Being rooted in all I do is free. I know my roots. I know my struggles too. I have lived through their lessons. Freedom takes a long time. With despair and fear, and a sprinkling of failure buried deep within. I have seen darkness of what it means to work. Roots buried deep only know dark. They know too that light takes time. I am beginning to know light. Both have taken a long time that I know first hand when the rain began to fall on me. I know too that you do not talk to a horse and wait for it’s reply. Whether it’s falling rain or neighing horses, I can testify that words are not enough to describe work. Neither are sentiments on papers. Only stories will do. Only the stories, with inward testimonies, of all the ways you reconciled shattered dreams with hopeful visions will do. Now that my roots pierce deeply into the soil, I look forward to shaming the devil as I speak my truth.
I have taken plenty short trips in life. But few are as unforgettable as the past 4 days in Lagos. Imagine arriving to blue skies. No soon after we arrived, even after all the chaos we encountered at the airport, I arrived to skies perfect and blue.
I entered Lagos too with clarity. Day after day, I saw myself opening up to the wonders of this place. Opening up to the young people nurturing its greatest hope. We came for them. Came to witness all they could offer for themselves and those like them. We called it PrEP4Youth. They called it life changing. And one by one I saw as young people came up with ideas of how to care for each other. Ideas for girls without hope and boys out of hope. I saw how they told stories of themselves, told stories of their peers and dreamed of ways they could all live in a land where the skies remained perfect and blue. I kept saying nothing about you without you. They kept showing nothing for them without them. For where they come from, their is no need to ignore them, no need to divide them into those that receive or complete, no need to act as if they cannot lead things for themselves. The past four days left moments of joy, from teams exceptional and finesse, from youths thinking outside the box, in red shirts, or green shirts, braided hair, or faded cuts, Godswill, or rising up again. I saw all this and more with fullness for tomorrow. Nothing about young people without young people. Nothing about people without people. This is the change they want.
If you want to decolonize anything, start by stepping out of the way. Then proceed with this mantra, ‘it is not about you.’ Nothing for people, communities, health systems, anyone, without them. Some may write papers on this, some may even have stories to tell. I saw first hand in Lagos, the need to step out of the way, so people themselves tell their own stories. This is why I firmly believe and will continue to do my best to ensure that we are all storytellers. No degree or peer-reviewed journals required. Just come as you are. I am on a mission to build platforms for storytellers in health who dare to dream.
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.
How might we make scientific writing inclusive? How might it move beyond its style and form, beyond its static blueprint to adapt to lives that are constantly changing?
How can we speak of advancing racial and ethnic equity in science, health or medicine, if we continue to court tools and language that remain colonized?
How can we create meaningful space for those marginalized from writing, if the space only continues to sustain and nurture the status quo and not their voice?
Where are our spaces of open dialogue, spaces where we illuminate our past, brighten our future, or build strength for these present times?
Since the start of the pandemic, some of us in public health have been experiencing a kind of rapture for remembered words.
From Baldwin’s reminder that we must accept our struggle and accept it with love, to Lorde’s assertions to transform our silence into language and action.
From Wa Thiongo’s reminder to decolonize our minds, to Morrison’s eloquent Noble Prize Lecture on why language is the measure of our lives. We argue that the time for radical openness with scientific writing is now.
If the goal is to truly include voices of people experiencing health inequities, truly encourage contributions from scholars from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who remain systematically excluded from publishing in scientific journals, then scientific journals will need to begin by experimenting with new forms and style of writing.
I imagine we could do like Ryan Petteway suggested and use poetry for resistance, healing, and reimagination. One where even our scientific writing can become more responsive to and representative of people’s daily realities, and not an academic language that excludes or silences them.
I imagine, we could also engage in healthful narratives, leveraging arts and culture, like Shanae Burch suggested to advance health equity.
Derek Griffth and Andrea Semlow also suggested that art can be one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see they world in radically different ways.
Art may facilitate critical reflection, unlearning, relearning and perhaps most important, connecting, something public health desperately needs.
We could create more spaces for the exchange of letters, a genre, Green and Condon, argue enables deep listening as well as honest, hard, and tender dialogue necessary to the work of anti-racism.
Letters provide an opportunity for scholars often underrepresented in research to write from where they stand and for others to attend to their stories even when they seem uncomfortable.
