Conversation with S. Renee Mitchell: Speaker, Writer, Performer, Community Leader
In the greater Portland community, S. Renee Mitchell is the most passionately intentional voice against verbal, sexual, and physical violence. Renee combines spoken word and poetry with a resounding message to educate and inspire girls to live strong, smart, and bold lives. She is a renowned writer, performer and speaker, energizing audiences with her message of empowerment, strength and vision. Previously, she wrote an award-winning column for The Oregonian on Portland-related issues, ranging from neighborhoods, to schools, to politics to cultural identity. In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Renee talks about new projects and works.
What new projects are you working on? I’m working on a public information project about black women and depression. I am a co-investigator with OHSU on this project by the National Institutes of Mental Health. We’re investigating the interconnectednessamong racism, sexism, environmental pressures and stresses, and domestic violence. How do women deal with the intersections of these issues, and how do they contribute to depression? What is the most culturally effective way to help women deal with these issues? The goal is to help women lead healthier lives and nurture healthier families.
I’m working as the creative consultant for the public information campaign, which will kick off next year. I am using stories of women who are well-known in the community who have experienced – or are experiencing – depression. In communities of color, it’s really important for us to connect a face with an issue, especially those concerns that are difficult to talk about. When we see people who are well-known and well-respected, it allows us to have the courage to talk about our own struggles.
The piece will be powerful and enlightening to a lot of people, about how common depression is among black women. For generations, we have assumed this strong black woman persona. Whatever it is that we’re dealing with is part of life: we can take it on and move on. The “blues” we’re feeling is part of our experience. But we’re cheating ourselves, because it’s not just the “blues.” When depression flares up, it is often debilitating for people. We need to acknowledge that it is a medical condition that is treatable.
Because of the visibility I’ve had around domestic violence, it has given people the courage to deal with their own issues. I’ve been very up-front about dealing with issues of depression when I was younger. I never felt fully comfortable with the “celebrity” aspect of my persona, because that is so foreign from my experiences when I was growing up. I spent most of my youth feeling very insecure, that I wasn’t worthy of my own breath. Being the middle child among eight biological children and two foster kids, I felt unheard and uncared for throughout my life.
How are you moving forward with your work on domestic violence? I am working on finishing up a self-help book “You Don’t Have to Hit Me to Hurt Me: 12 Things Women Need to Know About Verbal and Emotional Abuse.” When people talk about domestic violence, the emphasis is on the physical side of the issue.
There isn’t a lot of discussion about verbal and emotional abuse, which really is at the root of the problem. You really need to undermine one’s humanity for them to allow you to put their hands on you. The book will be a quick-read and take on a straight-talk, girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone to discuss the issues candidly.
My goal has always been to find creative means to give people options. But first, it’s important to catch their attention. So many women feel isolated and alone, and they don’t believe anyone will understand. Some women are not aware of the symptoms of an abusive relationship, so we need to find ways to reach them.
I want to be able to educate people, so that when they see symptoms of an abusive relationship, they will be able to give the right advice. The more people we educate, we increase their ability to have a larger support system to draw strength and resources from.
When I perform my one-woman show “Tangoing with Tornadoes,” the goal is to reach women through theater and music. I think it gives people a chance for people to explore the issues without the sense of being lectured.
Writing the column for the paper, what were some of the most important lessons you learned? I learned not to take things personally. I learned that not everyone’s going to agree with me, and that’s okay. We’re all individuals, and we each have our own opinions. Even if we never agree, as long as we come to a place where we can have dialogue, everything’s fine.
The other lesson is that there’s always a next time. I know that there are lessons even in failure and in mistakes. If I screw something up, there’s always an opportunity to make it right. That’s a big lesson not only in the column, but also in life.
The other thing is to always find humor. We tend to take ourselves too seriously. Humor is a good way to invite healing into our lives.
“There is no one you could not love once you heard their story.” I love that quote. Everybody has a story. Not everyone has the opportunity to be heard, and it’s extremely validating for people to be heard. If we take the time to listen to each other, and to really understand another person’s point of view, that’s a starting point for mutual humanity, so we can identify commonalities. Even in our differences, we can see similarities.
Why is self-reinvention important at this juncture in your life? I still haven’t really believed my own hype, which is why it was easier for me to walk away and take the buyout. I knew that my life’s purpose was bigger and beyond just writing a column. I loved what I did, and being at the paper was the best career move. I believe I made a lot of impact and touched a lot of lives. I felt that it was time for me to take on a new phase, reinvent myself, and figure out my purpose in the world. I felt a real calling to do something different.
I’ve embraced my weaknesses: I get bored easily. Once I start feeling that I’m getting close to mastering something, it becomes time for me to get ready for another challenge. I always have this need to grow and learn, to expand my mind and uncover gifts that I have never expressed before.
I have learned to confront my fears. Once confronted, fears lose the power to control and manipulate us. I feel so much more whole, because I’m starting to explore things that I hadn’t before about myself and my capabilities. Being able to do all these different things has given my life so much texture.
I was extremely shy, and journalism was the thing that got me out of my shell, because it forced me to talk to strangers. I liked to prevent that I was invisible. But I can’t be invisible: I was the tallest girl in my family. I have this natural hair. I have a loud voice. I had to reinvent myself, and really come to terms with who I am.
I think it’s really good for my daughter to see the possibilities of all that she can accomplish. When I was growing up, the mantra from my mother was that as a woman, I should learn how to cook, clean, and be a good Mommy. Get an education if you can, but don’t act too smart because guys don’t like women who are too smart. I’m telling my daughter that she can be anybody she wants. She can run for President, or run a company. It would be nice to have a loving relationship that is suitable to her, but don’t wait for that. Be all that you can be: I’m hoping that this perspective is liberating for her as a young woman.
Colors of Influence Winter 2009