by Kayla Blau
Halisi “Tha Wizdom Wordsmith” Ali Eli is an artist, writer, advocate, community organizer, and life coach, but she doesn’t fit into any box. She’s a Seattle native and currently lives in South Seattle with her partner and five children.
This interview has been edited for length clarity.
How do you define yourself?
Mother. Friend. Mentor. Writer. Poet. Singer. Activist. Humanitarian. Mostly I define myself as a warrior mama bear — that’s what drives my art. Warrior mama bears get shit done! It drives my love of being an educator, community organizer, artist, educator/advocate. I live for getting the little guy’s voice heard. To me, art has always been a response, a way to not get pushed around and smack people to their senses.
I’m also a children’s book author, which came as a response to my friend’s daughter being embarrassed about wearing her hair natural at school. I wrote a story for her called “Naturella,” which follows the storyline of Cinderella but in this version, the pumpkin is a yam, and prince Kinte finds the princess with a strand of her curls instead of her shoe. The message is young girls don’t have to straighten their hair or change themselves to be loved.
How do you balance being an artist, an educator, and a mother of five?
I follow my passions and am honest with myself. Depression and anxiety happens to everyone, and I just name it and admit it when I’m feeling down. Those are times to love and nurture myself, and I’m honest with my needs.
If I make more money somewhere but have to fragment myself to thrive there, I’ll walk away. When I was working at Wellspring Family Services, the same microaggressions I face in the world, I faced in the workplace. I urged leadership to see that even though they were finding people housing, they were contributing to gentrification by relocating people that are originally from the Central District to Kent. They had powerful real estate partners, funders, lots of access to power and money. But they weren’t using that power to challenge the systemic roots of gentrification and homelessness. Now, I choose to be my own boss. I give community the tools to speak up for themselves. I love what I do, and have trained myself to only say yes to things that I want to do.
I left the church seven years ago, but I didn’t leave God — I left the building. At church I felt like a fish in a fishbowl, and wanted to be out in the water with the sharks, preaching to the sharks to stop eating people. The world is my church now; I took Jesus off and replaced it with Justice and acted accordingly. The preacher inside me comes out while on stage. Religion slowly became undone as I was studying science and psychology. I grew up in a house with mental illness, and I learned the illness was rooted in a long history of choppy narrative. The brain can only take so much untruth. We’re lied to about our history, our community, our ancestors. I was lied to by old communal narratives of needing to stay in abusive marriages. But, I figured Jesus would want me to leave when I was unhappy. My way of not going crazy is being brutally honest with myself, and with those around me. You have to be honest with yourself and your wants.
How do your identities as an educator, artist, and mother inform one another?
As an educator, I’m a defender, but as an artist I can be human. My art has opened a lot of doors for me, from boardrooms to fundraising galas, and my kids witness that. They are artists themselves. My 17-year-old is a photographer, and I ask her, “What does the world need that you have?” Not “What do you want to be when you grow up and go to college?” I’m candid with my kids, and they’ve witnessed me striving to be more than just an employee. I follow their interests and find resources to cultivate them. I talk through priorities with my kids; what’s motivating you? What do you want? Most people who don’t know that just fall into jobs they hate for 20 years. Instead, what does your community need? I’m not going to do shit that’s not purposeful. I challenge my kids to think beyond the status quo.
Revolution is an organized change of how we think about something and how we do things. I love engaging with kids because they understand revolution — they’re not conditioned to name obstacles yet.
At this point in my life, I understand I can trust my kids instead of shaming or controlling them. I used to have anger problems and had to learn how to ask my kids question instead of spank them. I’m very intentional with my parenting, especially after completing the Positive First Relationships training.
That experience led to teaming up with Catrice Dennis at TLC:Teaching Love and Care Center for Humanity. It will be a resource to engage parents of color to unpack trauma in ways that highlight their strengths. We will explore the unique needs of kids and family communication issues, because there’s nowhere for that to be talked about currently. Most families don’t get a chance to imagine or dream together, because they’re just dealing with what is. Most people with trauma are living in fear, too.
I also do trust and estate planning with my partner where we educate people on how to secure their property in a trust status. We’re also working with local artists to develop press kits. The artist is starving because they don’t know how to operate in commerce, so we show them how to get paid for their art through their trusts. We help people understand their own stories, write bios, and that if they are strategic in their endeavors they’re less likely to be taken advantage of.
Most people just see problems, but the problem comes with a purpose. When I was homeless, I learned how resourceful I was. I came back to Washington when I was six months pregnant with three kids, nine suitcases, and $171.
Most people want to be safe and comfortable while they follow their passion, but that’s not reality. You have to jump. It’s not easy, but I’m sure of who I am and my purpose. My ex used to tell me I couldn’t be an artist with five kids, and here I am, getting paid through artistic endeavors. It gives me life to know I’m following my purpose. If you live your dream, it makes the world a better place.
Featured Image courtesy Halisi “Tha Wizdom Wordsmith” Ali Eli