What made you want to work on the Harlem Wellness Center?
The arts are my first love, and I have an extensive background in various disciplines. Over the years, I grew deeply passionate about social justice through my work to address health inequity. By integrating the arts in my social justice work, it feels really synergistic and exciting.
How have your experiences as a resident of Upper Manhattan and as a woman shaped your work?
My work to close the racial health gap was born out of a heart for the Upper Manhattan community. By looking at health statistics, and living, working and playing in Upper Manhattan, I can see with my own eyes, the need for solutions that disrupt the longstanding trend of adult-onset diseases and major causes of death. In 2003, I came to my work in health equity when friends in Harlem asked me to start a yoga program. Saying yes to this call to action was one of the best decisions of my life.
As a natural community builder, I’m interested in bridging divides and creating spaces where all are welcome and can belong. It so happens that many women of color are drawn to our program. The intersectionality of being a woman and a woman of color comes with unique stressors. With mothers, daughters, and grandmothers at the nucleus of homes, women have the potential to be major influencers. When health awareness, education, self-care, and community care are at the forefront of women’s lives, it impacts the family and generations to come.
The 2022 Winter Olympics just ended. Watching, I got to celebrate women crushing it. Tearing down stereotypes and providing the unlimited possibilities we hold. Across the board, women are catalyzing, shaping, and transforming neighborhoods, communities, and the world.
What are you looking forward to in your work?
Professionally, I’m looking forward to Harlem Wellness Center programs returning to in-person gatherings where we can see each other’s faces and feel each other’s energy. I’m also excited about upcoming events for the Racial Healing Hub, developing new programs, and collaborations. On a personal level, I’m planning to devote more time to my fiction and non-fiction writing projects.
Deidre B Flowers
Flowers is an alumnus of The Modern School in Harlem, a progressive private school founded by Mildred L. Johnson that operated for more than 60 years in Sugar Hill. Flowers is using her time de ella as a Bundles Scholar to research and develop a book about Johnson and her de ella school, including doing archival research at Columbia and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
What made you want to write a book on Mildred L Johnson?
In 2013, while enrolled in my last course for the doctoral program at Teachers College, I mentioned The Modern School in one of my assignments. History professor Ansley Erickson put me in contact with another scholar completing research that included a TMS reference. He tried to convince me to write my dissertation on the school; however, I resisted because I had already invested years of research on the activism and engagement in civil rights protests of students and administrators at Bennett College for Women. As fate would have it, in 2018, the History of Education Society (HES) extended its proposal deadline for the annual conference. I took this as an opportunity to explore The Modern School’s history. I knew of Johnson’s family from her; she is the daughter of J. Rosamond Johnson and the niece of James Weldon Johnson. However, I did not know the full scope of her desire for her to become a teacher at a private school; nor that she founded TMS because she was excluded from employment opportunities in New York City’s white private schools because of her race. Johnson created and led her to her private school for close to seventy years and enrolled a predominantly Black student population.
What’s something you’ve been able to do as a Bundles Scholar?
As a historian, much of our writing is based on archival materials. I first conducted oral histories in my last class as a graduate student in 2013. As I have poured through the materials at the Schomburg Center, I realized the story of TMS will not be complete without the inclusion of the reminiscences of students, teachers, administrators , and parents’ perspectives. I am now planning a schedule for conducting new oral history interviews with people associated with the school. I’m also beginning to think beyond my initial goal of writing a book on Johnson and TMS, which can be used in education and history programs. I am thinking of ways to introduce Johnson and her work to a broader audience.
What do you have coming up next?
Next month, I present at the American Educational and Research Association. The paper I am presenting will discuss the work of three African American educators in New York City. In researching Johnson, I located two additional Black women who also started private schools, one of whom also ran a summer camp like Johnson. The panel is scheduled for Saturday, April 23, 2022, and is titled “Black Educators and the Struggle for Educational Justice.” Once I complete the book on Johnson, I plan to explore writing a children’s book on her life and work de ella; and I am exploring mounting an exhibit on Johnson and TMS. My future work will likely include further research on the two other women educators who founded and led schools for Black children in New York City and writing articles and a book based on my dissertation. Additionally, there is an organizational history I would like to update, but I have not yet begun those discussions.
Smith, who moved to New York to fulfill a lifelong dream of living in Harlem, creates audio dramas featuring and highlighting Black women throughout American history. She recently produced Harlem Queen about the life of Madame Stephanie St. Clair during the Harlem Renaissance and is currently working on an audio drama juxtaposing Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign with Angela Davis’s trial in 1972.