story ACTIVISTA: DR. TONYA MATTHEWS

ACTIVISTA: DR. TONYA MATTHEWS

The True Body Project is a Cincinnati-based international organization working to empower females to connect to their bodies, their voices, and the health and safety of women.

The True Body Project's Lily Raphael chatted with Dr. Tonya Matthews, aka JaHipster, Vice President of Museums at the Cincinnati Museum Center and renowned spoken word artist to learn about how she's an ACTIVISTA in our community.

Raising her voice through her poetry, JaHipster is an activist who keeps it real by sharing her personal experiences with her listeners. Not a radical dissident but rather an educator who seeks to connect others to a world where people confront struggle and inequality every day.

With primarily an African-American focus, most of JaHipster’s poetry addresses issues of gender empowerment and sociopolitical inequalities. She is also sparked by what she hears on the news and the environment she lives in—once she's been in a place long enough to understand its complexities.

As an activist poet, Jahipster connects her audience with enlightening ideas, and makes sure to deliver her voice with authenticity.

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT
I asked JaHipster, “Who or what compelled you to become an activist?” She wisely replied, “I may have to get a little older to figure that out entirely.” Then she recounted her first year in undergrad at Duke University.

At Duke she felt the need to be active on behalf of those that “can’t." A minority at the prestigious and predominantly white university, her classmates time and again asked the same question: Are you affirmative action?

“People would say, 'I bet you’re here because my best friend isn’t here,' when the reality was, no, you’re friend’s a C-student and I was valedictorian. That’s why he’s still in Milwaukee.”

She goes on to say, “I was top of the class. I had the grades. I had the test score. I realized these people had no basis of asking the question [regarding affirmative action] other than what I looked like, so I thought, what was that question going to do to the self esteem of the person who wasn’t armed with the answers I was armed with? And something about that struck me as incredibly unfair."

"My transformation happened at Duke when I was challenged, and rather than simply defending myself against the challenge, I shifted to defending everyone else who was against the challenge and started challenging people’s right to ask the question in the first place.”

REACHIN' OUT
Who listens to JaHipster? It goes without saying that she has been able to reach out to diverse communities of multiple generations.

“My mother said once that she liked coming to my events to see our generation was continuing to progress but in a very different way,” she says. “We’re the generation that wants to have it all: we want to be picketing in the street and get our 401K! But when [her] generation listens to me I feel very empowered. I feel like I’m on the right track, not derailing the movement.”

Not only can she kick it with the older crowd, JaHipster also has a huge “in” with the young folks.

"When dealing with young folks, a role model is a role model is a role model. It’s not necessarily about the job you have; it’s whatever context you’re in. I love when I get the opportunity to speak to young folks and encourage them.”

“It’s the whole ‘smart people are cool thing.' I think they really resonate with that. Even though some of my topics are very high, the metaphors [in my poetry] help the younger people to understand them."

As a woman who has fully embraced her individuality and her roots, JaHipster also spoke about how she reaches out to African-American women.

"I think I have converted many a sista into natural hair. I am not a natural-hair Nazi; I’m a 'You’ve got to be crazy to tell a sista about her hair’ Nazi.'"

Comfortable with herself, JaHipster makes a statement to other black women simply by walking down the street and letting her ‘do do the talking.

“I have found the hairstyle that really works for me, and the whole package deal thing really empowers other women. ...When I get sisters coming up to me and telling me that I’m beautiful, I hear them actually saying, ‘We’re beautiful’.”

DELIVERING COMPASSION
When it comes to activism, there is a tendency for individuals to cling to the groups that are totally down with the movement, and to distance themselves from—and sometimes create animosity with—those that aren’t. But not JaHipster.

“I am a very good external communicator to people who don’t look like me, or don’t actually have my experiences, which I consider a gift. ...Even though I may be talking about some very dangerous things, it doesn’t hit the audience in the same way."

"It’s important to avoid making other people feel guilty; not to dilute the message, but to remember the audience and remember their humanity and try to meet where they’re at before taking them to somewhere else.”

