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Feature: 2021 Enterprising Women

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published March 16, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here

Alane Freund has always noticed injustice. Equipped with her intersecting identities as a nonbinary lesbian and highly sensitive person—which she sees as her superpower—Freund uses her psychotherapy practice to teach young people how to be themselves and be powerful.

Freund grew up in a conservative community in Oklahoma, but she says her mother was a confident, influential role model who encouraged her to become an activist. Many women in her family also identified as lesbian, so she felt comfortable with and close to the queer community. This combination led her to activism, like joining ACT UP in the 1980s to provide AIDS education to others.

Alane Freund
Alane Freund

For 35 years, Freund has advocated for LGBTQ people and young people struggling with their highly sensitive emotions. Freund says her psychotherapy practice, which includes equine therapy, is activism in itself.

“Every moment has been driven by youth, especially in this era,” Freund says. “The drive to change their identity and the identity of the world—that’s beautiful. We need to give them space to do that.”

In fact, Freund says that talking to young patients who were questioning their gender helped her understand her own identity as nonbinary.

Freund’s goal as an enterprising woman is simple: “I want to show people how their insides and their outsides can match.”

An Interview with Leeya Mehta

The poet/columnist talks community, multiculturalism, and feeling terribly possessive of her desk.

By Nyah Hardmon

This article was first published March 16, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here

Award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist Leeya Mehta writes because she’d “die otherwise.” In her work, Mehta — who is also a columnist for the Independent — confronts her heritage head-on, showcasing a distinct pride in where she comes from and how that upbringing affects where she is going. She does so most recently in her new poetry collection, A Story of the World Before the Fence.

In A Story of the World Before the Fence, you journey from Persia to India all the way to DC. Do you find that your work is influenced by international cultures?

Yes. I come from this community of [Zoroastrian] Persian immigrants. Most Parsis came to India over a thousand years [ago], but my father’s side is third-generation Iranian. Living in India, you’re at the crossroads of so many civilizations; you’ve had multiple colonial masters, and they’re integrated into our culture. So growing up there and coming to America in my twenties, having gone to England for my education and living in Japan and then spending the better part of the 2000s in Washington, which is a big international city, there is no one home, but then at the same time, we have to create the sense of home.

In this collection, you discuss that sense of unbelonging, but then you use relatability to make audiences feel like they do belong right here in the text. Talk to me about that paradox.

For many, there’s this sense of “Where is home?” I remember growing up with a family that I was very close to, and the man was the first chief of police for India after Independence. He was posted everywhere around India, and my grandfather, who was his friend, was posted everywhere. They were all “company men,” or people who were always moving, and there was a sense of “Where is home?” Home is where you were born, to some degree, but at the end of the day, human beings have always migrated. I’ve come to embrace the reality this family shared, that “Home is where I am.” A lot of my poetry is rejecting that idea of belonging that’s nihilistic [in favor of] a belonging that’s more inspirational. The idea of sanctuary, of potential.

Because your writing takes readers on transcontinental journeys, do you find any trouble in embracing your own culture without being boxed into the “international” genre?

I haven’t so far. Having multiple identities is so useful since I come from such a small community. I’m culturally from a community of 80,000 people, and so it’s like a little tribe. There’s so much specific humor and culture that I think people are drawn to. I don’t find it very limiting given I write fiction, short stories, poetry, and I do a column [for the Independent] called “The Company We Keep.” I have this really great opportunity to explore a variety of places and people. It’s really very liberating.

You dive heavily into ancestral trauma and how it travels to future generations.

My poetry tends to refer back to historical events a great deal, but my fiction is where I really carry the intergenerational trauma. My novel Extinction is about four generations of women from India who pass this intergenerational trauma to each other. The idea of Extinction is how do we stop it, how do we end it, how do we get past it, and that’s what the title signifies.

I notice you play with different styles, jumping from this somber, serious tone to lighthearted humor. Do you mix elements of different genres into your work?

