“I think the inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
– James Baldwin
I never saw being different as a bad thing until my mother and I moved to the projects on the West Side of Savannah, GA when I was 6. There, I suffered through significant physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my peers for over 5 years. And I never told anyone, not even my mother. At that time, I didn’t have the words for it, but I realized that many kids, especially boys and young men of color, had similar scars but never had space or felt it was okay to talk about it. So no one did. Instead, we just grit our teeth and tried to bear it, hoping for the best. Even when it harmed us, caused us to harm others, or resulted in us harming ourselves. And for those who survived, mental health challenges, including compound trauma as a result of living in PTSE (Post Traumatic Stress Environments) made us all believe we were broken and our brokenness was our fault.
After being away for 10 years due to college (Northwestern Univesrity) and working training mentors for NYC youth (iMentor), transforming university culture and leadership development (NYU Stern), and creative consulting for some of the largest school districts in the country (TNTP), I moved back to hometown, Savannah, Georgia, in 2015. Around that time, I stumbled across data from a research study that confirmed a reality I felt I had known and watched since childhood: according to researchers at Indiana University (Wong Y. Joel et al 2016), men were/are buckling under pressures of traditional norms of masculinity with increased chances of mental health issues, but few seek help, resulting in increased violence against others and themselves. The result: Men are four times more likely to successfully commit suicide (APA, 2015), 90% related to mental health issues (NAMI.org) and violence against bodies of difference, especially women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community continue to rise to unbelievable heights.
Around that time, I also began to wonder if there was an impact I could make. I didn’t have any answers, but I had a knack for asking the right questions. So, I created The Pillow Talk Project, a blog and social movement dedicated to sharing the vulnerable stories of men–and their communities–to redefine masculinity and rediscover the healing of everyday intimate conversations as activism, since then publishing over 250 stories and articles representing interviews of men from 65+ cities and 25 states, including launching two national marketing campaigns #WeSmileToo and #WhenMenDance. Within Savannah community, I spearheaded the expansion of arts, social justice, and youth leadership programs, serving nearly 1,000 youth and their families annually (Deep Center).
Over the past six years, I’ve worked hard to redefine masculinity (Founder, The Pillow Talk Project), develop the “Healing Literacy Rainbow Framework,” (M.S. in Educational Psychology at UW-Madison), and continue to create compelling stories about masculinity, intimacy, hope and healing (M.F.A., St. Francis College), while even producing across mediums and industries (Author, Pritty: The Novel, and Executive Producer, Pritty the Animation). And now, I’m preparing to start a new journey, centered in the lessons I’ve learned but, more than anything, the questions that still keep me up at night.
History is asking us, how we will respond in the face of all that hurts, divides, oppresses, and changes us–for better or worse. My answer: heal by any means, period.
Ultimately, if I’ve learned anything the past 10+ years of running programs, initiatives, and conducting research, it is that we are all trying to heal from something. That is a fact. And our ability to heal is directly correlated with what we see as possible. With this in mind, I created Healing By Any Means, LLC (HBAM) charged with powering people, projects, and research at the heart of systems and narrative change, using arts, media, and healing centered practices and pedagogy.
Three guiding questions push possible–and us–forward:
1) What toxic narratives harm us and our communities?
2) How do we redefine our relationship to trauma and begin healing?
3) How can we–and the systems we create/inhabit/dismantle–prioritize and invest in our healing?
Although I’m armed only with questions, I’m reminded of a James Baldwin quote that’s stuck with me for some years now, that in some capacity seems to be at the heart of all of my healing-centered work:
“I think that the inability to love is the central problem, because that inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive.”
Now more than ever, I believe history is asking us, if we’re daring enough to be alive. And if we are alive, are we brave enough to live. And if we are brave enough to live, how will we respond in the face of all that hurts, divides, oppresses, and changes us–for better or worse. My answer: heal by any means. I hope that, after reading this, you choose action, whether it be joining a compelling project we are designing, putting your skills to use on cutting-edge research we’re conducting, or supporting the people we’re spotlighting. Because the first step to living, I believe, is a commitment to healing, growing, and thriving, and, in doing so, showing everyone else how to do the same.