January 2019–January 2020, Black with Plants will publish q and a on mental health + community building with botanists, college dropouts, horticulturalists, plant care specialists, natural hair experts, social justice advocates, sound therapists, etc. across the thirteen hardiness zones in the United States and African diaspora.
What do you want readers to know about Sexual Health Education? Being a social worker? Or a creative project that you are working on? and the role of community building, and its impact on mental health?
Working at a health clinic, as a social worker, has its ups and downs. Being a macro social worker, my role is to question the status quo from a state and federal policy perspective, service execution, and client/patient need in hopes to make our services more accessible. Working with people living with HIV and people at risk for contracting HIV, means in my role I talk a lot about how HIV is transmitted, how to have healthy sex, and what I can do to support the person in having those discussions with their social systems. Moreover, interacting with folks to remedy the harms associated with HIV. Some harms are:
- Having trouble getting the services you need,
- Experiencing a loss of social support, resulting in isolation,
- Experiencing a loss of employment or worries about whether you will be able to perform your work as you did before,
- Having to tell others you are HIV-positive,
- Managing your HIV medicines,
- Going through changes in your physical appearance or abilities due to HIV/AIDS,
- Dealing with loss, including the loss of relationships or even death, and
- Facing the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.
People living with HIV are at an increased risk of developing mood, anxiety, and cognitive disorders. In fact, people living with HIV are twice as likely to have depression compared to those not infected with HIV.
A creative project I’m currently working on is with a team of interdisciplinary health workers to develop a curriculum that teaches professionals how to mirror verbal and non-verbal language to help low income, marginalized, urban queer men learn about HIV and how to protect themselves from contracting it.
What about the opportunity to display foliage, etc. online (specifically via IG) first interested you in committing your time and energy to plant care-taking?
The work I do is super stressful and can have dire impact on my own mental health and ability to interact within my communities. Before 2016, I considered myself a black thumb. I couldn’t keep a spider plant alive if I tried. After grad school, I subleased a friend’s apartment, in Detroit. He left a few plants in the apartment. I didn’t kill the plants. They thrived! As work got more stressful, I bought more plants. I started buying plants, not to take cute pictures of them, but to have a hobby that allowed me to slow down, relax, and take a deep breath. I noticed that plants brought immense joy to my life. I started sharing it with my social work colleagues on Facebook and Instagram. I ran into the plant community on Instagram by accident. As I posted more photos of plants, I got more request from the vast Instagram plant community.
On a personal note, I perceived most of the popular folks on Instagram who have plant pages as skinny, straight, and white. I’m none of those things. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t actively decide that I needed to take up virtual space with my plants, my body, and my blackness.
What do you think are the five key characteristics of a successful place?
First, I think I’ll define space.
- Space: a portion of area available or designated for or being used by someone. Currently, there’s not many spaces that celebrate folks like me. Also, just like my plants, I need specific things to live and thrive. Spaces are unique as it is the things you put into them that create the space you need. Space can be abstract.
- Sun – I need sun just as much as my plants. In Michigan, winter can be very gray and lack the sun to escape seasonal affective disorder. Many Michiganders suffer from depression in the colder months.
- Love – That looks different to different people. I think that I curate a space that folks can be themselves and I invite folks into those spaces to give and receive the love that is needed to be whole, including my plants because they give me the love that humans cannot and I in turn give them the things they need to survive.
- Observation – As a social worker, I’ve been taught to stop, listen, and watch the world. That’s seen in my commitment to caring for my plants and folks I share space with.
- Tarot and mindfulness – I’m truly devoted to alternative forms of spirituality. In my space, I’ve been able to create a space to practice self-care. I also perform a tarot exercise every night before bed to help ease my mind and start my preparation for a new day. It’s so important to do something in your space that helps you truly be your authentic self.
- Meaning – I’m learning every day how to be more intentional about my words. Making sure that people understand my thoughts and actions.
Community engagement is a significant obligation of direct service. With that in mind, can you tell us about your experience in engaging with your contacts day-to-day? Do you notice services rendered positively affecting your contact’s psychological well-being?
Working in a helping profession, this is a day to day mechanism. Some days, I leave work and I think how I really changed the world for the clients that I work with. Then, some days, I ask myself what I did that change the lives of the clients I work with and I can’t answer the question. Some days are extremely great and some are quite horrible. But, all are lessons that I must look back on because it gives me the ability to grow. Community engagement forces me to grow and learn even when I don’t want to.
Would you be willing to share a memorable moment from 2018?
2018 wasn’t the best year for me. I learned a lot about myself. Spring 2018, my mother had open heart surgery and it was the first time I wanted to stop doing the work I do, give my plants away and move back home to New York City. It was hard being far away from her. That stress showed up in my work. I had so much anxiety and I was having a very hard time focusing on my self–care. 2018 was a life journey. I turned 30 in 2018. 2018 was one of the first years I was forced to love myself unconditionally, even my flaws.
Your perspective is invaluable. Thank you for distilling your talents, sharing your time, and a contributing to the local economy. Can you tell readers a little bit about your perspective on securing space for psychological healing and/or wellness?
Many people do things that they don’t associate with wellness or psychological healing that are legit forms of healing. Everyone should start with self-assessing self-care and seeing if you already do things that are forms of emotional healing. Then, start associating it with emotional healing. That forces you to do the things that you already do that helps you destress.
What does it mean to value a friend as you would value a partner (which is counter-hegemonic)? Is friendship the missing linchpin required to engender the realization of socio-cultural value?
Firstly, it took me weeks to adequately answer this question. I had to really sit with this because it’s so easy in relationships to err to normalized ideas surrounding relationship building both in platonic relationships and sexual ones. Power plays important roles in every interaction in our lives, including partnerships. But, the important part of relationship building is compromise. At one point, I believed that this idea was counter-hegemonic. But, upon further examination this is using political capital or in this situation relationship capital, which in theory is hegemony. This is best understood by Antonio Gramsci, who theorized that cultural hegemony or the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, and values that are imposed by the ruling-class becomes the accepted cultural norm; which justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone. Power in relationships, in some way, play a large role in the deciding factors in smaller social situations in figuring out what’s is acceptable, and a person who has more social capital will get the things they sort out to get because of the ability to make this a need for everyone in the situation. But, does that change when waging social cultural value? Maybe! Lev Vygotsky states that Sociocultural theory is an emerging theory that looks at the important contributions that society makes to individual development. This theory stresses the interaction between developing people and the culture in which they live. Sociocultural theory also suggests that human learning is largely a social process. If we’re learning in friendship to let go of that power I could and would say that friendship and community is the missing part of sociocultural understanding in relationship building. But, who actively let’s go of power. Thinking of myself as a marginalized person, I tend to hold on to the little power I’m afforded and I use it to garner more power especially in social situations because I have access to people.
Final thoughts from LaMar Thompson-Hightower (@lammylala):
Self-care is important! Self-care is love! Self-care is sustainability! We all have a life outside of our plants that are unique and meaningful. We are in this together. I’m open to conversing about how to build self-care plans and how to hold yourself accountable in these endeavors.
LaMar Thompson-Hightower, LLMSW