Valentina Raman

Photograph: Aubrey Gemignani

Photograph: Aubrey Gemignani

Artist Statement

I am half Italian Catholic, half Indian Hindu, and a first generation American, raised in the deeply segregated suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. My parents modeled love and open-minded listening in surmounting cultural and religious barriers, instilling in me the unwavering belief that the walls of fear and prejudice are artificial and learned. As I explored the world beyond my hometown, I began to see that the same segregation – and the mindsets and systems that sustain it – are present not only in the American South, but also in the Northeast (where I’ve lived for the last 6 years) as well as in Italy, India, and every other country that I’ve experienced. The story is the same: fear and misunderstanding obscure our shared humanity and interconnectedness.

As a writer and musician, I challenge the barriers that separate our stories by unifying them under one, overarching narrative. My journalistic writing weaves together diverse perspectives to emphasize our interconnectedness and elucidate emerging solutions to problems of poverty, violence, human rights, education, and environment. My poetry and music dive beyond people’s minds into their hearts to call forth their intuitive empathy, ignite their sense of self-empowerment, and mobilize them in collaborative action towards a unified vision.

What do I hold Sacred?

Spoken Word Poem

"What do I hold Sacred?" is a poem written in reflection on the title question. The piece was first recorded orally and is meant to be listened to rather than read. The opening and closing music was collaboratively created with Okezie Nwoka.

52nd Street's Face-Lift


“52nd Street’s Face-Lift” is a long-form journalistic piece (3373 words in full length) about the swinging history of West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street, commonly known as “the Strip.” What used to be “West Philly’s Main Street” for entertainment in the 1950s fell into deep poverty after Race Riots in the 60s. Now, the city has invested over $2 million dollars to return the street to its former splendor, and residents are asking: is the Strip on the path to gentrification or revitalization?


… The City made its first move in the late 80s.

“There was a canopy that was built over Arch to Walnut Street,” said Richard Redding, Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s (PCPC) Planning Division. At the time he was just a young city planner, he told me over the phone, assigned specifically to West Philadelphia. To bring shoppers back to the Strip, the City wrapped the corridor in a modern metal canopy, to make it “more like a mall, more unified.”

The vendors thought it was built for them. “It was shelter and protection,” said 63- year-old vendor Issa Horn, his black nose dripping onto his beard as we shivered by his stand at the corner of 52nd and Chestnut. He was wearing the same brown sweater, saggy beanie, and tinted glasses I had met him in on my first trip to the Strip a month earlier. Instead of his brown corduroys he wore tougher peach-colored pants, scuffed as if charcoal had rubbed against it. A pair of mismatched gloves warmed his hands: navy on the left, black on the right. “We loved the canopies,” he said. I could see why. A steady chill wind kept him rocking on his feet.

But in 2011, the City removed them. “They just weren’t maintained,” said Senior Manager of the City’s Commerce Department, Aiisha Herring-Miller. They were unsafe, deteriorated, an eyesore pushing away new customers. But the vendors were riled. “They thought the City wanted to remove the vendors.” In fear and anger they organized into the Philadelphia Vendors Association (PVA), mustering 4,000 petition signatures from the neighborhood to fight the removal.

The vendors lost the canopies, but gained something more: collaboration. “That’s when the meetings started,” said Horn, who is current Treasurer of the PVA. Since the protests the City has opened up its redevelopment plans to the vendors, meeting with them regularly along with other parties vital to the Strip’s development, like the 52nd Street Business Association. Even Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell attends sometimes, Horn told me excitedly, tilting his head down to peer over his glasses as if to say, “Can you believe it?” The meetings are a cross-section of everyone in the community. And evidence of the City’s respect for vendors.

“They add to the ambiance of the corridor,” said Senior Manager Herring of vendors. “Not everyone can do that job. They fill a certain niche.” ...

Dance Dance Revolution


“Dance Dance Revolution: V-Day Edition" is a short journalistic piece on a global movement of women dancing in solidarity on Valentine’s Day, 2013.


Women and men in 203 countries rose on Valentine’s Day to end gender-based violence, but Melanie Colon lay beneath roses in the grave.

“I don’t know why someone would take her life. All she did was work. She was just into working and taking care of her kid,” said Louis Colon of his late daughter, whose 22-year- old body was found pierced with 6 gunshot wounds in Philadelphia’s Juniata Park last May.

Nine months later, Melanie’s family and friends are still circulating flyers in hopes of finding her killer. Facing Philly’s LOVE statue, they stood behind a fold-out table draped with a banner: Melanie’s tan face and bleach blond hair floating among painted clouds “In Loving Memory.” On the table lay another picture: a framed photo of her now motherless 5-year- old son, Joshua.

Team Melanie, as the family calls itself on Twitter and Facebook, was not the only force fighting for justice in Love Park this past Thursday. At 2:14 pm on V-Day, a troop of women, men, and children stood at attention in Love Park as part of the global movement to end the violence against women and girls. Their chosen weapon of demonstration: dancing. The number enlisted to dance: 206. The number of women dancing worldwide: one billion.

According to statistics reported by the United Nations, 1 in 3 women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. That means one billion women in the world are victims of violence.

In hopes of shaking the status quo, Women’s Way, an advocacy organization for women in the Greater Philadelphia region, hosted a free instructor-led dance session, calling on the City of Brotherly Love to “STRIKE, RISE, and DANCE” for the women they love.

“Enough is enough,” declared Executive Director Amanda Aronoff, who stood elevated on a concrete banister, armed with a microphone.

The rally’s cheers pierced the silence, posters shook the still February air, and arms waved to the lyrics, “I wanna know if you really love me…” The Philadelphia Rising had begun.

Aronoff joined the ranks of dancers in her Women’s Way officer uniform: sneakers, black spandex leggings, and a white hoodie with the V-Day movement’s logo. Around her neck swung several red heart-shaped bead necklaces.

“What is powerful for me at least is that this is happening all over the world,” Aronoff said in interview. “There’s something about dancing that is universal, that connects all women in this movement. That’s the power.”

But beyond the movement’s global mission, Aronoff is troubled by the violence against women occurring daily in her own city, specifically human trafficking. This particular violence is second only to drug dealing as the largest criminal industry in the world, and it is the fastest growing. Yet while Americans point their fingers at countries in Africa and Asia, Aronoff states,

“It is happening right here.”

