Of what use are grants? If you think about this deeply, you will discover that it’s use are infinite. Of course some use it for their research. Some to propel their careers. I have always believed they can be used to tell stories.

I remember the very first grant I wrote over 14 years ago. I was a doctoral student then at Penn State and I was very keen on understanding how to succeed as one. I was working as a graduate assistant with Dr. Rhonda Belue and I asked her that question in the fall semester of my first year. She noted 2 things, write papers, get grants. Looking back, my mind latched on to both things and proceeded to make sense of grad school. I asked to see sample grants and Rhonda connected me to a doctoral student, Brandi who graciously shared her F-31 doctoral award. Brandi also introduced me to another doctoral student Melissa, who also shared her F-31 award. So from the beginning, seeing examples of what types of grants I could write has been critical for me.

My doctoral advisor, Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa, also had a grant and I was mesmerized by how it allowed us to work in South Africa to understand HIV stigma first hand. It also allowed me to write a paper with guidance from the research team. Dr. Rhonda introduced me to Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe and he had an R03 grant in Nigeria focused on hypertension. Together, I learnt firsthand what it takes to get successful global health grants focused on doing what you love. They would both ignite my passion and vision for doing great work that impacts lives in global settings I call home.

Also, I took a qualitative class focused on teaching aspects of grant writing. This was my first actual foray into grant writing. Yes, it was with esteemed Nursing professors who taught the art of writing grant but from a qualitative research perspective. I was in awe. They taught me first the meaning of storytelling with grants. Qualitative research will do that to you. Make you understand first the stories you hope to tell, whether is through a paper or in this case grants. We were taught everything about qualitative research and told we could turn our ideas into funded grants. I did. I spent that semester learning about ethnography and proceeded to write a grant focused on how I would use ethnography to understand child malaria in Nigeria. I was born in Nigeria and I figured if I would do research let it be at home and with something I knew first hand, from experience. Malaria was ingrained in my head from child hood and I figured then that if I am going to change the world, we’ll why not begin with malaria and yes using ethnography. I gathered all the documents required using Brandi and Melissa’s example F-31 as a guide. Then used my ethnography research paper on malaria as my entry point for research. I was going to work under esteemed researchers focused on malaria in Nigeria, like Dr. Mrs Falade at the University of Ibadan and my doctoral advisor would guide me every step of the way as I made deep understanding as to why child malaria persisted using culture and ethnography as a lens. I was ambitious and my ambition for being among the first to end child malaria gave me the confidence to submit an F-31 grant focused on using ethnography to understand child malaria in NIGERIa. It was rejected.

The second most important thing I learned from this first experience, was feedback. Not from those that know you, but strangers who only care about what you propose to do. They taught the value and significance of the art of feedback. So alongside beginning first with storytelling as grants thanks to my qualitative teachers, I learnt the importance of feedback from this experience. I took it all in, continued to work on my dissertation and made the choice to revise and resubmit the grant. I was in my 3rd year or so and technically with a year left in doctoral school. But I revised not with a desire to use it in my doctoral work but to gather more feedback just in case I failed again. I expected to use that feedback to continue to perfect my grant even upon graduation. I buckled up for a long journey with grants. The second version was revised and this time rather than using ethnography, I asked to gain skills in mixed methods research. It was funded and this began my journey towards becoming a grant writer.

There are very few of us in academia. It has also taken me years to see myself as one. Yet grant writing like music, or poetry is an art. Of course the science matters. You need tight science and rigorous review of research, but you also need storytelling and mastering the art of persuasion and persistence for that story you hope to tell one day. Academia did not prepare many people for storytelling as grant writing. I figured it out my way. I benefited from teachers and mentors whose life work is grounded in stories and culture and anti-racism and yes all of that combined is the reason I call myself a grant writer today. Grants for me are stories. They have always been and will continue to be stories. Reviewers may reject them. In fact most of my stories, including an actual grant on storytelling have been rejected. But I am focused on using the oppressors language for good.

