Shakirah Hill Taylor Transcript

Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.

Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.

Elizabeth: Our guest today is Shakirah Hill Taylor, who wears many hats. She’s the Chief Digital Officer at Fenton Communications, she’s a social impact visionary, a strategic communications catalyst, an executive leader, a birth doula, a tutor, and author of an extraordinary memoir. Welcome, Shakirah.

Shakirah: Thank you so much for having me.

Michael: So in this interview we explore the role creativity plays in the various aspects of your life. And we’d like to start our interviews with a couple of questions. The first is this: In what aspects of your life do you see creativity as having the greatest impact?

Shakirah: I would say every aspect of my life. Creativity for me [00:01:00] is the, sort of, soil for which vision is birthed. I can’t be the executive leader that I am, I can’t be, certainly not, the community member that I am, the family member that I am without being first a creative person. And I think that is hard to conceptualize if we view creativity as something that’s reserved for a very specific type of person. So, most people associate creativity with like painters and artists, visual communicators, if you will. We’re all creative. We all have elements and facets of us that are creative.

And for me, creativity is just the seed through which we begin to express vision. And so, for me, that vision is what does a world [00:02:00] look like where we are advancing social progress, so everybody gets to be free? What does a world look like where people can birth with the care and support that centers their needs? What does a world look like where we can write and play and be imaginative? So, every facet of my life.

Elizabeth: That certainly resonates with our, sort of, guiding principles of why we’re doing this podcast because we believe that everyone and all emotional health is improved by having a robust creative life.

Specifically, there are several definitions of creativity floating around, out in, kind of, intellectual land. One of which comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s very seminal works on creativity, for example, Flow and Creativity. And the focus in those books is on acts that advance a particular field of endeavor like [00:03:00] engineering or poetry or communications. Conversely, in his book, Human Motivation, the author Robert Franken focuses on creativity in relationship, as you say, to problem solving and communication. In Creativists in Dialogue, we lean in some ways toward Franken’s definition of creativity. You need to be able to view things in new ways from a different perspective. Do you personally view creativity or the creative act in one or the other of these ways or in some other way entirely?

Shakirah: Yeah, I think that I, one, just appreciate the point of view of both. I see a healthy tension as I consider the problem solving, which people associate with what is it left, being left-brained in the creativity and right, right-brained. And so, there’s a tension there.

My point of view on creativity and where we lean into it is that it doesn’t exist in a dichotomy. [00:04:00] I love the word “flow,” because I do think it exists as a ebb and flow. There are moments where, if I am interrogating a problem as an executive leader, let’s say it’s a personnel problem.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Shakirah: Among colleagues.

Elizabeth: Oh joy! Just what you on a Friday afternoon.

Shakirah: Right? And they usually do a occur on Friday, so it’s so funny you say that, right? If there is a personnel issue or some type of conflict, there is a creativity in thinking about, how do I help these individuals navigate this in a harmonious way? And through that harmony, teach them that this tension is actually quite good. That creativity requires a flow, right? It’s sitting in the tension of there is a problem, this problem does not feel good to me. Or these people they have different ideas of harmony. I have to get them to a place where that [00:05:00] harmony is shared. And so, there’s just these different touchpoints of what is a solution? What is the imagination of how that solution impacts them?

So, I see it as more of a flow and not necessarily a dichotomy, but I really do appreciate that these dichotomies do exist because we’re different. We are very different type of people, thinkers. Some people are more hard-brained, left—my husband is an engineer. I don’t think he would ever—a engineer and lawyer—and I don’t know—

Elizabeth: Oh, no!

Shakirah: I dunno that he would ever consider himself, I don’t think he would call himself creative. But to me, he’s one of the most creative people.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: When I watch him process and the way that he thinks through problems, it I fascinating to me.

Elizabeth: Right, right.

Shakirah: The way he backs in. Whereas I can write, I dance, I love music. I think he would say, “Shakirah is the creative one.” By the traditional definition. [00:06:00]

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: And I approach things from a, sometimes in a way that I think gives him anxiety. Like, you just jumped right in there. But there’s a flow that’s happening both, for the both of us. And there is, I think on either side, if you looked at us together, you would place us on the different ends of the spectrum. And so, I appreciate that there is this dichotomy that, for people who wouldn’t define themselves as creative, can start to see themselves in that way.

Elizabeth: Oh, sure. No, I can completely understand that. The engineering mindset at one point is all about out of the box thinking and—

Shakirah: Right!

Elizabeth: —trying to find that, or even the legal mind is trying to find a way into a piece of legal reasoning, if it works.

Shakirah: Exactly.

Elizabeth: So that’s so fascinating. To speak a little bit more about that, can you talk about some of these techniques that you use on Friday afternoons in this HR situation? I’ve been in workshops for personnel people and there are a lot of, sort of, conflict resolving [00:07:00] techniques and such but putting a creative spin on it is something that I think is a little out of the box in terms of thinking?

Shakirah: Yeah. Yeah. So, when we encounter personnel issues, and we all do, and issues is probably a loaded word, even conflict, but these are all normal occurrences when you’re interacting in any type of community, whether that’s work, home, whatever, or interpersonal relationship.

And so, for me, the creative approach is really helping people lean into that place of empathy that’s so hard to tap into when you are like, I feel offended, wronged, tired, whatever, whatever the list of things are, it’s hard to reach into that empathy. And so, we just walk through the exercise of, what do you think the other person is experiencing on the other side of this conflict, right?

And then they have to, to, one, confront that question. Because in their own [00:08:00] self-reflection, they’re not confronting it. And then walk through the exercise of articulating it. So it’s the confronting and the articulation that’s, like, getting you in the discipline of, now I have to see this from the other person’s perspective. And then very practically, we do things like role play.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: I am that person. Talk to me about what you’re experiencing. And we talk it out, we dialogue it out.

There have also been instances where I help people really understand what’s happening in their body in a moment of conflict. A lot of people, particularly when we talk about being in a corporate environment or a work environment, there’s a disassociation mentally that happens between the body and the way that we use our brains. And I invite people to bring both in and just say, “How do you feel in your body when you’re upset?” “Oh, I’m clenching my jaw.” “Oh, my heart rate is up.” Okay, so those are signals that we [00:09:00] need to, like, come down, maybe go for a walk, go look out the window, take a breath, drink some water, get away from your computer. And then see if you still feel the same way when you’ve reconnected with your body because it’s alerting you to something. And then we can problem solve from there.

So creativity is just reminding people that, at the end of the day, you’re still a human being and that other person is still a human being. And let’s not disconnect from that. And let’s reconnect with our humanness and our bodies to, to come at some solution. And it’s not a perfect model. Sometimes we get there and sometimes they’re like, “No, I’m not there yet.” And I respect that too.

Michael: But empathy is, the origin of a more creative, intimate encounter with another human being.

Shakirah: Yeah.

Michael: So I can see how it would work that way.

Shakirah: Yeah.

Michael: And, and going, so following in that vein, but stepping back, going back into your early childhood experiences, could you share with us or tell us about one of your first [00:10:00] experiences of creativity, either as a participant or as a witness? And then talk about how maybe that experience shaped your perspective?