The City of Brotherly Love, she reports, is a thoroughfare for human trafficking due to its central location in the northeast United States. This fact shocks everyone she talks to. Most Philadelphians “don’t realize it’s a problem right here.”

The loved ones of Franchesca “Cheka” Alvarado, however, know all too well about this problem. A man in an Eagles hat and woman carrying a small child navigated the waves of dancers with flyers, picturing a smiling face they had not seen since March 13, 2012. The flyer read, “MISSING PERSON REWARD $25,000.00.”

One flyer landed in the hands of Morgan Chambers, a 25-year- old female Drexel University student who continues to cope with the violence she experienced 10 years ago. For Chambers, being a part of the V-Day rising “really takes away some of the stigma and embarrassment” of being a victim of abuse. As she danced alongside fellow survivors and supporters of the movement, Chamber said,

“I know I can turn to the person next to me and don’t have to say anything. I know they are there for me.”

This “community of strength” is what Chambers hopes will continue to grow from the dancing of women around the world.

“I want it to grow so it doesn’t have to be an isolated movement, but a part of the culture.”

One billion rising is: a cultural revolution, a community of strength, a cry of compassion. 7 billion rising is: a changed a world.

A Rally of Power


“A Rally of POWER: Building a City of Opportunity That Works for All” was written after a public action meeting hosted by the 40 faith congregations of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) in April of 2013 to call for better jobs, better schools, and pathways to citizenship. This journalistic piece (2033 words in its full length) is the culmination of a series of shorter pieces following POWER’s advocacy in the city.

…The crowd rattled in frustration. A slideshow of sobering statistics hung high above their leaders’ heads on the wall behind them, displaying familiar images of poverty, hunger, and pain.

In Philadelphia close to 30% of our citizens live in poverty.

Almost 40% of our children go to sleep hungry every night.

Over 200,000 Philadelphians live off of less than $5,700 per year.

Less than 50% of high school students graduate within four years.

Over 600,000 adults in Philadelphia are low literate.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants live in fear of being ripped away from their families.

“We are the poorest big city in America,” concluded Kerbel, after reading the statistics aloud.

The facts confirmed their own stories. Sitting in front of the church alter, five Philadelphia residents shared one-by- one their experiences with unemployment, homelessness, and deportation. They pretended to be sitting at Thanksgiving dinner, giving the highs and lows of their year.

“I applied for hundreds and hundreds of jobs, but I couldn’t get one,” recalled one widow, who lost her job and only paycheck to support her daughter. “Then the dreaded Fedex package arrived: notice of foreclosure… I have no savings, no job, and I no longer have a home that I can call my own.” Her voice quivered as she repeated her daughter’s question, “Mommy, what are we going to do?”

A young girl then stood up. She remembered being called into her school’s guidance office, and given notice that she could not continue her education. “Because of my legal status,” she explained. “The fact that I received 4 years of first honors didn’t matter.” The government was sending her back to Mexico. “My parents immigrated when I was 4. I followed when I was 11.” Her journey was difficult, she shared, crossing deserts and enduring “hot days, cold nights” and “sleeping in forests.” She was following the American Dream, yet her journey was cut short just like the 400,000 aspiring immigrants deported last year.

“It’s all of our concern,” said Reverend Ernie Flores of Germantown’s Second Baptist Church, who gave the Faith Reflection following the Thanksgiving Dinner scene. Standing before the congregations in his grey suit, the leader spoke away from the podium with microphone in hand.

“God wants us ALL wrapped up in this thing together,” he urged Philadelphians. “When we stand together, THAT is righteousness.” After quoting the Biblical book of James’ “Warning to Rich Oppressors,” Flores delivered a warning to the “rich people” in city leadership:

“When we are paid minimum wages that don’t meet our minimum needs…when the wealthy and the powerful make millions instead of helping the millions in poverty living in the shadows…when no one is listening to our cries – GOD is watching.” ...

Aliana Grace Bailey

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

I was a student pursuing graphic design who happened to fall in love with painting. I was a graphic designer, painter, and empath; who realized she could not overlook her thirst to positively impact the well-being of individuals and communities. Integrating these passions, I earned a dual degree in Visual Arts/Design and Social Work. Over the years, I have been learning how to intertwine all the things I love.

Today, I fuse a variety of mediums—graphic design, textiles, digital collage, painting, printmaking, and photography—and employ vibrant colors, intricate textures, patterns, and bold typography. I am embracing and exploring the ways in which these unique elements hold a special purpose and can create beautiful conversations. My passion lies in the process, and I am always digging deeper. I enjoy immersing myself fully in each step of the journey—whether it is in hand-dying, printing, and sewing fabrics, checking out a dozen books on the subject being explored, or infusing my work with my personal vulnerabilities.

The turning point in my art came in 2013, with the passing of my grandmother. Her love and admiration for beautiful quilts and patterns moved me to incorporate my past childhood love of sewing and fabric work into my present endeavors. Embracing a different medium and revisiting my past creative freedom helped me to create new works and establish a better sense of my identity as an artist. Although I had always been enthusiastic about the study of art therapy, it was at this point that I experienced firsthand just how valuable and therapeutic art-making can be.

It was also during this time that I began to really grasp how to communicate effectively and express experiences and ideas on my own terms, rather than trying to fit into some traditional mold that was not representative of who I am. I developed my artistic voice and truly came into my own. Self-concept is my power source. My creative practice runs deep and concurrently with my personal and spiritual growth. I use art as a means to explore and manifest my awareness of self and the world around me. By practicing vulnerability, self-love, and empathy—I hope to inspire the same in others.

The issues dearest to my heart revolve around self-esteem, body image, mental health, suicide prevention, youth, women empowerment, and the black experience. All in all, I want to give my viewers a sense of joy, healing, and a reminder of how to love—themselves and the lives and world around them.

As my work evolves, it is becoming more conceptual, intimate, and fearless. In pursuing the fields of art, design, and social work—my greatest passions—I have discovered how they intersect, the possibilities that they hold, and how to bring them together and unleash their power.

