Editor’s Note: Trigger warnings: please note that this article contains mentions of mental health concerns including body image, depression and suicide.
Before January 13th, 2021, Urbana resident Ashanti Files was known to her family and community members as a dedicated nurse, wife, mother, and writer. After January 13th, the role of the City of Urbana’s second ever Poet Laureate was added to that list. Yet her year-long position has already proven to be so much more than just a title.
While Poet Laureate, Files has continued her leadership of the spoken word group she founded, Writers of Oya, helping young women of color process trauma and stress. She has expanded her work with youth and teens into new projects as well. Her accomplishments as Poet Laureate also include leading ‘Writing for Rest and Restoration’ at the University of Illinois; facilitating events on social justice through the lens of poetry; working with youth of color to find their voices, process mental health concerns, and build confidence through writing; and publishing her second book, Awaken, a self-love journaling guide—all while continuing to make time for her husband and three daughters. She has also continued to work throughout her term as a nurse, specializing in mental health and addiction services.
As someone studying public health, theatre, and the intersection of social justice and the arts, I was deeply curious to find out how Ashanti Files balanced her nursing occupation with her new role as Poet Laureate. Is there any benefit that one provides for the other? What is it like to have two uniquely challenging positions along with familial responsibilities? What does this year’s Poet Laureate have in store for us from now until the end of her term?
I listened to Files answer each of my questions with thoughtfulness imbued with a fundamental presence of passion, humility, and empathy. Her insight into the self reflection we can explore when we manifest our feelings as written words was of particular note to me (given my own interest in the intersection of health and art). However, I would be remiss to do anything further but let her tell you in her own words what her experiences have been like, and what she is looking forward to for the rest of 2021.
SP: How do you balance all of your work with being Poet Laureate?
Files: Planning is a critical part of balance, and I have a phenomenal helper… Rachel Storm is the coordinator for the Urbana Arts & Culture program, and she does a great job of organizing my events, press releases, letting me know when people want to do things — so I couldn’t do it without her. I definitely couldn’t do it without her. Having a really understanding family and impressing upon them that Mommy’s doing this for one year, and I want to make it the best that it can be, so asking them to bear with me and sacrifice with me so that I can have this phenomenal opportunity. And another way that I balance is through writing, through journaling, because it can get tiresome. Lots of things are overlapping between my Writers of Oya events, and my Poet Laureate events, and family events… So I have to set dates and times and stick to my word, and make sure that everybody’s feeling the love.
SP: How has your work as Poet Laureate, besides the amount of work that you’ve been doing, changed since you were first appointed back in December?
Files: When I became Poet Laureate, I kind of was anticipating continuing some of the programs [William Reger] started… and also incorporating a few of my own. And the way that it’s changed is: I’m a big advocate for teens and youth, and so I’d love to incorporate teens and youth into programming. So I go to schools more. And that’s not something I expected. Like throughout all of last year—or this year, last semester—I was doing school events almost every week, just talking to kids and encouraging kids, teaching kids. And it wasn’t necessarily a big change because I was doing it with my writing group, but it was a different crowd. Some of them were younger than I was used to. Then, to my surprise, I was invited to speak at the University of Illinois for their ‘Writing for Rest and Restoration’ seminar. That was unbelievable. So things have changed in that I think more of the community knows what a Poet Laureate is, thanks to the foundation that Will set up.
SP: So you mentioned that you’re working more in schools; what has your experience been with that?
Files: It’s been phenomenal. It feels as though it’s an equal exchange because every time I teach, I learn. And it doesn’t even feel like work. Like yes, my body is tired at the end of the day, but I feel so invigorated and my soul is restored. So just being able to talk to students and work with students, and have them express their thoughts and ideas, and give them a way to write down those thoughts and ideas, because that’s what I do. I feel as though the best way somebody can cope with mental illness and become a mentally healthy person is by not holding it all inside. By writing about it, they find the courage to speak about it. And so I kind of help them to discover their own voices and really encourage them to write it, and then if they spend enough time with me, to speak their truth later. So it’s been a varied experience, and it’s an opening experience for both myself and the participants.
SP: I’d love for you to talk about how your experience as a nurse influences your work with these kids, and vice versa.
Files: I know the physiological and biochemical changes that come with depression. And I’ve been taught how to clinically identify these… in people, specifically young people, and so I take that scientific knowledge and apply it in an artistic way. So it’s been scientifically proven that journaling can help you when you’re struggling. And so I say, “Okay I’m a poet, not everybody’s a journalist or a ‘Dear Diary’ type of person”—I certainly wasn’t—so I teach them poetry instead. And not everyone loves it, but everyone’s willing to try it. And those that do find great relief in it. So being a nurse definitely helps me to identify the scientific portions of mental health and mental health treatment.
But I’m also a mandated reporter, so with Writers of Oya I make it very clear to the participants and to the parents: if you are in a dangerous situation, or if I sense that this depression is getting deeper, and is coming onto the verge of suicide, it is my obligation to get your parents involved. It is my obligation to help. So in a way, being a mentor of this writing group enhances my nursing skills and knowledge.
