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Conversations with Wendy Shaia

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wendy Shaia. 

Hi Wendy, so excited to have you with us today. What can you tell us about your story?
I was born in England of Jamaican parents and moved to Jamaica at the age of four. My brother, twelve years older than me, remained in England to continue his schooling. We lived in Kingston and both parents were civil servants. My father worked for the Jamaica Telephone Company, as an electrician, and my mother worked for the Jamaica Library Service overseeing their housekeeping and transportation staff. 

Growing up in Jamaica was amazing, but I don’t think I truly appreciated the joys of my childhood until I was much older. There was a lot of family around — my grandparents lived in the country and we visited them regularly. I also had a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins to play with. Every day after school I would get a ride to my mother’s job at the library to wait for my father to pick us both up at the end of the workday. My afternoons were spent hidden among the stacks, reading eagerly and looking for books to take home, since my parents refused to purchase a television — they thought television would make me a degenerate. I would devour the books each night and take them back to the library the next day to be exchanged for more. Since my mother worked at the library I was allowed to roam freely and once found myself in the “adult” book section. I was allowed to sign out a book and later that night, as my father passed by my room, I asked him what a particularly graphic passage in the book I was reading meant. He paused and took a deep breath before saying, “Well, Wendy, if you don’t understand the book maybe you aren’t yet ready to read it.” I shrugged and agreed with him. I returned the book the next day and noticed the raised eyebrow of the librarian I returned it to. It wasn’t until maybe a decade later that I understood just what I had asked my father to explain to me. It was then I realized just how skillful he was by not reacting, which made me lose interest in the book. 

I lived in Jamaica through some turbulent times in the mid to late seventies. There was unrest between Jamaica’s two large political parties and there were moments of organized protest that sometimes turned violent. During one such time, protestors had blocked all the roads and my parents had no way to pick me up from school. My father kept setting out from the house, determined to walk across Kingston if he had to (it’s a big city!), but he was turned back at each roadblock. Meanwhile, I was left at school with a few other children whose parents had not yet made it there. The house next door to ours was owned by a couple who both held high positions in the police force and I attended the same school as their children. When they came in an armed police jeep to pick their kids up, they saw me there and decided to grab me too, but my parents didn’t know that and we didn’t have a phone so there was no way to tell them. We had to drive a very circuitous route to get around the roadblocks and when we could not avoid them, the jeep would stop, the police would get out and fire their rifles into the air, which made the protestors scramble. The police would dismantle the roadblock and drive through. At one point the protestors started throwing rocks at the jeep and finally hit the driver in the head. We had to detour to the hospital for him to be treated. By the time we made it home it was very late at night and my parents were frantic. My father had returned yet again from trying to walk across the city, and I don’t think I had ever seen him cry like he did when I got out of that police jeep. My parents hugged me until I could barely breathe, and within a year we had left Jamaica to return to England. 

We remained in England for only two years, as my father wanted to move to the US to be near his brother in New York. I was 14 years old when we came to the States, and there was a lot for me to learn about many new cultures. One of the first things we had to understand was that the Black people in the US were less likely to be from British-colonized Africa or the West Indies as we were accustomed to in England. My father couldn’t talk to them in patois, which was often a way to form some sort of bond with other Black people in England, regardless of which country they were from. The idea that all Black people came from somewhere else was a way to form community and, without that familiarity and sense of a common experience, my father was lost. Seeing the confusion on my father’s face when he first encountered African Americans is something I will never forget. I have since learned how to code-switch — depending on my environment I can be African-American or Jamaican American. You can tell who I am at any given moment by my accent. 

Eventually, we settled down, bought a small house that needed a lot of work, and I finished high school and went to college. My parents were unable to get the types of jobs they had in Jamaica. My mother’s eighth-grade education, while not a barrier to her leadership position in Jamaica, was looked down upon here, although she left school at 13 to earn money to support her family. She had been good at her job and was well-respected at the library, but she was not given much of a chance to prove her worth in the US because she didn’t have credentials. She enrolled in a home health care program and became an aide, working 12-hour night shifts six days a week. When I went to college, she worked on her only day off cleaning houses in Manhattan so that she could send me money. My father struggled to be hired as an electrician. He finally found work but eventually had to quit that job because of a heart condition. Those were tough days and I realized much later just how much of a toll stress took on my parents’ bodies and life expectancy. 