Through and through, JaHipster is the kind of activist that wants to break down barriers rather than continue to build them up; the kind that wants to create linkages rather than erase the opportunity for cohesion.

A MEMORABLE MOMENT
When asked what has been one of her most memorable moments as an activist, JaHipster shared this story: “My most memorable moment is not one of victory. It’s about my role as an 'inside the system' activist."

"At Duke one of my professors forced me to take a higher role at the newspaper, so I became editorial page editor. This was during the time when one of the major affirmative action cases came up, and everyone knew that it was going to be a topic of debate, and everyone knew it would be myself and the editor, my best friend at the paper, talking about it."

"We were on very different sides of the issue, and so everyone knew we were going to go at it. And we did."

"My point being...that affirmative action is not about giving a leg up to people who don’t deserve it, it’s about allowing people who would normally be rejected because of the color of their skin the opportunity, which are two very different things.”

At the end of the day, the editorial the paper chose to write was about supporting the end of affirmative action. JaHipster had lost the battle, but she had a “come-to-Jesus moment."

“There are people who I know very well who will never understand my existence—how certain things that are simply political to them are personal to me. After the debate, I was devastated. I had to center and come to terms with the idea that there is a barrier of understanding, or the road to understanding is very long. But I continued to make sure people knew I was trying to fight the good fight.”

KEEPING THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Activists win some battles, and they definitely lose some, so how does one stay positive and keep on keepin’ on?

JaHipster laughs and says, “You need to have a micro and a macro vision at the same time. There is a whole lot of excitement about being able to transform a village, an entire nation, etc. and that does happen.”

Take, for example, the workshops JaHipster leads with groups of young girls. “I can guarantee you I can do transformation in under 45 minutes. I can do that 500 times, 45 girls at a time, I’ve got a nation."

“But then you turn on the news and find out how bad test scores are, one girl gets locked up, and you start to get into the idea that you can’t save them all. And that’s when the macro vision gets difficult, so I keep the micro vision intact.”

In addition to working with large groups, JaHipster is also a mentor to young women, focusing on one girl at a time.

“If getting this one girl to college was the only thing I ever did, would it still be worth it? Yeah, actually. So I think it’s keeping those micro moments in mind. If you’re a true tree hugger and you have to save the world one tree at a freakin’ time, you will just do it.”

TRUE BODY PROJECT
Because True Body Project promotes the strengthening of the mind-body connection, we asked JaHipster to talk about how being an activist and a performer helps her connect to her body. When it comes to poetry, Jahipster encourages her pupils to embrace their bodies and be comfortable with them, especially on the mic.

“You can never be smaller than the space of your body. From there, it’s about how much you want to your voice to be heard, and through projecting your voice you can project your energy. That is key to being an activist poet.

CURRENT PROJECTS
JaHipster’s most recent project is her collaboration with choreographer Heather Britt in the Cincinnati Ballet Academy’s Kaplan "New Works" series, going on now until September 18.

The piece is inspired by the concept of Plato’s Cave but, naturally, JaHipster puts a spin on the ancient philosopher’s ideas.

“What about the people who always live their life in the light and don’t know there are actually other people who are subject to living in a cave?”

Powerful and to the core, the poetry and choreography touch on themes such as black men and violence, and women’s empowerment. “The 'New Works' piece is about 'looking at lives in the dark,'" JaHipster explains, "at those who live in the dark because we choose not to see them.”

SUPPORT
In addition to going to see "New Works" at the Cincinnati Ballet Academy, which is a must, visit JaHipster’s website to get info on upcoming events and buy her CD and published works! JaHipster also encourages people to volunteer at the Museum Center (free-choice learning!) or become a tutor or mentor through organizations such as Cincinnati Youth Collaborative.

JaHipster concludes, “I don’t have a charity for people to donate to, but the greatest thing someone could do in my honor is donate his or her time to reaching out to the youth.”



For more information about the True Body Project visit http://www.truebodyproject.org. ACTIVISTA is a True Body Project initiative pairing True Body alums with activist mentors.