Updated: Mar 2
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Today, I have a very special guest host on Intersectionality Matters, my friend, my shero, my muse, Dina Wright-Joseph. Now Dina, in addition to being an extraordinary talented dancer, and educator. Founding member of Purelements: An Evolution in Dance, and faculty at Ailey Fordham and Professional Performing Arts High School. She's also an artist in residence at AAPF and she's been an integral part of our arts and activism work. Most recently, and the topic of our conversation today, she directed AAPF's Young Scholars Program this summer.
It took place virtually over the course of six weeks this summer, and it was designed to confront what we have called the knowledge desert that exists relating to Black women and COVID.
We want it to center Black women as authorities of their own lived experience in this moment. And in the final days of the program, the young scholars sat down with Dina and with the Intersectionality Matters team to discuss the profound impact that these dual pandemics are having on their lives, in their communities, and in their goals for the future.
Joining us virtually from all around the country these extraordinary young women spoke candidly about mental health, about policing, about their thoughts on returning to campus this fall, and their experiences working together this summer. We're thrilled to bring part of that conversation to you today on Intersectionality Matters. And if you'd like to listen to the full conversation, you can find it at aapf.org.
So Dina, before we dive in, I thought it might be fun to reflect on our working together over the last five years and how we sort of transitioned into this particular moment. What drew you into AAPF?
Dina Wright-Joseph: Well, my introductions at AAPF was very swift.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: As many of these inductions have been over our history.
Dina Wright-Joseph: I committed to the summer camp before I really had a chance to be introduced to the mission of AAPF.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Now that summer camp, Breaking the Silence was an arts, activism, and healing summer camp for Black women and girls. And we ran it from 2015 to 2017.
Dina Wright-Joseph: Yes, but as soon as I joined the team at Vassar, initially the offer was to make sure participants were moving and energizing the participants throughout the day. When I met the women, all of the brilliant participants, they were from age 14 to 75, I was saying, well, number one, that's going to craft the way I'm going to create movement because our bodies move differently depending on where we are in our age range. But then also the activism piece was so important.
And I remember just sitting up the night before and being like, all right, now, what am I going to do? Because this is definitely not simply about the craft of dance. I had to make sure that I chose music and movement and a theme that brought the entire community together. So it completely changed the way that I worked from that moment on. And I actually took that structure and that frame and I've continued it with my younger students as well.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: And what is so brilliant about what you did was you chose themes, each of the three years that we did Breaking the Silence Summer Camp, that amplified the work that we were doing, that amplified where Black women were located in that particular moment in political history. And that, as you said, allowed all of us across our age ranges to participate. We started every morning with movement, followed with meditation and then breakfast. And you know what, it was a challenge too, because some folks are like, "Wait, I can't do anything without breakfast. I can't do anything before 10 o'clock in the morning." We're like, "You know it's summer camp, right?”
And then after summer camp, we continued to work together and did a few productions, including Harriet. So, that's another sort of adaptation, I guess, starting from the summer camp and moving to something more discreet, but also something that was explicitly telling and recovering stories about Harriet Tubman using dance and movement and drumming and spoken word to create an immersive experience, both for the participants and for the audience. Our first performance of that was in Washington, DC.
Dina Wright-Joseph: That was Washington DC, yeah. We were at the Smithsonian for the performance.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: We keep inventing and moving. So this summer presented another opportunity to invent something new. And of course when it comes to all things artivistically oriented, I have my go to people. And so we started thinking about what could be a way of providing a community in the face of these pandemics? How do we step into this space, given the fact that we are virtual?
So that of course became the moment that I called you up and said, "Dina, we want to do something. And we want it to be in the spirit of Breaking the Silence. We want it to be specifically empowering by addressing what is happening right now." So that was a big sort of, here, do something. So walk us through your approach to taking up this mantle and actually developing it into what is, clearly from what all the young women have been telling us, a beautiful experience.
Dina Wright-Joseph: Thank you for that. I can say walking into it was terrifying for me because I consider myself one of your get it girls, like Julia and some of your other team where you just give us the idea, we get it in terms of concept. We don't understand what we necessarily need to do. We get the resources and we get to work. That’s how I really approached this program.
And because our scholars, most of them didn't identify as artists, I had to make sure that I crafted it in a way and designed the program so that they felt comfortable being creative. And they didn't feel as if, oh, well, this is not for me because I really came here specifically to become a researcher under the African American Policy Forum. But, my initial conversation with the scholars was that, it's important to be a creative and it's important to find different ways to share information, especially with our community, because we respond well to storytelling.
We respond to information that comes in ways that we can feel, as opposed to just like analytical statistics, because that's how we experience. We experience this data day to day, but to be able to organize it and share it in a way that multiple audiences can understand, it was really very, very important. And for that, I just felt like we had to really tap into our creativity.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: What can you share with folks about what resonated with the young women, from the conversations that you had and why was it important to come together during COVID?
