I sometimes wonder how much I've chosen my path and how much my path has chosen me.
I come from media makers, educators, librarians, and cultural workers. I used to say that I grew up in an editing booth. My mom and dad were among the first black mainstream media makers in Chicago during the seventies and early eighties. Books, records, sheet music, and film reels always surrounded me.
I am a firm believer that the conversations folks have in their households about vocational possibilities, or professional callings, really do shape and influence the children who are listening. When you're a kid, though, it's just life, and you're like, "Damn, I don't want to be like my parents, working until midnight, night after night, making deadline all the time." That was the impetus for me not wanting to do any narrative work whatsoever: the constant, never-ending work hours. Funny to think of where I am now, while I watch my kids following similar paths.
In my early adult years, all I wanted was for my life's work to be pretty, neat and linear, something it never managed to be. It turns out that I am too much of a creative spirit for that. I constantly draw my inspiration from visionary, passionate, committed, outrageously kind and curious people, who give me enough room to be nosy about their lives and creative practices. Consequently, being an oral historian has been an uncommonly good practice for me. I take this old traditional folk art, and I contemporize and personalize it. I'm all about immersive stories, and purposefully figuring out different ways of reaching through and experiencing all of the five senses through our narratives. I start each new project wondering how people can be vulnerable long enough to remember, touch, and be changed by our stories. That's why I am constantly working with and learning alongside marginalized communities, asking how we can surface and honor our narratives that typically have been invisibilized or silenced. Really, though, I'm just catching these snapshots and snippets of the ways that we live, love, and labor for positive change across time.
This kind of deep, intimate story gathering work has repeatedly required me to do the work of trust building. On the flip side, I have recently been considering how important it is for me to trust the communities that I work with, in my cultural work practices and creative leadership roles. Up until this past year, I noticed that I invested a lot of energy in seeking acceptance and approval, which is an extremely different thing than building trust. This approach was probably a byproduct of two different spaces in my professional life overlapping at once. I became an oral historian while I spent a decade earning my doctorate in education, and I now realize that while my graduate school years were very powerful, the dissertation framework was ultimately detrimental to me as I moved outside of academia and into creative leadership. To my thinking, the academic framework is this: The dissertation culminates in a defense, which is a process that is never formally referred to as an affirmation. The goal is simple: approval.
Now that I am a few years outside of academia, I intentionally root everything that I do from a foundation where I tune into and trust my own wisdom and lived experience, just as much as I trust the wisdom and lived experiences of those whom I work alongside. Every time that a collaboration has gone sideways has been a clear example of me having to learn and relearn how to trust myself, and my intuition, in small and large ways.
So yeah, my learning has been messy, and perfectly-imperfect. But one of my most consistent and dependable guideposts is the importance of being welcomed, nourished, and grown inside reliably beloved community.
At the top of my earliest and steadfast teachers is my dad. Now that he is in hospice care, I hold what he has taught me throughout my lifetime in a very reflective, deep, and loving regard. And then, truthfully, there are the other days where I'm like, "You know what? This apparently is a good day to cancel all of my meetings, get back in bed, and cry the entire morning." Being a mom and simultaneously in a committed romantic relationship means that my vulnerability has felt amplified, while being loved through my attempts at mastering the sparkly, messy, and mundane parts of life.
What I get to witness and learn from my best friend, Shawna, is how to be a genius at love; ironically, my work life flourishes because of her. I used to focus on extraverted, dynamic people, prioritizing their shine above the texture of their relationship abilities. Simply put, shine has zero gravitational pull when placed beside emotional attunement. So what if someone is the head of whatever fancy, wonderful organization, or their creative practice is getting great press? If their relationship skills are consistently poor, this person will not be a great contributor to building and being in powerful, loving community over time.
Now saying that, I definitely believe we can only give what we have. So I give, and I give generously. But I now know that I cannot give when my cup is bone dry. And I definitely can only give the substance of what I have. These days I am figuring out how to build up an overflow, and how to be compassionate with myself whenever I may get stretched thin, because my tendency is to keep on giving. You would not have to take a wild guess to know that things were never good during the years when I was at the very bottom of my own list, day to day to day, week to week, month to month. I'm starting to recognize, OK, just by virtue of the fact of being a single parent, I may not be at the top of the list every day — because it is what it is — however, first place can be shared. There can be three folks at the very top of the list, at any given time, striving to compose a meaningful, devoted, loving life, full of rich relationships. This approach does not require me to be at the bottom of, or off, the list.
So what I've learned and must never forget is that I gratefully work with community and our stories; however, I gotta be my own list maker.
Cover Image of Mi'Jan by Daniel Hyde
Follow her at her website: www.mijancelie.com
One of The Santa Fe New Mexican's 2017 "10 Who Made a Difference," and a 2018 University of San Francisco "Living the Mission Award" recipient, Mi'Jan is the founder of the New Mexico Women of Color Nonprofit Leadership Initiative at the Santa Fe Community Foundation. She also led the Steinem Initiative's public policy digital storytelling pilot at Smith College. Mi'Jan has served as visiting scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics at Columbia University; documentarian-in-residence in Essential Studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where the Rockefeller Foundation featured her work; a presenter at Carnegie Hall; and a resident at the Banff Centre.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Mi'Jan Celie Tho-Biaz