Series 1 of 3
Mixed Media on Canvas

The THREAT series (2014-2015) began its creation in August of 2014. The series was a direct response to the array of emotions I was experiencing following the murder of a 18 year-old black man named Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was fatally shot, while unarmed, by a white Ferguson police officer. This series was inspired by the beauty and power of black people in contrast to the brutal black experience in America.

Series 1 of 3
Graphic Design 

Series of typographic posters paying homage to an influential mentor of mine. Quotes from Carter is a series of quotes by the director of the visual arts program at NCA&T State University, Roymieco Carter. These quotes were pulled from notes taken during my college years. His teachings helped shape my understanding and mindset of what it means to pursue a career in art and design.

Mixed Media on Canvas 

I was inspired by the beautiful circular movement of a dancer's flowing skirt, the expression it holds, and the theme of love. This piece began with research inside Rio Carnaval. It really gave me the behind the scenes look at the process of Carnaval for different communities; from the competitiveness and finance stress to the designing of floats, props, costumes, and coming up with a theme. The process is what intrigued me. My theme is love. Love has a story. It comes in different colors, purposes, magnitude, and impact. It's the relationship we have with our friends, family, artistry, significant other, complete strangers or something as simple as the nature that surrounds us. It's a lifelong journey of experiences, growth, and perspective; beginning inward with ourselves as the root.

Installation (2016) 

The mobile exhibit, Street Soul: The Human Side of Homelessness, is the result of an intensive collaboration between vendors at Street Sense who have experienced homelessness first-hand and visual artists at The Sanctuaries. Housed within the traveling I Have a Home Here gallery space — reminiscent of the unstable, constantly-in-motion nature of homelessness — the exhibit weaves the stories of homelessness into visuals of loss, chaos, anxiety, trauma, distrust, waiting, and the ever-present threads of hope. Through this exhibit, which was divided into sections, we invited viewers to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be homeless in this city and present concrete ways for you to help end homelessness in DC.

Section 5: Sanctuary, space for reflection

The final space that was a solo venture of my own is inspired by moments when we're most in touch with our humanity, thoughts, and compassion. It’s the silver lining that always exists. The hope and peace we must hold on to and cultivate. This space is about presence. In times of awareness and injustice, we must follow up with action. We have taken you through the human side of homelessness—the thoughts, challenges, experiences, and trauma. We must use that emotion and understanding as fuel. This space is for taking action. How do we make an impactful difference in the lives of others so they too, can turn their dreams into reality? The Take Action booklet outline ways to stop homelessness in Washington, DC.

Mixed Media on Canvas

This piece was inspired by daily observations and frustrations. From being overwhelmed with constant social media posts that promoted the division among African Americans to walking across the campus of my historically black university and listening to the perpetuation of light-skin versus dark-skin stereotypes. This piece speaks to the essentiality of unity in the diverse and beautiful black population.

Jeremy Darby

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

When I make my illustrations, I use repetition, familiar symbols, typography, rural or urban phrases, and the history and memories of home. I am a black male from Charleston, SC - my cultural upbringing, understanding of history, interest in all things fictional (comic books, movies, cartoons, & cultural mythos) and my fascination of rural phrases, symbolism and context make me the artist I am and play a big part in my creative process.

I make art that retells history for newer minds, captures the present to encourage change and delves into the future for fiction’s sake. I strive for visual storytelling that hasn’t been drawn yet. My medium depends on the what’s needed and the required timeline. My go-to medium is pencil, pen & ink and sometimes watercolor. I aim to make work that speaks to people who strive and struggle in the face and weight of institutionalized oppression. I am influenced and inspired by the same things that brought me up and I aim to create inspiration for those striving forward. My goal is to create concepts that appeal, engage and encourage the interactivity of the viewer to the circumstances of social, political and cultural stances.

Stop Bombs,
Save Families

Pen & ink, red pencil, digital color, and stock photo (2016)

Created in collaboration with fellow Collective artists in response to recent events in Aleppo, Syria. The concept is that of the world watching a live open-casket funeral with many of the victims wide awake and in need of help.


We Defy Trump’d Up... 

Stock image, adobe photoshop & illustrator (2016)

Created in collaboration with a fellow Collective artist. A call to action and platform for people against hate speech to speak and empower themselves and others.

Emanuelle 9

Pen & ink, brush, watercolor, digital color (2015) 

This was created in collaboration with The Charleston Chronicle newspaper in Charleston, SC. It was created in tribute and memorium to the nine lives taken by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuelle African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Downtown Charleston.

The art draws inspiration from the colorfully created stained-glass windows of A.M.E. churches. The church and anvil at the top is the logo of the denomination, which represents the A.M.E. church’s origins started during slavery where services were held in a blacksmith shop.

Empower 'Hoods

Stock photos & photoshop (2016) 

This was made in response to a creative prompt for one of our gatherings in the Collective. I was out-of-state in my hometown (Charleston, SC) and one thing that struck me while home was the continued progression of gentrification of Downtown Charleston. The culture, language, and aesthetic of the black people on the coastal city were being pushed out by real estate companies, hipster business, college residence costs and the issues of “heirs’ property”. Instead of pushing the city’s cultural foundation and workforce out for profit and the illusion of better/safer = whiter/richer; neighborhoods should be empowered and enriched ‘as is’.

Post-Election Chaos 

Pen & ink, red pencil with markers (2016) 

This was made in response to a creative prompt for one of our gatherings in the Collective: What is your response to the 2016 Election and the new President-Elect?

I summed up the past, present, and future political media coverage and responses as chaotic as children in a ball pit. The red and blue balls represent all the votes. One child is trapping everyone in by building a wall. A Trump-like child is beating up a kid. All the children of color are escaping or ignoring the chaos. A proud mom is happy while holding her Trump-like child. There’s graffitti on the inner walls that read, “We tred on u!”, “Forgotten”, and “Keep in!!”


Digital illustration (2014) 

Made in response to police brutality towards black people, specifically the hashtag referencing Eric Garner's death. I wanted to take a widely popular and familiar representation and repurpose its audience for awareness. Plus, for the sake of ‘guerrilla marketing’, it was printed on stickers.

People United Will Never Be Defeated

Pen & ink, watercolor, digital color (2016)

Created in collaboration with The Charleston Chronicle newspaper as cover tributes for MLK Day.