Shakirah: I love this question so much because it allowed me to revisit the younger version of myself. And as I thought about it, I would say one of the first experiences of witnessing creativity was watching my mother cook.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Shakirah: Yeah. And my mom was a ballet dancer. I danced grow growing up. Like, my family is very arts and culture oriented. But it was watching her cook—and I don’t know that at that time I would’ve articulated it as watching a creative endeavor, but when I reflect on it, it was just so, everything about it was just so poetic, the way that she would move across the floor, grabbing the different ingredients.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shakirah: It really was like watching a dance.

Michael That’s what I was [00:11:00] thinking.

Shakirah: She would grab the different seasonings, the chopping, just hearing, the chopping of onions and peppers, the crackling of the pepper in the pot, hearing the oil from the pan, and then the aroma. It was just this, like, visceral experience that then amounted to this incredible creation—

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shakirah: —of a meal. And so that was one of the first experiences of witnessing. My mom is an incredible cook. I’m so thankful that I got to learn from her culinary expertise. I love to cook to this day because of watching my mother. And then, I would say my own practice of creativity. I loved Barbies growing up and the Barbie movie is coming out, so—

Elizabeth: Oh, that’s right. Yeah.

Shakirah: —it’s fun to just watch people—

Michael: Oh, there’s a Barbie movie?

Shakirah: Yeah, yeah! It’s been really fun to watch people remember, like, how much Barbie dominated millennial [00:12:00] culture. And, my Barbies, I would cut up old sheets and stuff and make clothes for my Barbies, even though the Barbie dolls came with clothes, I wanted to make them. And I liked the, like, cutting, the tactile experience of picking the different fabrics. Now, my parents didn’t love this ‘cause I was destroying everything in the house.

Elizabeth: Functional sheets!

Shakirah: Functional sheets, right? I would do my Barbie doll’s hair, and I was just engaged in my imagination of just, like, how about I create something completely different? Like, I don’t want anything that she, this Barbie doll comes with. I wanna imagine something completely new and fun and out of the box for this doll. So, I would say that was probably my first practice. And reading. I read a lot.

Elizabeth: That’s so fascinating. I’d love to see a, sort of, mashup of your mother’s—

Shakirah: Oh, my God.

Elizabeth: —symphonic cooking and ballet and cooking your Barbie creations. It’s a whole movie.

Shakirah: It’s a whole production.

Elizabeth: Moving a little bit [00:13:00] away from the personal, let’s explore creativity in your role as Chief Digital Officer at Fenton Communications, which sure looks like a substantial organization from the outside, with operations in multiple cities. So, first of all, can you tell us what Fenton Communications does and what your position entails?

Shakirah: Yeah, Fenton is a strategic communications agency. We’re full service. We run the entire gamut of what you would consider a public relations or communications agency. What is unique about our work is that we are specifically focused on social impact. That is, creating communications, endeavors, and campaigns to the point of a just and sustainable world. So, our client portfolio is primarily large foundations, nonprofit organizations, government entities—and brands, however, we’re working with their corporate, social good responsibility initiatives. [00:14:00]

And my role at Fenton is in twofold. I oversee our digital strategy practice group, which is using digital and technology to build movements to advance social change. That’s building websites, creating social campaigns, paid advertising, anything that’s technologically advanced, my team is touching. I oversee that practice group while also working on the executive leadership team overseeing the entire agency and company. So, helping thinking about our company growth, the health of the company, our products and services, keeping our clients happy. Yraditional business-oriented management, yeah.

Michael: So you’re working at the strategic level.

Shakirah: Yeah.

Michael: You’re developing the campaign and then your team is in one way or another implementing, either graphically or linguistically or—

Shakirah: Exactly. Exactly.

Michael: And so could you [00:15:00] maybe just talk a little bit about that collaborative creative process of taking a campaign from its ultimate goal to theorizing a strategy to actually the practice of it?

Shakirah: Yeah, that’s a great question. When we are working with our clients, there is so much collaboration. We like to say that we co-create in partnership with our clients. We are hired to do the work and we invite our clients to sit at the table and imagine with us.

So, let’s use an advocacy example, ‘cause I, I love our advocacy work. Let’s say we’re trying to get a bill pushed forward to reduce carbon emission. We might imagine a campaign where, there’s a Hill Day where we’re having our client talk to policy makers, where we are educating the public on what it means to move towards zero-net carbon [00:16:00] emission, ‘cause there’s so much education around that. We might do some advertising; we might do some experiential design where folks actually get to interact. All of these elements require, first and foremost articulating what that strategy is, just very plainly in writing so that we’re all moving in the same direction. A lot of organizations use the change of theory model, and we embed that in our work, which is to say, if doing this will change this outcome. So, if we do this, then what changes as a result? So, if we educate the public on the dangers of rising emission levels, then we can get more people to buy electric cars, change from gas stoves to electric, right? Be more conscious of their carbon footprint, therefore, helping to bring down [00:17:00] emission levels.

And so we’ll start with something like a change of theory or an agreement upon what we want our goal to be. And those goals have long shelf lives. Because the work that we do, we’re not like a Droga5 or a more commercial oriented agency, which is, we’re not trying to sell 10 million Nike shoes, and I love sneakers, by the way. We are actually trying to change the world. We’re actually trying to change the world, and so our goals sometimes can feel really theoretical and lofty, but these strategies and these smaller things, that change of theory keeps us focused.

And then we’ll do the designing. We have a full-service creative team led by incredible art directors and our creative director. We have copywriters, we have folks who do voiceover, we have designers. My digital colleagues are [00:18:00] thinking about our email campaigns and our social campaigns and how do we get people to do what we call the “stop scroll” effect. We’re inundated with content all day long. How do we get people to stop scrolling and pay attention to what our clients are trying to say? And then all of these things come together, and they advance change, they change a policy, they get a person to sign a petition, to vote for a particular candidate, to behavior change. Maybe, maybe they do decide, hey, I’m gonna turn in my gas vehicle and get an electric vehicle.

Michael: Yeah, ‘cause you’re trying to find a, like, a trigger for, obviously, an individual, obviously, you’re trying to change the behavior of an individual, but it’s, it is what will trigger them to behave differently.

Shakirah: Exactly.

Michael: Or to act in a particular way.

Shakirah: Exactly. And a lot of that is really tapping into our emotion and human behavior, like you said, the human behavior. And a lot of that work [00:19:00] really is understanding the social science element of it and the sociology of it, which is a lot of what I do to coach my team. We’re not just writing tweets. You have to write the tweet in a way that’s resonant with people to get them to pay attention. So even the way that we may change one word could be a make-or-break moment between somebody clicking a link or keep continuing to scroll and not even paying attention. And so, these are creative practices, both in terms of all of the small pieces that have to come together. And then when we step back and look at the bigger piece, the most creative element of it all to me is the world that we imagine if these things work.

Elizabeth: I wanna drill down a little bit more about this fascinating, very humanistic, associative process of creating this campaign, really. Can you talk a little bit about just this generative process or brainstorming process of coming up with images and colors and [00:20:00] icons and symbols and all these design elements, each of which bring their own kind of emotional content? And is there a process for just brainstorming all of that and bringing it to the table? Does that come from the client? Do you bring that to the table?

Shakirah: Yeah. Yeah. It’s, the unsexy part of this is a lot of it can be dictated by our client’s proclivity towards taking some risk or their budgets or time, all of that yada. The less fun stuff. When we have the capacity to imagine what happens is that we do go in brainstorming. We invite clients, we invite team members, and we say, “We need to create this thing.” A campaign, a toolkit, or whatever the product is. “And here’s what the situation is.” We always start with a situational analysis.

