ignore people. It wouldn’t and shouldn’t be based on impact factors within journals. It should be people factors, everything that allows us to connect first as humans and not experts or others. I want to be counted among the people that break this cycle for good.
So many things have inspired this insight within. Becoming a mother during the pandemic, while mothering 3 others, and being there for a frontline spouse may have played a role. Telling diverse stories matters, that doesn’t silence but names the woundedness within our field is so powerful too. But honestly, as we all start gearing for a post-pandemic phase, the one thing I long for is knowledge production uplift with my work. Similar to what bell hooks described as racial uplift. If I wasn’t listening and telling stories pre-pandemic, in ways that make sense to the people I work with, now and post this pandemic, I intend to retain the ideals of the people I serve.
I want my work to focus more on how we see ourselves. To enter spaces and create stories that break so many diligences. To also reclaim spaces where our lives and our stories are heard as loud as we want is also an urgent desire. One where we cannot resort to collective failure anymore. If academia has ushered in learned helplessness as with the way we write, or for whom we write, then the time for change is now, if we really want to attend to the needs of the people we serve. I don’t know what this may look like, but I am working on it and in due time, I look forward to sharing ways that I plan to heal from the trauma inflicted upon all of us that would rather listen and be in the service of others and not institutions or programs shaped by white supremacy. I know that when we all start to address our collective suffering, we fill find ways to health and recover that can be sustained long after this pandemic end. It’s now my life’s work, openly healing wounds from this pandemic.
I begin this week in awe of becoming a mother for the 4th time. My last baby arrived this week, last year.
The pandemic kept us all distracted. This was the 4th month of mask wearing, social distancing and lockdowns. It was also a time where the virus was so debilitating that I feared a wrong move would put myself and baby in danger.
There were no research on its effects on pregnant women. There were more deaths in black and brown men and women. I did not want to watch the news for we lacked leadership from those sworn to protect all men and women. This was also the time of protests by brave men and women.
A wide-awakening was ongoing and finding ways to refine ourselves was eminent. Enough was enough was all we could muster even as we protested our rights to exist, amidst ignorance for their bluster. Of course I stayed home, but my mind was on the streets.
We stayed home and prayed God’s plans for his children were of prosperity. Baby’s due date was eminent and so I focused on how to create another baby, another life, within an already pandemic and race-inflicted world.
Creating a new life, a new being, a new beginning, a new purpose within a world committed to a path leading to doomsday, seemed to be the last thing anyone should be undertaking.
But then again, I am not anyone.
By this time last year, it seemed that the most fruitful thing I could do to for a world so filled with darkness, was to shine a bit of light, with a dash of hope, and a sprinkle of love.
Imagining what his eyes would look like, his first smile, even his tears occupied my mind. It was a ‘He’. My third one for a world where I wished he was a butterfly. Love appears impossible in times of despair and frustration, but I choose it as a valuable experience. I choose it to fly away to the spaces and places full of brilliance, his brilliance, his beauty.
The beginning of love, a future full of hope, all of which seemed to be dissipating in the world at that time was a gift to the times.
So throughout this week, I want to keep these moments in mind. I want to relive this experience through words and pictures too. I want to contribute a share of myself to your world so you sense the light of my motherhood.
It’s a gift I continually gift myself. Like a restorative balm to soothe the realities of a world so full of harshness.
Motherhood shakes and informs every aspect of my being. It restores my soul too, in the way quiet streams of water do.
Like a Phoenix, I rise to every occasion, countering every interpretation necessary to showcase that my interior life, my nurturing life, even my academic life, as I define it, is so valued and revered and I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.
The beauty, the brilliance of being a black mother in light is my keep for the week. My doors are open. Enter if you may.
