For those who are artists and community organizers, their focus most of the time is other people. They are constantly trying to figure out creative ways to inspire and raise consciousness through their advocacy, poetry, art, and writings.
Walela is gender non-conforming and uses the pronouns they/them. They are a 24-year-old community organizer and artist, who uses their voice to confront issues such as race, gender equality and feminism.
After high school, Walela spent one semester at NYU. When Hurricane Sandy hit, Walela relocated back home. They realized that pre-med wasn’t their calling anyways. Walela has since been featured on platforms such as VICE, i-D, Huffington Post, Instyle Magazine and Afropunk for their poetry.
“I started doing poetry as a means to write about the things that I experienced or saw in the world. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized a poem could only go so far. A poem doesn’t change poverty. It can make people think, which was great.”
Black liberation and self-determination, as well as overall societal change, are topics that are really important to Walela. This impacted Walela to work with the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter for a year and the Leimert Park Mutual Aid Committee.
“I started focusing [my efforts to be] more centralized in my neighborhood. What’s really impacting us right now is gentrification. How can we find ways to help our community be O.K?”
Reading literature by Black writers, activists and scholars including titles such as Walter Rodney’s, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” helped Walela to develop a critical consciousness around Blackness and understand things which were impacting their community due to the effects of slavery, capitalism and colonialism.
“The first book that really impacted me was Assata because Assata had a lot of poetry in it and my partner gave it to me. As a poet, it was easy to keep me interested. That book is so well written and her story is incredible. Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, that’s like one of my favorite books of all time and I continue revisiting it to this day.”
After experiencing persistent, severe headaches and dizziness, Walela found themselves in an ER in 2017. A blood test revealed they had Leukemia – specifically, phase III (blastic) Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. Their white blood cell count had reached 660,000, the normal being 5,000 to 10,000.
“It is a miracle that I was not killed by this extremely high count – it takes much less to cause a stroke,” they detailed.
Walela stayed in the hospital for a week, after being immediately admitted to the oncology unit. The initial treatment included daily leukapheresis. This is a process that pumps your blood through a machine that removes white blood cells. Walela currently takes two doses of oral chemotheraphy each day and could potentially receive a bone marrow transplant.
Walela soon realized that working was not sustainable for their health if they wanted to complete remission.
“Leukemia naturally suppresses my immune function. Pair that with an extremely high dose of oral chemo twice a day, my immune system is very fragile. Additionally, my bosses were incredibly ableist and did not understand the nature of my illness or why a common cold would wipe me out for 12 days.”
Walela has set up a GoFundme to raise money for the cost of living while they fight to survive. Funds raised will go towards general living expenses, herbal remedies, acupuncture and emergency funds to help their caretakers when they have to take off work to help with doctors appointments.
The experience has taught Walela first hand how the world views not only Black women, but poor, disabled, Black women. Through the experience of the diagnosis, one thing Walela learned is how to advocate for the health-care they deserve. They describe navigating proper healthcare, applying for disability, and general social services as a “time-consuming nightmare & process that takes months.”
Even through the diagnosis, Walela’s committment to community organizing remains the same.
“I really want to utilize art as a means of raising national consciousness. Where people can understand themselves and our material condition in this society and be compelled to read and take action. I don’t believe in just being an artist, I believe in doing real world things.”
Walela aims to use their poetry not only to reach the masses but as a means to organize in their neighborhood to advocate for real change. She wants to make freedom tangible and more than just a metaphor.
What helps Walela during this time is poetry and community. Sharing their story and to represent those who share similar experiences has been a critical component on their road to remission. If everything goes well, Walela can expect remission in 3-4 years. They are asking for the community that they have championed for, to help them in the fight against leukemia.
“Sharing my story is really important. It’s hard to see Black people just existing. I rarely see narratives in which I survive. I don’t see myself in these cancer documentaries and when I do see Black people, I don’t see Black people who are young or tatted. They fit into the respectability politics narrative.”
“That is exactly why it’s really important I use my art and my voice. If the world won’t give Black people hope, if the world won’t show us the ordinary stories where we survive, then it’s my job to envision that for myself and my people. That’s really the only way I can make it through.”
Donate to their Go Fund Me: https://www.gofundme.com/help-walela-through-chemotherapy