First day blues. Today was the first day since I last taught a class, a little over a year ago. It’s seems like a long time ago. My mindset begins blues. My mind was set on new ways to cultivate this course, elevate this class too. We are heavy on Sinek. Start with why, my forever muse. It’s a grant writing class. So finding why, is what I forever choose. The golden circle my forever mood. Behind the scenes, though, three children were sick with cold. Something viral in the air with all the back to school blues. I caught it too. Still we proceeded with today, nervous as ever, for every start of a new semester, a new set of blues, new set of rules and tools, for weary souls. There is still a pandemic too. Yet we begin, as if my world has not been turned upside down since August, as if these blues have not depressed my mind. We moved with ease too. Seeing new faces, new minds to cultivate, bring joy for this call to elevate. Never want to get to the top without minds we elevate. So I settled down to reach each one, as best as I could, with stories that would help shift minds as best as it could. We don’t teach here. We reach minds. There were talks of failure as an opportunity. My stories through academia are ripe with failures. Lavish ones to boast of. Of ways to fail eloquently, yet rise still eloquent, for the call to elevate minds is a movement, a moment so full of eloquence. There were peaks and valleys or stories of moments of joy, moments of despair through this process of cultivating minds. They loved it. This isn’t a grant writing class I said. It’s one where we throw all rules out the door. For to be the best at this, to truly work to cultivate minds, you will need to elevate minds to think outside the box, outside all they have stocked in neat piles about grant writing. I don’t do piles. I don’t teach either. Just stories. Every grant is a storytelling tell to me. So we begin there, with your why story. They smiled. I smiled too. We are hooked. First day blues keep me smiling all day too. Day 1 down, 12 more to go. Keep first day blues with new classes.
Yesterday I listened to a conversation with black youth that changed my life. I have lived but not with intent and purpose until this past year. Not even with an unwavering commitment to becoming anti-racist in my work until recently. Granted the pandemic and the George Floyd killing and protests played a role, but connecting with people, some new, some old, some unexpected has made me into a woman with vision, conviction too of what to do to bring radical healing to all black youth. I am prepared to work with anyone interested in creating a space for black youth to reimagine a better way for their health. I am prepared to support them so they can act on whatever vision they want for their health.
Prior to the start of the summer, I was part of a group that wrote a radical proposal to bring healing and transformation to a generation in desperate need for their voices to be heard. This call for radical healing is part of what Dr. Shawn Ginwright advocates in his book Black Youth Rising. He calls for the use of unconventional strategies that inspire youth to act towards personal restoration for their health and wellness and demands institutional change and justice for all black youths. Moreover when communities come together, when we do so with the sole objective to thrive and not merely survive, Dr Ginwright suggested that these new approaches will not only rebuild hope, but will also foster healing from years of oppressive social, economic, educational conditions. We were sold and wrote our proposal with his emancipatory vision in mind. The grant reviewers thought otherwise and didn’t even discuss our grant. To them what we proposed, that black youth may have the audacity to rise and act to resist social marginalization while confronting inequities with their health wasn’t transformational enough. We respectfully disagree. Yesterday proved we are on to something.
Though we were not successful, one thing we did not do ourselves was listen to black youth themselves beyond the articles we read and reviewed. We did so yesterday. I am forever in awe and totally grateful for the insight 6 black youth shared with us yesterday. They were open. Nothing out of the ordinary, but with their unique voices and perspectives with life often not represented in our public health field. They felt heard and seen. Felt loved too and protected. They dreamed of dreams they felt could be achieved and healing they desperately want to achieve. We listened under the guidance of Alexis, our extraordinary tour guide, as they shared parts of themselves they felt society fails to recognize exists. By the time our one hour meeting was over, I was ready to scream, shout too, with an eloquent rage. Enough is enough. Black youth, all youth need anti-racist response to their health. Not the response that is tokenism, or a space filler, or even top down and carried out by so-called experts, myself and those in my field included, but the one they control. They would do it for free too if we let them. We are prepared to do so. The details are still murky, but our vision is clear. There is a need for black youth to rise. A black youth rising movement too with health. We are ready to start the journey with them. Join us if you may. Or watch as we finally create a platform where all black youth, all youth can arise. Either way, we are prepared to ensure they arise.
