Nobody gave her anything. Not the one she loved. Not the ones that loved her. Not even the ones she confided in, all things great, all things small. And so she sailed through life. Not giving. Not laying it all down. Not showing how she endured and endured until her last breath when her cervix got the final world. It did.

Welcome to LIGHT.

Welcome to the transformative force we call LIGHT.

Welcome to its flame

Welcome to its fire

Welcome to its ray

Welcome to its shine

Welcome to its spark

Welcome to its utter brilliance,

Welcome to its radiant reflection

Welcome simply to a day we hope to clarify that the public in a field called public health, matters.

I start with these words from the poet Lucille Clifton’s description of LIGHT, because it is what, I hope, you leave with today.

The transformative force of light for a field that has put its public in the dark for so long, with our conferences that often exclude the public and our peer-reviewed publications that are often read by us and not the public we purport to serve.

This is a journey that began with fear, failure too, as it was intended to be an avenue through which we deliberately bring anti-racism into public health to achieve the social justice we all need and deserve with our healing.

Every time I remember how all this began, I remember our failure, our fear too.

I remember how fear has held many people back.

We have all been here before, myself in particular, I have been held back by the fear of.

If it isn’t this, it’s that.

If it isn’t stormy days, then it’s the perfect tornado, rain, hail, all of them mashed up into an eye of a storm. Only that it’s coming for you.

The storm that fear allows.

Yet, you keep walking through the storm,

many you dare not speak of.

But I’ll try today because I know fear.

Know what it requires too. In fear, you will find sadness, frustration, sickness.

I have been there too.

Leaned so much into fear that it’s despair became normal.

I let fear usher in headaches, and stuffy nose and eyes that would rather close than see another day or night go bye.

Fear has pushed me to places that I have never been too, thoughts dark, and spaces equally dark.

Fear let dark valleys become like shadows of death like Psalm 23 forewarned.

Fear has taken me to the dark all sorts of dreary places in need of light.

And even as I leaned into fear, feared fear too, fear took me, through the dark to light.

Reminded me that if there were no darkness, there will be no light.

I learnt that the moment I arrived at the home of fear. I saw that even in sickness or pain, fear will welcome you in with arms so wide that all you need to do is nestle your head at its bosom.

Plant your feet by its streams and let your body rest in its arms like a baby.

My heart, my soul, my body and my mind too, all of us has snuggled deeply into fear.

We meet you all today, greet you too with these opening words out of fear.

Wondering what today would be like.

Would we truly bring light?

Are we sure in the words of Toni Cade Bambara in her beautiful book, The salt eaters, that we want this light?

What happens when light never comes and all we still know when all is said and done is fear.

I meet you today in fear, knowing that even in fear, even in the darkness that I still feel for the journey ahead,

I can still expect more.

Like what is coming after this, nothing, or air or light, from all the speakers we have assembled for you all today.

Today requires, that we see fear, acknowledge its existence, and yet move past it to light.

So welcome to our annual LIGHT festival.

Our goal is to bring light even in the midst of our fears, your fears, and most importantly all of them with healing, my healing, your healing.

We bring light even as you question whether it is possible.

We bring light’s brightness, kindle, splendor, glow, fire, because this moment, past a pandemic where public health was rendered mute, requires it.

The fire we bring, all of the light, is work that cannot be done alone.

So I want to illuminate the implications of this work for you and for us all within the LIGHT team: It will be messy, it will be rough.

There will be threats to our peace, our sanity.

And fear will always be lurking around reminding us that we do not deserve this light.

All the inside pieces will frighten us, make us want to hide back in the dark.

But We cannot.

Not when our name is called LIGHT.

So this moment, meet LIGHT, just you all know the name implies.

Meet Leaders Igniting Generational Healing and Transformation.

I close in these words paraphrased from Audre Lorde, LIGHT alone will not protect us.

We are aware of this. But yet, we choose LIGHT because our field requires the public to be heard.

We choose LIGHT to clarify and to be as eloquent as possible, that the public in public health matters.

We choose LIGHT because with the advent of today, we have learnt to work and speak when we are afraid.

Even though we respected fear, we choose LIGHT because we refuse for the weight of darkness, the weight of not letting the public into public health, we refuse for the weight of their silence to keep choking us.

The fact that we are here, the fact that we meet today, is to bridge some of these differences between us,

for it is not our difference which keeps the public in the dark, it’s our silence.

And for that reason, welcome to our attempt at breaking the public’s silences for too long.

Welcome to this space we call LIGHT.

What a day! Thank you to everyone who made this year a success.

We remind ourselves, each day, all children are precious. Black, Brown, White, no matter the color, or creed, all children, whether strange or foreign, are precious. Recently, I have been struggling with the reality that some children have nothing precious or valuable within them. I often wonder too what happened to them that at their tender age, they only know hate. To see them seduced by it, to hear glimpses of their hate expressed through actions, such as stepping on another child’s foot for no reason and intentionally, or telling them they don’t belong in certain places or spaces, makes me cringe.