Thank you for saying that. I love it when someone says they notice some lightheartedness or humor. I was actually deliberating how to be both somber and humorous at the same time. My genres tend to be quite separate from each other. The fiction is very different from the poetry. The only time that they do tend to overlap is when I write certain poems where the prose and the poetry work really well.

Talk to me more about your creative process.

I have a playlist for each book, and sometimes I’ll listen to one when I’m doing another. I don’t have a space of my own, really, except my desk. So I’m terribly possessive of my desk. Ideally, I work six hours a day. I have specific music. I tend to only read for my book, and I read for my column. It’s very difficult for me to add in other reading because to stay pure to the voice of the novel — in different directions, especially when you’re writing a novel over 10 years — it’s difficult to step out of it and go off.

Has your writing been affected by the pandemic?

Definitely. Very much affected. The nice thing is that I’m enjoying doing more podcast-style interviews on Zoom of other writers. Especially before the 2020 election, there was this sense that we had a community depression from the last four years, and then [again] with covid, and I suffered from all of that just as much as everyone else. It deeply impacted my ability to write. At the same time, I have been writing 80,000 words of a new novel, so I’m sure that I’m actually writing but I don’t feel like I’m writing. There’s this sense of disconnect with the outside world, but I am very grateful to have writing as my profession right now. I feel like it’s a big blessing.

Besides Extinction, do you have any other projects on the horizon?

I’m focusing all my attention on Extinction because I’m trying to get it ready to send out to publishers this year. And then the next novel is a romance novel that’s set [against] the backdrop of a very big riot. So those are the big projects, but I have so many projects. The next three years are going to be very exciting.

Despite financial hardship, Joy of Motion Dance Center marches forward with new board of directors

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published March 2, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Summer 2020 ignited change for the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a DC-based nonprofit. Financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of two of the center’s studios. The organization’s reckoning with racist experiences faced by staff and dancers of color led to an overhaul of Joy of Motion’s board of directors last fall.

A change.org petition with almost 5,000 signatures called for leadership changes at Joy of Motion. Started in June, the petition cited multiple instances in which leaders had allegedly body-shamed dancers and unfairly discriminated against Black instructors. The previous board of directors stepped down on Oct. 16.

Carol Foster is now chair of Joy of Motion’s board of directors and the first Black woman to hold the position. Foster has also worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She currently serves on the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, which organizes events that mostly take place at the center’s REACH campus.

“People have to trust that there is change afoot at Joy of Motion,” Foster said in an interview with The DC Line. “It’s really critical right now for Joy of Motion, because of the pandemic, because of all of the racial issues that came out, that … you have to be accountable through action.”

Foster said she wasn’t surprised to see the petition or the incidents cited in it, and she doesn’t believe anyone in the Black community at Joy of Motion was surprised by it either. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests of the killing of Black people by police officers following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were a catalyst for the petition, Foster said.

“What Black Lives Matter did was give [Black] people a way to be comfortable to say what’s on our mind. People need to be called out,” Foster said.

Krystal Odom, who has worked at Joy of Motion for 15 years, is the organization’s new interim executive director. She is the first Black woman in the position.

Odom said the petition was “necessary” for the organization to improve. Odom has taught ballet and hip-hop with Joy of Motion Dance Center, and she wants to include more instruction in dance history in the group’s classes and programming. After having eliminated two locations, Joy of Motion continues to operate a partner studio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as it has since 2005. Joy of Motion’s virtual programming for youth and adults includes drop-in classes, multi-week courses and on-demand recordings. The organization will be scheduling events such as webinars, film screenings and guest artist classes, and it recently held a busy slate of President’s Day Weekend workshops

“It’s important for students who come into our virtual space, our physical space to relearn where dance styles originate from. … It helps them to be able to look at [other dancers] in ways they didn’t before,” Odom said.

Since taking over, the new leadership at Joy of Motion has done anti-racism professional development training and created procedures for faculty, staff and students to report “concerns regarding equity, discrimination, and safety,” according to a press release from the organization. Concerns will be addressed using a “restorative justice” model, the press release said.

