Healing Through Community Connection and Creativity

A Personal Journey to Joy and Community

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I never was somebody who was welcomed into any group. The same old looks and bad vibes choking me in the room like second-hand smoking – I’m not welcome. Over the years, I lost hope of being seen as a person when I walked into a room full of people. I stopped trying to reach out unless they came to me first and showed curiosity.

I knew that changing my habits would invite change in my life in return. It had to be done.

I experienced Healing While Black 2023 last month after Dr. Ladonna Butler invited me to this 4-day event in St. Petersburg. Little did she know that her invitation was putting me on a path of regaining a piece of my soul, and hope. To this day, thinking about her makes me smile and feel grateful she asked — so grateful for these memories that will forever stay with me wherever I go.

Healing While Black participants at The Studio@620

I remember being so nervous on Day 1. I wore my best for Poetic Joy at Studio@620, and it felt so nice to do it after giving up so much time for my academic goals. I felt confident again and ready to see new people and experience something I’ve never had a chance to before.

I was enamored by the saxophone that surrounded my soul as I entered the building.

Miss Tamika shared libations from her popular gathering place in the historic Deuces neighborhood

After claiming my Joy Pass lanyard and checking into the event, I was surprised there were two booths offering mental wellness resources, and overjoyed for its accessibility at such a busy gathering.

Cresenda Jones and Nizammah Ward shared their therapeutic work focused on self-love and spirituality

I quickly went to talk to the hosts of those booths. Miss Cresenda Jones and Miss Nizammah Ward were a pleasure to meet. They allowed me to take a look at their therapeutic work focused on self-love and spirituality. Miss Jones shared her book Spiritual Transformation – Emotional Intelligence and Freedom after giving a testimony to my professor, Dr. Gary Lemons’ book and classroom lessons as a student of his at USF.

Miss Ward also gave me a quick overview of her work – self-care including words of affirmation and activity prompts, and coloring pages to help with anxiety.

Visual artwork by Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

My eyes became fixated on the screens placed on a platform. These Afrofuturism pieces truly captivated me by their compositions, made by USF professors Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman. They were fantastic and made me very curious.

I got to meet the artists on Saturday at The Well to discuss A.I. Art – keep reading to get to that story!

Artwork by Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

The voice of Dr. Butler echoed through the building to call guests into the staging area, where seats were provided for all. Taking me aback, I was able to meet Miss Barbara St. Clair, the CEO of Creative Pinellas herself, at this revolutionary event.

The poets, saxophonist, and DJ were quickly introduced after a few opening thanks to the sponsors, especially to Studio@620, As She Speaks and Creative Pinellas. Charlie G performed a number of covers – SWV’s “Weak” was my favorite because everyone was singing together.

Words that spoke of years of pain and rejection, the power of transformation by overcoming insecurities and trauma with self-love and joy all came from these artists.

Some spoke of their culture’s connection to the spirit of nature. Others told a story of seeing their own flaws as beautiful and part of their self-healing journeys. And some conveyed echoes of the past that try to destroy their identity as an African American with lies and hostility, but see that as evidence of their ancestors’ endurance and strength – not ever giving up.

This was a stance to celebrate each other as a whole, with each of our stories molding us into who we are in the past, today and in the future. That is the meaning of joy.

These poets have a lot to say, and as Beautiful Disaster said, “All childhood memories of struggles . . . made happy-ending stories wishing for joy.”

The event ended with the words of Mayor Kenneth T. Welch who was unexpected at the event, giving thanks to everyone’s presence and dedication, and inviting everyone to the next morning and afternoon’s event at Eckerd College.

Closing the Poetic Joy event, Dr. LaDonna reminded everyone, “We are the well that brings resource, nutrients and living life. Joy is a strategy and living support [that] works for everybody.”

On Friday, I attended Experience Noire, an all-black dress party with extravagance for the mind and soul. My black dress and leopard faux-coat, on top of being greeted at the entrance, made me feel like a VIP – truly a new experience I’ve never had before.

Tone I.E. performing at Experience Noire

This was a night of dancing, musical talents of instruments and voices, and mingling with absolutely beautiful people. This party was especially meaningful to me. Another reason why I say this is because Dr. Butler allowed an older lady to come join. This lady was curious about what was going on, and heard the music. Dr. LaDonna shared that this woman wanted to feel the joy after her son’s suicide, which made all of us moved.

As far as I know, this is the only kind of event that would try and give blessings to strangers who are struggling. Thank you Dr. LaDonna for being so open-hearted to the broken-hearted.

Sierra Amora

I met art and music curator Jai Price’s grandmother Helen, and Miss Regina-Marie, who were my favorite mothers at this party. I gave Miss Helen a piece of my culture. I asked for her hand and placed the back of it on my forehead – a greeting for elders in the Philippines as a sign of honor and respect. We all connected as if we always knew each other after breaking the ice. We laughed and shared our lives, and prayed together – said our I Love You’s after the entertainment and poetry.

DJ Donnie Luv

DJ Donnie Luv played an awesome curated ambience for this event. Remixes of Erykah Badu’s song “On & On” and “September” by Earth Wind & Fire really set the tone for me. The afrobeat-styled mixes brought something new and fresh to these songs that I’m a fan of. I want to say I appreciate her DJ work!

My favorite poet of the night was Dennis Amadeus because of his raw story about his relationship with his father – one that is similar to mine. Dennis spoke the words I’ve repeated myself since 2013 of my dad’s passing – “My father and I are the only two people I can’t seem to forgive.”