Yesterday, I found myself screaming and giving way to much attention to the spiteful ways of hateful children. Then almost immediately, I felt so sorry for them. I felt so sorry that they don’t know love. I felt sorry that they weigh themselves down with hate. I felt so sorry that they have no place to shed a tear or even be heard. For if they knew love, if they felt it deeply within their heart like all children who are precious and valuable do, then maybe they won’t be as hateful as they are. Or they maybe worse. These are the realities I am slowly learning. That when children bully, that when they go out of their way to be mean to other children, that there are deeper issues at hand, one that begins from a place where no love exists. And I feel so sorry for them.

I pray they find love. I pray they bask in the warm gaze of acceptance for their ways. I pray they learn of it ways, it’s joyfulness and kindness. I pray they see it too in other children. But most of all, I pray they learn one day that they are indeed precious or valuable, even though no one at home tells them so.

And for those who endure their ways, I leave these words for you. I praise you for your valiant struggle. I praise you for asking them why they hate, even though your questions keep leading to more hate. I say always, always ask why. I praise you for your voice. I praise you for speaking up, fighting back, even though they remain least willing to be civil. I praise you for demanding to be heard. I praise you for using your strength to weigh them down with love. I praise you too for feeling sorry for them. No matter how many times they hate, I praise you for looking at them despite their hate. By looking, you teach love. No child that knows love, can look away when others know hate. So I praise you for looking. I praise you for teaching them civility, for reminding them about humanity, for doing the work necessary to love your enemies as your self. You are indeed precious and valuable. Truly remarkable in every single way. And your love, like Dr. Martin Luther King once noted, is the only force that can turn their hate into love. We never get rid of hate by meeting it with hate. Even if they choose to destroy or tear down, that’s what most haters do, I still praise you for transforming their hate into love. For letting your words and your actions speak love. This is a reminder that you are indeed precious and valuable always.

I love thank you cards. I love to read them. Love to see them. Love the humanity inherent in them. I especially love when they come from strangers. My husband gets them all the time. He knows how much I love to see them too. This time, the stranger was more than gracious, so much so that she bought a mug so he never forgets her. I love her for it. Frontline workers are exhausted. The pandemic is unending and we are all tired. To see him sacrifice even his own health to care for others, always makes my thankful for him. To see the grace from the people he helped makes it all worth it. I may not be at the clinic everyday or even at the hospital but every good surgery is felt at home. Bad ones too are felt. But thankful ones hold a special place in our heart. Thank you to all those who take the time to thank frontline workers still. Your grace and thanks is so appreciated.

I want to be that no ordinary kind of woman that meets herself every time through words. To remind her, that because of words, we can survive, live, love, pray, as we escape the unthinkable. These are cold days, but words can lead out to our breakout as we learn what life is. So if I am to live up to my middle name, if I am to bask in the glory of what it means to be named Isioma, then I am prepared to discover all that I am through words. I am prepared to meet myself over and over again, ringing like a bell, of how I survived and survived, because words came and I let them move me, seduce me, transform me, and illuminate all that I am becoming.

It’s our world anyways and we can write till we reach beyond ourselves. I want to write too, every time we meet ourselves. For this gift of writing, this gift of putting our thoughts into words, is a treasure. I am grateful that our cup continues to overflow. I am learning day by day that I live to write. A note, a phrase, a poem, or even a collection of things to keep if only for my sanity in a time of a pandemic. Today, I met myself. Today I went on a long conversation with the woman I am becoming. A storyteller that writes to live. We spoke of our love for words. Our love with putting down all our ideas into words that are pleasing to our soul. We encouraged ourselves too. Like two birds nestling by a stream, we told ourselves that we are doing fine with every single moment we note all the words that come to mind.

I am pledging allegiance to this freedom to write our lives through words we put together. How rare to live a life in words for ourselves first, for our dreams, our love, our heart desires, our morning sunshine, our children as dark as night or for the one called to save us. And words, have been our savior, our Chizoba in a world full of despair for a pandemic that refuses to dissipate.

More than escape, writing is life and a way of being still with ourselves. For we know, he knows the plans for us. The earth may shake. Cities may crumble. But happy are those who tend to life through words. This dancing of the mind, this communion with oneself, is like bread. It continues to give me new strength. And through his words, we are living in the pleasure of discovering and uncovering the plans for ourselves everyday. Writing is like the sun and it continues to set my life everyday. Writing also continues to move me to a place of divine connection to the power working within me. That’s what myself and I concluded and we will continue to choose the path we take, choose to put them in words, all because we know of his love. All we ask is that you continue to breathe on us daily so we make new words in us again and again as we escape from this world again and again.