We can use gun violence as an example. We wanna get folks to, to help pass bills at a state level [00:21:00] so that we get less guns or get guns off the street. What do we need to do? We need people to help see themselves as the hero in that story. The hero’s journey.

Elizabeth: The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell, yeah.

Shakirah: Exactly. We need to get people to see themselves as the hero. How do we do that? What is their, what is the ladder of engagement that we take this hero through? And so we think about all of the different touch points that the hero will have to touch in that ladder of engagement. Like you use. What are the different elements that’ll get them to take a different action or behavior change?

And then what are the, the sort of—if we’re building a house—what are the design elements that then come in that help construct the layer of this story that they can then see themselves? So, images is a big one.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: When we’re choosing images like stock photography for websites, landing pages, things [00:22:00] like that, our team is so intentional and there’s so much conversation around how images are selected. We don’t want people to feel like there’s poverty porn or that we’re misrepresenting particular communities or cultures, that we’re being asset based and framing in a way that uplifts humanity and celebrates that we can achieve change while being honest about what the stakes are.

And then there’s what are the values that we need to tap into for our audiences? Are we trying to, if we use a different type of agency that’s talking to a different type of audience, they may say we’re tapping into fear. We have to use fear as an in inciting emotion to get at certain values. We would wanna tap into things like hope.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: For change and progress, if that’s a value for our audiences. So we think about that and then, yeah, the colors come down to [00:23:00] clients branding. How aligned are we with their brand? Do they want to change their brand? And if they do, what are the different types of colors that are resonant?

I don’t know if you all heard the story about Target and how they picked the structure of the aisles and the colors that they use?

Elizabeth: Oh, no, I don’t think so.

Shakirah: Target is laid out in a way that the colors invite you to keep walking through the store. So you could never—

Michael: That’s why I keep walking.

Shakirah: You can never just go into Target and then just walk out. It’s like the aisles are laid out in a way that you’re like, I feel like I should just keep going down all of these aisles.

Elizabeth: Interesting.

Shakirah: Yeah! We use a similar psychology, but for the good. What are the colors that are going to make people feel hopeful? Make people feel a sense of urgency? Make people feel like they can affect change?

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: And so we tend to use a lot more bright, airy colors. Creating a world that feels like, oh my goodness, there’s something on the other [00:24:00] side of what’s before us. Sometimes clients do want us to lean into things that are a little bit more provocative, so we may use more reds or, things that invoke urgency. And even down to our language, we’re taking similar approaches.

Michael: Shifting into the internal mechanism of the institution, there are a lot of articles written about how an institution, the larger an institution is, the more difficult it is to maintain creativity. The bureaucracy of an institution can end up crushing creativity. Any thoughts you have about how your company or how you personally have witnessed or experienced a company finding ways to rejuvenate the individual creatively within this larger system—even, you end up doing the same thing over and over, there’s a lot of rules, or maybe there’s a lot of layers of check and double check that prevent the individual from feeling innovative?

Shakirah:  You’re speaking to a very real tension that folks, when we are in creative field, [00:25:00] and that’s overlaid by a corporate structure, deal with. One of the things that I encourage my colleagues within my department and even across our agency to do is to create thinking space on their calendars. Literally block that time so that you’re thinking and imagining and you’re not just going from meeting to meeting. Because when you’re in that sort of, like, robotic flow, it’s hard to have breathing room to be able to think of new ideas. I have, for myself, block Fridays as my thinking space day, which allows me to get into a more creative frame of mind, to think, to be more strategic. I invite my colleagues to do the same.

Some other things that we do are have lunch and learn conversations where we knowledge share and really interrogate and poke holes at things that we’ve seen both in our own [00:26:00] work or just out in the wild. And just think about if we could do this differently, what would we have done? We recently did this exercise with—I won’t say what brand it was, but an organization did a tweet, and it was not a very well written tweet. And I shared it with my team in Slack and I was like, “This is a lot. Tell me what you would do with this tweet.” And everyone just started chiming in and throwing out ideas and we just had so much fun. And it was like a 20-minute slack conversation just deconstructing. I said, “What about it doesn’t work?” And they just started articulating.

And then one of my colleagues said, “We should make this a contest to have people rewrite the tweet.” And we did! We made it a contest and people submitted rewritten versions of it and we awarded a winner, gave that winner a hundred dollars for their creativity.

Michael: Wow, okay!

Shakirah: Yeah, it was a hundred dollars cash. I was like, “I want you to use this money [00:27:00] however you desire.” So we do things like that. This summer, we will be going to the Rubell Museum.

Elizabeth: Oh, yes. New museum that’s free to district residences.

Shakirah: Yes, yes. It’s free to district residents. We are actually gonna be doing a private tour to walk through and be able to spend time in the space learning from the docent, getting the history on the pieces in there. So, being able to just get from behind our desks and engaging with art and culture in society as a collective is another way we practice our creativity.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Michael: And at some level when you’re dealing with social change and you’re dealing with this end goal, you’re dealing with a lot of data.

Shakirah: Yeah.

Michael: And so how, can you just talk briefly about how you combine the data and all that kind of thinking with the, the sort of the more creative thinking? What is that interaction like?

Shakirah: Yeah. A lot of our work is informed by data. [00:28:00] And I encourage my colleagues to see that data as creativity too. It’s telling a story using numbers.

So, if someone is like one out of, one in five adults, et cetera, et cetera, what’s another way of telling that story? That’s a data point. How do we make that plain to someone who doesn’t know how to contextualize an understanding of impact in that way? So, we may say, if you and five friends are together, one out of your group is likely to be impacted by gun violence. That’s a very tangible way of taking a data point and making it plain.

And so, we use these data points to both help us understand where context is as it is today. That can be anything from looking at a client’s website data—what pages are they visiting on your website? That tells us a story about what they find interesting about your organization. [00:29:00] To the impact we see happening out in the world. Like in the example I just shared about one in five as a data point versus making people actually see in real time how it impacts not just amorphous one in five out in the world, but if it’s five of you in a group, one of you will be impacted by this hypothetical outcome. Those are ways that we help create that bridge between the numbers and the art and the storytelling.

And I, and, just thinking about my husband, the engineer, head-y guy, he thinks in a way that can be very logical. And to me, even that line of logic is a really beautiful and creative way of moving through the world. I see things in color. Whereas I think my husband sees things in numbers. And I really like the overlay of the two. And in, in my line of work and my colleagues’ line of work, I see that same mirage of how we tell these stories and [00:30:00] interact.

Michael: And this reminds me, I, there was an article I read where it was talking about the difference between big data, which really deals with what past behavior is about. There’s a lot of big data about that. But this woman was talking about, I think she called it deep data, but it’s more archeological, it’s more qualitative data—

Shakirah: Right.

Michael: Where you’ve maybe talked to a bunch of people in depth—

Shakirah: Yes.

Michael: —and you get their aspirations. Because whenever you’re dealing with the future and how you want people to be in the future, even if it’s tomorrow, you’re dealing with, sort of, desire or qualitative things, and I assume you incorporate that in—

Shakirah: We do, we do focus groups. That’s one way of us getting at just what you’re talking about. How do we get both empirical data—so, looking at the big data out there—while also getting more qualitative? So, talking to a group of stakeholders or representative sample of people that we think are likely grouped to influence in hearing directly from them. [00:31:00] So we do a mix of everything to get us at what is the most likely outcome in this moment that leads to the next moment, to the next moment for that outcome?