We could also do as bell hooks once suggested in her book, teaching critical thinking, and use imagination to illuminate spaces not covered by data, facts and proven information.
Imagination can help us create and sustain an engaged audience, particularly with scholars from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who have been systematically excluded from publishing in scientific journals.
Racism are real conditions and very present in the way we write as scientist. We cannot be asked to draw a map, then lead the way down a path that leads to ending the many forms of racism, if the path we use belong to the masters. We may temporarily go along the journey with you, but we do so knowing that it will never lead to genuine change.
I maybe daring to speak to the oppressed and oppressor in the same voice, but language is now a measure of my life as a public health researcher and a profound site of resistance, one I intend to use with anyone interested to serve and support communities underrepresented in research.
If we are to truly illuminate and transform the present, or brighten the future, then we need an unfettered imagination of what can be. We decolonize scientific writing when we use tools that are different, tools we know will work for our beloved communities, work also to advance racial and ethnic equity in health, or simply spread a burst of light.
So allow me to introduce a new space within public health dedicated to hearing from you the public, on ways we can center back the public in public health, using tools that make sense to you, tools you feel will help us critically reflect, unlearn, relearn, and ultimately connect with you. Join us and simply come as you are to bear witness and use language and art as the measure of our lives and health. https://light4ph.org
At the end of his book Health and Culture beyond the Western Paradigm, my doctoral advisor ended with these words: ‘To engage in a healthy culture project is to question one’s location constantly, always remembering that wherever something stand, another thing will stand beside it.’ It’s from Chinua Achebe and to him, it meant that there was no one way to doing anything. If there is one point of view, fine, there will be others as well. This to me is at the heart of the problem with they way we write in academia.
We have all been trained to use a one dimensional style and form to anything we seek to publish. If we dare to deviate from that style, no matter the topic, then the odds of being rejected are high. In this next phase of my career, I am prepared to offend many Emperors. If your goal is to end racism in health, to decolonize the field as we know, while advocating for those that look like me, many who remain voiceless, then you too would be prepared to offend the Emperor. I want to spend whatever time I have writing from a place of liberation. See when you join the ranks of those whose minds see clearly how what we do actually perpetuates the problem, then you would be infuriated.
The opportunities we have squandered with the public’s health are enormous. They keep looking to us for solutions and we keep giving them papers they can’t read. They keep asking for our interventions and we keep saying wait for the results after the intervention ends. They keep seeking for clarity on what they should do, and we keep drafting protocols. So much assistance could have been given to the public. So much time spent truly elevating their lives, yet all of us in our field spend countless energies writing papers the public will never read. We have been blessed as a field to have resources many dream to have, yet it doesn’t translate to much for people who need this the most.
It’s for them and only them, that I seek to chart a different course. Of course we cannot write in this manner within our journals. We cannot say to any of our editors too that writing as we do is racist and only serves the Emperor and not the people it actually doesn’t represent in his research. If our field is inundated right now with falsehoods and so many misinformation, it’s the bed we unfortunately made. If our writing has only been in service to ourselves, then it should not come as a surprise that folks with their own disingenuous motives will speak to them to the public we have neglected for too long. This isn’t the first time we have experienced a pandemic. There was one over 100 years ago and what if anything did we learn then? The researcher in me has perused through the articles we wrote back then. I have also written about it too here in the past. We remain blinded and weighed down by so much knowledge that serves no one. Too many experts want to speak and speak about what they think the public ought to be doing that they too now sound like a broken record.
These days the only thing keeping me sane are my family, my children and their love for all things that fly, including dogs like paw patrol with skills to save the world and not humans as the world expects. Don’t blame me, paw patrol has a new movie and my kids have ensured that I sit through it as well. I am glad I did. The ability and flexibility of dogs reminded me of why I choose to become a public health researcher and it’s to first serve the public through tough times, through good times and when all seems impossible. I have always know this to be the true calling of our field, one we have neglected for so long.
We are failing the public by not bringing them around to speak in a language they understand. We are failing the public by not telling our stories too of the struggles inherent in our field. We are failing the public by not creating spaces for dialogue, spaces too for radical openness on ways we have actually failed them. We are failing the public by not listening to them. We are failing the public by not looking out for them. The public needs us and we cannot keep neglecting them. The least we can do is be there. I started out by questioning my location within scientific writing. But now, I know where I stand.