Still We Overcome

Pen & ink, pencil, marker, watercolor (2015)

Created in collaboration with The Charleston Chronicle newspaper as cover tributes for MLK Day.

Holiday’s Strange Fruit

Pen & ink, digital color (2016)

A personal art series called “Interlude.Songstress” that depict a black female singer(s), a line from one of their famous songs and a representation of the lyric with a specific color scheme.

Pictured: Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit.

Jojo Donovan

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

I am a writer and facilitator whose work explores the creative potential uncovered when what has been forced apart is brought together – in the same poem, in the same room, in the same body. I believe in shattering binaries, troubling borders, and interrogating all claims to authoritative truth. I believe in contradiction and paradox as powerful tools for transformation. I believe in magic, where magic is defined as the creative expansion of possibility. And I believe in writing towards that magic, towards the new ways of thinking and believing and acting that become possible when old ideas are held together and cast in a new light.

In both my writing and my facilitation, I am interested in creating space for radical intimacy – space that honors the sacredness of boundaries and consent while opening the possibility of deep and transformative connection. I work to create art that envisions liberation as rooted in tenderness and accountability, that helps to build a world in which we can trust our most authentic selves to be honored, supported, celebrated, and loved. I see writing and facilitation as opportunities to create that world in miniature – within the boundaries of the poem or the workshop, we can share the raw truth we have been trained to keep buried. And the more we carve out space for self-expression and experience the power of shared vulnerability, the more we are able to see, resist, and transform those systems that seek to keep us isolated and contained.

My work is informed by my identity as a queer, non-binary trans woman. By stepping into my truth, my body has become a site of contradiction – the more I learn to hold my fullness, the less fully the world seems able to hold me. Hold as in nurture: as I’ve embraced my trans identity, spaces that once felt like home – or that at least felt neutral, safe enough to navigate freely – have become spaces of struggle, where the reality of my body and how I carry it demand constant physical and emotional defense. But also, hold as in contain: as my sense of possibility expands, as I let go of the constraints that kept me from embracing my truth, the logic of limitation and scarcity so prevalent in this world begins to lose its hold on me. So much of the oppression that defines our society depends on that logic and on our inability to dream ourselves beyond it. Dreaming is not enough, but it is vital – I view both my gender and my writing as sites for the birth of radical imagination, ways to uncover the dreams that will guide the real, gritty, daily work of getting ourselves free.

The writing in this portfolio is concerned primarily with reclamation. Reclamation of spirituality: the religion I was handed worked to sever me from my body, but I find myself crafting a new understanding that sees the spirit in the body, that treats the body as both map and destination in the search for the divine. Reclamation of gender: the struggle to find safe and affirming spaces since coming out led me to begin navigating self-expression from a place of fear, and so a main focus of my writing has been reconnecting to the sense of beauty, possibility, and self-determination at the heart of my trans identity. And, above all, a reclamation of joy. I came to the Collective while grappling with depression, navigating the aftershocks of trauma and abuse, and struggling to manage gender transition within a transphobic society. I have used my time here to write back through the muck in the direction of pleasure – to seek out and celebrate all the ways my body can feel good, and to understand my work for justice as anchored in my capacity for joy.


This poem, a collaboration with fellow Collective artist Nouf Bazaz, arose from our conversations around reclaiming joy. Both of use spoke to the pressures we face when we demonstrate our identities through our clothing - Nouf as a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair, and myself as a femme-presenting trans person. The poem reflects the judgments others project onto our clothing decisions (not only from bigots, but also from well-meaning "allies" who flatten us into objects of pity or symbols of courage), but is written primarily as a demonstration of the joy that drives and animates our identities.


god is a great clay bowl


I am fascinated by creation myths. This piece spilled out as part creation myth and part cautionary tale – a meditation on the power of stories, and on what happens to a community that forgets how to honor and channel that power. We have ignored too many of our most powerful stories, and we have let too many false ones go uncontained and unchallenged. We are drowning in the results.


nothing stopped the spill of his words, and no one stopped to listen.

so his stories leaked into the earth.

what no one would take time to hear the dirt gulped down.

stories do what all waters do: seek out containers. drip, ripple, splash into whatever boundaries are given.

given no boundaries, his words did what all unbound waters do: they spilled. they spread. they rose.

the dirt drank what it could, gulped until it was pregnant with story, until it grew soft and full, then joined in the spilling. each new drop a marshy birth.

the stories swelled up from the earth. became puddles, became streams, became rivers, became flood. all through the night, he spoke. nothing stopped the spill of his words. no one stopped to listen. and so all through the night, the water rose.

those who had not listened woke to find the old man’s stories lapping up the steps of their wooden porches. chickens, clucking angrily into damp feathers, climbed to the tops of their roosts to avoid the waves of ancient tales.

the stories mixed together. eddies of tragedy cut through the trickster’s cunning, proverbs swirled into prophecy, nursery rhymes marched to the beat of war drums. great loves crashed into great betrayals, and the difference between the two, if it had ever been known, was quickly and thoroughly forgotten. children shrieked with playful terror as they dipped their toes into epic poems, as they stuck out their tongues at the fantastic creatures who danced with their boggy reflections.

their terror grew less playful as the stories continued to rise.

taking heed from the chickens, the people began to climb. shingles splashed down into creation myths as families scrambled onto their roofs. windows cracked under the pressure of the words. no one could tell for sure whether the dark objects drifting away under the surface were heirlooms or the stories of heirlooms. no one could tell for sure which would be missed more if lost to the flood.

there was no escaping the old man’s words. there was nothing, now, to stop their spill. and so the stories spilled into the earth. and so the earth spilled them back. when the people could no longer climb, they swam. when they could no longer swim, they drowned.

we have been drowning ever since.

to my queer mothers (revisited)


The lives of other brilliant trans women – their commitment to their truths, their struggle and love and joy – made my self-discovery possible. And nothing in my life has been more joyful than that discovery. But I often catch myself understanding my trans identity only in terms of fear: fear of violence, fear of making others uncomfortable, fear of getting it wrong. This poem was written as an attempt to move beyond that fear by reclaiming my place in a lineage of queer resistance.


