Black Lady with light coloured clothing smiles for the camera with books on a bookcase in the background.
Rajean Willis, the host of Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Rajean Willis, who is full-time social worker with a private practice on the side, and a student in education at *MSVU, said she’s always had “a passion” for hosting television talk shows.

Through the Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW), Willis has hosted shows on Eastlink TV that dealt with mental health, substance abuse, and problem gambling in the African Nova Scotian community. Her latest project looks to further expand on the Black experience, as well as overall wellness within the Black community.

“What I was trying to do [was] raise awareness [in terms of] empowering Black folks into recognizing that we have the ability to not just experience things that might be challenging, but to be able to strive through it all,” she said recently in an interview with The Examiner.

Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis is a four-part web series put on by TD Bank and the Halifax Public Libraries. Filmed at the Central Library through Atlantic Live Stream this past fall, the series was recently released on YouTube in conjunction with the upcoming African Heritage Month.

“I can’t say I have a favourite [episode],” she said. “All of them were really powerful, and, for me, therapeutic.”

A lineup of Black guests from the Maritimes joins her in each episode to engage in one-on-one interviews and panel discussions. Willis said the episodes are themed and appear in an order that is meant to flow, and build off one another.

Race-based trauma, grief, and loss

Side view of black lady on left of screen with three panalists bluured in the background on the right as well as a construction crane and tall buildings outside the window
On the set of Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis for an episode titled Race-Based Trauma. Photo: Matthew Byard.

The first half of the series delves into some of the more complex adversities within the Black experience, while the second half looks to shed light on how to deal with and overcome them.

The first episode is titled Race-based Trauma. Its aim is to expand the understanding of race-based trauma that Willis describes as experiencing a specific instance, or repeated instances of racism, which end up having a traumatic impact on someone’s life.

Willis said the episode also sheds light on various symptoms of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. In an interview with The Examiner, she expanded on the subject and talked about how coping mechanisms culturally specific to the Black experience can remain present in today’s Black culture, even if they’re no longer applicable to a modern-day Black experience

“But these survival ways of coping have been passed down, and maybe they’re outdated now,” Willis said. “Maybe they’re harmful in this present day. And so the pain transpires through generations.”

Camera monitor films Black lady in pink shirt going over notes while seated in a black arm chair.
Behind the scenes of Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis. Photo: Matthew Byard.

The second episode, titled Exploring the Complexities of Grief and Loss, discusses ways Black people can sometimes tend to deal with — or fail to deal with — processing grief and loss.

Willis said that grief and loss are often felt more “collectively” in the Black community where it is more interconnected with relatively tighter degrees of separation. She says, however, that that isn’t something that’s always recognized by the mainstream society, and that can, in itself, create systemic obstacles that are culturally specific to the Black Experience.

Though Willis said the episode on grief and loss touches on issues such as violence, homicide, and the loss of loved ones, she said it also looks to expand people’s understanding of what constitutes both loss and grief in the first place.

She said a failure to recognize and make connections between things like grief, mental illness, and racism can, ultimately, lead to more debilitating effects that impact the Black experience in terms of physical health inequities.

“In high-level conversations there’s conclusions that racialized people — Black people — may have a lower life expectancy as a result of racism,” she said. “The data’s there.”

Assimilation and escapism 

Two Black ladies face each other while seated side by side in black arm chairs with a coffee table in between them
Rajean Willis and Dr. Barb Hamilton-Hinch discuss the grief and loss in one episode of the series. Photo: Matthew Byard

In the second episode, guest Dr. Barb Hamilton-Hinch touches on the subject of assimilation.

“I appreciate the desire and the need to assimilate and want to have more than those who’ve gone before,” said Hamilton-Hinch. “But I don’t value it when we do it at the expense of forgetting about where we came from.”

Willis tells The Examiner that assimilation can take on many forms, and that like gambling addiction and substance abuse in the Black community, it too can often be yet another form of escapism.

“Wherever we look we see this idea that whiteness is the best, and that the white way is going to get you where you need to be,” she said. “I think people find a lot of different ways to escape, or attempt to escape, the pain and experience of feeling inferior because they’re Black — based on this lie, right.”

“I think it’s a reality that, either consciously or subconsciously, people have internalized racism in a way that they also believe the lies of Black inferiority and white superiority, which can ultimately have an impact on the way they think about themselves; the way they think about people that look like them; and the way they think about people that don’t think like them.”

“The brighter light”

On the set of 'Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis
On the set of’ Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis: Exploring the Complexities of Grief and Loss. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Building off the first half of the series, the third and fourth episodes attempt to bring things full circle.

“I wanted to put this healing piece in to see the brighter light,” Willis said of the third episode, Be The Healing.

Willis said that it’s important to recognize that racism is a reality that will always be present. Rather than attempting to somehow eliminate racism, she says it’s more important to try to heal and grow in the face of, and in spite of it, and that the third episode aims to hammer that home.

“[The episode explores] different ways people have sustained their wellness, have recognized when they were unwell, and different coping and wellness practices that people felt to share that could help others as well,” she said.

The fourth and final episode For Us, By Us, asks Black people how they can continue a legacy of work ethic, independence, autonomy, and self-sustainability.

Willis said the former community of Africville is used as an example of a community of people who were self-sustaining, despite lacking access to resources available to other communities.

“How can we continue on recognizing that we’re descendants of these people who had the mindsets of entrepreneurship, and business, and even putting back into the community?” she said.

“How can we self-sustain as Black people if we really, you know, desire to do that?”

Black Lady with light coloured clothing smikes for the camera with books on a bookcase in the background.
Rajean Willis, the host of Our Stories Our Experiences with Rajean Willis. Photo: Matthew Byard.

*A typo in a previous version of this article mistakenly said that Rajean Willis is a doctoral student at NSCC, but she’s actually a doctoral student attorney  Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU)

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Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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