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For Real Sisters, there’s Power in Sharing Stories, Expressing Truth

Carolyn Butts

The Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, for 25 years, under the guidance of its founder, Carolyn Butts, has presented compelling films by and about women of color that tell our stories and educate, inspire and heal. This year continues her pioneering efforts to help both the filmmaker and the audience explore, examine and release.
Reel Sisters is offering an open and uplifting exploration into Black mental illness, a subject that was still relegated to silence in 1992 when Butts founded her groundbreaking African Voices magazine, without much volume improvement in 1997 when her Reel Sisters came into being. But her two media entities broke ground for creative expression on all issues related to people of color, by people of color, and for people of color. Butts, a community arts organizer, encouraged conversation through her mediums on all subjects.
Her 2022 Lecture Series component of the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival explores mental illness, stigma, hope, and recovery as experienced by Black people through the lens of Black film. It is being done in a moving, poignant way, as always with Carolyn’s explorations, uplifting. Two panels on mental health, one for women (held Tuesday, October 25th) and the other on Black men’s trauma and mental illness, set for November 5, comprise her “Uncovering Scars” series, curated by Patrice Bradshaw.
For this week, we focus on the women’s panel. Last Tuesday, three women panelists shared their stories of living with chronic mental illnesses and their journeys to recovery and healing with a virtual audience. Last weekend Our Time Press requested their responses to two questions, what more can be done to reduce or vanish stigmas connected to mental health (telling that story openly), and what message did they have for the story-receiver? Their responses follow the powerful words in Reel Sister publicist/writer Kosi Harris’ press release. (Bernice Elizabeth Green)

Mental illness does not have to be a death sentence. It does not have to mean a lifetime of despair and devastation. People with mental health diagnoses do not resemble the tired trope of the “crazy,” complex, psychotic person often portrayed in the media. Specifically, the portrayals of Black people with mental health issues are often inaccurate, misunderstood, stigmatized, and demonized, if shown at all.

Yes, mental illness is a painful, dark, scary, and often lonely journey, but there is also support and hope. These panels will present the revolutionary idea that recovery is not only possible but can be inevitable. Blowing up stigma will show the diagnosed as fully human and not rely on inaccurate, stereotyped portrayals. — Patrice Bradshaw, Curator, Reel Sisters’ “Uncovering Scars: Black Mental Health, Hope and Recovery Through Black Film” panel series

SHAREE SILERIO
“Storytelling is a great way to reduce or eliminate stigma related to mental health and the pursuit of mental wellness. There is power in sharing one’s story with courage, vulnerability, and transparency. It allows others to see that it’s okay to express your truth. It’s okay not to be okay. And it’s okay to seek the healing, hope, and recovery you need. However that looks for you. Truthtelling offers an emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual release for not only the storyteller but the person engaging with them, listening to them, and empathizing with them. This brings change and transformation from the inside out, of which the world needs much more.


“I hope women realize that there are other women out there, like them, who are suffering regarding mental health. I want women to know that other women can be safe places to share their truths. I also want them to know that healing is possible and available to them. I want women to know they don’t have to suffer in silence. I want women to know that they matter; their pain matters; and their healing matters, too. I want them to seek and pursue their freedom and healing from what they’ve been through, along with who the world has told them they are or who they can and can’t be. I want women to know that living their best lives requires them to heal from the things that have wounded them, and I want them to discover what healing looks like for them.”

Sharee Silerio is a St. Louis-born and raised filmmaker who tells coming-of-age, self-discovery, and real-life stories where Black women and girls exist as whole human beings on screen and feel seen, heard, loved, and affirmed beyond the screen. Her film and television credits include projects on cable and streaming platforms such as Netflix, Oxygen, Comedy Central, MTV, Prime Video, and more. Sharee’s latest work is a celebrated short doc and wellness community called “Black Girl, Bleu,” born from her personal challenges with mental health after the unexpected passing of her favorite uncle.

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In 2020, she launched 11 Stars Studios, a film, television, digital, and streaming production company that houses all her heart-born projects. From documentaries to digital series’ and narrative films, Sharee’s mission is to use intimate and authentic storytelling to explore the truth, magic, and beauty of being Black. Her dream is to continue telling stories that move audiences to confront biases, cultivate empathy, and encourage vulnerability. To learn more about Sharee and to view her body of work, visit shareesilerio.com.

STEPHANIE COLON
“What more can be done to reduce or vanish stigmas related to mental health and the pursuit of mental wellness? There is an agency to unpack the stigma of mental health before it can be dismantled. We need to begin to see how the experience of living with mental illness intersects with structural racism, ableism, capitalism, gender, racial injustice, etc. The stigma of mental illness can be addressed by our collective shift and embodiment of cultural humility and emotional intelligence. This requires a mindfulness and sensitivity to reframing the use of language that no longer pathologies people like me who are living and thriving with mental illness; I utilize my radical imagination to continue to embark upon my journey for optimal medical and behavioral wellness. I refuse to be disempowered by a false sense of de-normalization of mental health challenges. I want to be emboldened to fight the internalization of blame and shame that prevails in the stigma of mental illness. The end of the stigma of mental illness begins with understanding the following quote by Pat Deegan: “I am a person, not an illness.”


For 40 years, Stephanie has worked within the non-profit and public sectors. She is a performing artist/choreographer with extensive teaching exposure to African and contemporary dance techniques. Stephanie is a commissioner within Black Women’s Blueprint – Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a volunteer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Metro NYC; and a board member of Friends of Recovery of New York. She dedicates her life to advocating for the end of stigma and oppression of Black folks, people living with mental illness, the LGBTQIA+ community, and those in recovery from substance use. She has experience in community organizing and planning and has worked for state and municipal governmental organizations in Africa, Central America, and the United States. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a minor in Alternative Therapies from Long Island University and completed a certificate program in Non-Profit Management at Columbia Graduate Business School. She is anticipated to graduate from the Master of Arts Program at Prescott College in Social Justice and Community Organizing in the summer of 2023.

CHIQUITA WILLIAMS
“We need more cultural productions like “Black Girl Bleu,” to continue to reflect mental well-being as the normative culture among Black Americans. This can be accomplished through film, visual arts, dance, literature, theater, music, television, TikTok, Instagram & Black Twitter. These disciplines have always been transformative and the major venues for influencing public opinion and shifting consciousness. Social acceptance will inevitably lead to better advocacy, public health practice, and policy outcomes.”

Chiquita S. Williams is an educator, peer health practitioner, and cultural organizer. She has dedicated her life to pursuing racial, gender, and disability justice as a trauma survivor and a person living with mental health conditions. For over 30 years, Chiquita has helped survivors access healing and recovery resources. She has engaged in individual and group counseling and designed multiple educational programs dedicated to empowering women and girls of color. She’s also written extensively and given legislative testimony about the impact of sexual violence on the lives of Black women. She has recently worked at Fountain House, the world’s oldest mental health social rehabilitation program. She has led multiple initiatives for people of color experiencing mental illness, including serving as a facilitator for the Black and Brown Women’s Group; leading culturally responsive events focused on Black feminist perspectives on mental health; presenting at international events; organizing healing circles in response to hate crimes; and coordinating racial and gender justice training for the organization. Website: www.chiquitawilliams.net

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