By Sylvester Brown Jr.
(WIB) – “Viruses are ganstas. They understand what’s going on, they mutate, and then they mutate again and again.
It’s probably accurate to say that Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, Director of Health for the City of St. Louis, made no such analogies in regular health forums. But this discussion about COVID and vaccinations was a little different. It was led by a group of young people aged 16 to 24, known as St. Louis Story Stitchers.
The organization was founded in 2013 by eight artists determined to use art to bring about change. Now, nearly 10 years later, the group is made up of poets, dancers, photographers, videographers and other creatives who collect contemporary stories. It hosts performances aimed at promoting dialogue on some of today’s most pressing issues.
One March afternoon, broadcast live from the Downtown Central Library, Stitchers featured a short performance and discussion with Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis about COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. The presentation opened with the group’s new video developed under the theme “Perception is not always reality.”
With Gateway Arch and Laclede’s Landing as backdrops, the rappers and dancers spoke of their lives as “statistics” where “opportunities don’t knock on doors in the hoods we live in” while rehearsing the bridge of the song, “I Am Worthy.”
After the brief video, the live session with Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis began.
“Most people just call me ‘Dr. Mati,'” the infectious disease expert told the three young co-hosts. “There’s so much excellence here today,” Hlatshwayo Davis said with enthusiasm after watching the video and answering a few questions.
In less than 30 minutes, “Dr. Mati” spoke about the incredible opportunity of being chosen by Mayor Tishaura Jones to lead the health department and the challenges of running the department. She stressed that she speaks out “unabashedly” about fair health care and how the medical system – due to the racist practices woven into it over centuries – must always be honest and vigilant to ward off COVID misinformation.
“Let’s keep it real; we botched this pandemic,” said Hlatshwayo Davis. “There is nothing hesitant about what we have endured. It should be the job of the people who have oppressed us to do the hard work to build trust. »
This youth-led conversation managed to tie the brutal honesty of the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s lyrics and the late Congressman John Lewis’ quote about ‘good trouble’ to Hlatshwayo Davis’ efforts to fight racism. and the need for black youth to seek out accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccinations.
“I want to thank you for being yourself,” Branden Lewis, 23, Story Stitchers host and youth program coordinator, told Hlatshwayo Davis. Turning to the camera, Lewis also told viewers, “We hope you walk away from this Zoom meeting more inspired and empowered than ever.”
This is essentially the mission of the group. Lewis explained that Story Stitchers is primarily comprised of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals. Their goal, he said, is to “create social change through art.”
Until the coronavirus pandemic, the collective focused on gun violence. Lately, Lewis said the group has been focused on “engaging audiences and attendees of all ages to overcome COVID-19 and flu vaccine hesitancy.”
“Misinformation and distrust of the medical field are two of our biggest obstacles,” Lewis explained. “That’s why we approach both equally. Even though something may seem irrational to us, to the person who has this fear, it is completely rational. Doing anything less means they [young people] reject everything we have to say.
The various viral and interactive programs offered by Story Stitchers throughout the year help recruit members. According to the members, the advantage of its mission is that it allows young people to use their skills in a positive way.
“It gives young people the chance to cultivate what they think while avoiding unnecessary activities,” said Christopher Higgins, 24, who wants to further develop his writing, rapping and dancing skills. Lewis and Higgins also appeared in the “I’m Worthy” video.
“It’s more than a collective, it’s like a system, almost like a machine where everyone brings their own gifts, talents and skills,” Higgins added. “We don’t just help each other be strong in our own aspects, we also help each other be strong.”
Patrick Gutierrez, 24, whose family is originally from Costa Rica, spoke of the benefits of having people his age and younger to talk about serious issues like gun violence and vaccine hesitancy.
“We don’t take a ‘do as I say’ position. When you’re under 25, you’re still like a sponge. We can go in any direction,” he said. “We can influence the trajectory of what we do and where we go.”
Rachel Aaliyah Jackson, 19, attends Webster University where she is majoring in music therapy. She became an “embroiderer” five years ago after a counselor at Metro High School suggested the program might be good for the then self-proclaimed “very shy” freshman.
“This program helped me build my confidence,” Jackson explained. “Being a poet is my alter ego. It helped me separate my creative side from my personal side. Now I’m able to do stage performances and stuff like that. It taught me about confidence and how to talk to people.
Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis seemed to really enjoy his time as a guest on the St. Louis Story Stitchers podcast. Before signing, she thanked the young hosts saying:
“You are all healing for me.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaboration of 10 black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.