Odom said conversations about anti-racism, discrimination and privilege hadn’t taken place in the past at Joy of Motion. She’s hopeful that these continuing, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions will improve leadership and studio practices.

Coinciding with the leadership shakeup, Joy of Motion also announced the closure of two of its three centers. 

The Friendship Heights studio and theater, which had been open for more than 30 years at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, closed in September after the landlord decided not to renew the organization’s lease, Foster said. Odom added that Joy of Motion had experienced a difficult relationship with its landlord in recent years.

The Bethesda studio space at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. closed at the end of November due to financial constraints.

Odom said that the demise of these studios will unfortunately distance the organization from many of its participants. The Friendship Heights studio served Joy of Motion’s largest adult population, while the Bethesda studio hosted three conservatory-style programs for youth dancers.

With only one open studio and pandemic restrictions on in-person classes still in place, Joy of Motion now serves — virtually for now — about 113 students weekly, compared to over 1,200 students before the pandemic began, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The pandemic has hit small businesses and nonprofits particularly hard, Foster said. Joy of Motion has received financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But the racial issues at Joy of Motion and the financial strain of the pandemic have negatively impacted donations, she added.

“No matter what, you try to keep your doors open,” Foster said. 

In a Dec. 1 post on the Joy of Motion website, the organization reported that “tuition from enrollment, grants, and individual donations have significantly decreased leaving a monthly shortfall of approximately $100,000.” Joy of Motion received only about $500 in individual contributions in September, October and November. The organization didn’t respond to requests for an update about how fundraising has gone since then, but a mid-December appeal on Joy of Motion’s Facebook page said that despite reduced expenditures “our organization is still in desperate need of an infusion of financial support in order to maintain operations.”

It hasn’t been easy making so many changes under such financially stressed, racially charged and socially distanced circumstances, both Odom and Foster said. But the organization is eager to keep rebuilding while incorporating conscious changes that better the community and ensure that “dance is for everyone,” Foster said.

“We don’t want to dwell on what has happened,” Odom said, “but we don’t want to forget.”

LGBTQ Black History: Black Transgender Activist Elle Hearns

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 25, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Elle Hearns has been an activist ever since she was growing up in Columbus, OH. She credits her inspiration from Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Marsha P. Johnson, though she is inspiring all on her own.

Hearns is currently the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which she founded in 2015 and has quickly become a leading organization fighting for an end to violence against Black transgender people through civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing.

She was also a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. She also led a GetEQUAL campaign for Tamir Rice, a Black child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. She advocated for a revised case for Rice and called for the immediate firing of the officers involved.

During the 2020 summer protests for Black Lives Matter, Hearns was vocal about protecting those who intersect with Black and transgender identities, especially after Tony McDade, who was Black and transgender, was killed by police in Tallahassee, FL. In interviews, she called for abolishing the police as the way to abolish anti-Blackness and transphobia.

Under Hearns’ leadership in 2020, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was able to give over 400 Black transgender people in America stipends, totaling over $250,000, for COVID-19 relief.

Hearns has a love for cosmetics and beauty, but she said she struggled to conform to Midwestern beauty standards and protested how her jobs would force her to appeal to customers in a style that wasn’t her own. Hearns still talks about how Black women have power in their beauty alone: “Our beauty is unmatched. Periodt. I remember being a young girl and recognizing the curve in my lip and the curl in my hair and being so fascinated that no one looked like me. It is completely fair to say that we are unapologetic.”

Hearns’ fierce will and political power is active and unshakeable, making her an assured Black History Month figure in the present and future.

DC’s 2020 youth poet laureate finds renewed hope in writing, community, and a new presidency

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 16, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Marjan Naderi, DC’s youth poet laureate in 2020, had long worried that poetry was dying. After years of expressing herself through poems, winning slam poetry contests, and even publishing her own book, Naderi wondered whether her craft was worth the effort anymore.