My mothers:
I do not know your names. 
I have been trained in smallness.
I have been trained to hollow my bones,
to scoop out my marrow and live in the cramped caves left behind.
I have been trained, so well-trained, in silence.

But I turn back to you, my mothers.
I do not know your names,
but I hear the echo of your lives in my longing.
I long for you, my mothers.

You who refused your training.
You who knew better than to be made small.
You who knew the power of ink and skin to speak when speaking was impossible.
You who spoke – who laughed, screamed, shouted, fucked, whispered, spoke, always spoke
– when speaking was impossible.

You who charged the margins electric.
They stole your homes from you.
They shoved you into corners,
and when they saw the beauty you made of those corners
they tried to steal those too.
So you threw rocks at their windows
and danced in their alleyways.

You could have been made small -
Instead you made life out of the bodies they made targets.
(Was it your bodies they feared,
or the pulsing of the life you made of them?)

And still, my mothers:
I do not know your names.

My mothers. Could I have lived the lives you lived?
I struggle enough with this one,
this life made so much more possible by your lives.
I have stepped, I have tried to step
into the truth of you, the truth of me.
I have named myself your child, your daughter, and still –

so often i am made small.
so often my shame keeps me locked inside these hollow bones.
i forget the flesh of me.
i forget the edges of my skin.
i forget what it is to live in this world.

My mothers, you knew:
In this world,
to live is to collide.

while i spend another day alone in bed,
I imagine the impact of your love.
How you threw your bodies at the world.
How you knew your beauty well enough to make it real.
How you rejected your training and became yourselves.

there is so much of myself i have yet to become.
there is so much of my own name i have yet to learn.
there is fear, so much fear,
stacked like weights on cracking, hollow bones.
a great velvet curtain has fallen from the rafters and pinned me to the stage:
soft and warm. airless. impossible to breathe.

My mothers,
i am so afraid of breathing.
i am so afraid to step into this world.
i am so afraid of the collision that would make my body real.
i am terrified to learn the edges of my skin.
i am terrified to learn where i end and the world begins – terrified
to reclaim that border, to erase that border
with the impact of a life lived fully alive.

i ache to expand as you expanded.
but the first time i wore lipstick in public,
the first man i saw pointed and laughed.
the first time i wore a skirt on a bus,
another man preached to a silent crowd about the dangers of my sins.
when i argued back,
he said he only condemned me because he loved me.

i told him he didn’t get to use that word.

My mothers, i have forgotten how to use that word.
i am so afraid of those who cannot love me
that i hide myself form those who could.
the plates of my chest could collide and birth mountains –
each day i flatten myself instead.

Teach me to love as you have loved, my mothers.
Teach me to throw my body at the world
and cherish the tenderness of every break and every bruise.
Teach me the softness of your calloused hands,
The hands that fought each day for the love they were owed
Yet never stop reaching out to hold and hold
and hold.

Hold me, my mothers.
Teach me your names.

A letter to my first-grade self


I believe in tenderness as a path to liberation – but I struggle so much to be tender with myself. This letter was a chance to practice holding myself the way I ache to be held, to give myself the forgiveness and encouragement and support I need to continue healing. More than anything, I come to writing to practice love. This is what it looks like when I practice loving myself.


Dear Jojo,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you that. I know right now you get angry if anyone calls you anything but Joseph - it’s the name you were given - and that’s okay. It’ll be another couple decades before you find your name, and I thought you might like to hear how it sounds.


It’s a good name, whether you’re ready to hear it or not. No one will tell you this, so I’ll tell you now: you’re allowed to decide what you want to be called. You’re allowed to decide how you want to be seen. How you want to be known. How you want to be named. You’re allowed to decide. And you’re allowed to take your time deciding. You’re allowed to change your mind. Every name you call yourself will be the right one, until it isn’t anymore.

Good news! You’re going to take your time deciding. You’re going to change your mind, which is one of the best things a mind can do. That might be hard for you to understand - you’re going to hear from a lot of people and a lot of places that minds are supposed to be made up. And that’s true, but not in the way the people saying it think. Minds aren’t supposed to be made up like cement, like a thing that gets one chance to spill then has to hold the shape it dries in forever and ever. Cement is a thing humans made up, and it wasn’t the best idea we’ve had. Nothing is supposed to hold one shape forever. Even the hard things are supposed to shift and change. Trust your feet - they’ve always liked walking on the grass more anyway. And when you have to walk on the sidewalk, look for the cracks: they’re the proof that even hard things shift and change.

But Joseph - I’ll call you Joseph from now on, I promise, until you ask me to call you something else - you do get to make up your mind. Over and over, in all the best ways. Make it up: invent it, create it, imagine it real. Make it up like the rules to all the best games: on the fly, as you go, as you need. Make up your mind as a container to hold your play: just enough structure to keep things fun and fair, never so much that they start making too much sense.

Make up your mind like all the best stories in all the best books are made up: it’s not about making them true - not in the yes-no- right-wrong way - it’s about making them so good you can’t put them down. You get to be your own best story, Joseph. You get to find out for yourself what’s true inside you - true in the real way, the deep-belly way, the way a story gets so good you can’t help believing it, so good you have to keep turning the pages, so good you have to find out what comes next. That’s what it means to be alive, Joseph - you get to follow the parts of you that you can’t put down. You get to make yourself up.

Like a game and like a story - I think those will make sense to you, but there’s one more way to make things up that might be harder for you to understand. That’s ok - you can tuck it way for now and come back when you’re ready. You can make up your mind like makeup, like a pretty painted face. All you know about makeup right now is what you’ve been told, and what you’ve been told is that makeup is for girls, and that you’re not a girl - and it’s not for good girls, either, it’s for girls who care too much about what they look like. I’m really, really sorry you’ve been told these things, Joseph. You would have so much fun with makeup, but you’ll believe what you’re told, and you won’t get to play that way until you’re much much older. Even after I learned about makeup - how fun it is to try on faces, to paint myself onto myself - I’ve still had a hard time letting myself play. I’m so, so sorry that you have to wait. I promise I’ll do a better job of playing, so when you get here you’ll get to have all the fun you didn’t get to have before.

