Women Making Moves highlights how women and girls of color are raising their voices to improve the health and lives of many in the areas of sexual/reproductive health, holistic wellness, feminism, activism, entrepreneurship, the arts and sciences, and more.
Our February 2012 Women Making Moves! interview is with Taja Lindley. Taja has been mentioned on my blog a couple of times (Check out her awesome guest post!) and she also participated in my 2011 Blog Reader Survey contest by giving away two pairs of her beautiful hand crafted earrings to the winner of the contest.
Taja is a young queer woman of color, daughter of a single mother and the eldest of three sisters. She is acutely aware of the challenges facing women today and is excited about transcending these challenges with art, critical thinking, healing and entrepreneurship. As a self-taught mixed-media artist, performer, full-spectrum doula and activist, Taja is inspiring and aspiring wellness, creativity and reproductive justice. She founded Colored Girls Hustle which uses art, writing and activism to honor the creations, adorn the bodies and affirm the strengths of women and girls of color.
I first met Taja while volunteering as an abortion doula for The Doula Project . She and I are also members of the New York chapter of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. Taja is an amazing, talented, and awesome person to know. Read more about Taja, learn more about her passions, and be inspired.
What was a defining moment that propelled you onto the career path you’re on now?
It’s impossible for me to pick a single moment. Where I am today is an accumulation of happenstance, circumstance and intention so there have been several turning points in my journey.
I’ve always had a social justice orientation, speaking up when something wasn’t right or ethical, especially when I attended a racist high school in Georgia. When I read Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts in college it changed the course of my undergraduate study. It was the first time I read about the historic and recent attacks on Back women’s reproductive autonomy. As the daughter of a single mother, I could relate to Roberts’ analysis about how Black single-parent families headed by women are pathologized. After I read the book, I began doing research about reproductive justice (RJ) and I fell in love. RJ has since inspired me to become a doula and fight for systemic policy changes that support women of color and our families.
For me, reproductive justice is achieved when we have autonomy over all of our creations, including the things we create through our art, with our hands, through our labor. In this way, RJ is connected to both my activism and art.
During college, I was a type A, OCD worry-wart who was more concerned about being focused than being free. So although I had an interest in art courses, I didn’t allow myself to take them because I couldn’t fathom how it fit into my policy advocate career trajectory. So when I graduated, I picked up some do-it-yourself books on painting and began experimenting with acrylic paint in my bedroom after work. I practiced, tried new things, bought more books, following my intuition. It was the first time I allowed myself to be free and it felt good. That is how I began my journey in art and, as a self-taught artist, experimentation and DIY books are a cornerstone of my art practice.
Colored Girls Hustle uses activism, art, and writing to empower women and girls of color. What was your initial vision behind Colored Girls Hustle, and how did it come to fruition?
My vision with Colored Girls Hustle is to bring art and creativity into the reproductive justice (RJ) movement by:
building an analysis and practice of RJ that expands to include ALL that we create through entrepreneurship and creativity, as well as through pregnancy and parenting
mobilizing art and creativity in our communities to find personal power (within myself and others) and to inspire personal transformation
leveraging art as an entry point for our communities to participate in the RJ movement
I was inspired to create Colored Girls Hustle because I was struggling to find a space where I could authentically be both an artist and an activist, and I began to think of ways in which these two aspects of myself complement one another and intersect. Our communities need more creative practices to heal and transform; our movement for reproductive justice needs to be more accessible to people with multiple literacies; and we need to make more space for celebrating our bodies, sharing our joys, affirming our identities and honoring our strengths. Art is a way to do all of those things and Colored Girls Hustle uses my art in this way.
Right now, Colored Girls Hustle is a platform for my artwork, writing and activism. My goal is to offer services and to collaborate with other organizations in the future.
It’s Career Day at a nearby school, and you’ve been invited to speak to a classroom of 13-year-old girls. How would you describe your career to them in a way that excites them and makes them want to learn more?
I’d start by explaining that I’m an artist and activist who fights for change for women and girls to be empowered and healthy. I enjoy participatory presentations so I’d then facilitate a conversation with the girls about what they think is the most important issue impacting girls at their school. Is it violence? Sex or pregnancy? Unhealthy lunch options? I would then have them get into small groups and discuss what they each thought was the most important issue and talk in their groups about why it exists. In their groups I’d have them pick their favorite, or most important, issue that was shared and come up with a poem, skit, or visual art to talk about what causes this problem and what should be done to fix it.
After the young women share their creative works we would debrief and talk about what we learned and how the girls felt about the exercise. This is when I’d share my artwork and what it means for me, personally and politically. This would lead into a conversation about some of the issues I think are important for women and girls of color (i.e. safe sex, abortion access, healing), and bring in my experiences as a doula, writer and activist.
You’re very involved in the healing aspect of empowering women and girls of color, and one way you’ve helped to support women is by being a doula. Can you share more about your work as a doula?
