Unlearning Strongwoman Podcast

14. A Good Name Is Worth More Than Money-Renée Neblett

May 31, 2024 Season 2 Episode 3
14. A Good Name Is Worth More Than Money-Renée Neblett
Unlearning Strongwoman Podcast
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Unlearning Strongwoman Podcast
14. A Good Name Is Worth More Than Money-Renée Neblett
May 31, 2024 Season 2 Episode 3

In today's episode, Tolu Agbelusi speaks with artist, designer, educator and founder of Kokrobitey Institute, Ghana, Renée Neblett, affectionately known as 'Auntie Renée'. This conversation explores what it means/what it looks like to be a person of principle and to be honest, this conversation scratches the surface of the stories and the wisdom that Auntie Renée has to offer. Do check out the links below to learn more about this powerhouse of a woman is nothing short of inspirational. 

Also if you are an artist, they have a beautiful residency space next to the ocean, so you might want to check that out. 


Support the Show.

I am always keen to hear your thoughts, so do leave comments or feedback:

The music for Unlearning Strongwoman is created by Shade Joseph
Locating Strongwoman, a poetry collection by Tolu Agbelusi can be purchased here.


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Show Notes Transcript

In today's episode, Tolu Agbelusi speaks with artist, designer, educator and founder of Kokrobitey Institute, Ghana, Renée Neblett, affectionately known as 'Auntie Renée'. This conversation explores what it means/what it looks like to be a person of principle and to be honest, this conversation scratches the surface of the stories and the wisdom that Auntie Renée has to offer. Do check out the links below to learn more about this powerhouse of a woman is nothing short of inspirational. 

Also if you are an artist, they have a beautiful residency space next to the ocean, so you might want to check that out. 


Support the Show.

I am always keen to hear your thoughts, so do leave comments or feedback:

The music for Unlearning Strongwoman is created by Shade Joseph
Locating Strongwoman, a poetry collection by Tolu Agbelusi can be purchased here.


[00:00:00] Renée Neblett: You have to give yourself permission to go through the steps so that you can understand. And those steps are usually in process. I can read, I can memorize, I can conceptually try to make sense of it. But until I get engaged with it, at least that's the way I learn, that's when I'm most comfortable with it.

And when you do that, interestingly enough, I remember reading this a thousand years ago that there's only a few words. principles in the world. It's just rearranging them that creates complexity.

[00:00:51] Tolu Agbelusi: Good people. Welcome to another episode of Unlearning Strongwoman. I am your host, Tolu Agbelusi and my guest today is Power, personified. She is [00:01:00] a designer, a writer. A visual artist, an educator, a wordsmith, a social activist, a founder and executive director of the Kokrobitey Institute in Ghana, which is where I first met her.

Um, and it's just the, it's a haven. It's a magical place, which was first founded to extend the parameters of American education; to understand life and what life outside of the Americas had to offer, but it extended so much since then to also rediscover traditional processes for the people who are also on the land.

We'll be speaking about it in and out through this conversation, but go find out about it. There'll be links on the show notes after the episode. My guest today is Auntie Renee Neblett. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me Auntie Renée 

[00:01:47] Renée Neblett: Tolu it's a pleasure. 

[00:01:49] Tolu Agbelusi: Thank you. I always start with the same question, which is, what is a strong woman to you?

[00:01:56] Renée Neblett: Strong woman, a strong person is someone who has the [00:02:00] courage of their convictions, essentially. And, you know, who, um, does the best they can, you know. As the courage of their conviction does the best they can. You know, it makes me think of uh, a little uh, anecdote or story. I always pronounce her name wrong, but it was the um, Kenyan lady, Wangari I think her name was.

[00:02:18] Tolu Agbelusi: Maathai

[00:02:20] Renée Neblett: you know, she was a great conservationist. And she told the story of the little bird that saw that the forest was on fire. The little bird ran to try to rally all the animals to help in the effort to stop that wildfire and they just, they didn't mind her. She went to the elephant, she said, please you have a big trunk, please you can scoop up the water, all of us if we just ... mobilize together, we can, we can stop this. And nobody minded her, the little bird. And eventually they, they looked up and they kept seeing this little bird, you know, flying back and forth, hooping up a little bit of water, flying back within her little beak, dropping it, flying back and forth. And they looked up and they said, asked her, bird, what are [00:03:00] you doing? You know, almost with a chuckle. And she said, the very best I can. 