Good example of this is thinking about voter behavior change and influencing folks to vote and also, perhaps vote for a particular candidate. There’s so much data out there about—I never get polled in these things—but exit polls—

Michael: Somebody is.

Shakirah: I’m like, who is getting? I vote all the time; I never get exit polls. but exit polling data—and then people hear that and they’re like, “What?” But it’s the focus groups. It’s the talking to people. It’s just like you said, that qualitative data that adds that the nuance around not just that these people voted, but here’s why they voted. Here’s what they were considering in their voting or why they didn’t vote.

Michael: Right.

Shakirah: And what they’re thinking about or why they voted for a particular candidate. [00:32:00] We use it all because it requires all of the above.

Elizabeth: On a completely different realm. Not completely, but—

Michael: Relatively.

Elizabeth: Getting down to just a foundational level, you are also a birth doula.

Shakirah: Yes.

Elizabeth: Which is so awesome. Coaching and supporting mothers in their pregnancy, birth, and mothering journeys has to be one of the most foundationally creative zones imaginable.

Shakirah: Yes.

Elizabeth: And you are at the frontier of newly created life. So, first of all, can you tell our listeners who a doula is and specifically who you are as a birth doula?

Shakirah: Sure. A doula, a birth doula specifically is a trained advocate for birthing people. We are trained with evidence-based birth on the way to help people do what we call “expected management of their labor and delivery.” That’s a very loaded way of [00:33:00] saying we’re just here to remind you what you can do, what your body was designed to do, and that you have the strength, the will, and the capacity to bring this new life into the world. Or to choose not to, because birth doulas are also in many respects abortion doulas too. Some people may get to a point where they decide, actually, I can’t, I’m not ready. Or miscarry, that happens. I’ve been in, asked to support people through stillbirths and other, sort of, really traumatic experiences. And we’re advocates. So, we ensure that our clients are educated on the birthing process and also their postpartum experience and getting them ready for that next phase of their life, that they know all of the different choice points that they’re gonna encounter leading up to enduring their labor and delivery and demystifying the process because there’s so much [00:34:00] false information in our broader zeitgeist around what happens. I know I, growing up, I watched, would watch movies and it was like, “Oh, the woman would go into labor and, psh, her water would break, and then boom, a baby.”

Elizabeth: Boom!

Shakirah: It’s, no, that, that’s actually not what happens. And that labor is like a very long time for many people it’s not a [snaps fingers] water break, you go to the hospital, and then you’re handed a baby. So, demystifying that process and, yeah, reminding people that they have a voice that they should be using as part of this very beautiful experience.

Michael: So you come into the process at a relatively early stage?

Shakirah: No.

Elizabeth: Oh, you don’t? Okay.

Shakirah: No, it depends. Some people, usually it should start at around the 20-week mark. By then you’re in your second trimester, you’re feeling a little bit better. You have the energy to even engage with a birth doula. Some people wait until they’re 30 weeks, so they’re about 10 weeks out before their labor and [00:35:00] delivery. So, we come in a little bit later. But it’s a good time.

Elizabeth: Well, talk some more. You begin to touch on it, but talk some more about the psychic and emotional and physiological and spiritual aspects of being quote “in the zone.”

Shakirah: Yeah.

Elizabeth: Which is really a very intimate zone as a doula. Can you speak some more about that experience for the, those experiences for the mothers themselves? And for yourself as a doula?

Shakirah: Yeah, for the mothers themselves, wow, what strength and beauty and challenge it is to walk through the act of bringing life into this world. And so, as a doula sitting in contrast to that kind of strength, there is an embodiment of vulnerability and space-holding that I have for people who are birthing and mothers who are birthing. I enter this practice with a recognition that [00:36:00] that is a very scary thing to confront. I, for so far, most of my clientele have been new parents. I’ve only done a couple of what we call “suptips” which is subsequent births. And so, for these new parents, they’re just like, “What in the world is about to happen to me?” “Am I gonna be able—?” I’m like, “The baby’s gonna come out one way or another.” We’re here! So you can be assured that the baby is gonna get, the baby, the baby can’t stay. Right?

And so, just holding space for all of that they contain, whether that’s anxiety, whether that’s fatigue, particularly as you get closer to your labor and delivery, the curiosity around it for people who are pregnant and going into labor and delivery, there is now this new revelation of what the body can do. Even for people who have multiple babies. “Oh my [00:37:00] goodness, I am expanding.” “Literally, I did not know my body can do that.” “Oh my goodness. I am providing sustenance from my bones so that this baby can get calcium.” It’s such a beautiful thing to watch the lights turn on as they go through the different phases, but then just to be the container for that.

And then there is the exhaustion both for the person who’s going through the pregnancy and experiencing labor and delivery. And transparently for me, I have done several births at this point and have come to a moment of, okay, it’s probably time for me to rest as a doula. Because you have to contain so much. That’s, if you were—I run marathons and sometimes I’ll have a running coach or a pacing partner. I’m carrying an exhaustion, but the person pacing with me, cheering me on, making sure I know that I can keep going, [00:38:00] has a different degree of exhaustion.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shakirah: Because not only are they pacing along, but they’re like overcompensating for the places where I feel fatigued. And in many ways, a doula can experience that same level of output, of I am overcompensating and giving this person the encouragement, the advocacy, the support, the emotional containment, sometimes the physiological, like, holding people as they birth

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shakirah: Holding their bodies up. Literally catching babies. That is a different type of exhaustion that can be a lot.

Elizabeth: Clearly, as you’ve just described it, being a doula is an incredibly intimate and trusting relationship that you have with your mothers. Can, and can you just speak some more about likening that intimacy to the intimacy of creativity itself?

Shakirah: That’s such a good question. When someone is pregnant and has not yet seen [00:39:00] their child, they are building a world in their mind and dreams of what this child will come to be. That’s one of my favorite parts of the work, is hearing this new world that starts to get constructed. “I wonder what my baby is gonna look like,” I hear so often said. “I wonder what they’ll sound like, whose personality they’ll have, what they’ll wanna be.” And as a doula, that intimacy is walking them through that imagination, helping them to have those kinds of conversations in a way that feels safe, that feels without judgment, that feels spacious enough.

A lot of people, when they’re pregnant, because they’re inundated with so much information and so many choice points, they often feel like they can’t articulate those dreams because it’s, I just gotta get through the next thing. I gotta [00:40:00] build the nursery, I gotta register—all of these different things. And then they have their own fears about who they’re gonna be once the baby is here.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: Will I retain my sense of identity? Will I—whatever those anxieties are. And so that intimacy as a doula and hearing all of the different tensions, the excitement around this new world, the fear of loss of the old world, is just sitting with them in that, the world building and also the deconstruction of the old world and saying, “Both are okay. You are allowed to have both. You are allowed to be able to do that.” And then seeing this new being come into this world in this way that, when—you’re, you’ve written books, you’re creative, you’re artists in your own right. You know what it is to labor.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: To bear something into the world. Getting to those final pushes of bringing that [00:41:00] baby into the world is not—albeit the pain and all of those things—theoretically, it’s not unakin to bringing your creative endeavor into the world. If I can just get past this last push, these last 20 pages, this last stroke of the brush, this last note that I have to sing, beat of the drum, whatever it is, push to bring my baby into the world. It’s just the most miraculous thing to witness.