I identify as a full-spectrum doula, which means I work with women across the spectrum of pregnancy, from abortion to birth. I’m a DONA trained birth doula and received my abortion doula training from The Doula Project in NYC, where I am currently an active volunteer-doula and a member of the Leadership Circle.
Being a doula is challenging and rewarding work. As a woman who has never been pregnant, I knew I needed to be more grounded in my political beliefs and activism and I was inspired to be a doula as a way to be more connected to the everyday lived experiences of women making the decision to terminate a pregnancy or carry their pregnancy to term.
My work on the frontlines as a doula has affirmed what I’ve known all along: the ideologies and politics of abortion, rather than facts, are informing policy. From anti-choice fictions about women’s decision-making, to pro-choice anxiety about dealing with the reality that women grapple with guilt and loss after an abortion procedure, public policy debates are not always rooted in the real experiences of women.
But more importantly, I get to make a real impact in women’s lives beyond advocacy and research. For abortions, I am in the procedure room, affirming women’s strengths, coaching them through the discomfort of the procedure, and, for those that want it, a listening ear. For many women, these moments can be lonely and a doula’s presence can be comforting and healing.
My experience as a doula informs my activism and I am thankful for the privilege to support women in this way. Doing this work gives me an accurate understanding of how women are negotiating their bodily integrity and processing their experiences in birth and abortion.
When (and how) did you make the decision to live life on your own terms?
At the end of 2011, my job of three years was coming to an end and it was an exciting and scary moment all at once. While I am currently not working full-time I am thankful that the job ended because it was not aligned with my life’s purpose.
As I was transitioning out of employment, I was thinking of new ways of living. I am dissatisfied with working for the sole purpose of having a job. It’s draining and depressing to spend 40+ hours a week doing something that has no relevance or meaning for your life. So while I respect the hustles we take on to make ends meet, I am a firm believer in pursuing purpose and self-actualization rather than employment alone.
While working full-time I made a commitment to myself: although my job at the time did not represent what I wanted to do professionally, I would make time in the evenings and weekends to discover, explore and pursue my interests. I began painting more frequently, tried out new art techniques, joined Body Ecology, made jewelry, and created the Colored Girls Hustle website to share my work with the world. I volunteered more with the Doula Project and became more active in local reproductive justice activism. Although this felt like another job, I decided that I am worthy of happiness and deserve to be fulfilled; and in order to do that, I need to live with authenticity and be in the integrity of my passions.
You’re one of the newest members of the Body Ecology performance ensemble. Can you share more about your experiences thus far in Body Ecology, and how it’s shaped your work with Colored Girls Hustle and being a doula?
Body Ecology (BE) is a performing arts ensemble of women of African descent and we are using our lived experiences to create transformative performances for our community. Basically, I work with a bunch of dope women of color. The foundation of our process for creating performance work is sisterhood. We’re currently working on our RingShout for Reproductive Justice Campaign, and we have a show coming up March 9th and 10th at WOW Café Theater.
I love this space. I feel affirmed in it and I am thankful for building sisterhood through an arts-based practice. Through this work I am becoming more comfortable in my body, and creating and discovering my performance aesthetic, which tends to be more gritty and raw than my visual art.
What I have learned through BE is that performance is a space for the bodily release of trauma and abuse and, as such, it is a method of healing and self-actualization. During the Body Ecology residency last Fall, I had an opportunity to devise and perform a piece about childhood trauma, my relationship with my mother and coming out as queer in my family. That experience alongside the group performances with BE have inspired me to embark on my first journey to create a one-woman show which will be an extension of my work of Colored Girls Hustle. My intention is that the audience for my solo show will be moved to exercise truth-telling and honesty in their families and intimate relationships.
My performance work is for transformation and healing, encouraging people to live authentically and using art as vehicle to achieve that. This is aligned with my overall goal with Colored Girls Hustle to mobilize creativity as a way to enter movement-building, process our pains, release trauma and abuse, and vision our future. My performance art is an incarnation of that goal.
My performance work has also helped me better understand how we carry our emotions in our body. This makes my work as a doula even more important because a woman’s experience with abortion and birth can be stored in her bodily memory. Also, any emotions or past traumas she has experienced, such as sexual violence, have a big impact on how she reacts to the discomfort and sensations of abortion or birth. Knowing these things has helped me better understand my role as a doula. Processing emotions and providing comfort for women during these moments can greatly impact her ability to get through her abortion or birth, and ensure that this life event is something that will empower her as a woman and/or mother.
Outside of being a doula, entrepreneur, and performer, you also have extensive experience in policy. What types of policies have you worked on?
I’ve worked with a number of organizations, including the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Grassroots Sisterhood Foundation in Ghana, as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Barbara Jordan Health Policy Fellow. My policy work has included research, analysis, and advocacy focusing on low-income communities, communities of color, women, youth, and immigrants. My commitment in all of this is participatory policymaking: ensuring that the people most impacted and affected by policies are integral participants in policy-making processes.