“A year ago, today I witnessed a murder. The victim’s name was George Floyd. Although this wasn’t the first time, I’ve seen a black man get killed at the hands of the police, this is the first time I witnessed it happen in front of me. Right in front of my eyes, a few feet away. I didn’t know this man from a can of paint, but I knew his life mattered. I knew that he was in pain. I knew that he was another black man in danger with no power. I was only 17 at the time, just a normal day for me walking my 9-year-old cousin to the corner store, not even prepared for what I was about to see, not even knowing my life was going to change on this exact day in those exact moments… it did. It changed me. It changed how I viewed life. It made me realize how dangerous it is to be Black in America. We shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around police officers, the same people that are supposed to protect and serve. We are looked at as thugs, animals, and criminals, all because of the color of our skin. Why are Black people the only ones viewed this way when every race has some type of wrongdoing? None of us are to judge. We are all human. I am 18 now and I still hold the weight and trauma of what I witnessed a year ago. It’s a little easier now, but I’m not who I used to be. A part of my childhood was taken from me. My 9-year-old cousin who witnessed the same thing I did got a part of her childhood taken from her. Having to up and leave because my home was no longer safe, waking up to reporters at my door, closing my eyes at night only to see a man who is brown like me, lifeless on the ground. I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. I used to shake so bad at night my mom had to rock me to sleep. Hopping from hotel to hotel because we didn’t have a home and looking over our back every day in the process. Having panic and anxiety attacks every time I seen a police car, not knowing who to trust because a lot of people are evil with bad intentions. I hold that weight. A lot of people call me a hero even though I don’t see myself as one. I was just in the right place at the right time. Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day. Everyone talks about the girl who recorded George Floyd’s death, but to actually be her is a different story. Not only did this affect me, my family too. We all experienced change. My mom the most. I strive every day to be strong for her because she was strong for me when I couldn’t be strong for myself. Even though this was a traumatic life-changing experience for me, I’m proud of myself. If it weren’t for my video, the world wouldn’t have known the truth. I own that. My video didn’t save George Floyd, but it put his murderer away and off the streets. You can view George Floyd anyway you choose to view him, despite his past, because don’t we all have one? He was a loved one, someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s brother, and someone’s friend. We the people won’t take the blame, you won’t keep pointing fingers at us as if it’s our fault, as if we are criminals. I don’t think people understand how serious death is…that person is never coming back. These officers shouldn’t get to decide if someone gets to live or not. It’s time these officers start getting held accountable. Murdering people and abusing your power while doing it is not doing your job. It shouldn’t have to take people to actually go through something to understand it’s not ok. It’s called having a heart and understanding right from wrong. George Floyd, I can’t express enough how I wish things could have went different, but I want you to know you will always be in my heart. I’ll always remember this day because of you. May your soul rest in peace. May you rest in the most beautiful roses.”
I remember where I was a little over a year ago watching social media feeds of man lying on the ground saying words that have now become to familiar “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd may have left the world a year ago to day, but his legacy reverberates and will continue to remain long after my days on this earth are numbered. There is a healing necessary for all to have, critical if you are black or brown. George in uttering those familiar words meant that I even the air I breathe will be used for justice in his name. I woke up today looking at the labor of love that I have been engaged in the past 30 days. It’s an audacious task this desire in me to let people’s legacy live on and George is by far top of my list. For as long as I can breathe, my hope is for no black or brown boy or girl, woman or man, to ever say those words he uttered on that faithful day. And if they do, if we continue to fail the next generation of boys and girls, then as a group, as humanity, we are doomed. The work is fraught with difficulties, but I am committed to doing my part.
I learned about auto ethnography the other day. Partly because I have been searching for meaning, including understanding for what I have being doing with writing as I do, every single day on this blog. Auto-ethnography I learnt, is a methodology that seeks to connect personal experience to cultural process and understanding, particularly from the view of researcher and participant or me and myself. When you engage in this method, you are essentially highlighting as close as you can, a process or a journey that creates potential for greater depth and understanding about yourself. I learnt it also has great relevance for mental health. Privacy, even stigma, may mean that many of the thoughts or hurdles, or even successes that shape us, are often not shared with the world, often kept tightly tucked away in that little corner of ourselves that we call our mind. For some, these issues however they manifest in our lives, can move from tiny, to small, to big, and huge, all in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months. For others, it may take years, or pandemics, for you to realize what truly matters for your mental health. I learnt that in engaging in auto ethnographic writing, I gave my mind the freedom to just be.
No need keeping it all neatly and tightly tucked away in that corner I labeled private. No need, forgetting some experiences that were actually teachable, learning moments. No need silencing the many adaptable voices that speak to my existence as a mother, a wife, and an academic researcher. No need wondering what the plan through life is after all, or who are the people that help me thrive, or why do they matter and what should I do to continuously nurture their presence in my life. In fact, no need keeping things that matter to me private. In reflecting about my life experiences the past 8 months, I have gained a deeper understanding of my own unique journey through life. I choose to make the personal overt, critically help myself and those trying to make sense of their own journey.
