Aala Marra's glow is enough to illuminate an entire room, which makes it easy to spot the autoimmune survivor amid the buzz at lower Manhattan's Ludlow House. Her radiant skin, framed by natural curls, is a testament to her commitment to wellness and a nod to her ability to flip the darkest chapter of her life into light.
It's hard to imagine that nearly four years ago, the vibrant spirit who has amassed and inspired thousands of followers, was at the mercy of a debilitating disease. It started with drastic hair loss. Merely two months before ringing in her 23rd birthday, Aala woke up to half of her waist-length hair on the floor. "I thought I was dreaming at first," she tells xoNecole over lunch. "It was absolutely traumatizing."
The dismal moment prompted an instant trip to the doctor but left her with unanswered questions. As she bounced from one medical professional to the next, Aala's symptoms took a grim turn and her mental health followed suit. Working for an investment bank at the time, she crumbled under the stress of Wall Street and the weight of eczema, migraines, and muscle spasms.
It wasn't until her last doctor visit that she discovered she was battling an autoimmune disease, which heavily mirrored lupus yet had no name of its own. With the revelation also came the reality that the medication proposed to her would put her at risk for additional symptoms and, ultimately, would not address the source of her failing health. "At that point in my life, I was in such a dark place. I couldn't afford any more symptoms financially, emotionally, and physically," she stresses. "I respectfully declined the offer to get medicated some more, and I walked out with no plan."
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"At that point in my life, I was in such a dark place. I couldn't afford any more symptoms financially, emotionally, and physically."
Shortly after, a conversation she had with a woman who raved about her journey to wellness with the late herbalist Dr. Sebi earlier in the year sprang to mind. While Aala didn't seek treatment from the Honduran healer, the testimonial swelled her desire to do research on herbs, gut health, and the ancient African diet.
The Brooklyn resident went on to craft a cleanse grounded in what she learned, increasing her water intake and eliminating inflammatory foods from her diet in the process. The results were dramatic. Her symptoms not only reversed within two weeks but were completely erased three months later. "I wasn't even back to normal. I was glowing. I was energetic," she reflects as tears well up in her eyes. "It never gets old."
Though fiercely private at the time, Aala couldn't resist the urge to share her story in hopes that others would find solace in her triumph. "I knew that there were people who could identify with it or it could at least reach people that needed to hear it, and it's just my truth. I wanted to celebrate it and definitely advocate for wellness and health and destigmatize it," she explains.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"I knew that there were people who could identify with it or it could at least reach people that needed to hear it, and it's just my truth. I wanted to celebrate it and definitely advocate for wellness and health and destigmatize it."
In less than two years, she drew thousands of eyes to her Instagram page. "It was super organic," she points out. "It was all in response to what people wanted." After revisiting her cleanse in November 2017, Aala's followers tagged along. When they asked for recipes she infused into her diet while recovering from her disease, she released Aala Marra's Cleansing Cookbook two months later. As supporters requested an even deeper look into her journey to wellness from start to present day, she granted them access through her September title I Am the Cure...And So Are You.
The health enthusiast, who also teaches an online course on her cleanse, hasn't limited her influence to the virtual world either. While returning to New York from Coachella last spring, she took an impromptu detour to Kansas City to directly work with a follower named Keyonna who couldn't see past her multiple sclerosis. Within three days, the ladies took a trip to the grocery store, revamped her kitchen, and prepared meals together. Once strangers, Aala gushes that the two are now friends and have both marveled at Keyonna's restored energy and dissipating pain since then. That summer, she hit the road once again to connect with three more women whose lives have been impacted by her cleanse. "It's been the gift that keeps on giving," she muses. "I get DMs, emails, and messages every single day."
The Sudan native credits her affinity to uplift others to her father, who dedicated his life to building schools, wells, and clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. "I've always known this, but I just care about people. That's the energy that I grew up in," she says.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"I've always known this, but I just care about people. That's the energy that I grew up in."
It's in that spirit that the impact entrepreneur has designed her lifestyle healthcare brand aalaCare. Launched this April, the wellness resource strives to support people in their surviving moments and usher them into a thriving reality. It's a movement that starts with a six-week master healing course and will later expand to include a virtual cooking program, live events, and products intended to spark change on a community level.
"I'm very different from people in the wellness industry," Aala emphasizes. "While it's an amazing industry, there's a privileged tone to it, and a lot of people that need wellness don't have access to it."
Her platform aims to combat just that by creating a space for people of color--especially black women--to enhance their lifestyles holistically. "We're not taught to go within," she says. "When I noticed that I wasn't feeling well, everything that I was seeking in order to figure out what was going on was external."
Now on the other side of a disease that once threatened to end her life, Aala has come to know that health is more than the physical. It's also mental and emotional. "There was a traumatic event that happened in a personal relationship of mine in February . In July , I developed my first symptom. There's absolutely no coincidence," she maintains. "I was eating a certain way since the beginning of time. Why was it then that my body decided to break?"