These are just a couple of concrete examples of policies I’ve worked on specifically:
A few years back I worked with NARAL Pro-Choice New York on their emergency contraception (EC) over-the-counter campaign. At the time, EC had just been approved to be sold OTC, but it was only available for women with documentation that they were over 18, which hinders access for women on Medicaid, young women, and undocumented women. I conducted research on how other states were improving access for these populations and prepared documents that were used in local (NYC) advocacy efforts.
Most recently, I worked on welfare reform and workforce development policies on the local, state and national level. I organized a congressional briefing in D.C. about welfare reform centralizing the voices and experiences of women on public assistance. In New York State, I worked on a successful campaign with low-income New Yorkers to get state and federal funds to implement the inaugural statewide transitional jobs program. Transitional jobs are a workforce strategy for the long-term unemployed (i.e. people on welfare, formerly incarcerated, etc) to transition into the workforce with dignity. These jobs are temporary paid jobs, with accompanying training, that lasts anywhere from three months to one year in a high growth job sector. I also organized a group of participants in the Back to Work program, a NYC-based welfare program that unsuccessfully attempts to help able-bodied low-income New Yorkers move into employment. We worked together to reform the Back to Work program when the contracts for the program were being renewed and re-funded by the City.
Given your busy schedule, how do you prioritize self-care (the practice of taking care of your physical/mental health to preventing burn-out) into your life?
I believe in rituals: infusing our actions with intentions and repeating those actions over and over can have a tangible and powerful impact in our lives. Rituals keep me accountable: I know how I often I want or need to do something to take care of myself.
I ritualize daily meditation, prayer and journaling in front of my altar. This keeps me grounded and present, and helps me continue to build clarity for my goals and actions. At night, I write a daily list of what I am thankful for that day or in life overall. Gratitude helps me be more appreciative of my experiences, opportunities and challenges, and helps to ward off feelings of envy and jealousy. I’m working on ritualizing movement, such as dance classes or simply throwing on some music at home and get moving! I store tension and stress in my body so movement for me is healing work.
I ritualize grooming too: washing my hair at least every two weeks, bi-weekly pedicures and weekly manicures. I can’t afford to have someone do my grooming so I’ve learned to do these things myself. I consider grooming part of self-care because I feel confident when my hair is looking good and my nail-polish is popping. So while I’m talking about it: Mac lipgloss is a guilty pleasure that I’d also consider self-care. This is not vanity, narcissism, or conceit; but I notice that when I don’t prioritize myself in my overall life, it is reflected in how I take care of my body. I will leave the house looking a mess if I’m feeling sad or depressed. Ritualizing intentional dress and grooming helps me be present and bold in my body.
When I’m stressed I don’t eat well, so cooking is also self-care. I don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen so I budget for those ready-to-cook foods at Trader Joes.
Lastly, I’m getting into the habit of taking myself out on dates. Life is stressful if it is all work and no play, so scheduling a day or evening that is dedicated to going somewhere or doing something I like to do is a monthly ritual. On my list of places to visit is the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on space and Brooklyn Boulder to climb the rock walls.
If you were not in the career path you’re currently in, what would you be doing? Would people be surprised?
This question is hard for me! I’m doing my best to create the career I truly want…BUT, if my art and activism were not supposed to be part of my life’s journey, I think I’d pursue a science-based career focusing on space or geology. I have a fascination with outer space, symbolically, astrologically and physically. What is out there? What does it look, feel, smell, and taste like? How does it impact us as humans? And what are the possibilities of exploration and life outside of Earth? In my spare time I read articles online about space research and explorations, and the pictures of outer space inspire me to create art. I also do rituals on my own around the moon cycle and believe in astrology (I’m a die-hard Cancer), so I have a deep sense of connection with the entire universe and I want to learn more about how it impacts in my life.
Geology is also an interest of mine. Rocks, dirt, sand and the like fascinate me. When I was in elementary school I used to bring home rocks because I liked the way they feel and look. Now, I do research on the power and energy of stones in personal healing and transformation work; and rocks also inspire artwork. I think my interest in geology comes my tactile interests in texture, which also informs my artwork.
Think back 10 years ago. What advice would you give your younger self about love, career, and/or following your passion?
“Listen Taja: stop taking yourself so seriously. Loosen up and allow yourself to be free, intuitive and explore all of your interests and talents. Let go of fear and its by-products: perfectionism and being controlling. You don’t have to figure everything out. Life is always changing in amazing and unexpected ways. Your plans are guides, not psychic predictions so make space for people and experiences you cannot anticipate. Don’t let money stand in the way between you and happiness. Be consistent and keep going. Don’t get stuck in guilt or perfectionism because you have made mistakes or life didn’t go as planned. Forgive yourself. Holding onto guilt does not change the past. Be present. Live under your own authority.”
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