Elizabeth: You have a quote on your Instagram feed as a birth doula from the artist Frida Kahlo, who knew a thing or two about birthing creativity. The quote is, “My blood is a miracle that, from my veins, crosses the air into my heart—in my heart, crosses the air in my heart into yours.” Which is an extraordinary quote. And I wondered if you could just speak a bit about what that quote means for you?

Shakirah: Yeah, I think about how messy birth [00:42:00] can be. There is blood, there is the beating of the heart, there is so much sound and smell, and they’re not always pleasant. And that quote resonated so much. When I think about the mothers that I’ve supported going through this messy process of labor and delivery, pushing, feeling pain, even down to veins, everything, the blood that has to pass for the baby to come out. It just resonated so much and I, one, bow down to Frida and I just think about not only was she a tremendous artist, but she too knew pain because of the, the experiences that she had in her life and the disabilities that she carried as she was creating her art. And for what it’s worth, I know that people won’t [00:43:00] think this is a popular thing to say, but pregnancy is a form of a disability because you’re not able-bodied in the way that you once were before getting pregnant. And so, carrying these different types of ableness and disabilities, and then the birthing of something, even through that pain. That quote, I was like, “Oh my gosh.” Because one of the things I tell my clients is like, pain is part of the process. You don’t get to that baby without—

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: —the messiness of it. They’ll ask, “Oh, is it gonna, is it gonna be really messy?” And I’m like, “Yeah! Yes. It’s gonna be quite messy.” And then they forget they have to deliver their placenta and then they’re like, “Wait, I’m not done?”

Elizabeth: “I’m not done yet? What’s this?”

Shakirah: “You’re not, you have to deliver your placenta.” It’s way less intensive than delivering the baby, but it’s messy and it’s a part of it. And Frida’s articulation of just that connection to the messy and to the parts that we don’t like to [00:44:00] talk about but that all is still connected to her heart was just really beautiful and resonant.

Michael: Throughout this conversation I’ve been just thinking of the role that storytelling plays. ‘Cause it, it sounds, there’s this talk about the messiness. Do, if somebody asks you, “Is it going to be messy?” And you have to, there’s obviously the moment of decision where you go, “Oh no, it’s gonna be fine.” You tell this beautiful story, romantic story, or do you include, how much truth do you include? Because obviously you’re dealing with anxiety. You have their stories that they’re developing and they’re forming in their own head. You got the numerous stories around birth, they’re foundational in many ways. So, if you could talk about the role that storytelling plays when you’re the doula.

Shakirah: That’s, oh, that’s such a fun question. In my role as a doula, I probably tell too many stories, but I do like to use storytelling for clients because I think it helps them [00:45:00] know that they’re not alone. I’ve heard that pregnancy is a very lonely experience for many birthing people. And I often pull back from my prior clients or prior experiences to help them connect to a sense of community. “You’re not the first person to experience this. Here’s a story about a time where—.” Whatever the case may be, I’ll fill in the gap of some association for them.

But also storytelling for them in a way that helps them rewrite their story or write a new story. Because the biggest thing that they are encountering is the loss of their old identity and having to now connect with who this new person is going to be—both the person that they’re birthing, but the person that they will become, I find is the biggest piece of storytelling. And we write that, not necessarily together because it’s their story, but I do get to be [00:46:00] a scribe with them in a way that, again, is a container for all of it.

It is really hard for people to articulate that they’re scared of having a baby, or that they may not connect with their baby, like their baby. Those are all real things. And I get to be a scribe at helping them write that in a way that is authentic to their feelings and imagine who they’re gonna be on the other side of that anxiety or whatever it is.

And then the other piece of the storytelling really is just these stories that I get to share about these babies that come into the world. So many of their names I know I hold in my heart, I see their faces, their 10 toes and fingers. It’s a bigger story around birthing in a way that, again, is human-centered, that honors—my clients are Black women [00:47:00] —honors Black women’s experiences, having encountered a medical care system that is unkind to them, that does not value their life, or their baby’s lives, or their partner’s lives, or their community’s lives. And so, telling a bigger story around what a world can look like when we do care for Black women, when we do care for Black babies, when we do care for Black communities, that provides the resources and quality of care that makes every birth a beautiful story.

And the last piece of this is, I always go back to my clients ‘cause we start our engagement building their birth preferences. It’s usually called a “birth plan,” but plans are subject to change. So, I use “preferences” as a preferred framing. And so we’ll start with that. And they’ll say, “I want an unmedicated birth. I want lights, I want candles, I want music.” Whatever the things they desire, we put it in there. And then on the other side, I’ll go back and say, “When [00:48:00] you look back at your birthing story, was it everything that you desired?” And that becomes a narrative that we get to share together. For many people they do. And for many people they’re like, “Actually, I didn’t like that I had to—” whatever. So, in a way, we’ve shaped our own story because we went through this.

Elizabeth: Well, speaking of stories and being a scribe, you are also an author of a memoir entitled Until My Surrender: A Story of Loss, Love and Letting Go. And the book jacket asks, quote, “What if to live the life you dream you must first let go? This is the question one woman was confronted with as she found herself emotionally and spiritually crippled by the pain of her past. After moving away from a childhood filled with abuse, enduring a toxic marriage and a series of broken relationships, she had a decision to make. She could either perpetuate her trauma or she could surrender. [00:49:00] Until My Surrender: A Story of Loss, Love and Letting Go is the journey of overcoming trauma and letting go of the past to achieve what seems impossible – a life of freedom and filled with love.”

Wow. What a powerful book this must be, about an incredible journey and story of resilience and what a difficult process writing this book must have been. So, can you tell us about your creative process as an author and where you found the stamina and creative momentum to keep going?

Shakirah: I have the privilege of looking back on that process and taking so many learnings from it. I think that I am proud of the book that I wrote. I’m also humbled by the fact that I wrote it so young. And perhaps did not give myself enough time to sit with the wisdom that I was collecting. That said, I was writing a book while in the midst [00:50:00] of much of that trauma. I was newly divorced, having gotten married, what we would consider young now—I was 25 when I first got married—and you, it was a very toxic marriage. It was very unhealthy. I was already carrying trauma from a trauma-informed childhood, and so that made that experience all the more exasperating. And so, I’m walking with this limp, taking on this creative endeavor that required me to pull myself out of that subjectivity to the extent that we can do that and write about this experience.

And there were so many times where I would literally, as I was typing, just break down and cry.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: And just be so sad for myself at that time and what I walked through. And still having to have the discipline of saying, but I’m, [00:51:00] I am in the practice of this endeavor, and I have to do this story justice. Not just for myself but also for the people, for good or bad, who I’m also sharing parts of their story. I have to be careful with that. And so, I wrote every day for—when I really set my intention to publish—for about nine months. Which is hilarious to think ‘cause that is—

Elizabeth: Obviously, yeah.

Shakirah: Nine months of just writing and writing, I pull myself away from the world to, as much as I could. So that meant not being as available to friends and family. I worked; I wrote. And that was my life. And I ran. That was my healthy outlet to pull me out of just being in the trauma all day long.

