For nearly 2 years I’ve been wrestling with what to do with the public facing aspect of Tessera Collective, the online mental health initiative I created in 2014 to meet the needs of and empower women of color. Back then, I had ambitious plans and hopes to grow it into a full fledged mental health platform & nonprofit. I wrote out concepts for a website, therapist directory, podcast, and programming centered around the arts, because making art through various mediums has been the backbone of my mental health treatment plan and self-care tool. I had ideas for a series of published works such as an anthology, art workshops & retreats, meet ups, etc.
I had plenty of ideas but for all my efforts, they went unexecuted. After trying to assemble a team to try and make some of them happen, and it just not panning out, I had to realize that I’m just one person; I’m also an artist with a career, a mother of 3, a wife...there’s only but so many hours in the day and I had to admit that after working as an advocate since 2009, my desire to devote myself completely to that still was waning. I still wanted to speak and share about my mental health experiences, but what I also wanted to do was focus on building my art career. By the end of 2016, I’d become content with Tessera just being comprised of the support group. I scaled back my plans and decided to just keep it to what I could actually manage-and what was already working.
Then Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg called. Tessera was recognized as a space serving a very specific demographic that was distinct from other groups, even though we only had 89 members while others had hundreds, tens of thousands, even a million. I went to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park and their office in NYC. I met Instagram’s CEO and we both marveled at how Instagram was quickly becoming a platform people were using to speak up about mental health and build communities around. I spent about 6-9 months exploring the possibilities of scaling the Tessera community through a network of small sized groups and revisited my original plans. I talked with other admins of larger groups about growth at the FB community summit in Chicago, and later with my own admins in the support group about expanding...but ultimately group members decided they’d rather cap membership. And honestly I was relieved to know this because creating more groups or going back to my original plans just didn’t seem like the right action to take. I’m still not fully sure why...just call it a gut check.
When I started blogging about my experience with postpartum depression back in 2009, and then my bipolar disorder diagnosis in 2011, there literally weren’t any Black women I could find who were doing the same. There were barely any women of color period talking about their mental health online. When I initially started the support group there were very few groups on Facebook dedicated specifically to giving WOC a place to have peer to peer mental health support. At that time, groups were just beginning to really take off in terms of being utilized by marginalized groups to build communities of support & resources. Advocates of color in the mental health advocacy space online and within national mental health organizations 10 years ago were very small in number. Finding a mental health professional of color sharing their insights and expertise actively online was like finding a unicorn in the wild. Books written by women of color who shared their experiences with mental illness? I never came across one in my searches.
It has been an absolute joy and relief since then to see the emergence and prominence of so many mental health resources and supportive spaces for people of color. It’s a bit jarring and mind blowing to witness the therapist networks & directories, the groups, the podcasts, the Facebook pages, the Instagram & Twitter accounts, the radio segments, the articles in print & online publications, the memoirs & essays, the mental health campaigns centering the experiences and needs of POC that exist and thrive now. To see therapists of color even landing television specials on VH1 feels monumental. Celebrity women of color speaking up about their mental health and experiences with postpartum mood disorders is something I used to literally pray for and something that couldn’t even be googled 10 years ago, really. I mean...to go from zero back then to what exists now is just...I don’t really have words.
It’s an entirely different, glorious, plentiful landscape than it was 10, even just 5 years ago. Is it arrogant or wrong of me to say I’m proud I was one of those who helped break that ground? To even claim that my work as an advocate was innovative? That I contributed something that wasn’t even a part of the conversation around mental health-especially online? Perhaps. But I know it’s not wrong to say I’m proud of the work that I have done. I am proud to have contributed something of significance, something tangible. I’m a bit disheartened that I didn’t accomplish what I’d hoped with this aspect of Tessera, but I’m proud that the support group has existed this long and that it has been a resource, even a deliberately small one. I’m also proud that I at least saw the gap, the need, and did what just comes naturally to me: create what doesn’t exist or there is not enough of. I’m grateful to have learned how to utilize that skill, and let me say this: I have Katherine Stone in part to thank for this. We had a very painful and awful public falling out that caused us both some harm, but as angry or hurt as I was in the aftermath, my gratitude to Katherine for helping to save my life in January 2011 when she responded to my email and for what she taught me and the space she gave me later to find my way as an advocate never waned. Whatever I felt personally when I resigned from my position as the minority outreach & engagement volunteer never chipped away at my gratitude for what Postpartum Progress meant to me and what I was able to learn by volunteering there in various capacities. So I’m grateful too, for how innovative PP was and how in this way, it helped and pushed me to be innovative as well.
I’ll take a moment to be quite honest about this too: Witnessing this new landscape has meant that II’ve also had to wrestle with checking my ego. I’ve had to learn that most of the time when you are among the first wave of folks doing something, or creating something innovative, you won’t get recognized for it. So when the 2nd, 3rd, 4th waves of folks come after you and then catch up or even surpass where you are at, you’ve gotta check your ego. It’s better to just root into gratitude for the role you were privileged and allowed to have in the paradigm shift of consciousness and overall movement. It’s also better to just do the damn work.
With that being said, I don’t know how I’m going to integrate or pair a mental health component with the studio’s mission quite yet...but while I figure that out, I’ve been heavily considering passing the support group on to someone else to manage and grow as they and the community there desires. I’m not sure if the website or Facebook page will continue though. TC was born from a desire to begin to fill a gap and meet a need and well, while it may not have happened how I initially planned, I can look at it now and say that in its own small way, it accomplished exactly that. It’s also not as needed as it was back in 2014. The options for us now may not be limitless, but they are indeed far more numerous than in the past. I’m grateful and humbled that Tessera Collective has been able to thrive and exists in the mental health advocacy & wellness space. My hope is that it has been of value and made a tangible impact.
I don’t fully know why I’m sharing this now. Perhaps it’s because after wrestling with passing it on, I’m finally ready to let it go and have made peace with the decision to do so. I think it’s also because many of you in my online world have been around since Tessera started and even since I started blogging and advocating in the online space a decade ago, so as per usual, I like to share my thought process as my work and I continue to expand and evolve. I appreciate the support over the years as I’ve found my way and have tried different things. Having it has given me the courage to just try things I think I’d be too immobilized by fear to just attempt.
I thought for a long time if I let go of this or allowed myself to grow beyond it, I’d be admitting failure. I thought I’d be letting others down. But I don’t think I’ve failed...I’ve just learned, and the experience had brought me to where I’m at now: integrating my passions for advocacy and serving others with my creativity and love for making visual art. The studio & gallery (now makes Tessera Arts Collective) are really just an extension of what I was trying to build years ago, but a more actualized integration of what I’ve learned with what I love to do.
We’ll see how it goes.