In the words of Lorraine Hansberry, my dreams with grants as stories remains largely outside myself. And I am happy to keep dreaming in this way, to keep living my dream. Not for a career or to keep up with anything. But to work freely and do the things I want to do. Becoming a grant writer focused on telling stories are the things dreams are made off. To be at the cusp of the work that awaits me keeps me grateful still to so many and God. Nothing but grace personifies my life’s work. I can’t wait to start the semester teaching what I mean by grants as stories. Teaching too, why failure is always an option. Teaching the art of feedback. Teaching students to simply do as Lorraine Hansberry asks and ‘write as they will,’ what they know about their idea, what they think it ought to be and must be if their stories about their ideas are to last. I intend to teach grant writing as writing stories to a point. Writing about people and stories begging for their attention and funding. We all need the art of grants as stories. I intend to perfect it for them

Ms Lorraine Hansberry, my forever muse on grants as stories. Imagine using her as a guide. I am in awe of my goals for this course.

‘Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries.’ These opening lines of bell hooks essay on ‘Language’ in her book Teaching to Transgress is my muse for today. Not only for the meaning behind these words, but for the simplicity of the lines. I am in the final stages of prepping for my grant writing course for this Fall and beginnings are my muse.

I love grants with beginnings that are effortless. Beginnings that are open, inviting and quite simply refreshing. They usher you in like a wave. Force you to pay attention to the rise and fall, even the moments where you actually dive in to catch the wave. I am inspired by words that take root in my memory. Those that refuse to be forgotten. Their presence in a grant, especially in the beginning of a grant startle me.

If you want to really master the art of grant writing, invest deeply in beginnings that are unforgettable. Begin to with beginnings that disrupt. Those that force connections and spaces for alternative thinking and innovations. We touch one another in language. Excel too with our grants through language. Grant ideas like desire, with language that refuses to be contained are the core of well-written grants. Mastering beginnings of such grants is my muse this fall.

I imagine young people can be partners, leaders too with health interventions. I imagine they can come up with strategies that matter for themselves and other young people. I imagine that if we give them an opportunity, not just as beneficiaries of health programs, that they will surprise you, wow you too. We have spent the past 4 weeks with our last innovation bootcamp for now.

Young Nigerians have surprised me, wowed me too. They are prepared to decentralize PrEP, prepared to get other young people to become aware of it, use it, adhere to it, retain it, and even evaluate all of this. Implementation science is in it’s prime with youth-friendly strategies and how to truly bring end users into the design of these strategies not just as consumers of them later, but as partners and leaders.

Joe Tucker, Oliver Ezechi and I imagined all this and to see it come alive and on its own now that we approach the fifth year keeps me humble. Nothing but grace saw us through. We remain totally grateful to so many including our esteemed judges. We are so thankful to the Nigerian youth themselves. All of you stood in a blaze of courage, rising like the anthem, into the mouth of 4yby’s history.

You all reached within yourselves, within limited resources too, to find more beyond yourselves, ample resources rarely tapped into but within your reach. We are prepared to see you rise, and will do our part to watch you soar always. This is just the beginning.

Finally, this day of grace, so amazing, has arrived. This day will forever be etched in my memory now. Not because of what I get to call myself from today, A full Professor, but more so for the untenable reality I molded for myself, reduced to manageable, transforming essence, my way, now my knowing so deep.

I think about the Late great Toni Morrison’s letter to women, girls, daughters like my own, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, mother in law, herself, often. But especially today. To that letter I would add fathers, mentors that are male, brothers, uncles, friends that are male, my sons and my husband. All of you have been the rim of my world, my beginning and everything that personifies the word primary.