While she's not one to push her example on others, Aala cautions not to succumb to the idea of waiting for an optimal, or even distressing, time to make better life choices. "The only perfect time is now. You're about it or you're not about it," she says.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"The only perfect time is now. You're about it or you're not about it."
No longer chained to the pain of her past, Aala emits hope to those seeking to reclaim their health simply by owning hers out loud. Humbled by the lives she touched and those she will continue to inspire along the way, she walks in gratitude knowing that what she suffered was not in vain. "I'm never out here to force anyone to do anything. I just share my truth," she closes. "Knowing that my story literally transforms people's lives really shows the power of authenticity."
For more of Aala, follow her on Instagram.
Originally published on April 29, 2019
All images courtesy of Aala Marra
Since commanding our attention with Love & Basketball 20 years ago, Gina Prince-Bythewood has been laser-focused on creating space for Black women in Hollywood. That mission doesn't change now that she has made history with Netflix's latest action film, The Old Guard.
As grand as this moment is, Gina isn't impressed by the fact that she is the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book film. She questions why it took all this time instead. "I hate that we're still having firsts in 2020," she tells xoNecole. "It's like, at what point does it stop?"
THE OLD GUARD Aimee Spinks/NETFLIX
The Old Guard, which zooms in on an intimate camp of immortal mercenaries, isn't a mere win for Gina. In her eyes, it's a chance to ensure that Black women both in front of and behind the camera are no longer denied the shot to display the full scope of their talent. "I had a no-fail policy because I know how Hollywood works," she stresses. "There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity."
In this xoChat, Gina reflects on cementing her name with Love & Basketball, overcoming rejection in Hollywood, and making room for KiKi Layne to shine in The Old Guard.
xoNecole: This year, you celebrated 20 years of 'Love & Basketball'. How has it been taking in how deep of a mark your first feature film has made?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It really is amazing. It never gets old to hear that people dig the film. It's surreal that a film that was so hard to get made, that was such an incredible fight, that was such a personal story, has had longevity and that people still share it with family and friends after all this time. As an artist, that's what you dream about, of having your work sustain itself and affect people, so I'm blown away by it. It inspires me to keep doing what I'm doing.
What lesson from those early moments in your career do you keep close to the heart?
Overcome "no". That's the biggest thing. You only need one "yes".
When considering obstacles you’ve faced on your path, what keeps you from being jaded two decades into your career?
I'm acutely aware of the things that Hollywood has done wrong [and] how they're complicit in what is happening right now during this national reckoning, but what keeps me in this is I love to tell stories, I love what I do, and I know how important TV and film can be in shaping perception and changing culture. That sustains me. I only do things that I'm passionate about, and there are so many stories I want to tell, so there's always that excitement for me to get this into the world. The thing that creeps in every once in a while is knowing how hard it is to get some of these stories out there, but because I'm so passionate about it and know the game after 20 years and know that at some point somebody is going to say "yes", that absolutely keeps me going.
"I'm acutely aware of the things that Hollywood has done wrong [and] how they're complicit in what is happening right now during this national reckoning, but what keeps me in this is I love to tell stories, I love what I do, and I know how important TV and film can be in shaping perception and changing culture. That sustains me."
Thinking about the power that TV and film has, what on screen impacted you the most, especially when you think about why you decided to become a filmmaker in the first place?
There were two moments. When I was younger, I remember my family used to always sit down and watch M*A*S*H [together]. Then, one day I happened to turn the channel and Diff'rent Strokes was on, and it was the first time I felt like I saw myself reflected in this box, and I just became obsessed with it. Then in high school, when I was 17, I went to the movies and a trailer came up for She's Gotta Have It, and I got that same jolt of seeing a Black woman up there, and it affected me deeply. I wanted to give us that same jolt and give us the opportunity to see ourselves in ways that we can be inspired by.
With 'The Old Guard', you’ve become the first Black woman to direct a major comic-book film. How do you feel about that?
I hate that we're still having firsts in 2020. It's like, at what point does it stop? But, I'm proud of the fact that I got this opportunity to do it. I certainly worked hard to get it, and once I got it, I had a no-fail policy because I know how Hollywood works. There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity. I carried that with me every day. That pressure fueled me as opposed to making me run away from it. I know that there are so many dope sisters out there that are as capable and eager to do the same thing, so I'm looking forward to them getting the shot.
"There's such a spotlight on the few of us here that we have to succeed because in our success, others will get the opportunity. I carried that with me every day. That pressure fueled me as opposed to making me run away from it. I know that there are so many dope sisters out there that are as capable and eager to do the same thing, so I'm looking forward to them getting the shot."