[00:03:05] Tolu Agbelusi: Yes. If you're not going to get involved, I'm still going to do what I'm here to do anyway. And when you think about, uh, that conceptualization of a strong person, a strong woman, who are two women who immediately come to your mind?

[00:03:21] Renée Neblett: My mother, Queen Esther Gupton and a teacher I had who founded the National Center for African American Artists in Boston, Elma Lewis. And it's so funny, I had no idea you were going to ask me that question, but last night I was just looking at a picture of her.

[00:03:37] Tolu Agbelusi: Oh, wow.

[00:03:39] Renée Neblett: And that's so crazy, you know, that's her, that's Elma Lewis.

[00:03:43] Tolu Agbelusi: I like Serendipity.

[00:03:44] Renée Neblett: Yeah, it's crazy that you mentioned that. Just going through some old things, found that photograph of her. 

[00:03:49] Tolu Agbelusi: Why does she stick out in your mind? 

[00:03:52] Renée Neblett: You know, she had a vision. She started when we were small girls, you know, she was a, into theater. She was a dance student. I mean, and [00:04:00] she was a large, fat, black girl.

That didn't seem to go over very well. So she started her own dance school and we took dance classes in her living room.

And, uh, dance was just a means for her to engage with us, to educate us. to help us imagine the world was larger than the corner we existed in. And that concept grew and eventually included the arts, included, uh, sewing and dancing and visual arts and the national, you know, costume designing, theater.

And eventually she opened the National Center for African American Artists. And, uh, she was just a tour de force. 

[00:04:45] Tolu Agbelusi: Even hearing you say that the world was larger than the corner we existed in, it sounds very much like what you're doing in terms of giving that back to the world, like it's not just there, so that it's been [00:05:00] implanted for a while in you.

[00:05:02] Renée Neblett: Yeah, you know, I, I was raised, I'm an African American, I'm now a Ghanaian citizen, you know, but I, I came from a small, in those days they called us colored, you know, America is a very segregated country, and so I lived in a small colored community, small Black community, and you know, just to put things in context, my grandfather, if you can imagine, my grandfather was born in 1883 during Reconstruction, so slavery wasn't that far away, so people were very aspirational, and we were made to believe in the importance of education, but more than that, we were made to believe.

That we had a responsibility. They used to tell us all the time, each one take one, each one bring one. And so, that was kind of embedded in us. We really were products of our community. And, not distinguished by how much money we had. [00:06:00] But what values we had and what we aspire to, so. 

[00:06:05] Tolu Agbelusi: And um, if I were to expand the question by saying, who are the women who widened the sphere of possibility for who you get to be?

Do any names get added to the list? 

[00:06:17] Renée Neblett: Uh, you mean on the world stage, people that would be known? 

[00:06:21] Tolu Agbelusi: On the world stage or, or to you, because part of this is also honoring the people in, in our lives and, and recognizing the why. So it could be on the world stage or it could be personal to you. 

[00:06:34] Renée Neblett: My mother probably is the first, the very first. She's the highest on the list. But, um, you know, I've always, I don't know, I was always inspired by, uh, like Mary Mcleod Bethune, and I always loved educators. You know, Mary McLeod Bethune, uh, Miriam Makeba, you know, uh, from an international point of view. Wangarī, you know, [00:07:00] people that, yeah, had the courage of their convictions and, and didn't mind, , following their, the vision they had for themselves and the world they live in.

[00:07:10] Tolu Agbelusi: I mean, as I'm sure you know, given the amount of time it's taken to get to where you are and still be going, having the courage of your convictions is not always enough to keep you going. And I distinctly remember, uh, you were speaking about when, um, you had people from the States first come over and you had a bunch of money pledged to do, you know, to start the institute.

And then that kind of fell through. And I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind, one, sharing that story and speaking about what it takes to decide to stick with your vision when everything feels like it's falling apart. 

[00:07:53] Renée Neblett: Um, I had this idea of starting this kind of semester study abroad for American students in [00:08:00] general.

