The COVID standard time clock lists today’s date as Sunday, March 1113th, 2020. Every time I show that clock to anyone — usually in response to how our sense of time seems to have been permanently altered by the pandemic — a shaky laugh ensues, or a sigh, or the kind of silence that comes when you really can’t compass an experience with words, or when anything you could say seems like it’s already been said.
I’m not sure who invented the COVID standard time clock. Maybe it was created as a bit of entertainment to make light of that unrelenting never-ending quality that characterized the earliest days of the outbreak, but it serves as a stark reminder that a little over one thousand days ago, we collectively went through something. And we are still going through it even as we settle back into lives with more ease and a renewed sense of connection and continuity that feels, if only vaguely, like the time before.
Even if the loss of one of the nearly 7 million people worldwide who have so far died didn’t strike close to home, I can’t think of a family that wasn’t rocked to the core by some aspect of the virus or its aftermath. Emerging data shows that both the BIPOC and disabilities communities were disproportionally impacted and continue to suffer even greater economic and social disparities as a consequence.
By every measurable standard, the mental health and wellness of youth spiraled. But truly understanding what has happened to us can only come one essay, one poem, one painting, one short graphic novel — one voice — at a time, which makes the book Speaking Our Truths: The –Ism Youth Files a crucial and riveting artifact that should be mandatory reading for parents, mental health professionals, and educators. The softcover and ebook, published by MediaRites, officially launched on March 15 and is available here and here. A series of forthcoming podcasts will feature contributors talking with the creative force behind the project, Dmae Lo Roberts.
Roberts is a groundbreaking multidisciplinary Oregon artist pushing the boundaries of our cultural intelligence. A multiple Peabody Award winner for her broadcast journalism, she’s the longtime host of the arts podcast Stage & Studio, which is presented on ArtsWatch. And she’s the executive producer of MediaRites, a nonprofit group using multiple artistic avenues to empower and give voice to the underserved and underheard.
Speaking Our Truths:
The –Ism Youth Files
For this project, Roberts has teamed up with mental health consultant and co-editor Eleanor Gil-Kashiwabara of Luminosa Psychological Services and co-editor/board member Sandra de Helen. Blake Wales and Nick Condon of Oregon Children’s Theater collaborated on a mental health tool kit for wide distribution.
The anthology contains the work of 20 youth ages 11-21 from the BIPOC and disabilities communities who candidly explore through art their mental health struggles during the pandemic and beyond. Various resource placards are interspersed throughout. These talented artists and writers hail from varied parts of the United States and as far as Kolkata, India.
Many of the contributors are already impressively accomplished. They’re recognized for their artistic achievements, but more impressive is their passion for activism and for helping others by sharing their experiences.
Isabella Santana’s essay More Than a Joke explores her harrowing journey to recovery from disordered eating and suicidal ideations, “I used to toss my life around, not caring what happened to me,” she writes. “Suicide used to be my comforter, even though it destroyed me. I will fight to raise awareness about suicide and change the way it is used in conversation. Life will get hard again, I know that. This time, however, instead of staying stuck in my hell, I will rise. I will learn to love life again, and I will live.”
The young writers and artists harness the power of art to connect and to heal. Poet Veronica Salrin writes in her author’s note, “I think the most important thing about my work is solidarity, knowing that I am not the only one who feels broken due to things I cannot control. I want to share it to give other people hope about their circumstances, because I know what it feels like to feel isolated and broken.”
KyLynn Hattie Lucio lives on a reservation in Springfield, Minnesota. Her family is Oglala Lakota. In her essay, Zitkala Sa Winyan, she discusses generational trauma and the impact of alcohol and drug addiction among Native Americans, and how she is committed to breaking the cycle. She recalls the bullying and depression she endured in the wake of repeated sexual assaults. Writing has helped her care for herself, and she hopes her essay helps others. “Unbreaking my own broken heart is difficult,” she writes. “Especially because I am not at fault for breaking it.”
These inspiring young people work to lift their communities, provide resources, and in the case of Jenell Theobald, author of the selection The Many Who Don’t Fit In, honor the forgotten. Theobald was instrumental in advocating for the cultural heritage garden at Block 14 in Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, the resting place of 200 or more asylum patients from Oregon’s first Hospital for the Insane, as well as many Chinese transcontinental workers who built much of the area’s infrastructure and whose remains were never shipped back to their home villages in China. Jenell’s efforts — along with those of the 25 other students she inspired to write letters — led to Metro allocating $4 million for the project.
Theobald also started a nonprofit called “Let’s Peer Up” whose mission is to support people with disabilities. Jenell has autism. In her essay she describes the agony she experienced after learning that a member in her online small-group class of people “who have always been teased or ignored” died of suicide. She asks, “Would things have turned out differently if I had said something sooner?” And she brings it close to home. “Our nation is facing a severe mental health crisis right now. Before the pandemic started, Oregon, where I live, had one fourth of its population living with disabilities, most of them mental.”
Poet Niko Boskovic dedicates himself to writing about his life experiences as a low-speaking person with autism. In his poem Ripped from the Arms of Logic and Knocking on the Neighbor’s Door for the Spare Key, he writes “My OCD is a raging bull that wakes at dawn / and doesn’t relent until I fall asleep. / The beast won’t ever rest / even when I am exhausted / its eyes are covered and caked / in the stadium’s dust.”
The paintings, essays, poems, and short graphic novels are guileless and compelling, reminding us that so many of the citizens working to make the world a better place have suffered deeply themselves. Adrija Jana from Kolkata, West Bengal, India, is an accomplished artist and activist who’s worked with more than 25 youth organizations. She recounts in her essay that even during the darkest days of the pandemic, when the Amphan Cyclone destroyed her family’s business, she cared tirelessly (often 18-20 hours a day) for her family and community, easing the suffering of hundreds by helping them access essential resources like food, water, and oxygen canisters.