But what does all of that have to do with making up your mind? Makeup is deciding for yourself how you’re going to be seen. Makeup is a choice - wear it when you want to, don’t when you don’t. Makeup is spending time with your body, and this will be hard for you to understand, but it’s okay to spend time with your body. Really, it’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s beautiful. Makeup doesn’t make you beautiful, but it lets you play with the beauty that’s there, and Joseph there is so much beauty there in you to play with. I’m so sorry that it will take you so long to learn how to believe in your own beauty enough to play with it. I’m so sorry that I’m still struggling to learn. But good news - you’re always learning. We’re always learning. You’ll get here, and you’ll remember that you’re allowed to be beautiful, and you’ll remember that you’re allowed to play. You get to makeup your mind - you get to decide for yourself how you’re going to be seen. By yourself and by the world. Always always always, you get to choose. You get to spend time with your body. You get to be beautiful. You get to make your beauty loud, painted, pretty. Whenever you want, and only then. However much you want, and no more than that.

Three more quick things on makeup: it’s not just for girls; nobody gets to tell you whether you’re a girl or not; and whether you’re a girl or boy or something else, you don’t need to spend so much time worrying about whether you’re a good one. It will be a long time before you understand this, and that’s okay. Tuck it away for now. Learn about seeds instead, how big beautiful things come out of tough little nuts. Boys and girls - that’s a tough little nut, but there’s something big and beautiful waiting to find its way out of it. Out of you. Look at flowers and you’ll start to understand.

Learn about your bones too. How they hurt a little, when you grow, but how you still want to grow. I won’t tell you whether you end up growing to be 6′6′’ like Michael Jordan and your cousin Matt, but I’ll tell you there are other things that will hurt, bone-deep. Some of those hurts will mean you’re growing, and other ones will just mean you’re being hurt. It’s confusing, I know. I’m sorry it will take so long to learn how to tell the difference. What I can tell you is this: if it hurts, it matters. If it hurts in your bones, it really matters. Listen to what hurts. It means your body has something to tell you. And you’re allowed to listen, Joseph. It will be hard for you to understand - I’m so, so sorry for how hard it will be to understand - but you’re allowed to listen. The way you listen to mom and dad, to your teachers, to the priest at Mass, to the words in the books - you’re allowed to listen just as hard to yourself. You’re allowed to listen to your body. You’re allowed to listen to your bones.

And Joseph – I forgive you for all the ways you won’t listen. I forgive you for all the hurts that just hurt. I forgive you, and I’m sorry, and I’m so proud of you, so so proud. Because even though you’ll learn not to listen, even though so much will hurt, even though you’ll spend so much time locked up tight inside yourself to hide from yourself, you’ll get here. You got here. You’re going to remember, Joseph. You’re going to listen to the wrong ideas, you’re going to try so hard to make up your mind like concrete, you’re going to try so hard to freeze yourself where you’re spilled - and still, you’re going to remember. You’re going to remember what’s already there, bone-deep. You’re going to make up your mind. The seeds are planted. They’re going to grow. Your games are waiting to be played. Your stories are waiting to be told. Your lipstick, too - even that’s waiting for you. You’re going to make up your mind. You’re going to love what you make up.

I love you,


Nouf Bazaz

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

I am interested in the art of storytelling and the power of stories to transform and liberate the self. My own story is deeply shaped by my experiences with individuals and communities that have endured personal and collective violence. As a counselor, I continuously bear witness to trauma and am in awe of the healing process that unfolds in part through storytelling. My scholarly work also explores the psychology, politics and ethics of storytelling.

Through mediums including painting, embroidery, poetry, theatre and more, I draw upon themes of war, migration, trauma, survival, strength and the beauty within us and around us. Like any story, my art involves an intricate process of layering – a layering of experiences, narratives, words, colors and mediums. It is a reflection of stories that have been passed down to me and of stories that surround me. Over the years, I have worked with refugees, women in conflict zones, incarcerated males, girls who have been sexually trafficked, indigenous women and more. My art is as much a personal reflection as it is part of a wider revolution.

To Joy, with Love

Collaborative Poem

This poem, a collaboration with fellow Collective artist Jojo Donovan, arose from our conversations around reclaiming joy. 


Acrylic on Canvas

In Defense of Kashmiri Man

Spoken Word Poem, performed with Osa Obaseki

Presumed guilty by birth
As a child, suspect
Where is your father?
Does he come at night?
Tell us
Does he carry a gun?
Tell us

Mother beaten and dragged
Sister stripped down and pinned down
Copper wire strung through his penis
Screaming through electric shocks
A cocktail of sweat, urine and blood

Another year, hundreds more
Shot down in the streets
Beaten and blinded
Where are you going?
What were you doing last night?
Tell us
Were you throwing stones?
Tell us

We cry, women and children
Are among the dead
Brightly clothed and bound
Not deserving to die
What about man?
Man is a monster
Not like the sages before him
He is a savage

Kashmiri man
Presumed guilty,
Until presumed dead

Naomi Chandel Kumar

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

My art was born in the spirit of giving. Initially, I began crafting to make gifts for loved ones. My love for art and artistic exploration continued to grow throughout my life. I am self-taught. I dabble in many materials and art-forms, such as charcoal/ink/pencil drawings, but gravitate towards acrylic paintings. I began commissioned work in 2014. I also do mehndi (henna) work and refurbish home goods. As of recently, I have also begun work in logo/tattoo design and woodcarving. Writing has always been a mode of stress relief for me and I have written poems since I was a child. I’m beginning to share my poetry publicly and often paired with my paintings.

Based halfway between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD, halfway between my Indian ethnicity and American nationality, I create worlds of my own. My art explores the divine feminine, the ideology that the feminine is sacred in our life-giving abilities; the natural world of plants and animals; and abstract expressionism. I like to represent People of Color in my artwork and heavily use metallic acrylic paint. This adds an otherworldly element to my work. As a lifelong lover of languages and cultures, I love to incorporate elements from my heritage and travels into my work. I want the viewer to be able to understand some roots of my art, but let their own imaginations fill in the rest. Artists on both sides of my family work heavily in folk arts in India and these motifs, designs, and patterns often make their way into the details. The devil is truly in the details. I like to add personally significant details to each piece I create for someone else. Goddess, ethereal, soulful, witchy, floral, spiritual, opulent, colorful, queen, empress and magical vibes are what you will find in exploring my artwork.