And again, I was motivated by understanding that, uh, you know, Africa, like Europe is an old world to the Americas. You know, it doesn't matter how African Americans got there. I mean, it does matter. Fact is we're Africans are all throughout the Americas and that presence, just because we were brought there by force in no way undermines the power of the presence we had to inform, sculpt and create the cultures that exist in those places.

I was always kind of, couldn't understand the kind of race politics, this black, white, black, white, black, white, you know, it was always curious to me. And of course, you know, being a child and coming up to the civil rights movement in that era, it was, it was crazy, you know, that somehow purely based on the.

What the people call the color of your skin or whatever. People could just decide you weren't worthy or not likable or not capable. It was just, it just was kind of mind boggling. And of course changed my whole [00:09:00] view of what it meant to be an American. You know, it's a, it's a kind of strange thing to be born someplace that's supposed to be your home that doesn't love you. You know, it's a real, real kind of schizophrenic existence to be born someplace that's supposed to be home and that doesn't love you. And so, um, I remember, you know, as my world got larger and I got out of that little community, a little, you know, African American community, little colored community I was in, you know, which I, I loved. I was talking about that community a few days ago with somebody, you know, I realized that I was a big fish in a puddle, you know, I was a big fish. Yeah. I was a big fish in a puddle. You know, and what do I mean by that? I mean that I was in a community, you know, the people there, I loved it. I thought of them as, You know, the church community I was in, the local, the Miss Lewis and the, you know, the guys even on the corner and the good girls, bad girls.

It was just, it was a community that I loved and I felt [00:10:00] valued in it. And, uh, as I said, people were distinguished by their aspirations. And, uh, You know, my dad owned a couple of shops. My mother was beautiful. My grandfather was a nice guy everybody knew. So I was, you know, I was a big fish in a puddle, but I realized that what was important is to have that feeling about yourself, to have the feeling of being valued, of being worthy and, and, and, and being imbued with the sense that anything is possible with you, that people believe you could do anything. So even as my world grew larger, you know, I always wanted to be around those people who may, who thought they could do anything. And I think, you know, that's the important thing about community.

Once I had this idea of starting a school, I wanted, or running an educational program, I wanted to revive some of those values, okay, in that learning space. I mean, I don't ever remember feeling oppressed because I called the elders around me [00:11:00] either auntie or miss so and so. I don't ever remember that. I don't ever remember, you know, in fact, it got, it was odd to me once I, as I said, I don't know if I ascended or descended into this other world of, you know, everybody's Joe and Harry and it just, uh, you know, for me, manners, I probably couldn't have articulated it then, but manners were just symbolic gestures, really. To say, I acknowledge you, or I see you, or, you know, when you're five, you're not ten. When you're ten, you're not twenty. When you're twenty, you're not forty. When you're fifty, you're not seventy.

I mean, just acknowledging spaces. That's all, that's all so called manners are. Just moments, taking a moment to acknowledge a space. When people, as I said, I think I got up with that little group in front of that group of students that I brought to Africa and they were, it was an integrated group of students.

And I said, you know, you can call me Mrs. Neblett or you can call me auntie. And that's not really to oppress you, but to [00:12:00] remind me who I should be at this time in my life. Meaning that I wanted to assume some responsibility to be held accountable, unlike when I was a child. And, uh, a colleague who, uh, happened to be an Anglo American got up behind me and shuffled and said, just call me Jo.

And that's when I realized it, it seemed like an insignificant thing, but it had something to do with values. And it doesn't mean when you're older, you're smarter, it has nothing to do with that. You know, some of these kids that are 10 years old, they know about math than I'll ever know, but there's something about life and experience, that I don't care how long you live. Every year I'm learning and the landscape of my understanding is constantly expanding.

[00:12:41] Tolu Agbelusi: Taking it from where you, you just, and it doesn't mean because you're older, you're smarter. Um, which is a, an important point that I think gets missed in a lot of conversations. We just assume the age does something to your, to your wisdom.

You were part of the, you were part of the [00:13:00] Black Panthers. You played a role in the civil rights movement. You were very much into protest. You went to Germany and had a different awakening. You came back. You've been to Ghana. You are in Ghana and have been for 30 years. That's a lot of seasons. And I'm saying this, um, to preface a question I like to ask, which is, in what season would you say you first definitively stepped into your Into your power, into your womanhood in that way, into your self awareness.