'The Old Guard' is an adaptation of the Greg Rucka comic book of the same name. What was it about this story that you gravitated to the most?
The [part I gravitated to] most was the fact that one of the old guards is a young, Black female hero. I was like, "Yeah, I need to put this in the world." I dug that she was naturally a warrior. There was such a normalcy to that. There wasn't some traumatic event that happened to her that forced her to find her strength. She was a Marine. She had it in her. It was innate in her. I love that narrative, and I love that it was two women at the forefront of the story with that same warrior mentality that I think that we all have, but we haven't always been given the encouragement to tap into. I also really dug the story. I liked what it had to say about finding your purpose and the importance of that, which was something very personal to me, and I felt the audience could connect with that despite the fantastical premise. I love that it was about the tragedy of immortality as opposed to the aspirational aspects. Prior to this movie, I used to think, I wish I could live forever. You think about the courage that would give you if you knew you couldn't die, but in doing this [film], you understand what that really means.
In our recent chat with KiKi Layne, she commended you for not allowing the action in the film to overpower the heart of the characters. Why was this so important to you?
What I love about the genre is the direction that it's really been going in the last couple of years where they feel more like action-dramas. That's what I love. I want to be able to care about the characters and not just watch action. If you don't care about the characters, if they're not furthering the story, then it gets monotonous to me. What I wanted to bring to this film was story first and character first, so that you, as an audience, are invested in and care about these people that you're spending two hours with.
You’ve dedicated your career to creating space for Black women to live on screen. What do you hope viewers take away from KiKi’s embodiment of Nile?
KiKi rocked it. I really want us to be able to look up on screen and see ourselves in a way that's inspiring. The best moment of this process was when we had an audience screening, and this sister, 22-years-old, commented that she wished she had Nile when she was 12-years-old. That was so dope to me. If we can see it for ourselves, we can start to live in that type of truth. The thing that makes Nile so badass is not just her strength and her swagger and her courage, but also her empathy and her vulnerability. I think that Nile and KiKi really embody all of that, and I think that she is definitely someone that we can aspire to be.
"If we can see it for ourselves, we can start to live in that type of truth. The thing that makes Nile so badass is not just her strength and her swagger and her courage, but also her empathy and her vulnerability. I think that Nile and KiKi really embody all of that, and I think that she is definitely someone that we can aspire to be."
With one superhero film down, where do you go from here?
As soon as I finished [The Old Guard], I was exhausted. It's a lot to shoot a film like this. I just kept thinking that I can't wait to get to another movie in my head that I want to write that's smaller and more personal. I was going to take six months off and just relax and write and shoot that, and then this script came to me that's just so dope. It's going to be announced very shortly. It just felt like everything I've done in my career, including The Old Guard, put me in a position to be able to make this film for us, so that little movie that's still in my head is going to have to wait another two years (laughs).
For more of Gina, follow her on Instagram. The Old Guard is now streaming on Netflix.
Featured image by Getty Images
KiKi Layne was destined to be here. When helping a friend prepare for an audition in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, the Cincinnati native stumbled across the opportunity of a lifetime and hasn't slowed down since. Beyond lighting up screens as Tish in the James Baldwin adaptation, KiKi has starred in HBO's take on Richard Wright's Native Son and is now ready to bare her range in the newest Netflix original, The Old Guard (July 10).
In the action film, directed by Love & Basketball's Gina Prince-Bythewood, KiKi takes on the role of Nile, a U.S. Marine whose world takes a drastic turn the moment she discovers she's immortal and collides with an intimate camp of mercenaries wielding the same superpower.
It's KiKi like we've never seen her before, yet the exact shot she's been longing to take.
"There is so much that Black women have to offer and are capable of, and Hollywood does not always make space for that--and the world in general," she tells xoNecole. "I would hope that, wherever my career goes, that even just a handful of Black women can feel encouraged to not accept those limitations, to not accept those boundaries, to not believe that those things can keep us boxed in."
In this xoChat, KiKi dishes on the role faith plays in her career, lessons learned on set, and her undying commitment to represent the fullness of Black women on screen.
xoNecole: When people think of you, they think of your breakout role as Tish in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'. As sudden as your success in Hollywood seems, some people might miss that you set your eyes on becoming an actress long before that moment. When did you embrace your calling as a creative?
KiKi Layne: Oh, that was when I was a little girl. I always knew that I was going to act and be in entertainment. I started going to a performing arts school when I was seven, so I've just been interested and committed to it since then.
Do you remember what those first moments in Hollywood were like for you?
My first few months were extremely tough because I didn't really have things planned out in a way that someone should when they move across the country (laughs). I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street.
"I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street."
Last year, you were honored at ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood where you spoke on the power of representation. Growing up, what shows and stars did you turn to when you desired to feel seen?