In 2016, I joined The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C. This organization combines art, spirituality, and diversity towards positive impacts for social justice. My first project with them was through their Visual Arts Team. We joined forces with artists from Street Sense DC, an organization that empowers homeless individuals, to create an installation in a mobile school-bus about the journey of homelessness. This was my first experimentation with collaboration and installation work. The experience was humbling, informative and effective in changing how housed individuals interact with homeless individuals. With a background in sociology and international development, it is integral to me in social justice work to be a true ally to causes and to work with those affected in creating solutions. Later in the year, I applied and was accepted to The Sanctuaries Collective. This seven-month program is teaching us how to combine art and human rights work in meaningful, impactful ways. This is my ultimate endeavor and I feel very blessed to have found a vehicle to answer my calling. In ways, my art journey has just begun. I have a feeling I will surprise myself with what art-forms I get into next!

Goddess Moon 

18 x 24” Acrylic, Ink, Beads, Glass, Moonstone on Canvas

This piece was created for the interview for the Sanctuaries Collective. The prompt was “What is Sacred to You?” I embraced this prompt literally and figuratively. I descend from the Chandela dynasty in India. Chandela means “of the Moon” in Sanskrit. Our lineage claims its descent directly from the Moon herself. Long before I knew this, I had a special relationship with the Moon. In my current spirituality, I do a lot of crystal work, which are tied to Moon phases as well. Water has always been a place of calm and sacredness for me. The tides, too, are tied to the Moon. The knowledge of my history, my culture, my freedom for my spirituality and self to evolve and grow, water, the Moon, and the crystals I use to connect deeper to the Universal flow of energy are all sacred to me. They are all tied together and this supports my deepest philosophy: All Things Are One.

Veiled King

18 x 24” Acrylic on Canvas

I follow a photographer on Instagram (Eric Berry) who took a close-up picture of a man in a blue keffiyah in Chefchaouen, Morocco (also known as the “blue city.”) I couldn’t get his face out of my mind for days and couldn’t figure out why. The photo was striking. Falling asleep one night, I realized I needed to paint him. That hadn’t dawned on me immediately as I don’t focus on realism in my work. With Eric’s blessing, I completed this painting in a few days. As I was bringing him to life, I learned his history. I realized two things about him: he had his own magic which could not be contained, and he reminded me of the King from the book The Alchemist by Paolo Cohello. The book takes place in Spain and Morocco. I had read it for the first time in Spain and it had been my favorite book ever since. I asked Eric if he had ever read the book and he responded that he had been reading it for the first time while he was in Morocco. The phrase “All Things Are One” is from The Alchemist.

To Lead and Love

24 x 36” Acrylic on Canvas

This was a commissioned work for an old friend from high school. She gave me very simple guidelines – she wanted a painting to represent the relationship between a mother and child. She is a single mother and I can only imagine the difficulty of that position, so I wanted to show a celebration of the love and strength of a mother to remind her of that every day. She leads her son into the sun, and he is two hues on the top and bottom halves of his body to represent that she will be with him through good and bad. Goddess Esmerelda is adorned in sacred braids and tattoos of protection for herself and her son Michael.


11 x 14” Acrylic on Canvas

This was a commissioned piece for a friend who gave me complete creative control of the subject and the color scheme of the painting. She represents Devi, the concept of the all-powerful feminine in Hinduism. She is the divine feminine personified.

A short poem I wrote to accompany this piece:

They had heard of her in every pocket and peak of the world: the jungles to the mountains, rivers to the desert. They each called her a different name. The Sacred, Divine Feminine ruled over and within. The Moon as her rider and the core-of- the-Earth her passion, she was both the ground beneath her and the cosmos above her. They looked to her for wisdom, for clarity, for love, for strength. They looked too close and they saw themselves: She resided in each of them.

Fierce Heart 

11 x 14” Ink, Charcoal, Colored Pencil, Pencil on Layered Paper

This was a commissioned piece for a friend who lived through a terrible medical ordeal. He was paralyzed on half of his body, but made the quickest recovery his doctors had ever seen. Now, he has nearly all his abilities back. He was assisted by an amazing medical team and so much love and support, but ultimately his own positivity and will to get better is what accounts for his incredible recovery. The Lion is considered very sacred in Ethiopia, where he is from. It is revered for its quiet strength, regality, and intelligence. This was the inspiration for this piece. Fine details are at the core of my work and that is on full display in this work.


10 x 10” Charcoal, Acrylic, Colored Pencil, Bindhi on Black Cardstock

This piece was in response to the first prompt we had for The Sanctuaries Collective: Create an artistic representation of your favorite quality about yourself. My favorite quality about myself is that I am an uplifter of mind and spirit. I believe in good spirits, it takes nothing from yourself to spread joy and good vibes. As someone who has battled many internal demons, I know the importance of even small words of encouragement, smiles, or hugs. I try to emulate how I would like to be treated. Many loved ones, strangers, and peers have thanked me for my willingness to take an extra step of kindness. As all of our actions affect the energy of the world, it is in all of our best interests to work together in positive ways. When I have some strength to spare, I know there are many who need it and I don’t hesitate to offer.

March On 


This piece was written in response to a prompt for the Sanctuaries Collective: “What is Sacred to You?” Since this was also our interview question, it was interesting to revisit it. This was written during the time that US politics was starting to implode on a national scale. Many people felt defeated by the spikes in racism, discrimination, and lack of empathy shown by those in power, especially towards People of Color (PoC). I did not. I do not believe that there was that option: a thousand women and men faced obstacles much greater than this in their lifetimes to achieve the rights we have today as PoC. What I felt as I wrote this was that we may be up against dire odds, but we have the freedom to fight for love. Freedom of mind is the most sacred space in a free society. To contribute positively, we must continue to protect and defend what is good in the world. Freedom, being an empowered individual, the soul and energy of the world, and defending the sacred are all sacred to me. Being a woman is also sacred to me. The exploration of my femininity is what has led to some of my best work. Mothers are the most sacred part of any family and they endure endless battles in silence. I want readers to be able to feel strengthened reading of her power and the power of her love.

We are born from struggle.
She felt pain like she’d never known to bring you into this world;
A world she knew may never love you,
A world that was built by oppressors to keep you.