For trees, storms are a matter of life and death. Peter Wohlleben, the New York Times author of the book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ briefly stated why in his beautiful book. Winds blowing 60 miles an hour can uproot a tree, pummeling mature trunks to nothingness with forces equivalent to 220 tons. Trees that are unprepared fall. The pressure is enormous. Forest floors sink to nothing too within minutes. But some trees, like deciduous trees, withstand the pressure. They do so as a community, helping each individual tree swing back and forth depending on the direction of the moving winds. While some trees are straightening themselves after the first gust of wind, others may have sprung back quickly, absorbing and distributing the strong gust of wind throughout the tree. The result is that each tree gets help, depending on the way the wind blows and despite the storms. So too is death of a loved one.
Some of us are still struggling, barely a week later. I am one of them. I can’t seem to think straight these days without wishing that this is a terrible dream and waking up is just around the corner. It isn’t and the idea of never speaking again to Angie just keeps me in awe of life. Others are still asking questions, revisiting how we got here, how we didn’t know, how she never let on about the pain she was in. And she was in pain. Imagine, everything, all your vital organs giving away, and you have no single pain medication to cope with the onslaught your body must be going through. She was rather a tough woman and a fighter till the end, always saying she felt better, thus making it seem we had time. It wasn’t until she saw her mother, that I knew we were really at the end. I will never forget how she called her and called her and she never answered or how Angie cried when she finally saw her mother by her bedside. For sure, I am in the struggling camp. I am also in the camp prevention and camp advocacy now. I never really paid attention to cervical cancer until now. I am ready for the battle. Like trees, I am prepared for the storm ahead too with prevention in a country where many people still have no idea that HPV vaccines exist or that you should be checking your cervix once you turn 30 years old. We have lots of work to do. And as a community, we will bend whatever way the wind blows as a community and individually so no other woman or girl gets cervical cancer. Until then, keep swinging back and forth like trees on a windy day, to end cervical cancer.
Last week the U.S Surgeon General issued an advisory that declared ‘misinformation as a public health threat.’ In a blue document with massive bold letters in white, he argued that we need to begin the process of confronting misinformation by ‘building a healthy information environment.’ I was intrigued and kept scrolling down the document to understand for myself what he meant by the terms ‘a healthy information environment.’
I also welcomed the invitation to ‘limit the spread of health information as a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of society effort.’ His words. The table of contents seemed easy to follow with suggestions on the ‘what’ people can do whether as individuals or educators or journalists or even funders and of course the government. There was even a ‘where do we go from here’ section that increased my curiosity with the report. But from the first page, the background, the report lost me and I am sure the public. None of this centered the ‘public’ in public health.
There is a reason why health misinformation is so rampart these days and it has nothing to do with long backgrounds, even those focused on correct health information. We fail and continue to fail the ‘public’ if the words we use to speak to ‘public’ doesn’t include language or even tools that makes sense to the ‘public.’ I wanted to root for this document because of the seriousness of the topic, because this is literally a life and death matter and people, black and brown lives are dying everyday because of health misinformation.
Then it dawned on me, if I took a camera and walked down the streets of Harlem or Newark, or Augusta, or Pittsburgh, or even went to stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, would people be able to tell me what if anything they remembered from the Surgeon General’s advisory. Would they even know it exists?
There in lies the dilemma with health misinformation. While the public health experts are so focused on what it is or what it is not, the ‘public’ is focused on the why in the forms of stories they pass on to each other, through words and languages and other mediums that make sense to the ‘public.’ There is a reason why social media is widespread and content is viewed as powerful. People are expecting from public health, serious comments about their lives using tools and language that make sense to the ‘public,’ that speak to the ‘why.’ They are not expecting the ‘what.’ They are expecting connections, truths, even art and spoken words that say things important to help them with life, their health. The sooner we understand the ‘why’ of health information, the quicker we can begin to center the ‘public’ in public health. This is what is meant by public health to me these days, a deliberate focus on the public’s health, not by us the experts but by the public first.
We spend too much time focused on the ‘what’ of health that we forget the ‘why’ in public. There is a reason why stories live on long after the storyteller has ended the story. We can start there by bringing back stories to public health. Poetry too. As a tool, whether spoken or listened too, poetry can humanize us, make us whole, both emotionally and intellectually. Art can do the same. Art for and by the public can be intentional and life-sustaining with centering the public in public health. While letters to the public, like a ‘Dear Public Health’ can help the public confront the worst so as to be free to experience the best that is unshakable in public health, the ‘public.’