Everyone in my family knew that education was very important to my parents. My cousins all knew that if my father was scheduled to come to their house, they had better have their homework done before he got there because he would ask to see it. Sending me to college was probably one of my parents’ greatest achievements, and there was nothing they wouldn’t do to make sure I was successful. They were there to see me graduate with my undergraduate degree but, by the time I received my Masters and Doctorate they were gone. They both died at 65 and since I was a late addition to the family, and both parents had passed by the time I was 25, I felt alone and untethered in the world for a long time. My father died first and I moved back home with my mother for a while. She died five years later, and I cared for her around the clock for the last year of her life. At that point, I had a full scholarship to an MBA program which I had to leave to care for her, but I never regretted it for a moment. I think I had a mental break after my mother died but, because I kept putting one foot in front of the other, no one noticed more than that I was behaving bizarrely. It took several years for me to recover from my mother’s death, although I’m not convinced anyone fully recovers from losing a mother. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I spent my most formative years in Jamaica and did not understand what racism was. When I was about six or seven, a little blond-haired American boy who attended my school in Kingston called me the N word. I was very puzzled about that and, even at that age, I understood that I had power in my own country. I pointed towards the airport and invited him to leave Jamaica if he didn’t like Black people. He was shocked speechless (I guess he wasn’t accustomed to that type of response) and never said anything like that to me again. I flicked him off my shoulder as someone undeserving of a second thought. When I looked around in Jamaica the people in government looked like me, the police looked like me (and were not frightening), my teachers and neighbors looked like me. I had no reason to see myself as inferior or powerless in any way. 

But when I returned to England at age 12, I found that growing up in Jamaica had not prepared me for life in a white-supremacist society. I had been top of my class in Jamaica and fully expected to be as successful in any other academic environment. But I did not understand that there was an assigned place for me in my new white school, and it was not at the top of the class. I spent some very angry and frustrated years, as I compared my work, which never achieved higher than a C with my white classmates’ A-graded work. My work was always superior, mostly because I kept thinking if I worked harder and harder, I would finally get that A. It never happened. 

At the same time that I was trying to finally get to the top of my class, my white teachers took every opportunity to belittle and embarrass me in front of the class. I didn’t understand that this was a calculated effort to ensure I understood my place. It didn’t take long for the students to join in on the bullying — even the Black and South Asian students. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how much my assumption that I was equal to the white children threatened the status quo for the other students of color. They understood their place in the school’s hierarchy and, because they toed the line, they were considered acceptable. Since I did not seem to know my place, and since my teachers’ anger with me easily overflowed to the other students of color in the class, everyone just wished I would stop insisting that I should receive higher grades and just be thankful that I was allowed to be present in the class. That should have been good enough, but it never was for me. 

As often happens when one feels treated unfairly, I became very angry and found every opportunity to fight back — physically. I fully believe if I had stayed in England, I would have had a very different life, and I might even have been dangerous to be around. But my parents had decided to move to New York, where my father’s brother lived and, despite my insistence that I wanted to stay in London because I had some more butts to kick, my parents forced me to move. 

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I work at the University of Maryland School of Social Work where I lead a blended program called the Social Work Community Outreach Service and Promise Heights. Our students learn in the field alongside our faculty and staff who are providing critical services in K-12 schools to change school climate, interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and support students and families. We also support non-profits in providing services to their constituents and community organizing. An example of this type of support is our social work interns and faculty who work in some branches of the Enoch Pratt library supporting library patrons with things like securing food, housing, and benefits. We work with families in their homes, schools, and communities providing access to resources, therapy, and organizing. Our staff have worked with pregnant and parenting mothers to reduce the infant mortality rate in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights by 75%. I work with about 70 amazing, dedicated, and passionate human beings, and I am honored to be a part of the organization. 

Despite my pride in our work, for some time I have felt dissatisfied with the long-term impact of human service work on individuals, families, and communities. Many urban communities in the United States have experienced decades of systematic residential segregation, resulting in concentrated poverty and its associated consequences, such as violence, trauma, and hopelessness. Social workers and other human service providers often respond to the consequences of poverty and oppression, while ignoring the oppression itself; in essence suggesting that the client is experiencing challenges because of individual or personal actions or failures. 

