Apr 122012
 
“I ask how did I become this woman with razor blades between her teeth?  I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew I wanted to be somebody.” – Sister Sonia Sanchez; poet, activist and my teacher.  

I think of myself as an artist/activist, but owning that identity has definitely been a journey towards standing in our power. I say OUR power because the journey has included my understanding that there is a radical feminist tradition that has paved the way for me to even have the privilege to say that. And to layer that, I consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to be in sistership with a myriad of women of color – women who have taught me a great deal about myself and what it means to stand in my power.I am the child of parents who emigrated from Haiti.  Growing up, I was fortunate that they kept me tightly rooted in Haitian culture – not an easy thing to do in New York City, a place where culture is routinely commodified. I call it riding two cultures; navigating being American with one’s ancestral identity. I was also raised in a tradition of service.  Whether it was in church or girl scouts, it was understood that giving back to and being engaged with the community was extremely important. After college, I went to study social work. Ingrained in me was the notion that I could not make a living as an artist and that I needed a “real job.”  Unknowingly, I stepped into a world that taught me about social justice, organizing, power and oppression. This was where I began to be politicized in a way I hadn’t even known I’d needed.

Despite my love for this work, my artist self yearned to grow…yearned to create. Since I couldn’t quiet that voice, the only thing to do was to surrender to it. I knew I wanted to be an artist and an activist but I didn’t know how to bring the two together until I met a group of young people who were actually using art as a tool for activism. All of a sudden, a light bulb went off for me. This was my calling. It was thrilling to be out organizing for things we felt passionate about, things that were affecting our communities.  We were using our art to illuminate social justice issues. Being in camaraderie with a group of people – especially women – who were young, strong and shared my values and passion for seeing change in the world was life changing.  We weren’t afraid to speak and collectively and we moved agendas forward.  It was with them that I found my voice.

Angela Davis said, “A woman of color formation might decide to work around immigration issues. This political commitment is not based on the specific histories of racialized communities or its constituent members, but rather constructs an agenda agreed upon by all who are a part of it. In my opinion, the most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity – basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity.” This was exactly how we operated. We were a collective of women of color – from all different ethnicities – organizing around common cause, using art as our weapon.  Never in my life had I been part of such a movement, but it created a bond and understanding that was different than any other relationship I had. Our diversity is actually what strengthened our common struggle.  We learned to work and struggle together as well as live as extended family.  This relationship would prove to be the strongest during very difficult times.

When I first started down this path of art and activism, I put everything I had into it. I devoted all my energy towards making change in solidarity with others.  In the process, I completely neglected myself. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, I poured everything into the work and the struggle.  And after a while, I just burnt out. That wasn’t the worst part of it.  I felt guilty about being burnt out. I felt that if I didn’t perpetually give more, I was failing.  The saving grace in all of this? I was surrounded by this group of sisters – sassy sisters – who were going through the same exact thing. I was organizing for everyone and everything else except me. There was no particular moment of revelation. It was a constant radiating and shining light of sisterhood that brought me to the realization that if I didn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t take care of anyone else.

Grace Lee Boggs talked about the fact that “we have to reimagine revolution and think not only about the change in our institutions but also the changes we have to make within ourselves.”  That’s what I needed to do. I took up a revolution within myself. I allowed myself to heal. I allowed myself to enjoy life. I made a really radical change and moved across the country. I changed my eating habits. I found a spiritual home. I began to intentionally separate work from personal time.  And I recommitted myself to my art and my artistic practice.  All this has brought an inner sense of peace, energy and clarity to me personally and to my work. To me, standing in my power means, as Grace Lee Boggs so elegantly stated, “the need to grow our souls.”  The need to look within, cultivate our inner selves and let that reflect outwardly. To understand that we have everything we need right here, right now.  We have to nurture that, care for it, cultivate it.  Stretch. Grow. Heal. Love. Embrace. Support. Standing in our power means taking that enormous creative force and using it to manifest the change we want to see, together.

I think about how blessed I am to have the sisters in my life that I do.  Really, they are quite amazing. I reflect on how grateful we all are to be surrounded by the elders in our life who have guided us thus far. It is an incredible honor to follow them. We do not take this lightly.  To honor their legacy, we have to forge new roads and remember there are women behind us looking to us now for guidance.  My role as a teacher continues to be an essential part of my being. In my students, and in my sisters’ children, I see a continuum of the work we do for justice. I see the potential for greatness and I look forward to the day when they too can stand in their power.

Ella Turenne, SiOP Network Member, is an artist, activist and educator. She is currently Assistant Dean for Community Engagement at Occidental College in Los Angeles.  She holds an MSW from the Boston University School of Social Work with a concentration in macro social work and a focus on community organizing, program development and fundraising.  She also has done close to a decade’s worth of work around incarceration issues.  Ella’s work in prisons began with the Blackout Arts Collective, a grassroots organization whose mission is to empower communities of color through arts, education and activism. With Blackout, Ella participated in Lyrics on Lockdown, a national tour where she performed and facilitated workshops educating communities about the prison-industrial complex. She then went on to teach a course at New York university, also titled Lyrics on Lockdown, in which college students facilitated arts workshops with incarcerated high school students at Riker’s Island.  She has since been very involved with prison arts and prison education. She is currently working on a book focused on African Americans, art and incarceration.

 

Ella is also an artist who has been published in various anthologies including Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak OutCheck the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees (nominated for a 2007 NAACP Image Award) and Woman’s Work: The Short Stories and her own edited volume of poetry and visual art on the Haitian Revolution.  In response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, Ella co-edited a volume of poetry on Haiti calledFor the Crowns of Your Heads; the funds raised were used to rebuild a library that was destroyed in Port-au-Prince.  As a filmmaker, her work has been an official selection of various national film festivals including the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Montreal International Haitian Film Festival where her short film woodshed was nominated for Best Short Film.  Ella is co-founder of SistaPAC Productions, an entertainment production company working in film, television, theatre and interactive media highlighting the stories of women of color.

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