Today, I dwelled among some fine people. Poets, storytellers, researchers, humans committed to the light, the beauty of our humanity. And they all glistened, smiled as they glistened. Finer than silver moons. Oozing words, delicious words, as juicy as the sweetest berries. Of ways humanity will flourish because we loved us, loved our coming together too, loved our light too. Today I dwelled among some fine people. But truly, they dwelled in me.
As an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn State (loved that school too much), I received 2 Bunton Waller scholarship and fellowship. The Bunton Waller scholars program were named in honor of Mildred Settle Bunton (1932), recognized as the first African American woman to graduate from Penn State, and Calvin Hoffman Waller (1904), believed to be Penn State’s first African American graduate. The scholarship is given to students who enhance the broad and diverse student population at Penn State. The Bunton-Waller Program attracted students from various backgrounds who have demonstrated academic potential and are eligible to attend Penn State.
Most of my friends through college and in life were Bunton Waller scholars. Imagine all of us living in the same dorm our freshman year in college. That was our experience in a predominantly white institution. The program allowed us to see ourselves and not get lost in the shuffle of what it means to be a racial and ethic minority. And we all thrived. When I look through the profiles of us, those I keep in touch with and I those I don’t, majority have doctoral degrees. It gives me chills to see the amount of doctors that came out of the program. One of my close friends from the program is an anchor woman at CBS Philly. Another group run Fortune 500 companies as top leaders, while some simply own their business. Such is the beauty of university programs that begin with diversity in mind. Not just in words but truly with efforts to train the next generation of scholars. I will be speaking about my experience as a diverse scholar next week for National Institutes of Health and if you can, do register to join us here. https://nih.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_eQ-zp0WMRnC2yQRRN658aQ
I write slowly. Painstakingly slow. I have been letting the words come. They come really slow. It may seem like I can’t get to the end. I have been told to set deadlines. I do. All the time I have deadlines with my other style of writing. I always meet the ones with the grants I commit to writing. Deadlines aren’t a problem. But for this other style of my writing, the nonfiction side that seeks to challenge the status quo, that writing side is pretty slow. I think it’s because non fiction or even fiction writers don’t often prescribe solutions. We do that a lot in academic/scientific writing. We have a solution for $25k or $10million and if we are good at this grant writing style, you will probably give us that money. And chances are nothing we prescribe will actually change anything. It’s the sad but real truth about academic writing. We are in the business of offering solutions. Impossible and often unsustainable ones. Granted it may work for 705 or even 30 people we follow for 6 months or 12 months after our study ends. But visit those people 4 years later, chances are nothing has changed. And we are probably off to the next grant. That side of writing in my opinion is part of a colonial legacy that has dominated scientific writing for to long. It also has to change.
Recently, a top journal sent out an email asking people to respond to their themed paper on ways to advance racial and ethnic equity in science and health. They especially requested for racial and ethnic groups marginalized or often excluded from publishing to send in their papers. I chuckled. Not only have you excluded these groups from publishing, now you want them to end racism too. The ones you intentionally excluded? Are they god? Do people only see racial and ethnic groups in science as gods?
We are only just coming to terms with the knowledge that finally, racism can be publicly declared as a public health crisis. It was just acknowledged last year, in 2021. Something we have known for too long. And now, one year later, we are supposed to have interventions that end racism, metrics to measure progress, even ways to advance workforce diversity that advances racial and ethnic equity in health. Surely even their gods must be crazy. If you have systematically excluded voices of people and scholars experiencing inequities, if you have not allowed them to be lead authors or even accepted any paper they wrote, how then can you expect them to do the impossible as if they were gods. This is my musing for today, something I wrote as a verse below. Ooh and racial and ethnic minorities in academia cannot end racism we never started. Enjoy below.
Surely we can write, about racism, about its many forms, about the structures that perpetuate racism, about policies and practices too that are racist.
Surely we can write about how racism leads to segregation, leads to violence and incarceration, leads to inequitable access to health, leads to poor quality care, leads to color blindness, leads to systemic bias, and ultimately fails the people it serves. We can do all that with your call for papers. Or we could try truth-telling.
How might the same people, voices unheard of, voices ignored, voices suppressed, or voices excluded, end something they never started? The pernicious effects of racism are not for ignored or excluded voices to address, let alone remedy. All of that is your problem, not ours.