I had to humanize my own father and accept we did have things in common. I am his daughter, after all. But like Dennis, I am free of the cycle of self-doubt and self-hatred. It was a good reminder that we are here as healed survivors who are growing beyond our suffering. We are in fact victors of a tragic story, and there’s nothing more powerful than a person who has overcome that much pain. I went to thank him personally for his poem.

A shout out to all of the female singers – you guys are PHENOMENAL. I really want people to come see your performances. You all inspire me to keep on improving my singing skills, too! And you are all so beautiful. I say that with all of my heart!

Everything and everyone filled me with overwhelming joy, the kind of joy that keeps my whole body energetic, awake and alive. Imagine comparing that to how I used to be treated. It’s a gift given to me without asking, and I can’t be more grateful for these experiences.

Photographer Joy Haugabook showing her work to Healing While Black participants at the James Museum

On Saturday at the James Museum, I met Joy Haugabook and asked a few questions about her photography and her own story. She shared her struggles with ADHD and loss, depression and anxiety. I let her know I believe in her winning against the pain. I think her photography is beautiful.

Her photographs represent moments in her life that brought a familiar name to her – Joy.

Photography by Joy Haugabook at the James Museum

I then went to the large room at the museum for an afterparty with everybody, including Joy herself. You guessed it, more dancing! A great way to exercise and just have some laughs with everyone around.

I really wanted to capture the fun everyone was having, because it made me happy – the most beautiful moments. Halfway through the party, I helped Dr. Butler with cleanup as a way to show her how much I appreciate what she is doing for every single person at these events. She and I even boogied-down while we did it. Try doing that in heels like we did, haha.

McArthur Freeman and Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman

Later on, I went to the office of The Well to meet Dr. Elizabeth and Dr. McArthur on the accessibility of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) Art, and the opportunity it brings to minority groups and the Black Community for creative production and positive reinforcement.

By Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

Particularly, we spoke about contemporary things that have tried to do this shift, such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid with Halle Bailey playing Ariel. They admit it’s not exactly enough to support the image of Black folks, because originality is the key to captivating new curiosity. That’s why Dr. Elizabeth combined her love for the botanicals with Dr. McArthur’s love for fantasy, the ominous and the strange. Their visual artwork hanging in the office reflects their creative mix.

By Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

They asked everyone which of the visual artworks they particularly found important. I asked to go first, and walked to each of the pieces to examine them carefully. While each of them was, especially the women (personally), I chose the family piece.

By Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

Dr. McArthur asked me why. I told him, “Well, I think this is the most important part of life, but specifically for the Black Community. This is the pinnacle of generational preservation, sustainability, strength and love. The family unit is top priority.”

I’m glad I hit it on the nail. With how the world has been, children’s mental health in a crisis, and the quality of home living, it was important to point out that having a healthy family unit must be something to pursue. We opened up the ethics of A.I. Art because of its accessibility and ability to mimic imagery, since my biggest focus was on protecting children and other artists’ work from being exploited.

By Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman and Dr. McArthur Freeman

Dr. McArthur and Dr. Elizabeth spoke about how difficult it is to achieve a high-quality picture of something you want. They emphasized the importance of having a strong and broad vocabulary, and a creative way of describing things to the A.I. service. I tried it myself with simple things, and it would never give me something I would envision. Everyone had questions.

The Joy Tree at The Well

After the session, there were a few activities outside happening. Some were biking, some were having a drink and meal at The Catalyst, and some were having outdoor fun at the park across from the office. We made some colored-bubble art and it was so much fun!

The sidewalk chalk art and Joy Tree were deeply beloved. The tree had a hidden nest within it, which symbolized to me that joy will keep on multiplying within us even if we won’t notice.

Shoutout to the DJ for that day too! I loved the ’90s songs he put on the playlist!

Sunday was the final day of this wonderful journey. I arrived at Flora Wylie Park to meet Miss Regina Fields to tap into our child-spirit for Morning Mindfulness. This meditative state by the ocean and on the grass at 6:30 am was a phenomenal experience, and encourages me to make this more of a routine to bring inner peace. My child-self needs to be visited more often.

That morning was another affirmation – we were blessed with wild tropical birds who came to visit. I’d never seen these beautiful creatures who gave me more to smile about.

The final event, the Gospel Brunch brought me to tears. We all sang to nourish our souls and then nourished our bodies with delicious food. We reminded ourselves that even though we are healing, in Dr. Butler’s words, “Even in joy, we should be able to express we need help.”

I know this for a fact because the work of healing is not done yet. We must care for our neighbors, whose stories we have no clue about or what they go through. We must care for our communities – our brothers and sisters in humanity who need someone to love them and keep them in mind.

All of us have been keeping the darkness of our past and our trauma, to avoid the pain, when all we needed was help and a friend to listen to us. We must strive to be that friend and neighbor that loves and cherishes people we meet.

LaDonna Butler – photo courtesy of The Well

I want to personally thank Dr. LaDonna Butler again for these amazing days, and to all of the people she invited and is personally connected with. All of us brought joy to each other, and that’s really what was missing in my life.

Dr. Butler, you inspire me. You are someone I look up to and wish all the happiness and success to stay close to your heart, and to your loved ones.

And thank you to the Black Community for giving me so much grace and kindness that was missing in my life. I love you all, and I will never forget any of you. I will always keep these photos and videos to remind me that you are a part of my family – forever and always.
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