Dina Wright-Joseph: For one, as you know, you pick the top minds in terms of the young scholars who applied for the program. I mean, they are just like off the charts brilliant. So they all felt really confident in their academic achievement and their ability. But what I realized pretty quickly was that they had never really had community because a lot of our scholars, they come from urban environments a lot of times because they were academically advanced, they didn't find community in their schools. So then, when they were moved into gifted and talented programs or into different types of magnet schools, then they found that they were in predominantly white institutions and then they didn't feel community there. So most of them actually came into the program not even realizing that that's something they really needed.
So pretty quickly, I was able to see, like within the first week, that that was really the gem, that they really needed each other. And they needed a safe space where conversation started to shift from the way they usually presented themselves as intellectuals. So, I tried to create a schedule, that this was just as important, that they had each other.
Also, they were all in some interesting positions because they were all in undergrad, but they were living on campus. So for some, they had in their minds, they had graduated beyond living at home with their parents and started to create this life of independence. And then very quickly, very abruptly, they had to go back home. And their parents picked up from where they were before they moved out. So they felt that they had outgrown their living environment and they didn't really have a way to articulate the need to transition their relationships with their parents.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: And probably something happening across young people everywhere, right? And I think, if I'm not mistaken, we have a clip that actually speaks precisely to that.
This is Eryn and Mia speaking.
Mia: I've had a lot of friends personally who were not able to have or were not able to seek mental health resources either due to economics or maybe their parents didn't believe in it or maybe it was just not something that was discussed in the house. So until they got to college, they didn't have the resources, they didn't have the opportunity and then they got there and they started to pursue them. They started engaging in therapy and they started engaging in meditation and mindfulness. So it's interesting to think of the ways in which COVID has set some people back. Me personally, I feel like I was an adult when I was at college. And I felt so independent, that I had control of everything and coming back home was kind of hard because I no longer get to decide how the dishes are put in the dishwasher. I no longer get to decide what color is the walls are, or how I move throughout the house when I'm going in and out. I felt a lack of independence, and I feel like I'm taking a step back during this time.
So it's really important to think about the impact of the home on mental health and the fact that it has historical roots for Black people. During my time with you guys, I found through my research that the mental health stigma that the Black community has can be traced back to slavery. It was thought that enslaved people weren't sophisticated enough to develop mental illnesses and Black people were basically taught to ignore their mental health issues and refer to them as other names which were basically euphemisms, like just being stressed or just being tired.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Dina, what was a typical day in the program like?
Dina Wright-Joseph: We always started our first hour with what we called our check in. And that was really just anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour where each of the scholars, and they would even ask me, where were they, how were they feeling What were they needing? What bothered them or what made them happy. And then we started to actually show all of the snacks that we prepared. It was like, okay, I have my tea and I have my watermelon. So that became a part of the day where we started creating rituals to come together.
Then on our Mondays and Thursdays, we had sessions with Dr. Venus Evans-Winters. And she was our advisor who actually taught the scholars the actual nuts and bolts of becoming researchers.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: From the rituals, which sounds very much like the rituals that we wanted to establish when we were together physically, but then to the information sharing. So who were some of the people who came in and what were some of the things that the scholars were able to learn from the wonderful list of people that you had lined up?
Dina Wright-Joseph: We had Dr. Casey Britain. We had Dr. Myeisha Taylor, Dr. Arabia Mollette, Dr. Cindy Duke, Chaka Laguerre, who is the first Caribbean woman to become a clerk in the International Court, as well as Camille A. Brown, who is the Tony-winning, Emmy winning choreographer and a great friend of mine as well.
And then the scholars had a chance to listen to them, to talk with them. The speakers wanted to make sure that they spoke specifically to COVID, to the effects of Black women and girls and to education. So our Black physicians didn't only speak about their work on the front lines, but also what were their challenges of becoming Black girls who wanted to become a physician. So they were able to speak from so many different angles and they were able to just be very, very candid, which was really a real treat.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. So Dina, a lot of them actually had parents working in the healthcare industry, those who were on the front lines in hospitals and nursing homes when COVID first hit. So Haley, Starr, and Junia each spoke to this. So let's listen to what they have to say.
She has to come home and she has to stay away from her family. And she goes straight to the shower and she strips naked and gets... puts the clothes that she wore in a separate pile, and she has to...Even after the shower, even after she's perfectly clean, every time we're about to give her a kiss or a hug, she's like, "Stay out of my face." It's something that you're constantly reminded, where if your family doesn't have a frontline worker, it's not something that you're necessarily constantly reminded about. Not only is it the thought of, oh, you can't even hug your own mother now, it's something that is already a big enough weight on the family dynamic. But then you're also constantly reminded that your mom could be sick with COVID, which is deadly, and she could die. Constantly. Constantly, you're reminded. Anytime you want to give your mom a kiss goodnight, you're constantly reminded of this toll that it's taking on the family dynamic, and it's necessary. We need frontline workers, we need essential workers, and it's amazing what they do. These are the leaders, these are the world-changers, these are the people that we need in society that have such a big heart.
And so I look at my mom and I'm very proud of her. I obviously am nervous for her, but I don't think I've ever really thought, "Man, I wish she wasn't in the ER doctor," because her being an ER doctor is one of the many factors that make her her, and it's not something that I would want to change.