She would not accept it.
In her heart, she believed, the love born for her own could be victorious against any hate.
The world was a jungle; beautiful and wild, terrifying and mysterious, quiet and loud.
She held you close and swam upstream.

She reached past the millennia.
This world, they thought, surely must be different.
Beyond and far enough from tortured times.
But she knew better:
She knew what truths lay behind veils of false histories told
and silent acquiescence.

To each and each child born, they would be shadowed in struggle.
She gave you protection and the world: now you must pass on life.
With their truth laid bare now, she set you in the river. It’s your time.
You will swim with your own upstream, and they with theirs,
never breaking the unspoken promise
of leaving the world better than when you came into it.

You hold the hands of the ones you love
in the face of all evil;
that which seeks to drain the universe & our souls of color.
Their hands are olive, deep yellow, ebony, ivory, honey caramel, desert red.
You hold your line across the river’s width, the chain never breaking.
All of you see now that the struggle has not ended, nor may it ever.
But with all your strength combined,
you wade through, slow and steady, until you reach the riverbank
and see the sun rise in Every color of the world.

Kenneth Gonzales

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

For over two decades, I have forged a battle with the English language. It has been my family's closest survival tool, but it is also a reminder of my country's violent, colonial past, present and future, as well as of my own.

When I first migrated to this country, my English vocabulary was limited to movements of my head, nodding "yes" and shaking "no." By the third grade, my English had progressed to the point where teachers felt I no longer needed to be enrolled in ESL classes. By middle school, English had become my favorite subject. By the time I graduated high school, I had grown so distant from my native tongue and comfortable with the English language that I bore few, if any traces of Tagalog.

I believe that at the heart of any culture is the language through which people communicate. Writing, whether in the form of poetry, fiction, or plays, has become an opportunity to reclaim and revive a language that was forcefully taken away from me. The erasure of languages is the greatest threat to our growing global diversity. I write to ensure that my history, my family's history, and my country's history are preserved, expanded upon and shared.

A Mother's Teardrop

Teen Fiction

Synopsis: Lucas was 16 years old when he found out he was Undocumented. Prior to that discovery, he was your average high school boy simply trying to get a girlfriend, fit in, and get on his high school basketball team. This discovery would lead him to a path to uncover his past and his family’s history. Along the way, he meets the most peculiar characters that teach him some of life’s most important values. A Mother’s Teardrop is a story of love, family, and healing – important reminders especially living within a post-truth era.


After the third grade, I moved again, this time within the borders of Illinois. One would think that compared to 13,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean that the move 15 minutes away would be so much easier. It wasn’t. But it also wasn’t going to be the last goodbye I had to make. I moved after the fourth grade, and again after the 6th grade, and finally in the 8th grade.

With each move I grew resentful of my mother’s choices. It became a pattern in our relationship, but I started to think of her life decisions as bullets I was simply missing. As soon at one made contact, that would be the end of our relationship as we knew it.

It was just before I asked for my social security number, while perusing through my mom’s stuff (it was a habit I picked up as a child), that I ran across some wedding photos. I was shocked; my mom never really talked to me about my biological dad. I also did not care to ask about any information but seeing the picture made me curious. But after carefully examining them, I realized how recent these photographs were. The man in the picture was not of my biological father but a different man completely – one that looked 30 years her senior. I was not aware my mother dating again especially one that was serious enough to have her re-marry.

On the day I ran into these photos, I took them from their hiding place, and I waited for my mother to come home. Each day, at around 7:00pm, the soft rumbles coursing through our house would signal that my mom had arrived home. It was the sounds of our garage door opening.

The lights were turned off.

I was inside my mother’s office.

I heard her footsteps nearing.

When I heard the door click open, I turned the chair I was sitting in around alarming her so much she let out a loud shriek.

“Oh my god Lucas. Ano gingawa mo dian.” Oh my God Lucas! What’re you doing there?

I took the box of her wedding photos out from her dresser, and it was placed in front of me on her desk. Black embroidery tangled itself around the edges of the photo album, the soft casing reflecting in the light of her office.

I looked down at the black box, and so did she her face revealing a surprised look.

And I said, “You’ve got some explaining to do.”

“Paano mo no hanap yan?” How did you find that?

I knew and she knew that she couldn’t turn this on me so I said, “How did you get remarried without telling me?”

She paused before saying anything. There was something in how long she paused between her first breath and her first word that said, “He is old enough not to hide this from.”

Still I Rise

Director / Playwright Notes

This outline helps actors unpack the diverse stories and complexities of marginalized identities using Maya Angelou's beloved poem, "Still I Rise."




Even before I could speak,
I knew I was a writer.
Because writing begins in the imagination
and dies on the paper.

There is so much to be understood
against the emptiness
of blank pages,
in silences,
and the in-between.

I am only lucky
when I capture the small fragments
that mean anything at all.

Dejah Greene

Photograph: Darryl Felton

Photograph: Darryl Felton

Artist Statement

As a woman with a racing mind and vivid imagination, I needed a way to express the beauty I saw around me. As a black woman who suffers from mental illness, I also needed a way to express the feelings I couldn’t form into words. Photography was my voice. I learned with a 35mm Canon film camera and manually developed my own photographs. Now, I shoot digital as well.

The themes in my photography range from showing the beauty in simplicity to showing different kinds of beauty in blackness. I photograph black women to show that they are more than what the mainstream media portrays them to be. I explore the personalities of different women with my camera and I give them a way to show how they want to be portrayed unapologetically. Blackness comes in many different forms and my goal is to portray them in a positive light.

Other themes in my work depict the struggles and complexities of mental illness. Sometimes it is difficult to put feelings into words, so other mediums are needed. Utilizing photography as a tool of communication and personal expression has allowed me to portray the good, the bad, and the ugly of struggling with mental illness.

Throughout my work, I try to express feelings that may be too abstract to say in words. I enjoy documenting all walks life through my lens.

Portrait of Steven

Portrait of Steven

As I Am Project: Dziko

As I Am Project: Dziko

Portrait of Diamon

Portrait of Diamon

Portrait of Shahem

Portrait of Shahem

As I Am Project: Corinne

As I Am Project: Corinne

As I Am Project: Nandi

As I Am Project: Nandi