And then I went through the process of editing and hired an editor to come in and hand that thing over and say, “You deal with this. Just tell me what to do to make it readable to [00:52:00] somebody else.” And it was a really difficult process, really difficult, but I’m so glad that I did it. It was difficult because of the subject matter for sure. And it was my first time writing a book and I was just like, wow, this requires a lot of work. How do people do this all the time? Just crank out books all the time. But it instilled a really good discipline in me because even though it was very difficult, I’m like now I know I can write a project like that—

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: —in the future. So yeah. I’m grateful.

Michael: One of your readers, named Darla, wrote a short little review, a five-star review on Amazon, and she said, “In a time when people sanitize their lives in order to project perfection on social media and in life, Until My Surrender unapologetically reminds us that our power lies in being vulnerable to share all aspects [00:53:00] of our story.” So that immediately makes me think of the intersection of vulnerability and social media. How vulnerable can you be on social media? ‘Cause it includes everything from, yeah, people liking it and expressing the caring or compassion to confusion and hostile remarks, right? On social media. And so, if you could maybe just talk a little bit about that intersection and how that played out, or how you dealt with that?

Shakirah: Yeah. I am a vulnerable person in as much as if there is an issue, I can engage with it. I can be vulnerable about, vulnerable about what I might experiencing. So if you ask me today, “Shakirah, how are you feeling?” I’ll say, “I feel quite—” whatever. “I feel exhausted because of my allergies.” Or whatever it is. I can be vulnerable in that way. I can be vulnerable about an experience that I have walked through. Case in point, that book. [00:54:00]

I am also working doggedly to have a healthy relationship with social media. As somebody who is a leader in the field around—

Michael: I know!

Shakirah: —digital and, right? I am really working to have a healthy relationship with what’s shared, how it’s shared. Am I performing my life? I don’t like the idea that—when I set out to become a published author, I would hear so much around, you need to establish your brand. You are your brand. And I never felt comfortable with that. I was like, I am a human being. I’m not a brand, I’m not a logo, I am not for consumption. I love to write. I wrote this book because I want, one, to tell this story so that other people know that they’re not alone and that you too can overcome whatever that is that you’re facing. But I’m not doing this to be a brand or a talking head or thought leader. I’m not somebody who takes myself very [00:55:00] seriously in that way. And so much of that was around building my public persona. So, having this image on social and digital that would attract publishers and people to view me in this certain way, and it just never worked for me. I did have a website, and I liked having the website so that people could access the book and, should I create more books, be able to stay connected in that regard. But I did not like the idea of having to perform my life.

And so, I am on social media. I love Instagram because I’m a visual and spatial learner, so I like images, I like being able to see things. But I am locked on Instagram. I have a private account. I rarely post these days because I wanna be in my life and I don’t want to, again, feel like I’m performing it.

I’ve also been, I’m now, I’m married again. I got, [00:56:00] married again four years ago after a decade of not being married, following my divorce from my first husband. And having gone through the exercise or show sharing so much of what that experience was like in my previous marriage, I’m very careful about what I share about my current marriage. And not that I’m hiding anything but that it’s an intimate space.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: And it’s the one space that I get just for me and this person and I just want to be very careful with it.  So I am working to have a healthy relationship with social media while also being able to be vulnerable that is authentic and allows people to feel seen and to connect. But I don’t want to be consumed and I don’t want to feel like I have to perform.

Michael: The telling of your story and the creativity involved in telling that personal story, was that a part of overcoming the trauma? Just the act of telling it? [00:57:00]

Shakirah: I believe so. There were a lot of things that were not as apparent to me about myself sitting in it. While I talked so much about what I experienced, that happened to me, I also had to recognize who I was in that. Which is to say, I was not living a life of freedom because I was holding onto so much pain from my childhood, and that pain created this veil through which I saw myself as not beautiful or worthy or deserving or someone who should be treated kindly. And so, I walked into a marriage where I was not treated beautiful and deserving and worthy and someone who should be treated kindly. [00:58:00] And I had to be honest about what would it take to shift that mindset? What’s the life that I want and what do I have to shed to be able to give that life? The letting go, the surrendering. I had to surrender my connection to that identity of my younger self. And say that, “You are deserving. You should be treated kindly. You should not be a whipping post for people’s emotional abuse or whatever kind of abuse.” And so I had to shed that. And confronting that was really hard.

Michael: So the writing of the memoir was a journey of discovery, right?

Shakirah: Yeah, yeah. I could see myself literally on the page, and that’s why I would cry. I would feel so sad. Why did you let somebody treat you like that, Shakirah?

Michael: That’s why writing could be so dangerous.

Shakirah: Oh my gosh!

Michael: Yes. Yes.

Shakirah: Yeah. So yeah, I had to see myself and that was hard.

Elizabeth: We actually quote, at Creativists in Dialogue, the great Frantz Fanon statement, “In the World through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.” So, it sounds like you have gone through [00:59:00] this journey of recreating yourself and, really—

Shakirah: And evermore. Evermore.

Michael: Okay, so, shifting more to community engagement. You worked for the Communities in Schools.

Shakirah: Yeah!

Michael: It’s a national organization. And it has a holistic approach to supporting children, families, schools, and communities—I guess it’s that holistic, looking at all the components. Can you maybe talk a little bit about the creative visioning involved in communicating such a complex, multi-layered mission?

Shakirah: Yes. I loved—Communities In Schools was one of my favorite places to work because I got to spend so much time with incredible young people in the different communities that the organization supported. I worked out of the national headquarters as the Director of Digital, so supporting storytelling on behalf of our affiliated network, and particularly on behalf of the young people.

The creativity really came in when I was with [01:00:00] the kids, the young adults. They kept me on my toes. They are and were so brilliant and full of life and optimism. And because Communities In Schools primarily, not always, but primarily worked in Title I districts, there were associations about what these children and young people were supposed to be. What their lives are supposed to be like. And as someone who comes from—my family is from the West Indies, so I am first generation American, grew up in an immigrant household, grew up in many of the same conditions that a lot of the young people from Communities In Schools network do. There’s an association. Delinquent, only gonna make it to this point, whatever those false narratives are. But it was, when I would sit with them, I saw innovators, creators, disruptors, game [01:01:00] changers. And it just kept me on my toes in a way that allowed me to tell stories from a different type of place and to be able to be centered in the midst of joy. They brought so much joy into the work.

As the Director of Digital, I would often have to go do what we call “content capture.” So, I would travel around the country, literally, like, taking pictures and photos and videos, and attending—students would have their own graduations from their schools, they would also graduate from the Communities In Schools networks—so, going to the graduations. And it was such a beautiful time being immersed into their world. Yeah, anytime you do anything with young people, you’re just reminded that life is good.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Michael: Oh yeah.

Elizabeth: Michael and I can relate. He’s taught for 35 years, and I’ve worked with pre-K children for many years. So, it is joyful. Yeah, it is. It is impossible not to have hope if you are working with [01:02:00] young children or young adults.

You, speaking of the future and hopefulness, you’ve also worked with Black Futures Lab.

Shakirah: Yes.

Elizabeth: Which the website describes as a, quote, “innovative and experimentation lab focused on new ways of engaging Black communities civically and building our capacity to be powerful in politics.”

Shakirah: Yes.

Elizabeth: “We close the gap between our communities and the tools we need to build power.” So, I know you could speak at length about community engagement as an extremely intuitive and nuanced process. It brings together people with complex histories and experiences and economics and inter- and intrapersonal group dynamics and many other factors. But, can you talk about this work of community engagement and how it creatively synthesizes these many elements?