My mom also works in a healthcare facility on a case management team, and she was exposed to COVID during her first week back in the office. As a Black woman working during this pandemic, I think that the state health system made it pretty clear that productivity was their priority. So they're not necessarily concerned about the safety and health of their workers who are typically Black women. I think that many Black female healthcare workers are being treated as if they're disposable and no one necessarily cares about their wellbeing or their family's wellbeing.
I definitely agree with that, Starr, especially the idea of being disposable. I think sometimes too... Within the States, they're just not allocating resources to a lot of these healthcare facilities. They're just not getting support and support also meaning support for patients who do have it, as well as workers, but also just having emotional support and actually being able to help people mentally during this time because it is challenging when you're seeing patients or people that you've worked with going through it. So for my mom, for example, she's a nursing assistant and so she works at two different nursing homes.
And so she ended up working in a COVID wing. She really cares about her patients and a lot of her patients did end up getting sick. She was at one of the first places that contracted the most cases. She ended up testing positive within a week, but what was hard the most was her experience of course testing positive, but also before that, having her go to work every day and come back with another story of like here's what happened at work and I couldn't help this person the way I wanted to. I saw how much of a big impact it made on my mom and just the fact that there's no real support system. I mean there is at home, but she’s not really getting that outside.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Wow. So, insightful and so powerful at the same time. In our Under the Blacklight Series, we talked early on, about the contradiction that so many Black women found themselves in, that they were seen as, and framed as essential workers, which meant that they were expected to be at work, doing their jobs, but at the same time, that essential designation didn't mean that they were valued. In other words, they were also dealing with being disposable, so the tension between being essential and disposable, is something that we saw in the data, but listening to the Young Scholars, we are seeing them see that. We are seeing them confront that. What do you think it meant for them to be able to talk about this, share their reactions and their observations collectively?
Dina Wright-Joseph: I think it meant so much to them because, similar to what I said before, they really needed community. And they would often say that, even if they had a very difficult evening or difficult morning, they would always say, they look forward to coming together with their sisters. So for four and a half hours to five hours a day, they knew that I would be there, they knew that they would have an opportunity to speak about how they felt that day, that they would get responses from their sisters, and we would work collectively as a group.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: So Dina, in holding space for them, you yourself revealed something quite personal. You want to talk about that?
Dina Wright-Joseph: I witnessed COVID firsthand in some pretty brutal ways. My daughter is a young actor, and we were in California for about six months working on a television series. And as COVID was moving from the East over to the West in Europe, and then it was making its way to the United States, we were all kind of bracing ourselves. And eventually production and everything shut down, schools were closed, and we were flown quickly from California back to New York where we live. My goal was to just buckle down at home and my husband and I would do grocery shopping and we would just all eat together. And we live in a mother-daughter home, which is a two family home, with one entrance. My mom and brother lived upstairs, my family, my husband and children lived downstairs.
And when I got home, I saw my mom and my brother, we arrived on Monday. They look like themselves, everything was great. But by Tuesday, it was apparent that COVID had already taken place and had taken shape with them. And it was like, their health was just downhill from there. So by Saturday, I had to take my brother to the emergency room. I had to call the EMS actually, because I thought he'd had a stroke, because COVID affected him neurologically. And then by Sunday, the following day, I had to take my mom to the emergency room because she'd spiked a fever, and by this time, we were just learning about the acute symptoms of COVID and they were both showing them.
So, we had to take my mom to the emergency room and having them in separate hospitals meant I had to make calls constantly twice a day. And now family knows and they can't get to us. So it was my job to report to family every day. And of course, my anxiety built up in a way that I'd never experienced before, but unfortunately my mom did not make it. She was in the hospital for 10 days, but my brother did survive. He's well now. But he was in the hospital for four weeks and then he wasn't strong enough to come home, so then we had to move into a rehab facility, a nursing and rehab facility, for an additional three weeks.
Now, also, while this was happening, my husband and I also started showing COVID symptoms. So, trying our best not to panic our children, we just really tried to very calmly, take care of ourselves, take care of each other, isolate when fevers came up and luckily we were super health conscious, and we were doing the vitamin C everything that we learned about vitamin C, the vitamin D, oregano oil, we were doing that. We were only cooking food at home just to make sure absolutely no dairy. So we were just really leaning on keeping our diet very simple.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: All while you are grieving the loss of your mom, you are supporting your brother, you are being the source of information for the rest of the family, and you are also battling the disease yourselves.
Dina Wright-Joseph: Exactly. Exactly. So it was quite a time, from March to April.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Yeah. It was March, right? So you all went through this tragedy in the earliest weeks of it, when folks didn't know what to expect. There wasn't a strong sense of what was happening, not even really enough information fully about how to protect themselves. So in many ways, your family, is at the sort of, the definition of what could have been prevented, had more information been available earlier. If this had been taken more seriously, if people had realized that this is real and it's going to happen. It's not a flu, it's not a little bug, it is absolutely devastating if we don't really have the tools necessary to protect ourselves.
With your own experience then, holding this space for young women. First of all, I just want to thank you for being willing to hold space for them, given what you were dealing with yourself. So what is it that you think you modeled for these young wo