We know the effects of racism. We live it too. No calls for papers will end what we know about it. No selection of papers, peer-reviewed, commitment to anti-racism, will change this one fundamental fact, we are at a crossroads.
The tools we use with writing as we do scientifically are colonial.
Racism has seriously disturbed scientific writing for too long.
We will not survive using your colonial tools. This is after all the oppressors language. The master’s tool. We know this also.
But those of us committed to change will survive.
We will survive.
Not in methods, results or discussions. Not in margin of errors or regression models. Not in p-values or any rigorous statistical analysis.
We will change course and move on. We will drop what we can, forms and styles of writing we can, and continue our journey, our way.
This is our story too. We will write ourselves and the people we serve into history. Our way. With or without you. We don’t need representatives. We don’t even need papers. We will write our stories, write our histories, write our fears, write new frontiers, write until we become clear. Write until we change injustices. Our way.
We have tried to learn your ways. Tried to push back on the misrepresentation that so often defines the people we serve.
Today isn’t our morning.
We have been ready to take on this challenge. Ready to make concessions where we can. Public health critical race praxis is one fine example. Not even your exclusions have undermined what we know.
That even those presumed to have no voice, have voice. Those presumed to have no power, have that too.
And we are doing what is expected of us. Our way.
We know something better than your ways exist. We know the possibilities of light. We are also committed to proclaim like the universe once did. Let there be light.
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.
Imagine taking seven days to frame the entire world. The kind of patience it would take to ensure that the stars and the moon are in the right place. All sorts of fishes or sea monsters swim the oceans. Mountains and hills are perfectly framed with volcanoes ready to erupt as they please. Having such a patience with fine details would be sterling. Something that only the universe can accomplish on their own without any interruptions. Well I’m no universe and it’s taken me nine years to finally make sense of this dance I have been dancing with words. One that only fully came to reality in 1.5 years. So for close to 7-8 years, this dream that I had to simply write, was dormant. In fact, dead. Of course I wrote. But for others, not myself. Of course I will always write. But again for others, not myself. The dance with the mind, the communion between the writer and the reader is one that we must all guard at all cost. When I noted earlier that I was writing, truth is I was writing in the way others told me to write. I wrote in a manner that was pleasing for the scientific community. A style that required us to have sections that we called introductions or methods or results or discussions. Master this style and you have a career. I have made a career out of this style.
This year, I’m am 2 papers away in this style with earning my 100th paper. I discovered that just the other day as I finalized my performance review for last year. Many scholars would be thrilled to say that have 100 scientific papers, yet I felt truly sad for myself. Not that none of the work isn’t important but more so, because i have been dancing this scientific dance to the detriment of the minds I would rather serve. What I mean by this is that, in science, in science writing in particular, there is no communion with the average community. Of course, we dance with other researchers, many who themselves are prepared to dance like you. But honestly, I would rather that anything I write be in service of you. Anyone and not just researchers in the scientific community. I would rather that I dance with words for people who would never think to download any scientific paper but are curious about ways to stay healthy. It has taken a pandemic for me to get here. But now, I want my writing to be in service of humanity. I want to use words to change the world. It sounds like a dream and well, I am prepared to dream and work to make it come true.
When writers and readers manage to touch another’s mind through reading, the intimate, sustained surrender that is felt, without fear or interference, this dance of an open mind, fosters a particular kind of peace that requires vigilance. Securing that peace, the peace of a dancing mind, is our work. ‘There isn’t anybody else’ said Ms Toni Morrison in her little book ‘The Dancing Mind.’ I totally agree. She may be gone, but her words, are my source of inspiration. I hope to use this blog to help you experience your own mind dancing with my own. Securing this peace, the peace of the dancing mind, is now my life’s work. Rest In Peace Ms. Morrison. The dance continues…
I imagine when we meet. When our hearts and minds connect our steps will move to the rhythm of the beat. Our minds may wander. Your beauty is like thunder. The sound of cars beeping will bring us back to the reason for our meeting. If I must confess, you make me dream. You make me soar to high points through words that allow me to dream. Clouds maybe grey. Sunrise distant. But your brilliance, your ability to outshine grey clouds, is the reason life doesn’t frighten me at all. The reason I want to keep dancing with you. For these are unpredictable times and only our furious dancing will do.