It is always about the ‘public’ after all. Our future depends on listening, seeing, feeling, daring even to center the ‘public’ in public health. We are all amplified when we center the ‘public’ in public health. That should have been the main crux of the advisory, a foundation through which to dismantle the public health threat that is health misinformation. We have miles to go but if we want to end this war, as it’s a war to, with casualties increasing everyday, the ongoing pandemic being a clear example, then we have got to bring back the ‘public’ in public health.
My life is not my own. So I give myself away so you can use me. This song by William McDowell is my keep as I start this week. This is the week where I learn whether it’s time or not for God’s plans to be fulfilled in his child. So if God then is for me, who can be against me, is the song I sing. If God is with me, whom shall I fear when everything is by his design. Also the fact I could never make this on my own. So I literally give myself away.
When I look back over all I have done the past few months, I realize with each passing day that I never could have made it without God. So giving myself to him is easy. He has always been before me. Psalm 139 reminds me that he knew this week, this day would come when I was still being formed in the womb. That’s the part that keeps me in awe, win or lose. Everything is according to his design. There is no one like him. Who can ever stop us when our God is greater, stronger, higher than anything even awesome in power. It has always been about him after all. It’s his plans, it’s his work, it’s his words, all written through me, but for his glory.
I am stronger because he allowed me to use the gifts he gave to me for his glory. I am wiser because I would do it again whether I fail or even win. I know how to still win even when I fail. That part keeps me grounded. Failure is always an option with God on your side. It’s all for his glory still and I am just a vessel that he uses to bless his children, uses to light a path, blaze a road through a vast forest of nothingness. I could not do any of this without him ordering every single step. So win or lose, being discussed or not, is all a reminder that if he is for me, who can be against me. If he is for me, whom shall I fear. And if no one knows me, he still adores me and I will do my part to remain his light. For a city built on a hill cannot be hidden. I cannot be hidden. Keep giving yourself away to God.
I remember the day we met. I was summoned to a meeting at a faculty office by the Director of Health for Student Services. He was a close friend to my family. I say summoned because I tried to excuse myself from it. My excuses too were valid as I was on maternity leave. I just had my second child a month ago. I knew he meant well when he said it was for a student and she needed help. I arrived at his office promptly. Something about helping out a student in need keeps me standing always. Upon my arrival, I met the student and her uncle. They explained her situation and asked if I would take her on as a mentor for her masters degree. I felt I had no choice seeing that I was summoned and reluctantly said yes. I had no clue as well where to begin, as I would be on maternity leave while she navigated being a student. That was nearly seven years ago.
Today, that student, boarded a plane to begin her tenure-track career as an Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. Our relationship has now come full circle. We worked together extremely well in ways that make me even wonder how I would fare as she leaves. I remember the beginning days of writing with her. She has always been a writer but need a little bit of finesse. It took time, with revisions, and discussions, all from a place of wanting to bring out the best in her. She listened, revised, listened some more and wrote and wrote.
These days, all I do is give a sense of the topic, and she is off soaring. I don’t even have to discuss much, let alone revise. It’s perfect. That’s what I mean by full circle. That as mentors, those we guide, will do better than us, greater than us even, and beyond our wildest reach, our deepest depths. I have come across mentors who prefer you remain a mentee. Some are also willing to stifle your drive because you dared to thrive. Possibly without them too. Yet, they too forget, that the greatest gift they can give to those they guide is the circle. Once it’s complete, mentees should become ready to soar, even if they stumble along the way. Still rise on eagle’s wind and soar.
That’s my keep for you today. That as you start this new journey at Wake Forest, as you close one chapter of your life and open another, that as you complete this circle and begin another, that you will always rise like an eagle and soar to new heights. Reach to for what is highest within your capacity and quietly make your name known. You may be overlooked, even underestimated but the future belongs to those who dare fly. Fly Dr. Ucheoma Nwaozuru. It’s your future.
The sounds of the times are changing. Stop a while for a moment and see how we refuse to bend to your unchanging. See our power. See our audacity. See our brilliance. See our grace. See as we turn our backs to your places and spaces. See how we elegantly uncover all our hidden secrets, all things that make us sacred. Our black has always been excellent. Always been graceful. Always been brave. Always been bold. Open your eyes and see for yourself.