Shakirah: Yeah. I was elected to be a Black Futures Lab Public Policy Fellow in 2021, and the fellowship teams were tasked with developing [01:03:00] community-centered and community-driven policy. My teammate and I specifically focused on Black maternal equity in the District, and that was to ensure that birthing people on Medicare would get access to a year of postpartum leave and support, we would eradicate copays—we were incredibly imaginative in our legislative policy.

The community engagement piece was making sure we understood what it is actually that birthing people in the District want. And for a lot of them it really was patient-centered care. The District has lost several maternity wards and facilities. Even for folks who are well-established. So if you’re someone who is a resident of Ward 8, you have almost no access to maternal care. You would have to travel [01:04:00] to Wards 4 or 5, or even Ward 1, that’s a food desert for many on that side of the river. And so, we wanted to make sure that we were telling those stories in an authentic way and that we actually understood what the needs are. So, is it that you need postpartum care and support? Or is what you need just access to a hospital? To be able to birth and labor, particularly if you’re someone working three jobs and when you’re pregnant, you have to go to appointments as you advance through your pregnancy, those appointments become more frequent, almost weekly up until your labor and delivery as you get into your final trimester. And so, many of the folks are just like, “We just need access.” “We need access to quality care.” “We need doctors who respect us.” “We need doulas.” And midwives! The District has two midwives.

Elizabeth: Two midwives?

Shakirah: Two [01:05:00] certified midwives. Midwifery practitioners. To be—

Elizabeth: Seriously?

Shakirah: Yes. To be able to support an entire population of birthing people in the city. And so, the ability to have access to this quality of care is so diminished. And so, we engaged birthing people, we engaged other doulas, because there’s two sides of it, what do birth workers need to be able to create a expanded workforce of doulas and midwives? What do birthing people need? And of course, what are, what does the medical care community need? Because doctors do also have needs.

And so, yeah, it was a really tremendous experience. Writing policy, talking to policy makers, making the concessions between community needs and birth workers’ needs and doctors’ needs and—everybody has their needs. How do we imagine a world together where everyone is getting what they want? And the sad part is because of structures of policy and [01:06:00] bureaucracy and the way city legislation works, there are people who miss out and oftentimes it is there it is the folks who have the least power.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: And in this case, it’s people who aren’t policy makers or who are lower income or financially insecure or deprioritized in these circumstances. So, we continue to press forward. That legislation is something that still is being worked on and shaped as the city landscape is changing. And you all know full well as District residents. And so, we’re, we stay hopeful that we can get more access and more quality of care for birthing people.

Elizabeth: I join you in that. Absolutely.

Fast forwarding a few years from the point of birth to the point of schooling and learning in a more structured environment, you’ve also been a tutor, a literacy tutor for four years with the organization Horton’s Kids, which is an amazing organization. And [01:07:00] as I mentioned, both Michael and I are veteran teachers and parents. And that journey of parenting, one, and being a teacher, you become keenly aware of just the layers and layers of granular learning that goes into mastering, into a learner mastering a skill. Whether it’s reading or mathematics or any kind of physical accomplishment. Can you talk about the intimate experience of one-on-one tutoring and that deep dive into these granular layers of a student’s learning and development? And what role creativity plays in this kind of dynamic learning on the student’s part and on the tutor’s part?

Shakirah: Yeah. I got into tutoring through Horton’s Kids at a time where I was really just searching for my own answers and around my own identity and I loved to read and so I wanted to share that joy of reading. I was also really disheartened by the literacy rates in the District. And so, working with the young people through Horton’s Kids was [01:08:00] both challenging in a way that really awakened me to the educational disparities in the city, but also challenged me in a way that forced me to tap into that creativity.

So, taking a young person who is three reading grades behind and having to help catch them up required tremendous thinking and helping them stay connected to the challenge of being aware of their own deficits because they did become aware of, “Wait, why do we have to—.” We would tutor the young people on the Hill. So, bringing them from, many of them came from KIPP in Ward 8, we would bring them onto Capitol Hill. We would have the books, everything we would read, and they would practice their reading, their phonetics, all of that, and they would get frustrated.

I worked with the same young lady all four years, so I actually got to watch her grow [01:09:00] up, which was so beautiful. I came to know her family and her siblings. And when we started working together, she did not trust me. She did not know who I was. She did not understand why we were here and she was aware that there was something happening in that she did not yet know how to read. And so, she held back a lot. And much of that time that we spent together was building that trust in the first year or two. So we didn’t even focus on the reading at first. It really was just getting to know her. “I’m Shakirah, what’s your name?” She would tell me her name. We would talk. “What interests you? What do you like?” We would play, we would build worlds together, ‘cause they would have toys and she liked stickers was her thing. And she always had cute hairstyles, bobbles in her hair. And I would tell her about the times that I would have those kinds of hairstyles too. So that relationship building was the first piece. And then when we actually engaged the [01:10:00] curriculum and the exercise of learning how to read—I am not a educator by trade. I have so much respect for teachers. I thank you both for your service and labor. And so, I was like, how am I supposed to get this young lady to read? I don’t know how to do that.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s a complex skill. So complex.

Shakirah: Very. And then even the training that they provided for us, I was like, I feel like we need, I feel like we need PhDs in here teaching us how to teach the young people how to read. And so, I just started with, what are the books that we’re actually reading? Does she see herself in these stories? And started demanding that we got books that the young people could relate to.

Elizabeth: Sure.

Shakirah: If she can’t even see herself in this story, certainly she’s not gonna want to engage with it because, one, she’s already aware and perhaps insecure about this deficit that she has. And then—or not even a deficit, [01:11:00] a delay that she had in her reading capacity—and then, two, she doesn’t see herself, so this is not even exciting to her. So we started picking stories that she could relate to and we’d walk through just holistically, this is a story about a girl like you. She lives in a city like you. Do you wanna learn about her? And then she would be like, okay, let’s walk through it. And so then we would break it down, sounding out the words, getting through the story. And I actually moved on from tutoring from Horton’s Kids, but by the time that I moved on, she had progressed so much in her reading—now I can’t take credit for all of that ‘cause she had great teachers. There were other tutors, right, working, we worked as a unit, but watching her progress over those four years. Oh, my goodness. My heart can sing. Just seeing her confidence build, seeing her—when I started going, she would sit and I would have to go to her. And then as the [01:12:00] years progressed, it would be that I walked in the room, and she would run to me with a book in her hand of what she would want to read for that day. So, yeah.

Elizabeth: What a great story. Yeah, just reaching critical mass—

Shakirah: I know.

Elizabeth: —for both at the relationship level and at the kind of language navigational.

Shakirah: Contextual.

Elizabeth: Contextual level and, just so many interwoven skills.

Michael: So, I was wondering how do you deal with people from, with different backgrounds? How does creativity play with that, the different cultures and the different sort of life experiences? How do you factor all of that in?

Shakirah: Yeah, I come at it through the point of view, having worn these many hats of being able to see people at different phases of their lives. It’s funny to imagine that I get to see people through the birthing process, having been a tutor of young people, working in my career with adults, and so really understanding all the [01:13:00] different phases of humanity I’ve had a purview on.

And at the end of the day, we’re all people, and that’s how I treat folks. As human beings deserving of dignity, not even deserving, inherently worthy of dignity and honor and respect and care and reverence. Whether that is my clients, whether that is my team assistant, everybody gets the same degree of respect regardless of their background.

