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Shelter Projects: SJ Henderson, “Define Pandemic?”

The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole magazine, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.

Statement by SJ Henderson: I am an MSW/MPH student at UGA. I have sat in classrooms with students aspiring to be in “helping” professions and watched some display biases that are extremely unhelpful. I have watched debates on the news that are more about winning an argument than finding truth. I have seen how it is easier to admit to inequities in retrospect than in the moment, and I am tired of waiting for tomorrow. We are in a pandemic that has [infected] millions worldwide and forced us all to have time with ourselves. It is exhausting to think of how many have died and will continue to die while we search for answers to the wrong questions. I am discouraged to believe that this poem I am sharing will change anything, but this has been a therapeutic process for me. I hope it will mean something to someone else too.

Below, listen to SJ Henderson’s spoken word performance of “Define Pandemic?”

SJ Henderson

Flagpole: Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you get into spoken word?

SJ Henderson: I was born and raised in Richmond, VA. I always felt like I was a very socially awkward person, and I was initially upset that poetry was my gift. I knew that I didn’t want to write poetry in a book—I felt people needed to hear it from my mouth, and that made me think this gift was for someone who was more social than I was. However, I had a very tough home life, and this was my outlet. Also, it was the first thing that I felt I was better at than anyone I knew, and I was so good at it that my principal in elementary school told me my fourth grade year that she wanted me to write a poem for my fifth grade graduation; it was my first time performing.
Fast forward to when I went to college, I was well-known and appreciated by my peers for my poetry. I realized that this gift was actually a great way to connect to the world, but still be introverted. I remember getting standing ovations, or walking through crowds with my elders in tears, or people coming to me and sharing their stories because they were so touched. My experiences in college (Alabama A&M University) as a spoken word artist were invaluable, my peers showed me how powerful my words were, and it made me want to make sure that I continued to be responsible with my words. 

Flagpole: What led you to pursue degrees in social work and public health? Do you often find these two areas of your life overlapping or fueling each other?

SJH: I did many internships in my undergraduate years and decided, after an internship at the CDC, to transition from the medical field to the public health field. I felt public health was more of a proactive approach to health than medicine, and I wanted to prevent the issues, not treat them. I added social work because I thought it was a great addition to public health, would further develop me professionally, and make me an attractive applicant for jobs. 
For me, these two professions go hand in hand. In fact, it is hard for me to separate them at times. However, this is not the case for some of my peers who are only majoring in one or the other. In this case, it helps to be in classes with students who are not dual majors because I am challenged to think of the same issues, but find solutions that accommodate both perspectives. Being able to help people from different professions come to a solution together that resolves the issue but makes sense to them according to their professional guidelines, theories, etc. can be difficult, but it is a useful skill to master. It not only makes you a great leader, but it makes you a great team member; both are important.

Flagpole: With “Define Pandemic” in mind, what role do you see the arts (spoken word, visual art, music, etc.) potentially serving in the effort to expose and correct inequities experienced by the Black community?

SJH: This is an interesting question. I have mixed feelings about how the arts impact real change. I stray away from the idea that it is exposing inequities because I feel the overwhelming issue is not that people are not aware, but that they simply do not want to be aware, or that they want the awareness to come in a form that is digestible to them. What I mean is that even people who appear to be well-intended in regard to learning about marginalized groups, want to feel “comfortable” or “safe” when you discuss these issues with them. So, the arts are great for that, but then they kind of aren’t. There are people that will receive the things I said in “Define Pandemic,” but would reject them if I offered the same words in a direct conversation. There are also people who will love this poem but continue to act in ways that are contrary to the sentiments this poem attempts to convey. 

Flagpole: Last year, North Carolina A&T State University showcased “Letters to Kalief,” [teaser video below] a docudrama you created based on the story of Kalief Browder, during an event with guest speakers who discussed mass incarceration, mental health stigma with Black men and the collateral effects of imprisonment. What was your experience like producing this project?

SJH: It was a unique experience. I had never done a film and did not intend to do this film originally; it sort of just happened. I had such an attachment to the Kalief Browder story that I wrote a collection of poems that turned into a script. I also interviewed his brother, Akeem Browder, because I really wanted to understand how his death impacted his family. It was heartbreaking. 
On the business side of it, I learned how important it is to find the right team. I learned how important it is to read contracts. And I gained a whole new appreciation for people who organize events.

Flagpole: What sort of work do you do with The Cottage, Sexual Assault & Children’s Advocacy Center? How have the organization and the people it serves been impacted by the pandemic? 

SJH: I really appreciate these questions; I’ll begin with the latter. I was very worried about the clients The Cottage serves during the pandemic. The pandemic made some people more vulnerable; particularly, children and adults who are enduring abuse within their homes. I was very sad by the thought of this over the summer. Also, for people who need in-person connections, as added therapy to their healing process, they were limited in their ability to get that this past summer. I also think about people who use their job and busy schedules to escape thoughts of past abuse that may have been completely overwhelmed by those emotions this past summer. 
We provide direct service in our office such as group therapy, so the pandemic also impacted our ability to do this. Somethings cannot just be turned off, even for a pandemic, so it is a very complicated situation. We legally had to do certain things, but we still have clients that need help and need support. 
I began my position in May as a Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator. My main job was managing our hotline advocates; we have a 24/7 crisis hotline. I also began thinking about ways we could engage with the community virtually. This ties into my current position as Special Projects Coordinator; I have transitioned into specifically focusing on community engagement, although I still help with recruiting and training hotline advocates. I also helped to create a task force that addresses the intersection of racism and sexual violence. As you can imagine, I am very excited about this task force.