Photo of Tai Allen by Taylor Flash
By Sharon Pendana 

Tai Allen is a multidisciplinary creative— poet, performer, music and event producer, graphic designer, to name a few of his many hats. He is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. His recently published chapbook, No Jewels: A Biography (of sorts) Writ in Stanzas, through revelatory poetry uses his violation and ultimate healing to illuminate the staggering statistic that one in sixmen have experienced sexual abuse or assault and offer hope that "pain and trauma do not need to be permanent. Love and contentment are better options.”

Long before he grew into commanding presence, towering height, and manhood, he was preyed upon by rapacious family members older than he (a male cousin and an undisclosed female relative) who desired manly acts from a boy with still "hairless parts." A summer of stolen innocence: locked-door Saturday baths and illicit midday trysts; what child should know of these?

While on a multi-city book tour, Allen spoke to Curly Nikki with guarded frankness about his traumatic experiences, and using his platform as an artist to give voice to those silenced by fear, shame, and stigma.

First, thank you for your willingness to share your difficult story. You were so young when it all started.
Yes, between nine and ten.

By being a relative, your abuser had greater access to you than someone who wasn’t part of the family. Did the person "groom" you for it so to speak?
I’m not sure. If she didn’t groom me before, she was certainly very active in trying to get me to forget about it. And I did for a long time. I forgot about it until I was about seventeen– it was like a eureka moment. She was always so nice to me, lavished me with gifts; I couldn’t figure out why. One day I just remembered. There were actually two situations; one with my cousin, but I punched him in the face and fought him off, and that was the end of that. My female relative was much older, late teens.

Despite her attempt at normalizing her actions, you always knew that they shouldn’t be happening? 
Yes, but I didn’t have the language to explain it. I never did until I got older. She was, I think, bipolar. Abuse is usually about power, but when it’s someone who’s not too well, it’s power and a level of insanity.

How did you handle the unexpected re-emergence of your childhood abuse in your consciousness during adolescence?
Not very well. [I felt] disrespected. Betrayed. Angry. Fooled. Gaslighted. Mad. Violent. It took me ten years to fully reconcile how wack both persons were. They both need therapy. And maybe, a good smack.

Although you didn't undergo therapy, you suggest it for others.
Yes, there is even a number to an agency for readers in the back of the book. I did not get therapy, but I had compassionate listeners. Expression and compassion work in unison. 

So, how did you find healing?
The assumption is that it was art, everyone assumes that, but it's not true. I am the son and godson of black militants. They were big on character and personality building. Ever since I was young, I was given the tools to deal with white oppression and supremacy and those same tools work when dealing with personal abuse. More than anything else, they gave me legacy. They gave me something to believe in. They made sure I had a real affection for community and the Diaspora.

Photo of Tai Allen by Azzie Scott, The Dream Dept. 
You may not have come to rely on your art as therapy, but do you think there is some catharsis through art? 
Hell yes! Sports, hobbies, art, it is about finding outlets that can return the soul to your center. Finding peace is the goal. I truly believe holding on to distressing experiences will create ailments.

Your experience made you vigilant of your two daughters. How did you teach your girls to protect themselves when not under a parent's watchful eye?
The girls require a conversation that reminds them all people and spaces are not safe. And the danger can come from males who sheep their intentions. I understand power is also emotional and mental; I pray I have informed them that sex can be used against them. From abuse to coercion to faux sympathy. Plus, my daughters are Black. Society is often not fond of Black women.

Although No Jewels directly addresses the experience of a male survivor of sexual abuse, its theme of moving through trauma, from surviving into thriving is universal.
I wanted to write a book that men—and others—could use as proof that trauma can be overcome. That proves pain does not have be wallowed in, no matter how terrible the horror.

Your poem “very afraid” touches on the specter of the abused becoming an abuser, in hiding. The book also shares that although many abusers have been victims of abuse, statistically most survivors do not go on to abuse others.
True, and there should be an acknowledgment for those who did not become generational predators after being victims. I see them.

You offer a downloadable Blues/R&B/Acid Jazz soundtrack to the book. What inspired it?
I am a multidisciplinary artist. Absorbing the project in multiple ways can only enhance receiving its message. I wrote the book using triolet (a French writing style), senriyu (a Japanese form close to haiku) and “song” to resemble the African oral tradition.  All three forms scream musicality. I just listened to the call.

Get the book and soundtrack on  Follow Tai on Instagram and Twitter

National Sexual Assault Hotline Call 1-800-656-4673  Available 24 hours everyday.

How have you found healing from abuse?

Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DCand on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.
Glynda C. Carr (center) & Kimberly Peeler-Allen in discussion with Alexis McGill Johnson (Photo courtesy of Glynda C. Carr)
By Sharon Pendana

Since 2013, Higher Heights for America has been at the forefront of mobilizing America's black, female citizenry at every level of civic engagement— local, state and national— rallying black women to not only exercise their right to vote but to seek public office and claim a seat at the table to shape policy. Founded by friends Glynda C. Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen, who share a passion for justice and the potential black women hold to effect positive change in the American democracy, it's growing a network of members across the country committed to building a political infrastructure and power base for black women. 

Standouts both, Carr is the former Executive Director of Education Voters of New York, where she became New York’s youngest African American woman to run a statewide advocacy organization; and Peeler-Allen, from 2003-2014 helmed Peeler-Allen Consulting, the only African American full-time fundraising consulting firm in New York State. Poised for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, co-founder Glynda Carr spoke with Curly Nikki about Higher Heights’ coffee shop genesis, lofty goals and the indomitable power of black women at the polls and in elected office. 


Photo via Higher Heights website

What galvanized you to start this organization?
Kimberly and I weren’t looking to start an organization. We were having coffee in a Brooklyn cafe, talking about progressive politics, how we didn't see black women showing up in that space, and questioning why that was. Then we said, “Why don’t we start our own organization for black women who are looking to be deeper engaged in the political process from the voting booth to elected office.” We came up with the name that day.

I come from a politically and community-minded family, civic engagement is in my DNA. I had a career working in non-profits, but I volunteered for a New York State Senate campaign for Kevin Parker. It was an opportunity for me to build community and support a candidate with progressive issues I believed in. I worked hard on that campaign, and he offered me to join his team. I spent six years in Albany (the state capital) learning about how government works and the politics around governing. I stepped out on my own and started organizing voters around public school reform. Then in 2012 when our country was at a political crossroads, and I was making decisions about my next steps, providence connected Kimberly and me to fill the space that was missing for black women.

What compels Higher Heights' stated goal to mobilize 1 million black women and dollars by 2020?
In 2016, ninety-four percent of black women voted to move this country forward and continued to be a consistent, loyal voting block on the issues that we care about in our community. Although we did not break the glass ceiling for women on that Election Day, black women made major gains on the ballot. At a time when white progressives lost from the top of the ticket to the bottom, black women broke through. We elected the largest number of black women serving in Congress; including sending the first black woman to the US Senate in twenty years. We elected the first black woman to serve in the Kentucky state legislature in almost twenty years. We had a marked increase of black women serving as mayors of major cities. In 2017, ten black women ran in the thirty-eight cities that held municipal elections. Today, seven black women serve as mayors of Atlanta, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Charlotte, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Five were elected, and one was appointed as the second in succession upon the untimely death of San Francisco Mayor, Ed Lee. In 2017, Black women voted 98% to move Alabama into the 21st century. But there’s still work to be done. We wholeheartedly believe at Higher Heights that democracy doesn’t begin and end on Election Day. So, yes, they elected Doug Jones, but the hard work now is ensuring that when he gets to Washington, that he is carrying the issues and the priorities–from criminal justice to economic inequality–of the very constituency that elected him.

We've seen the possibilities that exist when you organize and engage black women in a real way. We dug down and focused on building black women’s political power, creating a national network of black women and our allies, and creating a space for them to be informed, engaged and take action. There are three black women running for governor (of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Maryland) in 2018. In our country’s 241-year history we’ve never elected a black woman governor. Here’s an opportunity for us to break our own glass ceiling.

How do you plan to meet this million mission?
Claiming a million is a bold stretch for this emerging organization, but we know that black women have an economic imprint that can extend to our political stewardship. Black women give 25% more of their income than our counterparts regardless of where we are in our socioeconomic status. How do we then inspire black women to understand that shifting just a percentage of our economic might toward political stewardship changes the face of what democracy looks like? When you diversify those who are sitting at decision-making tables, they carry the very issues that we continue to fight for. The goal here is to engage the sister who gives us five dollars a month to those Black women and allies who are willing to give us tens of thousands of dollars.

There’s a growing conversation about what it means when black women lead. When #BlackWomenLead, you see Maxine Waters reclaiming her time or Kamala Harris making Jeff Sessions nervous. We have been consistently voting, outpacing our male counterparts, and doing what black women do: when we are fired up, we don’t go to the polls alone. The black woman voter? She brings her house, her block, her church, her sorority.