The nuance is recognizing that people do come with their different cultural contexts. My clients come with a cultural context of their goals, their budgets, their organizational missions, the objectives that they’re trying to accomplish. And so that requires me shaping my approach to getting them to share their stories, day-to-day stories about what [01:14:00] they’ve encountered with their own bosses, and so how we have to shift priorities. Or, if I’m working with an expectant couple, shaping their story around what their life is gonna look like when they bring their new baby home. And so, for me, the creativity is recognizing what frame of reference I have to bring into these different relationships and how to help people navigate sometimes their own context that they’re bringing and confronting it in a healthy way. And also, still connecting to our humanity as people at the end of the day.

Elizabeth: Expanding upon that we’ve also had several of our guests talk movingly about the interconnections of their creativity and their spirituality. Do you have any thoughts about those connections?

Shakirah: I do. I am a spiritual person. I believe in God. Somebody [01:15:00] may say Jehovah or Mohamed or Buddha, Hare Krishna, I say God. I think God is all encompassing. To believe in a higher power is in of itself a creative endeavor because that is an imagining of something that we can’t feel or touch. That is a vision of some being that not only is overseeing—or I like “enveloping” better. I don’t like the idea of this over lording being but enveloping us with love and compassion and care while also giving us autonomy and freedom and choice. That is incredibly creative. To say, I imagined this world. I created this world and I have a vision for this world. However, I will allow that vision to act in [01:16:00] of its own free will.

That’s like when I wrote that book. And a well-established, more successful author than me said, “Once you put that work out into the world, it is no longer your own.”

Elizabeth: Oh, good point. Yeah.

Shakirah: It’s no longer up to your interpretation. People will perceive it how they choose to, that is no longer within your control. I think of a spiritual practice and relationship in the same way. I believe that God created us knowing that in the creation of humanity in the world and the galaxy in the universe-s, however many universes there are. But there’s also a relinquishing of control while still staying connected. That book will always be my book, while also no longer being my book. Like, I wrote it. I created it. Those words, that story is mine. But because I put it out there, because I’ve made it, now it also no longer belongs to me. Now it’s everybody’s [01:17:00] story. And I believe that the world and the universe is the same way. God created it. And it will, for me, always be God’s creation, but also now belongs to us. The animals, the humans, the trees, everybody. And we now have the will to choose how will steward this creation.

Elizabeth: Beautifully said.

Michael: So now let’s zero out to the macro level. And again, one of the, the guiding principles of this podcast is the role that creativity plays in the shaping of individual lives. So, I was hoping that you could talk for a while about the role creativity has played and continues to play in the shaping of who you are as a person, both at the community level, but also at the individual level.

Shakirah: I am ever evolving as I believe that we all are. And creativity is shaping me, constantly interrogating and imagining who I want to be. Who is Shakirah when she grows up? [01:18:00] It’s a question I often ask myself. And it is, it’s, it’s work that I’ve been doing intentionally. In a couple years, I will hit a milestone birthday, and so I’ve just been thinking really hard in therapy and in my own self-reflection about who I wanna be in this world. What mark do I want to leave? What is the experience that I want people to have when they encounter me? And that requires me being creative. Everything from how I show up, my lipstick, my blush—I want people to be delighted when they see it—

Elizabeth: And you are delightful!

Shakirah: Thank you! I want people to be like, “Wow, that lipstick is beautiful. I feel so happy!”—to conversations. Are the conversations that I’m having with people, do they inspire curiosity? Am I first being curious? Are they without judgment? Are they loving, at their core? Even if they have to be challenging, even if there is conflict? Do we leave both feeling or, as a group [01:19:00] feeling nourished and better? Am I leaving things better than I found them?

And so those are all creative practices, as I imagine creativity and as I imagine how I’m growing up in this world. I just wanna be somebody who, people, if I, could have a view of my own funeral, which is a morbid thought, but I do think we should all think about this a lot more. When, if I heard people reflect over my life, could they do that with a sense of joy?

I went to a funeral recently and it was incredibly sad because this person passed away way too soon. But as I heard people talk about her life, they were forced to do it with joy. Because of the imprint that they left, she left on their hearts. There was a laughter through tears. Because you could just tell she was such an infectious person and [01:20:00] everyone told almost the same story. So she was consistent.

Elizabeth: Wow.

Shakirah: One person was not experiencing her in this way and another in this way. And in the same way, I want to be somebody who is consistent and leaves people feeling even on my dying day, that, oh my God, I got to taste and see that Shakirah is good. And so that’s just something I’ve been sitting with a lot lately.

Elizabeth: Wow. Along those lines, we like to ask our guests, finally, what practical advice—you’ve given a lot of great, beautiful, inspirational insight and, just, wisdom. Oh my gosh. But do you have any other practical advice for listeners about how they can nurture and strengthen their own creativity? Just real sort of concrete pieces of advice.

Shakirah: I would like to break this down for different types of people.

For young people, I would say play. Play. I know you’ve written [01:21:00] a book about—

Elizabeth: Right, right.

Shakirah: —imagination and pretending and just engaging with imagination and pretending and playing, whether that’s outside or, however, coloring.

And for adults, go back to play. We lose our ability to play as we get older. I spend time playing. I love to laugh. I like running, coloring, dressing as you can see, playing with makeup and things like that. And so, just getting back to the things that bring you joy that feel playful to you. And not taking ourselves too seriously.

I would like to quote the great Beyonce, a master creator in her own right, in her documentary, I believe it was for the Homecoming documentary that she did with Netflix, she talked about practicing for the tour, and she said the thing that trips people up from doing their creative endeavor, they’re afraid to look stupid. [01:22:00]

Elizabeth: Oh gosh. Yes. So true.

Shakirah: And that’s so real! So even in the playing, sometimes we have to look silly. And we have to push through the silliness. So, play, don’t be afraid to look silly and stupid to perfect your craft.

Michael: It’s an introductory acting exercise that I’ve used is play the fool. You gotta make a fool of yourself.

Shakirah: Yes!

Michael: That’s the first thing I have all the students do.

Shakirah: Yes! That’s it. That’s it.

Elizabeth: Michael and I are both true fools. We’ve lasted this long as a couple because we’re just a couple of buffoons. But anyway. Oh, Shakirah, this has been so wonderful. Finally, you’re just so generous with your time and your spirit, we just so appreciate it. Are there events or publications or websites or other happenings that you can tell our listeners about if they wanna know more about you?

Shakirah: Yes! If you are interested in my work at Fenton, you can find me at If you’re interested in my birth education work, you can find me [01:23:00] on Instagram @the _dope_doula.

Elizabeth: Fabulous. Oh my gosh, this has been so wonderful.

Shakirah: Thank you so much.

Elizabeth: Thank you again, really, truly for all—

Michael: Thank you.

Shakirah: This has been great. Thank you for your time

Elizabeth: —your incredible sharing.

Tremendous thanks to all our listeners. To those of you who are free subscribers, please consider becoming paid subscribers so that Creativists in Dialogue can continue bringing you insightful conversations about creativity from Washington, DC and beyond. Thanks.

Special shout out to Creativists in Dialogue’s production team: Audio engineer Elliot Lanes, social media manager Erin Dumas of Dumas83, and transcription editor Morgan Musselman. Thank you all.

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