The first person that popped in my head was Brandy because she was so big in music and with Moesha. Then there was the movie Cinderella that she did with Whitney Houston. I used to wear my hair in braids--Brandy was definitely a person I saw myself represented in in a big way. Then, I fell in love with Angela Bassett. Those were my biggest [influences] growing up--and Aaliyah, but that's just because I love Aaliyah (laughs).
Your latest movie, 'The Old Guard', deviates from the first two films that we’ve seen you in ('If Beale Street Could Talk' and 'Native Son'). In it, we see you grace the screen as Nile, a U.S. Marine who discovers she’s immortal. What drew you to this project?
The first thing that got me excited about it was the opportunity to work with [the film's director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. Then, once I got to read the script and the graphic novel, I was excited because it was an opportunity for me to do action, which is something I was always interested in. Gina was very committed to offering these real moments of genuine groundedness, and even though we're playing these characters with these really cool abilities, they're still very human and relatable, so it was exciting for me to take on both aspects of that: playing this very physical, kickass character but still being able to bring the vulnerability that people know me for.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time on set with Gina?
What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work. To see her being fully committed to that and come to the table knowing that that's what she wanted to do and that this was a gift that she had and being confident in that, that was definitely something that I appreciated about working with her. She didn't lose herself in the fact that she was on this big, action set.
"What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work."
KiKi Layne pictured with 'The Old Guard' director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-star Charlize Theron
There are so many themes running through 'The Old Guard'. One that stands out to me, which actually pops up in the trailer but hits harder when watching the movie is, “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting.” What is one lesson that you personally hold close?
What are we doing with the time that we've been given? You see these [characters] who have so much time, and even they're struggling with what they're supposed to be doing. What is it serving for them to still be here? Especially with all that's going on now, what are we doing with the time that we have? If you're alive in this time right now, what does that mean?
Where do you see yourself most in Nile, and in what areas did you have to stretch yourself the most to tap into her world?
Definitely the biggest stretch was the physicality (laughs). All the training. Hours and hours of training, that was very different for me. Something that I connected to her with was her faith. That was definitely something that I saw, and I knew exactly what that was and also her love of family.
How does faith show up for you in your career?
It's the root of it. It's the root of my life. I feel like faith is super important. It helps me to not put so much pressure on myself, to trust that if it's meant for me, then it's going to be mine and to believe that my name has already been written on certain opportunities. When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, "That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is."
"When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, 'That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is.'"
What does it mean to you to share your art in the midst of the ongoing fight against systems of oppression that deplete our community?
A big part of it is representation. If someone has only seen a Black person being portrayed in very limited ways, they're going to make assumptions based off of what has been fed to them through TV and film. That's why I'm super committed to pushing against what has been the norm of how we've been represented in film.
For more of KiKi, follow her on Instagram. Netflix's The Old Guard is now streaming.
Featured image by Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com
Yvonne Orji is brimming with gratitude. As dim as the world is when we connect over the phone early May, the Insecure star is embracing the opportunity to slow down during what her friend Devi Brown deems a "divine timeout." "I want to come out of this whole and healed," Yvonne tells xoNecole. "I can't hide behind my 'busy' anymore. God, you sat me down to work on me. Let me get to know me without any distractions."
While her character Molly has indeed become a trending topic for seemingly all the wrong reasons this season of Insecure, the Nigerian-American actress is thankful for the light she is able to pass on through comedy even in the face of a global pandemic. "I think our fans are so vocal, and [the show] resonates with them so much because they've been these characters. They've experienced these characters. They know these characters," she points out. "Thank God that I get to be a part of content that shifts lives, that shifts perspectives, that creates conversations."
Credit: Jessica Dao/HBO
"It's so interesting that God was depositing seeds in me that I didn't know were going to be planted and that I could get fruit from."
This month, Yvonne takes center stage in her first HBO special, Momma, I Made It! (June 6) where she does all of the above as she grants fans access into her world beyond the hit series. "It's momentous," she says. Shot at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the special also documents the comedian's recent trip back to the soil of her childhood, Nigeria, this past January. "The fact that I get to bring my two homes in perfect equilibrium to the special...I've been crying all morning," she reveals.
With a book entitled Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me Into the Life of My Dreams set to debut next year, this opportunity is more than a milestone for the entertainer. It's a full-circle moment. "My first foray into humor was sneaking into my parents' bedroom and watching Def Comedy Jam, and I say sneaking in because their bedroom was the only one that had the 'box'," she reflects with a laugh. "I know that I wasn't watching that saying, One day I'm going to be a comedian.' And, 'One day I'm going to have a HBO comedy special,' but it's so interesting that God was depositing seeds in me that I didn't know were going to be planted and that I could get fruit from."