When I stepped into academia 8 years and 11 months ago, I knew it was not ready for women like me. Those dark like me. Those that will not stop motherhood for anything. Those also prepared to do the damn work necessary. So I battled demons. Literally did as Psalm 23 noted and walked through the deepest darkness, never forgetting that I have everything. I lost friends along the way. Mentors too. Lost loved ones, one of which whose death is still as painful as the day she died 11 months ago as if it was today. Before the journey began, I laid the path that I knew I would follow my way and followed as I knew how best too, stumbling and getting up along the way. There were plenty stumbles. But also many rising up too. Silence tried to keep me down. It succeed for a minute until Audre Lorde reminded me it will never protect me. Suffering was plenty. Not just with work but also at home. But still, like Ms Morrison would remind me, I am like no other. Not in the way I suffered or stayed silent. But for what I did through both. I was never the most loved, not the most celebrated, maybe the most silent and of course the least eloquent about my experience in academia. But I did it all my way without blinking and that way still agitates me over and over again. Even on this day, even in this moment, I am so grateful for Ms. Morrison’s letter and for the reminder that I did all right. I celebrate today with grace knowing that my sweep is grand. I will forever be endlessly refreshing when it comes to the work I do. They can say what they like but I know the work will change lives and if you don’t know yet, learn my history. I come from a lineage that was not meant to be. The word perseverance was etched in our soul, and it runs through my veins. I know Papa and Mama and Angi would be happy with me as they celebrate today in heaven too. You have done alright Isioma (my middle name), they would say, the one for whom we literally named knowledge. You took this thing many fear, passed through it and even danced through it your way and in the best of company, all of you whom I call my people. We did it. I thank all of you that got me this far. You are so many and my heart is full. I thank you for crying when I cried. I thank you for celebrating when I celebrated. The birth of my children, my marriage, failed and successful grants, new and old jobs, thank you for walking alongside me through this journey. Thank you for being there even when I could not be there for you. There is still movement in the shadow of the sun. I am still coming from the rim of the world. I will always remain that disturbing disturbance you all know so well, neither hawk nor stormy weather, but now as Professor Juliet Iwelunmor-Ezepue, a dark woman of all things. I intend to keep rustling, like life. Thank you Ms. Morrison for this knowing so deep. Thank you to my community. This one is for you all.

Our ancestors are our first audience. Christell Roach reminded me of this yesterday. They have stories long forgotten and must be told by us their legacy that remain. So here is my attempt with that.

I have tried to understand my creation story. Tried to know on whose shoulders I stand. My father’s side has plenty empty holes. Of his father, his mothers, and all the ancestors that came before him. The only thing I am left with is his surname, Iwelunmor , an Igbo name which means ‘anger never reaches my soul.’ So from him, I am never supposed to be angry. And if I ever get to the point where anger hijacks my thoughts, my words, my actions, then I must stop short still with letting it reach my soul. That is the extent of my father’s side that I hold on to too. It gives me hope.

My mother’s side, has holes too. Mainly with her father, but especially with her mother. I am always drawn to every single thread of information I glean about her life. For starters, she was an orphan with 2 siblings, a brother and a sister. I am unclear of when her parents died, except she was young and was subsequently raised by her uncle. Then we were told she married my grandfather, a chief, early and without the support of his people. So their marriage was never fully recognized. Their marriage also never bore any children in the early days which gave my grandfather and to the joy of his people, the right to marry more women. He did. Not just one, but two. They would go on and give him numerous children and my grandmother, watched all of this and even joined in raising those children. That she still persisted to have her own is the creation story I long to complete for myself.

I know she persisted as we are the evidence of her persistence. I would not even be here writing this at this moment if she gave up. So nestled within my DNA, long before I would become, is the insistence to persist. That creation story had gotten me through many periods of self-doubt and despair. I exist literally because my grandmother persisted. So who am I not to do the same. But even with this story, there is still an aspect of her life that I still want to know, the how and why? The how because it took her 20 years to give birth to my mother and why because 20 years is a long time to never give up. The how too because this was a time of no artificial insemination. There were no hospitals and, well, a water goddess has a hand in my creation story. So I exist because my grandmother met a water goddess who gave her some potions that enabled her to give birth to my mother. I stand before you, in full bloom, birthed by the hands of a water goddess.

My grandmother!

So now I am obsessed with this story. I long to bear witness to this power of persistence and Christell Roach and her lecture on Storytelling as a tradition on witness, is my guide. Our light festival did more than I could ever imagine yesterday. It got me up today thinking in essence about child birth in a time where women were lucky to have any form of hospital or maternal care. That my creation story is tied to maternal, child health is my muse now with public health storytelling that all I can say is stay tuned. I am in the business of storytelling now and I will do like Outspoken Bean suggested and begin anywhere. Welcome to the fire that our first LIGHT festival has lit within me and stay tuned for next year. We are coming with more fire.

We are coming with FIRE for public health!

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.

