(NEW YORK)–"For those of us who pick up the call, we need to take care of ourselves" says playwright Nina Mercer as she embarks on a journey to pick up a call her ancestors made many years ago. Tracing her mother’s lineage back to the middle passage, she founded Ocean Ana Rising in honor of a relative named Ocean Ana after her birth on the ocean during the transatlantic slave trade.
"I understand the culture of violence to include rape, poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition and I wanted to start my own nonprofit so other women of color can share their stories and heal in private and public forums" says Mercer.
Picking up the call is what many women of color in the United States are doing as they open up their own organizations to fill the needs the government is not meeting in their communities. The challenge is that these women are every day women like me and you, also holding roles of being partners, daughters and mothers while living in the same neighborhoods they are organizing in.
For Nina Mercer, however, the fact that she lived in her community was not a challenge at all. She used her story to organize her community into action and start her own organization, Ocean Ana Rising. Straight out of college and pregnant, Nina Mercer eventually found herself in a cycle of violence born out of her partner’s substance abuse addiction, something experienced far too often in our communities. While focusing on raising her daughters and graduate school, she often turned a blind eye to her situation in order to feed herself and her children.
"I needed to turn my eyes to the codependent and abusive relationship I was in with my husband because we needed money," shares Mercer as she proceeds to admit that she too was engulfed in the cycle of emotional abuse and was aware of her participation in the destruction of her home but believed she couldn’t do anything about it.
Internally, Mercer struggled with her code of ethics as she watched the drug culture of the 90s plague her family; a culture that demanded money to sustain itself and left behind a family ravaged by anxiety and depression due to loss of jobs and food. "People self medicate in order to keep up," says Mercer, "but I knew that my calling was bigger than that."
After going to doing some deep spiritual work and counseling, Mercer understood that what was happening in her house was stronger than her. "I had to save my girls," says Mercer. One day she changed the looks on the door and has never looked back.
Although she was liberated, Mercer felt like she was living in a spiritual wasteland. As a result she turned to art, painting, writing and spiritual creativity where she gave birth to "Gutta Beautiful," a theater piece that spoke to the challenges of people of color, their daily lives and the choices they need to make in order to survive. "I produced ‘Gutta Beautiful’ to be able to talk to my community, to my brother trying to sell crack while he also helped me with my groceries," says Mercer.
"Gutta Beautiful" was performed from Washington D.C. to New York City making remarkable impact in people’s lives. As a result during the year 2005, Nina Mercer incorporated Ocean Ana Rising. "I didn’t think economic sustainability when I thought of creating Ocean Ana Rising. I thought about community," says Mercer.
Although she is a mother of two her decision to create an organization in the height of the economic crisis was heart-driven. Without an operating budget Mercer had to turn to her community; she knew that they could help sustain it but at what level?
Like most women of color led grassroots organizations, Ocean Ana Rising has struggled with getting big grants, a trend that leads to the creation of organizations with a one woman show. "I am a single mother, an educator and a playwright. Even though it’s a challenge, I have to work but I don’t want to loose myself or my sanity," says Mercer.
For more than four years Mercer did not have health insurance through Ocean Ana Rising. Even now as an adjunct professor, her health insurance is always in question, as the labor union continues to fight to maintain health insurance for adjunct professors. When looking back, she says that she was so plugged into the work that her health was not a priority anyway. Unfortunately, when Mercer gets stressed she breaks out into hives and has swelling of the limbs, an auto immune disease called Sarciod affecting people of color but has not been sufficiently researched.
"I am now committed to holistic health," says Mercer. As a priest in Palo Mayombe, Mercer has been able to minister herself. Her spirituality has given her the tools to strengthen her core so she can continue to do her life’s work. "I do spiritual cleaning, create medicine using medicinal plants and herbs. I do rituals that connect me with my ancestors," says Mercer. "I am happy!"
Through it all Mercer does not consider herself and expert; she says that tearing herself down and building herself back up is an everyday process. "Just because I choose not to take prescribed medication to deal with my anxiety doesn’t mean I don t have challenges. I too deal with anxiousness, isolation and fall in and out of depression but my spirituality keeps me from hitting walls. Instead I now have the tools to keep going," shares Mercer.
However, "our health and wealth cannot be measured in finances alone," says Mercer.
Ocean Ana Rising has been here for six years but they need support. There is a community in need, more stories need to be put out there and they deserve to have financial support to create an operating budget, hire a development person, grant writers and researchers. Mercer cannot do this alone.
"I cannot heal if I am crumbling in on myself" says Mercer as she tells me that we all need people because the most important thing is human touch and love. "The biggest mistake we can do is get so caught up in the work that we lose fun, play and laughter, the moment you lose these then you become unjust with yourself and that is violence."
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