In Momma, I Made It!, Yvonne ignites laughter as she chronicles growing up in a Nigerian household in the DMV, capturing the humor that lies in the hyphen of a layered identity. She hilariously traces her struggle to find love while touching on why you'll never catch her extinguishing the standards she's set. In the midst, she also makes room to illuminate Nigerian creatives who, like her, abandoned the dreams their parents outlined for them in search of their own.
Credit: Jessica Dao/HBO
"The mindset was God, I'm going to go full throttle, and you are now responsible--because where God leads, He provides--for getting me to a place where this will all make sense to everybody and hopefully, if you are the true redeemer, you're going to redeem this relationship, and I know He's done that."
"I really had to yield [my parents] to [God]. If I held onto trying not to make them so disappointed, I would have betrayed my purpose," Yvonne tells me when thinking back to the moment she chose to walk away from public health to pursue a career in entertainment. "The mindset was God, I'm going to go full throttle, and you are now responsible--because where God leads, He provides--for getting me to a place where this will all make sense to everybody and hopefully, if you are the true redeemer, you're going to redeem this relationship, and I know He's done that."
It's the reason why Momma, I Made It! is deeper than a comedy set. It is a testament to what lies on the other side of faith--a celebration of a dream realized. "I hate regret more than I hate fear," Yvonne muses. "That's why you're talking to me today. That's why everybody knows what my name is."
Watch Yvonne slay in her first stand-up comedy special Momma, I Made It! airing Saturday, June 6 at 10PM on HBO.
Featured image via Jessica Dao/HBO
Women empowerment isn't a game for Pauleanna Reid. As the co-founder of New Girl on the Block, a mentorship program that reaches over 200 women across 10 countries, the Toronto native ushers millennials into lives of their own creation. It's a mission that is deeply personal, especially when the senior contributor at Forbes and Business Insider retraces her steps to success.
As a target for bullies throughout her K-12 experience, Pauleanna once questioned her space in the world. "Since I can remember, I always felt misunderstood," she tells xoNecole. "I always felt like I did not fit in. I always felt like I was reaching for validation. I always felt like I had to prove something to somebody."
Courtesy of Pauleanna Reid
"I always felt like I was reaching for validation. I always felt like I had to prove something to somebody."
In the midst of isolation, she found solace in notebooks. Toting blank pages with her everywhere she went, Pauleanna discovered a love for words and dared to dream beyond the classroom. However, when she decided to articulate her desire to be a writer at the end of high school, her parents and guidance counselor were quick to point out that she failed English her junior and senior year. In their eyes, her choice didn't add up. "My philosophy is that your parents don't always know what's best for you. Sometimes they project their own fears and doubts on you, and they put you in a box and put a label on you because they were too afraid to pursue their dreams themselves," she points out. "My parents wanted me to play it safe."
Steered by opinions outside of her own, Pauleanna enrolled in a business administration program instead. "I absolutely hated it," she remembers. What should have been a launching pad for her dream career became a graveyard where her vision was laid to rest. The depression that loomed throughout her childhood crashed hard. She didn't socialize, turn in assignments, or attend class for weeks at a time. "The classroom was somewhere where I did not feel safe," Pauleanna reveals.
During her sophomore year, she attempted to commit suicide twice.
"When I recovered from both attempts, I took it very seriously," she reflects. "I believe that God was telling me that second chances do exist and that there was a purpose for my life, and that was the moment I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to figuring out what my purpose was. I immediately dropped out of school."
Courtesy of Pauleanna Reid
"I believe that God was telling me that second chances do exist and that there was a purpose for my life, and that was the moment I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to figuring out what my purpose was."
Pauleanna hid her decision from her parents for a little over a year. "I wanted to have receipts before I told them I dropped out of school," she says. "I wanted to have experience under my belt."
She made her next move with careful thought. "If I was not going to pursue a traditional education, that meant I had to turn the world into my classroom," she explains. "In addition to life experiences, I also knew that I needed to stand on the shoulders of giants. I knew that I had to acquire mentors."
In 2009, Pauleanna met sex educator Shannon Boodram and media professional Shannae Ingleton Smith. "They've been my big sisters for the last decade, and they really catapulted my writing career to be honest," she expresses with humility.
While Shannae encouraged Pauleanna to start her own blog, Shannon guided her through the process of penning her debut novel Everything I Couldn't Tell My Mother. The book, which mirrors 90 percent of Pauleanna's life, faced 22 rejections from publishers before she opted to cut out the middleman and self-publish. "I understood that I wasn't going to let someone in a corner office who had no idea who I was dictate the next steps of my career," she stresses.
Everything I Couldn't Tell My Mother went on to become an Amazon best-seller and 2014 Top Summer Read on the Queen Latifah Show. The personal tale, which tackles date rape, abusive relationships, and deep-seated insecurites, also gives way to reflection, growth, and self-love. "The one thing I really wanted to convey in this book is in order to achieve the success that you want, you have to either let go of resentment or anger or deal with the issues you've been bearing head on," Pauleanna says. "If you're carrying emotional baggage, you will not give yourself the opportunity to open your hands up and catch a blessing."