Langston Hughes has a poem entitled ‘I Too.’ It’s based on Walt Whitman’s classic ‘I Hear America Singing.’ For some reason, I saw the poem today while sifting through my Langston books. It got me wondering, and with all we have endured this year in 2021, just how would America sing? For sure, she would sing of being sick. Omicron has me exhausted. I’m tired and would like to really see the end of the tunnel with this pandemic. I also realize we have a long way to go if we continue along this path of not vaccinating the world. Don’t get me started on those including children under 5 that are not vaccinated. I fear for my kids under 5. Then there are the violence, a 14 year old killed while shopping with her mother, or kids killed at school for doing what they are supposed to be doing, going to school. Then there is poverty. My family and I spent Christmas eve taking care of homeless people in Saint Louis and let’s just say I am overwhelmed. Why can’t we get to the bottom of homelessness or poverty in general? I share all this to say that if Walt or Langston were to write their poem today, for sure, they would both be on track with where we are as a country, but also we would be sicker, more violent, and definitely poor. Hence my take below.

By Langston Hughes

We too sing America. We are your new generation. A sick, violent, and poor generation singing as we await 2022. We sing of a pandemic, which turned the world upside two years ago, and continues along its path. The healthcare worker sings of burnout and exhaustion. The parents sing of juggling multiple stressors at work and home. The teenager sings of being in a constant state of flux, as they cope with the pandemic. The children sing of a childhood gone in disarray as the pandemic surges on. While the elders sing of isolation as they continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic. As if that’s not enough, we too live in an America where violence is more common than a Sunday rest. Your children, sing of the violence they see in their schools with classmates choosing bullets rather than books. Your communities sing too of violence on their streets, with protesters insisting that Black Lives Matter and they do. Your Congress sings of violence too, with an angry mob that would rather desecrate its halls that choose your democracy. While those we elect sing in words that would rather tear us down than build up we the people by the people. As if that’s still not enough, we live in America where one-third of your children are poor. Your families sing of not getting enough to eat with food insecurities and not getting enough to drink with water insecurities. Your poor households sing of bearing the brunt of rising prices. Your public sings of lacking systems, health, education, governments, that continue to fail to put them first. While your citizens sing of not having homes for your children. Besides, nothing seems to be transforming all we still know about America. That this too is a land that still fails to take a stand for all forms of racism, for immigrants, for rural life, for your children, who continue to sing of being sick, continue to be weary of the rampant state of violence, continue to remain poor, despite being born on fruited plains.

I pray 2022 has us singing a different note.

Let no one silence or suppress your truth. Whether unpleasant or uncomfortable. May no one stifle or suffocate your significance or shared responsibilities. Scam or strangle your sensibilities or collective senses with lies. As you strive for uncomfortable representations beyond unpleasant shadows. Rather may you continue to connect and commune. Reveal and reveal. Every unpleasant or uncomfortable truth. As you voice all there is to voice for a people long denied their voice. People still absent in images like this below. The unpleasant truth is that we are not all the same, not all man, and not all equal never mind their comforting lies. Pandemics are not individually focused, never mind the comforting lies many still perpetuate. Vaccines too are not for individuals neither are masks or your decisions that you think affects you alone. It doesn’t. Omicron is here because we forgot that we are a people first. Pandemics are not concerned with individuals. Never have and never will. There are no personal responsibilities in pandemics. Only shared ones. No individual responsibilities too. Only collective ones. Individualistic countries won’t get it. Collective ones will. And pandemics will still not be concerned about individuals. Only what the collective do. These are unpleasant truths worth spreading.

I prefer to avoid you completely. I prefer to runaway too. Time is slow. But your stretch is deep. Unfriendly too. I tried to stay put. Wished this would all go away. I was a fool. The risks were plenty but being your fool was easy. I tried to give myself the maximum chance of survival. Even the minimum almost ruined me. So I preferred to runway. My own words were a trap. I dug a hole for myself. Moved up and down the hole and was still trapped. Even my spirits were drained. Survival too seemed far away. I thought to pray. I hoped it would give me the fuel to withstand the cold. Hoped the prayers would tide me through this period. For what we pray for can mean life or death. I prayed for life. Though death seemed to lead the way. 800,000 deaths today and it’s shadow still looms deep.

The walls of my throat are thick. Tears have stoped flowing. All we can do is defend our own. So our eyes are open. I pray you find more pair of eyes. The more pair of eyes there are to see, the more hearts there are to feel. We have lost our ways with seeing and feeling that death is now us. So I pray for more pair of eyes. Those bold enough to fight undetected. To single out those who prefer to die rather than protect themselves. So being with more pair of eyes, moving as a flock would represent real security for those of us prepared to live. Robins in the winter adopt a policy where the males and females, hold for a time, separate winter territories they defend. I pray you find your Robin, if male or female. And when you do, be as strong as a lion and run from nothing. Your clouds have no rain.

Langston Hughes has a poem of how a seed planted at the right time, produces flower, that go on to become more than the seed ever imagined.

Imagine if the path of the pandemic was like a seed. Imagine how we will blossom when we become flower. All because we took the time to first plant the seed.

For people’s health, with this pandemic, we should be like seeds planted and watered by people who tell us which way to go.