“We spent the past four years seeing our speech as something disposable, when it’s anything but that,” Naderi said in an interview with The DC Line. “Is this nation even ready for poems? Especially the last few years, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”

And then she listened as Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman was chosen as the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

“Amanda just really … hit a new wave on the head,” Naderi said. “Welcome poetry! We’re having poetry at the Super Bowl! It really affirmed that the work that I’m doing is worthy.”

Naderi and Gorman are poets who achieved youth laureate recognition through programs created by Urban Word in New York City.

As the District’s youth poet laureate last year, Naderi was scheduled to conduct a performance tour around the city, including speaking engagements at public libraries and multiple Busboys and Poets bookstore cafes. She served on the Kennedy Center’s Youth Advisory Board. 

Chosen annually by the local arts organization Words, Beats & Life Inc., the honoree is a poet, 13 to 19 years of age, who has expressed creativity in language, has served the community through social justice activism and has demonstrated leadership. Amiri Nash, a freshman at Brown University, has been newly named DC’s 2021 youth poet laureate.

Naderi — a six-time Poetry Grand Slam champion and author of the poetry collection Bloodline — was one of six national artists depicted in outdoor video portraits as part of Strathmore Center’s exhibit Monuments: Creative Forces, designed by artist Craig Walsh. Naderi, a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, was excited to be DC’s laureate because it was the culmination of such hard work. Naderi was born in Northern Virginia, so she grew up close to the city. As she started writing in eighth grade, the city and those who live within it became her muse.

Patrick Washington, Words, Beats & Life Inc.’s director of poetry, became acquainted with Naderi while working with her at workshops and seminars for four or five years before she became the organization’s laureate.

“She was lively, she never backed down from a disagreement. She stood her own with adults. I knew she was something special early on,” Washington said. When Words, Beats & Life Inc. looks for a poet laureate, it’s not just looking for a good poet, “but an outstanding human,” he added.

“She was uniquely formed by her experiences as a child of refugees,” Washington said. “That informs the type of person she is, and we like that — we like people who absorb and watch and then respond.”

Naderi was able to participate in some Youth Poet Laureate events early in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic creeped in, but then venues closed and performances were canceled.

“A majority of my poems are blossomed from being out, seeing human beings carry themselves with nuance and joy and stories,” Naderi said. “I love writing portrait poems, going into various spaces and seeing life happen in its rawest form.”

Without the opportunities to observe people and find inspiration, Naderi said her mental health and creative writing both suffered. She also struggled to create poetry spaces online, but Naderi knew she had to keep expressing her feelings.

“I still kept [up with] my writing because I know that is the only thing that gets me through so much of being alive, so much of every day, where every moment can be a boost of joy or absolute agony or suffering,” Naderi said.

The pandemic limited her access to in-person community service, which she had frequently done in the past. Naderi has focused on education, particularly of Afghan children both in the DMV and in Afghanistan.

When the Black Lives Matter protests began, Naderi felt compelled to help. She organized a social media fundraiser that raised thousands of dollars. She used that money to buy food and health supplies for activists who protested for weeks in the city.

During that time, she said, she saw how contradictory DC is. In some gentrified neighborhoods, houses would be blocked off, with roads closed and people reluctant to join the protesting crowds, Naderi said. She added how disappointed she was to see her community splintered.

But Naderi said she also saw great rejoicing and organizing in the Black Lives Matter protests and during Juneteenth events.

“I saw what community meant at its rawest core, to be a tribe and to ever expand that tribe for love, to be human, becoming human at its forefront,” Naderi said. “I saw DC evolve over a span of a few weeks.”

Sensing such a powerful community both at Black Lives Matter protests and during Gorman’s inauguration performance felt like a new wave of hope, Naderi said.

“It was great to see that she was still flying the flag for spoken word, for poetry and expression,” Washington said of her work during the Black Lives Matter protests.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Naderi said, she and her mother — along with many others in her Afghan community — experienced hate crimes. Naderi recalled a day in 2016 when her headscarf was yanked off her head “by a bigot.”