The full-time entrepreneur also notes that this process takes time. "The only way I know how to climb out of any hole that I'm in is gradually," she maintains. "I think you have to give yourself time. You can't put so much pressure on yourself to heal in a specific timeframe."
Since being diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2010, Pauleanna gave herself permission to try everything from medication to therapy. While implementing lifestyle changes were key to her progress, tuning into self and connecting with God reigned supreme on her road to wellness. "When it has been necessary, God has always shown up. It's been very evident. Whether it was a job opportunity, removing people from my life, or helping me recover from my suicide attempts, He has always shown up on time," she muses. "I want people to know that there is life after disappointment. Everything that we experience is for our greater good. It may not always make sense, but we have to understand that God is not obligated to tell us the details. He has a greater plan for our lives, and it doesn't include crying at night or believing that we're broken."
Courtesy of Pauleanna Reid
"Everything that we experience is for our greater good. It may not always make sense, but we have to understand that God is not obligated to tell us the details. He has a greater plan for our lives, and it doesn't include crying at night or believing that we're broken."
She is a testament to this thought. After dropping out of college, she fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming an author, launched the celebrity ghostwriting agency WritersBlok, and elevated to senior contributor at Forbes and Business Insider. In the process, she also collided with a deeper calling. "After looking at my career, many people would assume that my purpose is writing. My purpose is not writing," the public speaker says with clarity. "My purpose is I'm here to help people see beyond the limits of their circumstances."
As a mentor to millennials, Pauleanna encourages the hundreds in her program and the thousands tuning into her moves on social media to play it smart instead of throwing blind darts in hopes that they'll land on a goal. Before stepping into full-time entrepreneurship, she held down a corporate job for a decade and used her free time to sharpen her business acumen, build a proven track record of selling products and services, and slice her debt by $45,000. "Don't let the Internet rush you," she warns. "It took me 10 years to figure out the formula, and I was totally OK with that. I think the reason why my transition was so successful is because I'm very patient with myself and like Jay Z says, I play the long game."
And while she could hoard the gems she's accrued along the way, Pauleanna is completely fulfilled paying it forward, the same way her mentors continue to come through for her today. "They believed in me on days I didn't believe in myself. I can screenshot any conversation, and they always tell me I'm a bad b***h," she says. "They always tell me I can do anything."
For more of Pauleanna, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Pauleanna Reid
Matthew Cherry scoring an Oscar for his animated short film Hair Love, Beyoncé delivering a historic ode to HBCUs at Coachella, and Black Panther obliterating the box office as the top-grossing superhero film of all time aren't just mere moments in pop culture. They are potent reminders that representation matters.
This truth stretches far beyond entertainment. Though America's schools are more diverse than ever, the average teacher remains white and female with Black educators only representing seven percent of the teaching force. Black men, in particular, make up a mere two percent.
To no surprise, however, research testifies that Black teachers improve outcomes for Black students (and more). Indeed, the presence of just one Black educator has the power to curb high school dropout rates and deepen the desire to enroll in college, all while granting scholars tangible evidence of educational attainment.
To celebrate diversity in representation, xoNecole salutes the everyday heroes making an impact, both vital and undeniable, in the field of education. Here, we connect with five Black educators tearing through underrepresentation to ignite change in the lives of their students--our future.
Jasmine Merlette, 3rd Grade Teacher
Courtesy of Jasmine Merlette
Jasmine Merlette's first year as a teacher defied the norm for educators taking their first steps in the classroom. The Georgia native, whose love for children oozes through the phone, was no stranger to sharing everyday moments with her students on social media. When she posted their remix to Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" on her then-private Instagram page, she never imagined it would go viral, much less land her national attention on Ellen.
"As soon as I posted it, my phone blew up. I had no idea it would have that effect, but it is probably the most humbling thing I've ever been a part of, especially the fact that it was with my kids," Jasmine tells xoNecole. "For me to have an experience like that in my first year--that doesn't happen. When I think about it, I literally get emotional and praise God because that was all Him. His hand was all over that."
If there is one thing Jasmine, an alumna of Xavier University of Louisiana, does want to promote now that she has drawn the attention of thousands, it's representation.
"I don't think people realize how impactful it is to have someone who you're able to look at every day that you share commonalities with, how much that changes the classroom experience and what that does for children," she says.
Seeing her take up space as a Black woman in education hasn't only left an impression on students and parents far and wide, but has also planted a seed in the next wave of educators to come. With humility, Jasmine notes that she has received messages from college students who have decided to major in education due to her example. "It's crazy!" she exclaims. "I can't wrap my head around it."