[00:13:33] Renée Neblett: It's a kind of moving boundary, you know. There's always kind of illusions of becoming or arriving. You know, I like to joke, I tell people You know, that, uh, I used to think 16 was the highest stage of ignorance until I turned 40.

So, but I think after 50 [00:14:00] really is when I started to feel more comfortable with myself. In terms of feeling like I didn't have to completely second guess everything, and that I was as comfortable not knowing as I was knowing. 

[00:14:12] Tolu Agbelusi: Mm, yeah. It's funny you talk about the 16/40 thing. Um, I was teaching a class, a university class, last week, and I really didn't mean to say that they didn't know anything.

But I was trying to tell them that if you're, if you're writing a nine year old, your nine year old can't sound like a 20 year old, it needs to sound like a nine year old. And there's a kind of brazen confidence that a nine year old has where they don't know anything, but they don't know they don't know anything.

And by analogy, I said, you know, at 18, 19, now these kids are about 19, 20. I said, 19, 20 is another level of, I think I know everything, but I really know nothing at all. Yeah. And then I saw the faces in front of me and it hit me that I was talking about them and they just realized I was talking about them, so I had to pivot.[00:15:00] 

[00:15:00] Renée Neblett: Because it, you know, you, you really don't know. You don't know until you get away from it. 

[00:15:05] Tolu Agbelusi: Mm-Hmm. 

[00:15:06] Renée Neblett: It's all a matter of perspective. 

[00:15:08] Tolu Agbelusi: It is. And thinking about perspective and getting away from stuff as a way into yourself, are there ideas of yourself that you were given by society, uh, even if it was by osmosis as you were growing up, which as you got older and stepped into the fullness of who you were you had to actively unlearn?

[00:15:34] Renée Neblett: Yeah. I mean, I told you I was raised in America in a segregated society. So there were things all around me all the time saying you were not as good as the Anglo Americans in the world. You know, uh, but that was the little community I lived in. And it's certainly in my, my household and my home. My mother used to tell me, you hold your head high if everything else is dragging the ground and you [00:16:00] don't look up to anybody. And if you don't look up, they can't look down. 

[00:16:04] Tolu Agbelusi: Okay. 

[00:16:04] Renée Neblett: And that was a constant refrain. And I was raised around people that were doing amazing things. And of course we always heard like, you know, in order to, navigate that out, that larger world, that larger white world, you had to be twice as good.

And so I saw people navigating it. So I knew they were twice as good, you know, and then once I got more into their world, I realized how very ordinary some of these people could be and how privileged, how whatever that, that, uh, affirmative action that they always had access to, you know, just allowed them to enter spaces that, you know, Yeah, they were just average.

I don't know what to say about that. Of course, there were a lot of exceptional people too. People were just people at the end of the day. But also, I used to always hear that, you know, my girlfriend's grandmother used to say, we must be mighty special that they take so much time trying to keep us down.

[00:16:57] Tolu Agbelusi: Mmm, yes. [00:17:00] Yes. And I still, I still think that shows up a lot today because, And a lot of Delians that you see, they're people who for all intents and purposes look like they're the ones who are doing better, you know, they have, but for some reason they're more concerned with, you know, Joe Blogs over there who is just getting on with their stuff and I'm like, you must know something.

You must know that they're really good and that you know that you're not good enough. So you're threatened by the silent thing, 

[00:17:29] Renée Neblett: right? 

[00:17:30] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. Yeah. And as much as you acknowledge that community was very important to the way, not just to the way you were brought up, but to the stuff you were able to achieve, that doesn't always sync with our ability to be able to ask for help when we need it. Sometimes that's its own learned process. And I'm curious as to whether you've always been able to ask for help or whether that's something that you've stepped into. 

[00:17:55] Renée Neblett: No, I think being raised during that time in the movement [00:18:00] era. When there was a lot of, uh, unrest in the African American community and then there was subsequent riots and protests that turned out sometimes people actively just demonstrating their anger that, you know, one thing America did is they started all these kind of programs they called poverty programs or upliftment programs.

And you know, it's, it's a really interesting kind of psychology they use on, on people's lives. You know, so people had to apply to these poverty programs to get resources so they could do X, Y, Z. So I kind of watched that, you know, model cities, upward bound, all of these things. And so, you know, I thought, wow, so that's what people do.