The artists don’t shy away from pain or sincere self-reflection. They tackle suicidal ideations, self-harm, self-neglect, OCD, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, sexual assault, bullying, racism, generational trauma, cultural marginalization — all exacerbated during the pandemic, perhaps for none more acutely than the BIPOC community.
In the first stanza of the poem On Fire, Roodley Merilo captures the effects of isolation and existential feelings of doom and hopelessness: “The world is literally on fire, / This isn’t a metaphor / Although it could have been / Australia’s forest fires were burning just as bright / As the hatred we had towards one another / Sparked by the death of George Floyd / Ignited cop cars became the latest of many tragedies, But I / am stuck in my bed.”
Deandre Avant writes in Pandemic 2021: “I’m Jamaican, Chinese from my mother’s side and mostly African American on my father’s side. I’m a hybrid, and both of my cultures suffered all of 2020.”
These stories also highlight the artists’ resilience and adaptability. The pandemic brought unexpected gifts and awareness, too, sometimes only evident after the lockdowns ended and a “return to normal” suddenly seemed anything but normal (or healthy). Consider this excerpt from Journeya’s essay, describing the troubling experience of returning to school after embracing the pandemic lockdown:
“The public school system was, and continues to be a rude, harsh, and vile awakening. Coming back after the lockdowns, I became very aware that through the previous ten years of public school, I ran on adrenaline and survival instincts. The mean words from the kids commenting on my skin, my hair, and my weight. The social pack mentality where the big groups pick on, bully and spread hate. The undying fear for your entire future if you miss one assignment. The enforced control of one’s bodily functions when denied food, bathroom, or water. Wearing pants and baggy tees on hot scalding days because if you wear shorts or a tank you’ll be told to change. Stuffing your face with food ‘cause you only get twenty minutes for lunch. The security guards who bellow at students who try to sneak some food to their class ‘cause they didn’t finish eating. The loud crowds and glaring lights; no shadow of any object in sight. Security guards following you into bathrooms to see that you don’t ‘misbehave.’ Gun and bomb threat notification emails that come in the night. School shootings. Need I go on? The education system breaks you down and buries you. Starting at 7:00 AM on the weekdays. ‘Don’t move. Be still.’ An echo and a mirror of my mind during the school days.”
Journeya wasn’t the only writer who experienced a kind of blossoming outside the confines of school and found it challenging to return. Trini Feng, co-editor-in-chief of the literary journal Renaissance Review, writes in her essay How We Speak Our Truths:
“I’ve lived in the suburbs all my life. My neighborhood is quiet, peaceful, and incredibly white. I could count on my fingers the other Asian people in my school, and I rarely ever got the chance to talk with them. Online was different. I met so many BIPOC people, including other Asians like me, and they made me feel like I wasn’t alone in a way I’d never experienced before.”
On returning to school after lockdown, Feng describes overwhelming shock:
“My school crowds fifteen hundred teenagers into a few hallways and a roundabout or two. Stepping into the building on the first day back felt like I had plunged headfirst into sensory disarray, competing with a thousand different stimuli from a thousand different directions.”
I had the opportunity to speak online with some of the artists for the book’s launch. Astonished by their poise and wisdom, I decided to ask a question that had been roiling in my head since reading the compilation. We often wonder as adults, how would my life be different if I knew as a youth what I know now? In contrast, maybe the question should really be: How would my life be different if I remembered NOW what I knew then? So, I asked the artists what they would say to their future parent selves:
“…I need to keep that always in my mind to never stop fighting for myself and never stop using my voice.” – Isabella Santana
“The first thing I would probably tell my parent self is to not forget that I was also a child once at a time. And if I let it, that child is still alive in myself.” – Adrija Jana
“…don’t be judgmental. I saw a quote the other day, I don’t really remember where I saw it, but it was like, ‘most parents will do anything for their children except let them be themselves.’” – Jenell Theobald
“Focus on what you love or do something you love … I feel like I have a lot of pressure on me to do something that society wants me to do or choose a career that will be conventionally successful…” –Trini Feng
“I would say stay in the mind of a kid. Always try to look from your child, from your own childlike perspective. … I would follow my kid instead of the other way around as much as I possibly could.” – Journeya Green
“Inside you … there’s a kid. I think if I ever say or think anything really bad about myself that will really bring me down and put me in a dark state, I need to put myself in the mindset that I am saying that to my younger self and how would that make her feel to have known that? She always gets told those things all the time by her peers, and how would that make her feel? … You can’t bring yourself down like that because you know, there’s that light low child inside of you who is suffering like that.” – Mila Kashiwabara (age 11)
Reading the collection and reflecting on the book launch, I was reminded of something the great actress Gena Rowlands once discussed in an interview. Best known for her work in her late husband John Cassavetes’ films, including A Woman Under the Influence, Rowlands often played fragile characters with soul-searing vulnerability and honesty. In the interview, she talked about the difficulty of aging as an actress — not for superficial reasons, but how as a young artist, emotion is so accessible, as if there is a never-ending supply of it pooling in the wake of every interaction. As we age, we risk losing the precious gift of that.
A lot has shifted for the contributors since they created these pieces. A lot has shifted for all of us, but I found myself hoping these bright and shining artists hold tight to the vulnerability and honesty, to the hard-earned wisdom that comes not from learning, but from simply learning to be. And I hope they keep making art, too. Their fearlessness imbues this collection with a kind of magic. It’s as if we’ve been invited to read secrets in a most sacred diary. It shatters your heart and then asks you to check in with your youngest self while you re-grow a kinder, braver, more expansive one.