SP: Can you talk about some specific events you’ve done where you’ve seen your intersectional skills come in handy?
Files: I recently did an event with a group of girls from the ages of 10 to 17… Even at this young age, [women of color] are confronted with this “Black women are strong” myth. But if you literally tell them to sit and write what makes you strong, they struggle to do it. So I had to take a step back. And the exercise became not “What makes you feel strong?”, but “What makes you feel good about yourself?” Right? Because they were struggling finding their strength. They felt as though, “Oh yeah, I’m Black, I’m a woman, I know I should be strong, but I can’t tell you what makes me strong. I can’t tell you my faith makes me strong. I can’t tell you dancing makes me strong. I can’t tell you my education makes me strong, because I’m supposed to be viewed as strong, even though nobody has taught me to identify with this strength.” So I changed the exercise. I say, “Okay, let’s go back. What makes you, you?” That was a much better exercise. So they said,
“Oh, I’m me because I love to do hair.”
“I’m me because I love to jump rope.”
“I’m me because I love to read.”
So 80% of the girls are like, “Oh yeah, I can do that, I can write what makes me, me.” They couldn’t write what makes them strong, but they can write what makes them “me.”
And then you get the other 20%. The hand goes up: “I can’t come up with anything. I don’t know what makes me, me.”
There’s something called “stream of consciousness writing” where you just write. And you don’t judge yourself for what comes out. You don’t even really reread it. You just write. So I had the girls do that, I took them to a private space. And I was horrified.
“I’m too fat.”
“I’m too skinny.”
“Nobody likes me.”
“My hair is nappy.”
“My voice is too loud.”
“I hate my body.”
And so that’s when the nurse comes in. Because this is no longer a self esteem building exercise. This is showing signs of clinical depression.
And so that’s when I say, “Okay, let’s change this exercise even more. Write everything you don’t like about yourself.” They can do that quickly.
I say, “You got everything in there? Are you sure you wrote everything you don’t like? Now rip that paper. Rip that paper and throw it away. All that negativity is gone. The only thing that’s left is positive. Now write your war cry.” And it was phenomenal.
SP: What about writing, or specifically the art of poetry, helps you communicate where you want to help people get to mentally or emotionally?
Files: My goal is to get people to evaluate themselves first and foremost, because… how you understand [yourself] blends with how you view familial interactions, community interactions, societal interactions… Poetry is a great tool because the whole purpose is reflection. Some poetry reflects on a garden. Some poetry reflects on art. I reflect on society. But the art itself is one of reflection when you sit down and you think about something, and you take the time to write about something. And then after you write it you can reread it and look at it and say, “Wow, I didn’t even know I thought that way. Why do I think that way?” So it’s a great tool for mental health to get your feelings out, and then be able to go back to something tangible and say, “Okay, let me break this down.” I always tell my girls, “Any emotion that you feel in this moment is valid.”
SP: I would love to hear about some other recent events that you’ve done as Poet Laureate, and also where you are hoping to take this in the future for the rest of your term.
Files: I recently did HVNT. It’s a nonprofit organization called Hood Vote Neighborhood Transformation. And they have an event every summer that’s called 40 Days of Peace, where they host events in the park with vendors, and free food, and spoken word, and artists. It’s a chance to perform, and the whole idea is building a sense of community and getting the kids off the streets so that they aren’t bored and get into trouble. So we did that last Saturday, it was the kickoff for 40-40: 40 days and 40 nights of peace. I had my Poet Laureate showcase on Monday, and it was just phenomenal. I felt tremendously humbled and blessed to be in the midst of such fantastic writers… So it was really awesome that these magnificent people wanted to be featured on my show, because the purpose of the showcase is to show the community who I listen to, who I read, and who inspires me. And so I was really happy that the people I invited came up and shared their beautiful works.
My future events are going to be teaching at Parkland College for Kids this summer… And I published this Awaken journal, specifically to try to put my teaching style in black and white. It focuses on thoughts and reflection. And so we’ll be utilizing that tool as well. I’ll be a guest speaker at the Campus Middle School for Girls; they’re doing a Day of Writing, and I’m going to spend a couple of hours with them, getting them to reflect and to write. So that’s what my July is looking like. August is family vacation!
I also hope to do, by September, a writing retreat that’s going to be open to all teenagers… because these kids have been out of school for a year, and I foresee them challenging remembering where they are and who they are as students. So I’d like to do that workshop to provide them with a coping skill as they reenter it.
SP: Is there anything that I have not asked you that you would want me to know about your work, your perspective, or anything else?
Files: I’d really like people to utilize the Awaken journal. I’d like teachers and students to utilize this journal. I’d like churches and nonprofits to utilize this journal. There’s nothing obscene in it. It really is just meant for kids, 10 to 16 years old, to take a moment to write. And the prompts are things such as, “Write a letter to someone you love.” One of the exercises is, “Name three people who you care about. Name three friends.” And then it continues, “Take one minute and set a timer. Write what you feel about these friends.” And then it continues, “Are these good influences or bad influences?” Because friendships are really important to identity development of people this age… So it’s something that can be done in five minutes, or it’s something that can be done in 30 minutes, depending on who’s using it as a tool.