In response to these concerns, I developed the SHARP framework for working with people who have experienced poverty and oppression. The SHARP framework is a lens through which providers may view issues of oppression impacting their client, and partner with clients to create plans to take action to impact oppressive policies and structural issues. The five components in the SHARP framework are: 1) Structural oppression; 2) Historical context; 3) Analysis of role; 4) Reciprocity and mutuality, and 5) Power. Through the framework, both macro and clinical social workers and other human service workers can focus their work with clients on addressing both the root causes of poverty, as well their consequences. 

As I developed the framework and published my work in academic journals, I began exploring the idea that I was writing about racism and encouraging people to have more discussion about how to overcome our societal struggles, but that my writing and speaking were not accessible to the people who will be most impactful in changing our society. Academia constructs multiple barriers to access by most people: the language we use is targeted at others with similar education levels, we publish in academic journals that sit behind paywalls, and we are an industry that spends most of its time supporting its own success – have you heard of “publish or perish?” I became dissatisfied with the writing I was doing and wanted to write for people like my mother, who had an eighth-grade education and was absolutely brilliant. After all, I’m not writing about the intricacies of nuclear medicine – that would be targeted towards doctors. I’m writing about how to fight racism in our society — that is a conversation everyone should be a part of — even those with eighth-grade educations. I decided that storytelling and writing fiction was a more accessible and impactful way to encourage these discussions. 

THE BLACK CELL is a novel I began writing in 2015, after the murder of Freddie Grey in Baltimore. I stopped writing it as I became immersed in doing anti-oppression work, but after the murder of George Floyd, this story begged me to be born. It is a result of my professional observations, theoretical perspectives, personal experiences, hopes, and dreams for my people. Every character in this story is a composite of someone with whom I have interacted: family, friends, colleagues, clients, accountability partners, and politicians. It is my hope that this novel will awake in people the idea that things can, in fact, change in this country, and that racism can be eradicated, but that we will need to take collective action to reclaim our power. It is also an opportunity to raise dialog about whether Black people will ever be free without armed resistance, which is an unpopular but necessary discussion to have within the Black community. The book will be released by my publisher, Publerati, in September of 2022. 

How do you think about happiness?
What makes me happy? There are so many things. My family is amazing – my husband, Clinton, and kids, Domino, John, Mikko, Timothy, and Tyler are my greatest joy, and I am incredibly proud of them. We also have a dog named Khaleesi (from Game of Thrones – we are fans!), and a grand-cat named Mona, a tortoise-shell cat with a major attitude. When we are all together there is never a dull moment – lots of jokes and friendly teasing. 

Of course, writing fiction brings me a lot of joy. I didn’t know I could be creative, so writing THE BLACK CELL (I’m halfway through the sequel) has been a journey of discovery, overcoming fear, and finding a voice I didn’t know I had. I am learning DC hand dancing, a form of swing, and I really enjoy the challenge and the community. I also spend a lot of time in my garden, and while other people buy lots of shoes, I buy lots of plants. It’s a problem I should probably get some help with! 

Finally, I have amazing friends, some of whom I have known for upwards of 30 years. My husband is always asking me who I am on the phone with, and he rolls his eyes playfully as I tell him I’m talking to this friend or that. My friends, mostly women I consider sisters, have held me up through many difficult times and, knowing how much I have had to lean on others throughout my life, I am always eager to pay it forward. 

I am grateful for all I have experienced. I know I walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, who have dug out a path for me, marked with their blood and pain. My hope is to create as clear a path for those who come behind. 

Contact Info:

Image Credits:

Ruthie Skillman
SHARP @creative.clinical.psychologist

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  1. Clinton

    December 20, 2021 at 7:12 pm

    shine bright my love, and pay no mind to those that can’t handle your glare #wendywrites

  2. Peggy Coquet

    December 20, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of “The Black Cell”!! Congratulations on the book, and thank you “Voyage Baltimore,” for the information.

  3. Robert Bilbrey

    December 23, 2021 at 3:28 pm

    I’m proud to say I know you and worked closely with you in the past. Looking forward to reading your book. Happy Holidays.

  4. Starra

    February 4, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Wendy you are a true inspiration to us all. I pray you have much success in all that your heart desires. Congratulations on your book.

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