“As a Muslim, as an advocate, as a writer, as a woman, you lose sense of yourself and how this country holds you. Do they even respect you?” Naderi said.

Gorman’s performance and the ensuing excitement and conversation left Naderi feeling proud again to be involved in the poetry community. She said she was encouraged that Biden chose a poet to usher in a new era of “healing.”

“The poems we write will change nations, so long as we are given the platform,” Naderi said. “These youth poets are the future. We are writing history. We are writing and creating and moving a part of the force. We are the force itself. We come and we bless.”

LGBTQ Black History: Remembering Trailblazer Pauli Murray

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By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published February 16, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Pauli Murray was a Black, nonbinary, queer poet, writer, lawyer and priest whose legacy carries on through law and activism. Born in Baltimore, MD in 1910, Murray moved to New York City after graduating high school and attended Hunter College to pursue a degree in English Literature. Murray was an avid writer and gained national media attention after campaigning to attend the University of North Carolina, which at the time was exclusively white. Murray studied law at Howard University and continued to write civil rights essays and poems.

Murray’s work was influential for decades — former President John F. Kennedy appointed Murray to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights, where Murray worked with civil rights activists like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King.

In the world of legal reform, Murray influenced both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. Marshall used Murray’s senior thesis from Howard, “Should the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy be Overruled?” to successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ginsburg credited Murray for the idea to interpret the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which states that it’s unconstitutional to deprive “any person” of equal protections. This interpretation, which appeared in Murray’s 1965 article “Jane Crow and the Law” helped Ginsburg win Reed v. Reed. Murray’s name is credited on the brief as an honorary writer.

Murray’s legacy lasts as a pioneer breaking sexuality and gender norms. Struggles with gender identity lasted Murray’s entire life. After being rejected from Harvard because the school only accepted male applicants, Murray wrote back that “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but…the way to such change has not been revealed to me.”

Murray sought hormone therapy unsuccessfully for years and even persuaded doctors to perform tests to see if Murray was born with hidden male genitalia or hormones. The Pauli Murray Center reports that Murray used the phrase “he/she personality” with family members . They chose “Pauli” as a gender neutral name over their birth name, Anna Pauline. Murray also had two significant romances in their life with women, one of which was described as Murray’s life partner.

Murray is also notable for breaking yet another barrier by becoming the first Black woman to become an Episcopal priest. They became the first woman to give the Eucharist in the Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

Remembered today as the silent warrior behind some of the country’s most crucial civil rights cases, Pauli Murray is a hero to many and one to be especially remembered during Black History Month.

LGBTQ Black History: Activist and Actress Josephine Baker

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 3, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Actress and activist Josephine Baker found the stage when she was barely a teenager, struggling with homelessness and poverty in St. Louis, but her enchanting presence on stages across the world would make her a memorable queer and Black icon.

In 1922, Baker performed in Shuffle Along, one of the first popular American Broadway musicals written and composed and performed by Black artists and Black actors. After this debut, she quickly became a star on stages both in the theatrical and political worlds.

Baker was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, a time of artistic and personal growth that championed Black identity and creativity in America. She eventually moved to Paris and performed on iconic stages and became one of the first popular Black silver screen stars in 1930.

During World War II, she assisted French operations to resist Nazi’s occupation of France. She reported Nazi secrets she overheard when performing for French rebels.

Baker returned to the United States in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement began taking hold of politics and society. In 1963, she was one of the only women who spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She toured with the NAACP and raised funds for France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Baker was forthright about her sensuality and beauty as a Black woman. She did many photoshoots dressed in revealing clothing as well as in men’s tuxedos. Baker had four marriages throughout her lifetime and intimate relationships with women like Maude Russell, Clara Smith and Colette.

Baker died in 1975 in Paris, a few days after her final, sold-out performance.

When she spoke at the March on Washington, she expressed her power and resilience as a Black woman: “When I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”