Capping off a year for the books, Birmingham City Schools honored Jasmine with the Creativity and Innovation Award at their Teacher of the Year Gala in May 2019. It's an accomplishment she didn't dream of so early in her career but is unsurprising when tracing her deep commitment to her students. "I'm a relationship person. If we're about to spend the next 180 days together, we need to know each other," she says of her approach in the classroom. "I'm not just invested in your education. I'm invested in you, the child."
In her second year, Jasmine continues to lead from a place of love, noting that her students' growth and belief in themselves is what she is after most. "When they see me, I want them to know I have their back," she expresses. "I want them to see me and be able to see themselves to the point that they see their visions, their goals, and what they aspire to be."
Sammy Rigaud, 2nd Grade Reading Teacher
Instagram / @sammyrigaud
When Sammy Rigaud shared a live glimpse of Freestyle Fridays, a regular event in his classroom that offers students an opportunity to celebrate 80s or above through rhyme, the image of a Black educator carving space for cultural expression tugged thousands of hearts. During our conversation, however, the Miami native reveals he had no plans of becoming a teacher, especially when thinking back to his experiences as a student.
"Before you're a Black man, you're a Black kid, and you feel disengaged in the education process," Sammy tells xoNecole. "The whole experience isn't really for you so by the time you're an adult, you have negative memories of school. You were always 'too hyper,' 'seeking attention'--those were the kinds of things you were labeled as. By the time you get to picking careers, that's the last place you want to go."
Deemed a "troubled kid", Sammy spent years in and out of jail. After his final arrest at the age of 19, a judge ordered him to complete community service at a local YMCA where he would soon rethink his decision to evade the classroom. It started with one task: keep children occupied during a turkey drive.
With nothing more than random equipment and a gymnasium, Sammy didn't simply make it work. He created an unforgettable experience. "I had the kids in there having a blast for an hour and a half," he recalls. "At the end, some of them were crying, asking if we could do this again. That was my first time feeling the influence I could have, and it shocked me."
While Sammy fully embraced the call on his life to be a leader and dove into teaching seven years later, he admits he didn't take in the gravity of representation until one conversation with a student added clarity to his purpose. "I had a student who had been retained who was so used to giving up. He was very short-fused. One day we had a talk, and it reminded me of how I was as a kid," he reflects. "I almost had a déjà vu moment, and I thought about what I would have wanted to hear as a student. I don't remember what I said, but he gave me a look where he knew that I was on his side, and we started our connection there, and I've had him bought-in ever since."
Sammy is committed to teaching the whole child and as a musician and author, he is a firm believer in making room for creativity. It was his observation of a group of underperforming boys in his classroom who seized any ounce of free time they had to listen to beats and rap that ultimately led to the birth of Freestyle Fridays.
Going viral wasn't the plan, but the local and national attention has since granted his students a much larger stage to flex their talent as rappers and their immense promise as scholars. "My mission is to give every student a chance at winning," he pledges. "Not just to tell them they can win, but to show them they can win."
Tanesha Forman, 6th Grade ELA Teacher
Instagram / @love.tanesha
New Haven, CT
When Book Character Day rolls around, you can find Tanesha Forman paying tribute to titles like Jason Reynold's Miles Morales Spider Man and New York Times bestseller The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. As an ELA teacher, she believes it is "beyond important" for Black students to see themselves reflected on and between the covers of books and is adamant about ensuring the young minds in her care have access to such work.
"We truly have to change the literary canon," the Miami native stresses. "I think the classics are so white-centered. When kids don't see themselves, it prevents them from dreaming bigger."
Fourteen years into her teaching career, a path she knew she always wanted to travel, the weight Tanesha's presence carries in the classroom doesn't escape her either. It is the everyday occurings, over the grandiose, that she holds close.
"It's in those small, micro moments that are in the day-to-day hustle that remind me my students are watching and taking me in," she tells xoNecole. "This woman shows up as who she is. She looks like me. She gives me this vibe that I can't play with her, but I know she sees me."
As a veteran, Tanesha leads with a student-first mindset, refusing to play coy in the face of difficult conversations that are ultimately for their benefit. "I have heard and seen teachers operate in ways that fit their narratives for our kids that are not true," she states.
It's the reason why she has embraced the opportunity to facilitate monthly anti-bias and anti-racist sessions at her job. "It is not a destination. This work that we do is a way that we constantly ensure that we are doing the self-work that prevents our biases from coming to play in our classrooms," she explains. "When I'm leading these facilitations, it is the hope that we are doing the self-reflection that will allow us to see our kids for who they are and to ensure that anything we're putting in front of kids is rooted in power and love."
Though she has served as a teacher for over a decade, Tanesha never wants to become blinded by the fact that there's always room to outdo her previous best for the children set before her. "Leverage your experiences, but see kids in every year as individuals," she advises. "Sometimes people say, 'I'm just in my first year,' and I always say, 'I'm just in my first year with this group that I have right here.'"