When I started this journey, two egg crayons, one yellow, one green, where my guide. My son on the spectrum was my muse, and watching him roll his eggs, was my path. We have been rolling since and I would not change this experience for anything else. In fact, it has saved me. All I knew when the journey started was that I was desperate. Tired and desperate. There was a pandemic. I was a new mom. Three kids were homeschooling and yes, I was teaching a course to graduate students. In the middle of all that chaos, family members and colleagues died, and I was wondering, what then is life after all. There seemed to be nowhere to go, but to that neat, tucked away corner I call my mind. I was either going to stay there, and suffer in silence, or open up so the pain and fears, or even the chaos, all of them, become my story, my experience. I choose to open up and since then, I have been writing. Autoethnography saved me.
My overt inclusion of myself, into this investigation of what it means to be a parent in academia has been profound to me. Every thing I wrote in one form or the other helped shape my understanding of my place in the wider world. Rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist, I delved deeply with a back and forth gaze to scrutinize and publicized myself ultimately for me. Every outward focus on the social, environmental or cultural aspects of my personal experience with an inward exposure of my vulnerable self, helped to tell my story, helped to showcase the healing potential of writing for the mind.
In the end, but from the beginning, it has always been about intentionally making an effort to roll through life, to roll with the punches, to roll with the triumphs, to roll with the tears, to roll with the sighs, to roll even when nothing makes sense. Writing as I do, is now the very medicine I never knew I needed to make sense of my life, my plans for life, the people that matter, all the lessons life has to teach so I learn, the changes or adaptions that I constantly have to make, but ultimately the things worth keep, worth fighting for no matter what. Auto ethnographic writing as I do, and continue to do, helped me heal. Even when looking back was difficult, or looking forward was uncertain, this form of writing helped me find my place, helped do the work necessary to keep what matters. As I sit here, reflecting on the past 8 months, what I know for sure is that I know my story. I know my purpose. I know what I am called to do, even on days when nothing makes sense. I finally know my plan. For me, this blog is and will always remain a place of healing, a space that allowed me to remain well, a gift that keeps on giving. By placing myself at the heart of the intersection between parenting and academic productivity, autoethnography, allowed me to heal. My positionally in this world is clear. Keep auto-ethnography in mind, especially for it’s healing power.
How do we heal when lives are cut too soon?Remain calm when lives seem forever doomed? When do we start to usher healing, insist on its presence, demand its existence? Is it when we plead for our lives? Is it when we say we are afraid or when you remind us that we should be? Is it when we wear uniforms or drive cars with visible forms? Is it when we serve our countries or expect our countries to serve us? Will that ever happen? To hear the tears in his voice, the fears through the noise. To hear another mother plead for a son gone to soon is becoming insane in a country where guns are used too soon. So when will all this end so healing can begin.
I yearn for the days, we mend. Days our ways bend towards justice and our dignity towards freedom. Humanity demands that we stay hopeful for such a day when you and I do not have to be hyper vigilant as we gather once more for yet another vigil for a life gone to soon. When will healing arise in this place, in this space, for a people committed to ways that are more than just what is. I ask because I’m tired. Drained, emotionally, worn out. All this never ending pain, always seems to end in vain. If it’s not the needless deaths from a pandemic that we could have controlled, then it’s the endless deaths from a violent pandemic we fail to control. What about our children? How do we protect them from all this and at the same time remind them that they are our better days, our brighter future, even though we expect them to keep their guard up and remain vigilant.
I don’t have any answers but I want healing so deep that it can only be love. Love for you, love for me, love for humanity that sees a human in things, like when a child holds a toy, or some teens blast their music or like when our hands are held up or we cry and say that we can’t breathe. This love is the necessary air we all need from the weight of this continuous racial violence which continues to suffocate though we breathe. There is a Black ant crawling on my floor. It’s see the shadow from my hand and darts away as fast as it can to the nearest space for safety. I imagine lives like this ant. Nothing can protect you when hands are raised up high to destroy you. You who belong to a people, a place, a space, a community.
You are also worth fighting for, no matter what they say or do to diminish your worth. You are more than deserving of every breath that is in service of your humanity. You are a life force worth celebrating whether they see it or not and every encounter does not deserve to end in a count that should never be. No encounter should include another life gone too soon. No gaze of us, whether when we seem aimless, should end as if we are nameless. We are not. Is this healing possible? They may think we chant aimlessly. But even their aim is lessened when we chant even louder that Black Lives Matter. It’s a simple three letter word that reverberates this need for healing. Something that we demand for today, tomorrow and so long as we have breathe. Healing is the justice we seek to keep for a world that refuses to just see. This one is for Daunte. Give him justice.