Black women can trend a hashtag in a minute; the foundation of Black Twitter is black women. This is exactly how we envisioned Higher Heights as a vehicle. We’re going to galvanize the million black women both on and offline with a variety of campaigns and provide them spaces to be engaged. In our #BlackWomenVote campaign we give black women tools like sample tweets, sample emails, a sister-to-sister conversation toolkit, memes and things that they can use to organize their networks for this important election cycle. We're hosting sister-to-sister salon conversations across this country. We're gathering black women in their living rooms, in their hair salons, in their nail salons, in their church basements to talk about the main issues of concern and envision what the possibilities are to change the outcomes for their community, and how that is tied to politics, policy, and leadership. In 2017 we launched the #BlackWomenLead Political Leadership Training Series of webinars for women thinking about running for office. Given the energy and debate in conversation today, I think that we are positioned to be the leading political voice for and by black women leading into 2020.

Join the #BlackWomenLead Nation by becoming a member.
To learn more, visit Higher Heights for America & Higher Heights Leadership Fund. Follow Higher Heights on Facebook and Twitter @HigherHeights

Note: Since our interview, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings suspended her campaign for governor. 

Will you sign up to become a member of Higher Heights?
Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DCand on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.
Liza Jessie Peterson by Yoshinori Hashimoto
By Sharon Pendana 

Liza Jessie Peterson is an "artivist," her art and her activism conjoined. With a deep sense of justice, it is her Libran calling to balance its scales. "I’m an artist, but my advocacy is channeled through my art," she says. "Everything I write about, everything I perform is through that lens." Her decades-long entrenchment in the carceral system spans from making the trek upstate from her Brooklyn home to visit her jailed former lover to teaching incarcerated youths at New York City's notorious Rikers Island Correctional Facility.


These experiences inform her profound one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot,exploring the human impact of mass incarceration, not just on inmates, but their intimates who brave the cramped, hours-long bus rides to prison visits in revolutionary acts of loyalty and commitment, "navigating love between barbed wire." She toured the show to over 30 prisons across the country to standing ovations and black power salutes before premiering it to the general public in a sold-out run at Harlem’s National Black Theatre.

In All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, Liza mines her old journals and indelible memories to deftly chronicle her experience of being the classroom teacher, all day from 7:50 am - 2:30 pm to adolescent boys locked in a system more punitive than rehabilitative. With humor and pathos, she gives voice to these young men swept into the penal maelstrom and exposes the glaring disparity in corrections approaches between kids of color and white.

She started working at Rikers Island in 1998 to conduct a poetry workshop and was surprised to discover "the overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of Black and Latino adolescents" incarcerated there. She says, 
"It was astounding! I wasn't aware of the prison industrial complex— it was not in the zeitgeist— this was 1998. Mass incarceration was not even a phrase that people used back then. I was going in without any context. I had no idea about the cash bail system; I had no idea about the privatization of prisons. A corrections officer pointed to the boys and referred to them as the ‘new cotton’– that I was working on the plantation and the boys were the crops."
She would learn that Black and Latino children are targeted for arrest and criminalized for typical adolescent behavior. 
"Adolescents are always going to buck up against the system; they are still going to challenge authority. They are going through a stage of psychological differentiation separation, where they are exerting their independence, moving away from family toward friends and testing boundaries. It's a natural phase of adolescent development."
While working with incarcerated adolescent girls, she learned that most had histories of sexual abuse. "A lot of their acting-out comes from the unhealed wounds and unaddressed trauma in their lives," she says. As rampant revelations of sexual assault surface in this country, Liza hopes that "this heightened national dialogue will give young girls the courage to come forward and speak out about what has happened to them and know that it isn't their fault; their cries are valid, and they have support." She says that although women who have spoken out about it have been "dismissed, ignored, denied, chastised, threatened and attacked, now we’re seeing the tide turning, and men are being called to task and being held accountable for their reprehensible behavior."

She remains hopeful that the social justice pendulum will swing toward what is right and just—that the normalization of sexual misconduct will reverse, and prison reforms put an end to race-based arrests and draconian sentencing. She shares how others can effect change: "first people need to get educated on what white supremacy is — what it looks like and how it works. And vote, not just in the big elections, but the smaller local elections, too." She adds that many community-based organizations rely on donations to keep their doors open. "There are organizations already on the ground doing the work. If you have money, find out who they are and support them. Of philanthropist Agnes Gund's recent endowment she adds, "Be like Agnes; write a check."

An "interrupter of recidivism," Liza stays in contact with several of the kids and works to help them once they are released. "I’m always going to have that connection to the youth–helping them to stay alive and free and out of the grip of the criminal justice system. But I’m an artist first. I’m creating; I’m writing plays, I’m writing books, I’m writing content for television that will encapsulate my advocacy."

Photo: Garlia C. Jones-Ly


Sharon Pendana is the creator of THE TROVE, author of Secret Washington DC and on a relentless quest to discover treasures, human and otherwise. Find her on Instagram, Medium, Twitter or binging on Netflix and Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps.