By Sylvester Brown Jr.
“Viruses are ganstas. They figure out what’s going on, they mutate, and then they mutate again and again.”
It’s probably accurate to say that Dr. Matifadza Hlatshwayo Davis, director of Health for the city of St. Louis, hasn’t made such analogies at the usual health forums. But this discussion on COVID and vaccinations was a bit different. It was hosted by a group of young people, ages 16 to 24, known as the St. Louis Story Stitchers.
The organization was founded in 2013 by eight artists committed to using art to enact change. Now, almost 10 years later, the group is composed of poets, dancers, photographers, videographers, and other creatives who collect contemporary stories. It hosts performances aimed at promoting dialogue on some of today’s most pressing issues.
On a March afternoon, streamed live from the Central Library downtown, Stitchers presented a short performance and discussion with Dr. Hlatshwayo Davison COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. The presentation opened with the group’s new video developed under the theme, “Perception Isn’t Always Reality.”
With the Gateway Arch and Laclede’s Landing as backdrops, rappers and dancers spoke to their lives as “statistics” where “opportunities don’t knock on doors in the hoods that we live in” while repeating the bridge of the song, “I’m Worthy.”
After the brief video, the live session with Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis began.
“Most people just call me ‘Dr. Mati,’” the infectious disease expert told the three young co-hosts. “There is just so much excellence in here, today,” an enthusiastic Hlatshwayo Davis said after watching the video and answering a few questions.
In under 30 minutes, “Dr. Mati” talked about the incredible opportunity to be picked by Mayor Tishaura Jones to lead the health department and the challenges of running the department. She stressed that she is “unapologetically” outspoken about equitable health care and how the medical system – because of racist practices woven into it over centuries – must be ever honest and vigilant in discounting COVID misinformation.
“Let’s keep it real; we botched this pandemic,” Hlatshwayo Davis stressed. “There’s nothing hesitant about what we have endured. It should be the job of the people who have oppressed us, to do the hard work to build trust.”
This conversation, led by young people, managed to link the blunt honesty of late rapper Tupac Shakur’s lyrics and late Congressman John Lewis’ quote about “good trouble” to Hlatshwayo Davis’ efforts to confront racism and the need for young Black people to seek out accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccinations.
“I’d like to thank you for being your authentic self,” Branden Lewis, 23, the moderator and youth program coordinator of Story Stitchers told Hlatshwayo Davis. Turning toward the camera, Lewis also told viewers: “We hope you walk away from this Zoom meeting, more inspired and more empowered than ever.”
That, in essence, is the group’s mission. Lewis explained that Story Stitchers is mostly composed of BIPOC individuals (Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Their goal, he said, is “to create social change through art.”
Up until the coronavirus pandemic, the collective’s emphasis was on gun violence. Lately, Lewis said the group has been focusing on “engaging audiences and participants of all ages in overcoming COVID-19 and influenza vaccine hesitancy.”
“Misinformation and mistrust of the medical field are two of our biggest obstacles,” Lewis explained. “Which is why we address both equally. Even though something may seem irrational to us, to the person who has that fear, it’s completely rational. To do anything less means they [young people] will reject anything we have to say.”
The various viral and interactive programs offered by the Story Stitchers throughout the year helps recruit members. The upside of its mission, members say, is that it allows youth the opportunity to use their skills in positive ways.
“It gives young people the chance to cultivate the things on their minds while avoiding idle activity,” said Christopher Higgins, 24, who wants to further develop his writing, rapping and dance skills. Lewis and Higgins also appeared in the “I’m Worthy” video.
“It’s more than a collective, it’s like a system, almost like a machine where everyone brings their own gifts, talents and skills,” Higgins added. “We not only help each other be strong in our own aspects, we help ourselves be strong as well.”
Patrick Gutierrez, 24, whose family came from Costa Rica, addressed the benefits of having people his age and younger speak to serious issues like gun violence and vaccine hesitancy.
“We don’t take a ‘do as I say’ position. When you’re under 25, you’re still like a sponge. We can go in any direction,” he said. “We can influence the trajectory of what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
Rachel Aaliyah Jackson,19, attends Webster University where she’s majoring in music therapy. She became a “stitcher” five years ago after a Metro High School counselor suggested the program might be good for the then self-described “very shy” freshman.
“This program has helped boost my confidence,” Jackson explained. “Being a poet is my alter ego. It’s helped me separate my creative side from my personal side. Now, I’m able to do stage performances and stuff like that. It’s taught me about confidence and how to address people.”
Dr. Hlatshwayo Davis seemed to genuinely enjoy her time as a guest on the St. Louis Story Stitchers podcast. Before signing off, she thanked the young hosts, telling them:
“You all are healing for me.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.