As a performance poet, community organizer, and activist, Walela Nehanda discovered how powerful words could be at a young age when they started writing spoken word. Now, in addition to using their poetry as a recovery tool to deal with personal trauma as well as physical battles against leukemia, Walela has also fought to use their voice as a way to organize their community and bring strength to those who need it most. They spoke with Squarespace about uncovering their passion, setting boundaries, and the power of a combined effort.
SQUARESPACE: When did you first become interested in spoken word as a form of expression?
WALELA NEHANDA: I was in New York visiting friends in 2013 and they said we were going to a competitive collegiate poetry slam. In my head, I was like, “This is going to be whack.” At that point, my only idea of poetry and spoken word poetry was created by dead white men, so there was little for me to relate to. But when I saw everyone, particularly the Black people performing, it really opened me up to an entire world I didn’t know I existed. I went home and wrote my first poem, which was a means of me coping with sexual assault. I found a poetry venue in Los Angeles and began performing consistently. It was an unparalleled level of cathartic relief that I really wasn’t used to and so I kept coming back and kept writing.
SQSP: How has your spoken word helped you manage emotionally during the global pandemic?
WN: I was 19 years old when I first started writing spoken word and becoming a performance poet. I was on a national poetry slam team by the time I was 22. I have a lot of critiques of the community at large and so, when I got diagnosed with cancer, I distanced myself. In therapy, I realized poetry was unearthing feelings I wasn’t aware of but other forms of writing actually helped me cope.
So as I’ve gotten older and especially during the pandemic, I’ve become more interested in:
a. transforming how we are accustomed to viewing spoken word — it’s a bigger world than those online videos of slam poetry of one person in front of a mic — so I’ve been trying to push myself to present poetry in new ways, which resulted in my EP;
b. I’ve been delving into other forms of writing as a means of healing — such as essays, novels, scripts, and giving myself that freedom to not only be a poet has been really helpful for my imagination
c. I think it’s also acknowledging poetry and art can only go so far. Sure, they can help if I feel really out of touch with myself, but my emotional management is more so rooted in what I’ve learned in therapy, help from my psychiatrist, help from my oncologist, help from my bone marrow transplant coordinators, support from friends, and more.
SQSP: You’ve written about the ways in which mutual aid has helped you navigate the COVID-19 crisis. How has your community supported you during this difficult time?
WN: With the start of the pandemic, there was a ton of hoarding that was literally affecting the lives of immunocompromised people. I tried buying my usual things: masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray, but they were not available. I became extremely anxious and started panicking because obviously this was a nightmare. I put out a call for help on social media and it blew up. I got my needs met in less than an hour. I was pretty shocked — in a good way — because it made me feel incredibly loved and supported in a world that tends to not care about disabled people. I remember thinking: well I’m not possibly the only one experiencing this. That resulted in me making social media posts where people were saying what their needs were and were getting linked to people in their area willing to help. That eventually turned into a shared doc and over 200 people have been helped and have had needs met beyond disinfectant items but many times food, money, housing, and more. It’s a project I’ve since had to unfortunately step away from (but is in good hands) as I’m on break from organizing now until a year after my transplant. The work I did wasn’t the first of its kind and won’t be the last. But I think community support has been THE thing that has been helping those struggling make it through — more than anything else.
SQSP: You’ve worked as a community organizer and leader. What advice would you give someone who’s looking to get more involved in their own community?
WN: I wouldn’t call myself a leader because I just don’t think I’ve contributed enough compared to those who have preceded me to be at that level. However, the advice I’d give someone is: join a grassroots organization, look at their politics, their goals, look the work they are doing, what is their internal structure like, what is their actual relationship to the community at large, and do those things fall in alignment with yourself and what you seek to accomplish.
Two other critical parts I wish I learned 4+ years ago are:
a. Humble yourself: a lot of people get really excited about movement work and unlearning what we’ve been taught and sometimes that results in this pious, holier-than-thou attitude — trust me, I had it too — and it just makes everyone’s job and lives easier when we choose to humble ourselves in this work especially as this work is ultimately service work and requires a certain amount of maturity to critique and self critique so that we all can do better.
b. Be wary of burnout and don’t push yourself too hard. Similar to what I said before, it can feel very exciting to start organizing and we will often overlook our own needs — like rest — because we are so committed to the work. Commitment is great. But what is commitment if you burn yourself out? There’s an underrated importance in understanding we are striving for long term sustainability which means organizers have to take care of themselves too or we need organizations who have in place some ability to help organizers’ needs be met.
SQSP: During an era of social distancing, how has your online platform changed the way you interact with your friends, fans, and supporters?
WN: I was immunocompromised pre-pandemic, so social distancing was fairly simple to get used to because it didn’t feel too out of the ordinary. I’m also very introverted. I don’t need to be around people physically to feel fulfilled. I definitely have found myself video chatting with my friends way more often than I would have before. As far as being online, I’ve just started becoming more interactive such as doing teach-ins every other week or once a month on live. I created subscription-based content because I lost my main source of income and that’s been a really dope way paired with my website for my work to continue on in the best capacity I can. But other than that, not much has changed because not much needed to change. I think maybe the biggest thing is I actually started enforcing my boundaries a lot more online. These are stressful unprecedented times and as someone who is likely going to be having a bone marrow transplant in late September, I don’t necessarily have the same patience for people online violating my guidelines and boundaries as I used to. So I guess I can say I’ve prioritized self-preservation in a way I haven’t before and I’m really proud of myself for that.