Ooh and we are so brave, so full of grace. We are a bright light in a world that’s fallen far from grace. Though you may choose to remain the same. We know, that we are at a critical junction where being bold and brave is our middle name.
The moment to reckon with black women in academia is now. We are not some butler at a party, opening the doors for your arrival or all you allow.
It’s our party now.
Come in and stay awhile if you may. Eat our jollof rice and barbecue ribs with fried plaintains if you may.
Drink our palm wine or chocolate beer if you may. Dance to our music, ooh dance and no do, no do, shakara for me ooh. That’s the song we play.
Laugh, yes, let your soul laugh as you play with our children. They are our very own butterflies. Get to know how they make us fly.
And while you mingle, take a good look at all the other people in our inner circle, our interior life. Every one of them is a testimony of our strength, our tenacity, our perseverance, our power, our brilliance, our hidden secret, our reason for being, our greatest treasure, our life’s work, our legacy.
Like an Hibiscus flower at dawn, we bloom because of every single person we call our own, even single person ready in their battle gear, to fight this battle, just so they too can say we won. We do not fight this battle on our own.
Ooh and we won.
Every single person walked a thousand journeys with us just to help us win this battle. They cried too when we cried, for every time your insults were belittling, every time you questioned our credentials.
They carried us when we fell, when we stumbled, when we broke down under the weight of the pressure you felt was essential. They nursed us when we were sick and because of them we rise on our heels. Our bold rise today is because they lifted us up yesterday.
We are so powerful beyond these words we choose to speak with to you. Powerful beyond what you think you may know of us. We know our worth and are prepared to be audacious to leave spaces and go to places where we will be celebrated and not tolerated. Places that will help us thrive and not stifle our drive.
And why not. When we can cook and clean and write and sleep, all while running to make mango popsicles for our children, our butterflies, our greatest legacies.
We know whose we are and by God, we will be bold where we are.
You can’t stand in the way of all that is designed for our destiny.
You may wonder if this is the right moment, pacify us to keep mum for this moment. But what you forget, is how he alone knows the plan he has for us. Something great still will come out of this moment.
You may view us a a symbol of love and hate. But we are human beings too. You may view us as difficult too. Try to keep us mute too. But this is our supreme moment of destiny. This time is so long overdue.
So make your decisions. Decline, offer, deny, call it a difficult decision. Nothing will stop what is ours.
We will boldly decide and fight for what is ours. Even if you think it’s within your power to deny what is ours.
It is still ours. Our destiny. Our story. Our song. Our blessed assurance for a changing time where only bravery and boldness are all we know. One where praises will be sang by all the people gathered around our table, all the day long, including you.
Keep being bold and brave Black woman in academia. Thank you for showing us how Nikole Hannah Jones. And read her statement for rejecting tenure under her own terms here https://t.co/eMgYqRXbTL?amp=1
There is an Igbo saying that states: The cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household. It’s voice though is the property of the neighborhood. Every single thing we do in life, has a ripple effect. Our actions maybe ours alone. But they too matter for others. I remember growing up listening to a cock crow. It’s was one of my favorite things to start the day. Long before the day took it’s toll, the cock made you feel at ease. Made you feel prepared to take on whatever the day may throw your way. It may have belonged to one household, but it’s voice was for all of us. So too is this thing called mentoring.
When I look back at my career in public health so far, I have been surrounded by mentors, whose power continues to reverberate for me. Every time I speak to them, I feel wise in all sense of the word. It’s an immense gift that literally keeps giving. One person in particular was the first person who took a chance on me when I was clueless with life. The first person that taught me about culture and why it matters. The first person that made being different and learning to accept failures, appealing. The first person that allowed me to claim and own my space whatever I wanted it to be. The first person who helped me make sense of my journey in academia. The first person that made me feel like a leader and not a follower. The first person who continues to help me as I finally come to my calling (I laugh, but my true life’s work is just beginning). The first person who literally planted and harvested in me. Everyone calls him Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa. He is the intellectual Father my God created just for me. All my ideas have truly awakened in his hands. The eye of my mind were given wings to fly away from the moment I first met him as an undergraduate student. I have been flying ever since. I am who I am today because he first saw it in me. He took the time to plant things in me that are only now starting to ripen. Some may think I have done my best work. Truth is, it was a planting season. Everything is finally making sense. To think that I have been in a limbo paying my dues to get here makes me humble. The season was not a waste.
