People with Passion
June 14, 2011
In November of 2010, Shanesha Brooks-Tatum phoned fellow University of Michigan graduate school alum Carrie Sawyer with an idea about a wellness conference for Black women. Eight months later, Brooks-Tatum and Sawyer are co-chairing the First Annual National Black Women’s Life Balance and Wellness Conference, scheduled for July 15-17 in Atlanta, Georgia. In this discussion with Jack M Silverstein, Sawyer details how the conference will expand the definition of “wellness” for its attendees, her vision for the strong Black woman, and why she is excited about next month’s event.
The idea of wellness is something that is really interesting to me, but I never thought about it as a holistic thing. I thought about it like ‘exercising’ and ‘mental health’ and ‘emotional health.’ But this conference brings together all the different aspects of wellness. A lot of people don’t think about wellness in a holistic sense. They think about it as “I’m not sick.” So this conference is bringing together all the different elements of the human being, and the human psyche. We’re getting touchy-feely, but we’re also being really academic, pulling all that stuff together to understand more about wellness. What we know, and more importantly, what we don’t know.
Describe for me what exactly it means when you say “holistic.” Because what you were describing was exercising and eating well, and those sound like the elements of wellness. But what you’re saying is that it’s beyond that. It’s something holistic…
Exercise and eating, those are the obvious things. But when you think about your health, you don’t think about your mental health necessarily. Most people think that mentally, they’re fine. But what do you do to make sure your mental health is on point? What do you learn about mental health to even have any concept of what that really means? Spiritual health is another thing. People think of themselves as spiritual or not, or religious or not, but if you consider yourself to be spiritual, how do you know that you’re healthy in your spiritual practices? So holistically, all the different parts of us: our mind and our body and our spirit. We don’t really take the time to combine all of those things into one kind of learning environment and really understand how they play off each other and intermix. That’s what this conference is going to help people do.
The conference is centered around our keynote speaker Dr. Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, and her book Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman is about understanding the myth of the Strong Black Woman. When Shanesha met this lady and read this book, she was inspired. And being in Atlanta, one of the epicenters of black culture, and being super-rooted in black academics and black history and specifically black femininity and literature – Shanesha – this is her area of passion. It was a natural pairing for her to want to do wellness for the community that she is serving and that she’s super ingrained in. I’m not an academic, but I am a black woman, so it was a nice balance – I’m bringing the professional perspective. We’re both trying to bring different elements into this to make a really balanced experience for our conference attendees.
You’ve looked over all of the proposals of all the presentations, and I’m sure that they’re all great. But which ones are you most excited about seeing?
One that I am super interested in seeing is a panel on how to do social justice within your community. This is something that I’ve never done, never really read up on, never had any experience with. I don’t think that people often think of themselves as ‘activists,’ and I think that this panel is really going to expand the definition, and how you can be an activist in a smaller way, but still really have a big impact.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
No I don’t, not at all. But I bet that after seeing this panel and listening to these women present different ideas of activism and different things that I do, I might consider myself an activist after getting an expanded definition of what it is. Like what I was speaking to about ‘wellness.’ Our definition of wellness and health is so limited, we’re trying to expand that, taking one of the smaller ideas and blowing out that definition so that people really understand what it is, and are participating in these different ideas of wellness on different levels.
It’s really encouraging and inspiring to see the interest in the idea of wellness for black women. All of these women have submitted proposals. We had to turn people down. We have over 20 presentations, and seeing their enthusiasm gets everyone on the conference committee even more excited about the impact we’re going to make.
I think the other part that really excites me is everyone getting together and having this miniature community of people from all over the country who have all of these different ideas. I really like the idea of everyone getting together and sharing this information that we don’t have, and when we leave, we will have it. We’ll all be bigger and greater and take a lot of it out into our lives, into our jobs, into our communities, into our social spheres. It’s something that even in a small way will go viral. It will start in this little pocket in this little library at the University Center in Atlanta, and then it’s going to spread to the corners of the U.S. To our families, to our loved ones – no one’s going to leave untouched. We’re going to have an impact on the world, ultimately, but definitely on our community’s sense of wellness. And hopefully people will take that and continue to grow it and apply it and expand it within their lives.