Dr. Chris Omni, PhD, MPH (2022-2023 cohort) is a featured speaker at the State of Black Health Conference in San Juan Puerto Rico. Dr. Omni is presenting on the research and website she developed during her time in the PEN & Inc program. She is currently continuing her course of research at Florida State University as a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar. The Provost’s office is funding Dr. Omni’s research and travel to the conference.
We sat down to talk with Dr. Omni about the conference and recent updates to her research. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little bit about the research you’ll present at this conference in Puerto Rico?
Absolutely. In Puerto Rico, I have three experiences. One is a panel discussion where I get to talk about Blacktivate Joy, the digital humanities project that was part of the PEN & Inc program. During the program, we were able to really start this infrastructure for what I’m calling the Omni Institute of Black Joy Research. It’s allowed me to have a website that houses stories, soundtracks, and scholarships about Black Joy. It’s a new concept that I haven’t seen anywhere. You might see one on music or on scholarship, but you don’t necessarily see all three of them together.
Our team consisted of four mentees from the UROP program: Ashley Powell, Michelle Gunn, Teya Moseley, and Simone Eloi. Working with the four of them, we had a big dreaming session of “What would this website look like? What would the colors be? How would it feel? How would we interact with the audience?” After establishing this website, I submitted a proposal for an abstract to the conference to share that work and to share about the theoretical framework that helped inform that work. The organizers said “yes.” Now I get to give everybody the link to the website and talk about how the research mentees were instrumental in making this happen.
During the presentation, I also really dive into this new theoretical framework called Kujima, or the Kujima Theory of Collective Self-Motivation. The Kujima Theory of Collective-Self Motivation pulls from three Kwanzaa principles – a) Kujichagulia (self-determination), b) Kuumba (creativity), and Ujima (collective work and responsibility). Moving forward, everything that we do—from building the website, to the creation of walking art experiences, to the state of Black Joy Interviews—will incorporate those three pillars. We are extremely tired of the deficit narrative of sad statistics about the Black experience. This research and website become a counter conversation. It helps to inform the wholeness of the Black experience rather than what a lot of researchers report on or what you see in the news. This is just a fresh approach to Black experiences and even Black health.
Can you talk a little more about the plenary sessions you’ll be facilitating?
Yes, the first session is called “Breathing in Black Joy.” It is going to be on the main stage, and we’ll be going through breath work exercises for all the participants. Some of the topics—as you can imagine with Black health—get heavy. With this experience, we will be able to re-center ourselves and ground ourselves for the next workshop ahead. I talked to the coordinators yesterday and we’re expecting about 500 people in the audience. Originally, it was going to be 400, but so many people wanted to come that they just opened it up to more participants.
We’re doing this because breath work is life work. Breath work is healing. I watched my mom take her last breath in 2016 and when I share that with people, they’re like, “I’m so sad. I’m sorry for your loss. My condolences,” and it is very sad to sit there and watch your parent die, but I actually received it as a gift. It was an in-your-face, full-circle moment. She watched me take my first breath. I watched her take her last breath. Now breath work is an essential part of what I do and what I’m called to do.
It’s important in the space of the Black Health Conference because the conversations are heavy. When we’re talking about health disparities, it’s just heavy and it’s weighing on you. So as things begin to literally weigh on you, your posture sinks. With breath work, an inhale lifts you up, brings your shoulders back, and helps to re-center you.
That last workshop is called “Holding Space,” which builds a greater intimacy into that breath work. What I mean by that is when you hold space with a person metaphorically. You are present. You’re listening to them. You are contacting eye to eye. Heart to heart. You’re hopefully reducing the background noise in your mind and in your to-do list that’s growing in your head.
Think about COVID. We’ve missed out on touch for the last three years and I don’t know if we fully recovered from that. Hugs are essential to survival, health, and well-being. That is the other thing that I offer: if you want more than the handhold, if you want more than the shoulder hold, I’m there to hug you. This becomes this beautiful, intimate exchange of trust. I’m holding Black people and letting them see that they’re seen, valued, and respected.
How did the PEN & Inc program influence or assist you with the research that you’ll be discussing at this conference?
Yes, PEN & Inc was the groundwork. I would say that it was the foundation that was able to take our dreams and make them reality in a digital space. Whenever I share our work with other people and I send them the link, the first thing is they see is “blacktivate.” That’s not a word that you normally see, so that starts conversation. Having the subdomain of “create.fsu.edu” adds an extra level of credibility to what we’re doing. Otherwise, it would have been “blacktivate joy dot com.”
The website also helps to invite other Black Joy scholars into this space. It lets them know that this is a thing. And that the university is supportive of this thing!
PEN and Inc. was able to guide us through the rough terrain of information technology work, which was not our strength at the beginning of the program. We had ideas, but being able to bring those ideas to life is where PEN & Inc. really helped.
I also love the idea that the Libraries said “yes” because whenever you pitch something new, it’s a 50/50 chance. When you pitch something like “Black Joy” that’s also out of the ordinary type of conversation, to have an organization say “yes” to that proposal is to say “yes” to the Black Joy conversation. So that’s why we are forever grateful for PEN & Inc.
Learn more about Dr. Omni’s research project at https://blacktivatejoy.create.fsu.edu/. Any questions about this project and the research being presented at the State of Black Heath conference can be directed to Dr. Omni at email@example.com.