Now the harvesting begins. The sweetness of the fruits being harvested in my life these days keeps me in awe. Things I barely even know I possess, are ripe. Ready for harvesting. Public health for me, has always been messy. Complex too. But I learnt from the best to remain comfortable with being uncomfortable with the mess. If it’s makes no sense, then you are on the right course. If it’s complex, even better. Complexity is your middle name. True, you may have failed. You may still fail and fail again. There is a lesson there too. Ooh and try again. He once told me to fail brilliantly too. I have been doing that also and with no regrets. Everything was for this moment in my life. My entire career has this as a foundation. All because I was blessed with a cock that crowed in the morning. Though his voice may belong to many, the thought that I’m in the household where it emerges from keeps me grateful. Keep being grateful for mentors who plant and harvest in you. They are like cocks who crow in the morning.
We have orange day lilies in our garden. My kids and I spotted them. Their beauty greets the eyes in an unexpected, but magnificent way. It is impossible to stop staring at them. Nothing about them is hidden from view. Their distinctive orange color, in a sea of green shrubs, bores down into your soul. They truly demand that you notice them. And you will, even if for a brief moment. Not even your eyes will deny their communion. Yet for all it’s beauty, for all its dazzling mist which permeates your being in slow bursts, these blooming orange day lilies lasts for a day. For some reason, I keep dreaming about ways we in public health can become like day lilies, even if for a day.
This is because we have been dragging our feet through concrete floors for too long. Making no sound as we walk. With footsteps followed only by us and not the public. Our beauty is hardly known by the public, by us even. Ahead, knowledge of how things should be with no change in style or substance. Not with our curriculums or courses. Not with our frameworks or theories. None of it speaks of multiple layers of racism and the daily realities that even the public demand that we do something about. Behind, a new generation of learners, listeners, activists, gazing out to the field. Wondering whether this is truly what they signed up for. As they draw nearer, they too look outward to the direction of our gaze. They too become aware of a sharp disconnect between the public and the public’s health. We have not dared to glance behind us even though we know they are near. The new generations and us are inseparably linked forever by what the public demands and what we do even if for a day. Each failure to advance who we are, what we do, or why we do it, is deadly for the public, inaction with racism and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, being a clear example.
I keep wondering, why public health keeps being left behind. We got left behind during the pandemic. Our messages on wearing masks or practicing social distance was viewed by some in the public with suspicion. For their own health too. Our messages on getting vaccinated whether old or young, was also viewed by some in the public with suspicion. Even still for their own health. Our papers do not reflect the realities of every day people, including the insidious impact of racism in all spheres of our influence. Nothing in our introductions, methods, results or discussions humanizes the public either. We have grown accustomed to presenting findings that serve us and not the public we serve. No sane person talks about their health the way we do.
But now, the pandemic and acknowledgement of the pervasive role of racism has wrenched the doors wide open demanding that we do something. Demanding that we walk, so our footsteps maybe felt by people, not institutions or open sources. Will we wave our hands in surrender to the public, or will we keep walking, with no sound, along concrete floors?I suppose time will tell. For now, dreams of daylilies will do.
Have you heard about Fire?
Not the real thing as in flames or burning or combustion.
But a quarterly literary magazine set up by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas, Richard Bruce Nugent, Gwendolyn Bennett and John P. Davis, to do one thing one only (in my opinion): to express the truth within oneself.
It’s is a vivid portrait of life as a black artist at a time when being a writer or an artist was not fashionable both literally and figuratively.
They had a credo first set forth by Langston Hughes and it notes the following: ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual-dark skinned self without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too…If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how. And we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.’
I had to quote this one word for word to illustrate the fire within all of us. ‘Few are indeed destined to succeed so brilliantly at that which they set about to do,’ the magazine notes. I agree.
Fire didn’t succeed. But it lives on years later and for new generations for artist because it’s vision remains true even today.
Art should always be in service of humankind. Health too. We do so not for health sake, but for our own sake, for people sake, and the sake of the whole human race.
We are like a Phoenix, those of us in public health, grappling these days about the public’s health, and like Langston Hughes once noted, one day we will rise from the fire to which we have consigned ourselves too.
And like a burning flame, we will light the path forward for public health to truly become the public’s health.
Welcome to an unconventional and adventurous journey I have decided to embark on with public health. The destination is unknown. But I look forward to becoming the light within.