I had a conversation with my mother in-law yesterday. We were talking about work and why I keep getting carried away with one grant after the other. Most of them are also not successful. In other words, you may be carried away with work and still have nothing to show for it. I heard myself say during the course of the conversation that I could go days without eating, if I have to when it comes to writing my grants. It also doesn’t matter if they are all unsuccessful. I also noted that I really don’t know why especially because I don’t need anyone of them. Of course becoming a successful grant writer is wonderful but the stress of it all makes you wonder why even bother. In the course of our dialogue I also framed my reasoning in this way: I don’t need wealth, just sustainable health and healing to all who deserve this right. It has always been for people and how they can have sustainable healing. Writing in this manner is full of sleepless nights and extremely stressful. I still do it because I believe in the cause. If one person can be saved through something I worked to get a grant for, then I will be content. The one I am writing these days is beyond me. I told my partner in writing that I thought we had written difficult grants but this one is something else. I may not get it. But I learnt something new about myself during this process. That I am willing and able to talk to anyone to bring my crazy dreamed up ideas to life, anyone one. That to me is the gift that grant writing keeps giving and for that I am content, win or lose. So to close: I don’t need wealth. Just sustainable health. To all those who deserve this right.

There’ll be red sand. Red stoneless sand will line all the roads you see. But still, keep walking. The distant paths will blend to red and orange and red again. You’ll drop to your knees to feel their reddish nature. The roads ahead will lay bare, but for footsteps. Hurried steps. Hushful legs. Bristling through unaware of their walk through roads of red and oranges. You’ll see women and children walking. Some with babies carried at their back, walking. Some with things on their heads, like water or oranges shaped like pyramids, walking. Some, walking and waiting for their turns on orange and black Keke’s or motorbikes. Reds and oranges blend with the sole of their feet, moving freely with all the forces within. Everyone you see will be going somewhere. Hurried and unhurried steps, will be moving somewhere. Legs will do all the walking. Mouths will do all the greeting. But eyes, will speak only what eyes see.

Image from The Dream Keeper and other poems by Langston Hughes with illustration by Brian Pinkey.

The images you have of me. Mother, researcher, doing work in far away places. All of them are true. But those that are invisible. Everything hidden, under, and in between the lines like Toni Morrison’s invisible ink, are the bones that keep me tall and erect. One day, I will leave you hoping to see just how the story unfolds. What scenery passes through my window daily or whether i truly kiss the night air. Only that it would just be the beginning of the day in which all that I am to become, everything buried deeply within me, oozes forth like an ache.

I am possible, today, tomorrow, and forever, because I know my dreams, and my dreams go on dreaming, unbroken, unfettered, unafraid. They look to rivers and mountains, parks and creeks for inspiration that some call ambitious. Then they see struggles, all sorts of strife and pain lurking by the doorway, asking if we would like to come in. We do. Falling deeply into depths we pray will not leave us powerless. Not when we know what lies within us, all that cries out to arise from these depths we find ourselves in. We do, reaching for the skies above, hoping this wasn’t a dream. Dreams are always wasted if you don’t dream again. So we do, dreaming still that what lies hidden, everything under and in between the lines, remain unbroken, unfettered, unafraid, now that we touch all that aches within us.

My presentation today went well. We need more dreamers in global health.

Ambition to me is tied to what Ngugi wa Thiongo once described as a ‘quest for relevance.’ It is a search for a liberating perspective within which to see ourselves clearly in relationship to ourselves and to the other selves in the universe. He would go on to suggest that this question depends on the choice of material and the attitude to or interrogation of that material. How we see things, even with our own eyes, is very much dependent on where we stand in relationship to it. To him, any strong desire to achieve or do something is inherently laced with a language of struggle. And this struggle starts even from the beginning.

Sustaining global health, becoming ambitious with whatever you choose to do in this field is all about taking a leap into the land of struggle. It’s that struggle that ultimately makes you begin wherever you are, do whatever you can, to become part of the generation crazy enough to think they can change the world. I am very ambitious with global health, naming it, sharing it, so that I not only see myself clearly but work with like minded people to make the global more relevant than ever, changing how we all see it too, one story at a time. And yes, it is full of struggles, full of thinking that I can really change the world with fully-funded projects that last. How I am working to mobilize people to embrace these crazy ideas with global health is at the heart of my upcoming talk on Tuesday April 26th. It’s my hope that if you join us, you may learn ways to sustain your crazy ideas with global health, even in the midst of storms.