Whether she's sharpening her own practice or supporting other educators in doing the same, Tanesha sums up the core of her drive in a few words: "I want my students to remember that 'my teacher was always rooting for me.'"
Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, 10th & 12th Grade Economics and Government Teacher
Instagram / @callmeshivy
After securing a spot in 106 & Park's Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, Alfred "Shivy" Brooks was on his way to fame beyond BET's hit series. That is, until his best friend Sunny was shot and killed in 2007. Despite already dropping out of Rutgers University and making the move to Atlanta to stamp his presence in rap, the rising MC immediately reevaluated his decision. "The culture of hip hop at the time--there was a lot of hypermasculinity and murder," Shivy tells xoNecole. "When that event happened, I was just really turned off from music."
Creating distance from his one-time dream, the East Orange, N.J. native returned to school (this time Georgia State University) and shifted his focus to public policy. "I had said that my goal would be to serve Black and brown communities so that other young people would never have to go through the experience that my best friend did."
What Shivy didn't anticipate was that this desire would manifest in the classroom.
"My father is also a high school educator and has been the majority of my life, and I always tried to run away from it," he reflects. "Sure enough, you can run from a calling, but if God has something predetermined for you, you're just here to walk that walk."
Within four years of teaching, Shivy has been voted Most Influential Teacher twice, a testament that his presence in the classroom is no accident. His secret to making a difference lies in marrying his past with his present. "When I first got into education, I was really trying to separate my music and entertainment life from my professional life, but it wasn't the way I could flourish," he muses. "Now, I allow my students to see my duality. I tell them there has to be many sides and angles and nuances to a diamond for it to shimmer. The same goes for people. We're not one-dimensional."
Whether it's discussing the latest Roddy Ricch album, retracing his journey on 106 & Park, or hosting Teacher Talk Tuesdays, bringing his full self to work allows Shivy to cut through curriculum to deepen relationships with his high schoolers. "If you come from their world and you're of their world, the amount of impact and positive influence you can have on students is unmatched," he beams.
As a Black man, Shivy is aware that he is a rarity in education but is motivated, rather than deterred, by underrepresentation. "There is an absolute need for me to show up and give it everything I have on an everyday basis," he stresses. "To not just teach kids the standard, but to go above and beyond it."
Veroniqua Bernard, 3rd Grade Math Teacher
Courtesy of Veroniqua Bernard
New York, NY
Veroniqua Bernard was at a crossroads. As a nursing student, she could either commit to a major she had no passion for or step into the unknown to discover her true purpose. "I knew nursing wasn't my calling," the Brooklyn native tells xoNecole. "It was my parents'."
When competing for a seat in a LPN course at Farmingdale State College, Veroniqua drew the line. "I don't like science. I don't like seeing people in pain, and I really don't like nursing," she recaps her thinking. "I got up and just left during the test. I didn't know what I wanted to do."
Out of the number of issues she spotted in medicine, one stood out most. "While working with the mentally challenged, I saw many things I wasn't happy about," Veroniqua recalls. "A lot of times, their disabilities were seen as a crutch."
Thinking about her nephew, who too has a disability, this observation didn't merely strike a chord. It lit a fire. "That's when I made my mind up," she says firmly. "I wanted to become a special educator in order to be an advocate for students and people with disabilities."
After earning dual certification in childhood and special education, Veroniqua served as a special educator for New York's Department of Education before embracing her current role as a 3rd grade math teacher in Harlem.
With an outspoken nature, dazzling style, and undisputed passion for serving Black and brown children, Veroniqua's presence is easily felt in the halls of her elementary school. "This year I said I was just going to focus on the classroom," she says with a laugh, revealing that the students ultimately keep her active in school affairs.
She currently oversees student council and runs the Young Kings Boys Group, a program she created last year to support the social and emotional development of 4th and 5th grade boys labeled "at risk". While she is highly respected by the "young kings" under her counsel, her goal this year is to connect them to Black men who can reach them in a way their teachers and administrators have struggled to.
"Because there is a lack of men in education, I focus the speakers to be African-American men because I feel they do not get to see African-American men in great positions who came from the same situations as them, such as single-parent homes or being raised in the projects," she explains.
In the short time since she has designed the group, she's taken note of small, yet notable, changes--signs of good to come. "Last year, I saw a lot of progress with my heavy hitters wanting to do well--not really meeting the goal because I feel that is a much longer process--but going from 'I don't care if I get in trouble' to wanting to cut their [dean] referrals down and be in a different space when it came to behavior."
No matter what space she occupies at work, Veroniqua's goal as an educator to her students is simple. "I want to be that person who made them want to come to school," she expresses. "I want to take it beyond academics."
Featured image courtesy of Sammy Rigaud