They ask for help with people who have resources and they get it. So I kind of think I just, I saw that model and I was used to being able to ask for help or to be supported by people. People from where I came from, [00:19:00] if we had solid ideas or beliefs. So then once I learned to kind of play that game. I did, for a while, until I realized, until it got to the point where you realize that there were so many, uh, restrictions, or so many, what you could not, you know, that, in some ways, you could apply for these funds, but there were so many qualified things you had to do, but at the end of the day, you spent more time, um, reporting on what you were doing and asking to resources to do than you were actually doing.

You know, that forced me to be a bit more creative and self reliant and try to think of other models, uh, that could be useful in building. You know, like

[00:19:41] Tolu Agbelusi: No, go ahead. 

[00:19:42] Renée Neblett: Sure, you've been in that grant world, you know, where there's so many, so many things that you have to, that you're responsible to do, that once you respond to all of those things, you've spent all your time doing that, that you're, it's, you get, you got lost in the game. They've almost undermined [00:20:00] your ability to be productive in the area that you intended to be. 

[00:20:04] Tolu Agbelusi: I'm still in there. I'm still trying to find my way out of here. You spoke about protest, uh, in past, you know, people just venting, people venting their anger. And I know, um, that you've mentioned, both when we came to Kokrobitey ,but in interviews, that at some point you were consumed with protest and you got back to the States and said you won't be anymore.

But when I hear you speak about, um, how misguided development models from the West are crippling developing nations. You gave an anecdote, uh, about a young man who was wearing a t shirt, uh, with a confederate flag on it, um, who said something along the lines of, the South will rise again. And something struck me from your response to the t shirt, because I think you said, The man had no idea what it meant, [00:21:00] but for me, it was everything I had been trying to escape when I left America and for him, the beginning of his own erasure at the hands of so called development. That, that's, that struck with me. The beginning of his own erasure. When I hear you speak about that, And I hear you talk about how the secondhand clothing come into Ghana and you're going to repurpose it and make it nice and sell it back to them, let them pay some money, uh, with a little bit of joy, deserved joy, I'm like, the protest is still right there. It just, it just took a different form. What did you say? 

[00:21:32] Renée Neblett: Exactly. It's action. That's all. It's not pleading, it's not weeping, it's not begging, it's action. You know, the difference is, for me, is, is, is in production. I still engaged myself with the opportunity to be creative, you know, to engage with materials, to have an idea, to turn that idea into a product.

You know, I wasn't just marching and singing. Wasn't just meeting with them in one conference [00:22:00] space after another, having dialogue about eliminating poverty in Africa, you know, giving everybody the right to vote. I mean, people have been talking about these things. I mean, it's, you know, you, slavery was ended in America of supposed to supposedly in 1863 and people are still now in 2021 talking about the right to vote. It's, I mean, I don't know how, what else someone can tell you. or demonstrate to you to say, they don't want you there. You're not part of this. There's no good intention. And worse than that, worse than that to be in a country. Okay. And that, that, for me, this is the ultimate dilemma of the African American, you know, since we were taken to that, to, to that country as African people who were enslaved, our only aspiration was to realize a human condition that acknowledged us as human [00:23:00] beings.

That required that somehow that space accepted us as full citizens. That was the highest expression of that. And so, you know, we took great delight when an individual, you know, finally was elected to this office or to that office, or managed to be a position in this company or that company, or made certain amounts of money in their chosen field, but I can tell you one of the saddest things I've witnessed in my A few weeks ago was the African American woman who's the secretary, who's the ambassador to the United Nations from America to stand up at that in the United Nations and vote against a ceasefire. 

[00:23:46] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah, and the guy who did it, who did it last week as well. Wood. 

[00:23:50] Renée Neblett: Yeah. I mean, can you call that progress? Can anybody be proud of that? I thought to myself, wow, be part of [00:24:00] what? Be part of what?

I mean, that's the thing where Dr. Martin Luther King, you have to understand, you know, Dr. Martin Luther King, if nothing else, even if you didn't agree with his tactics of What they call nonviolence or, or passive resistance. He was a complete man of principle. You know, he managed during his time to negotiate with the American government when president Johnson was the, the, the leader of America.

He was the, when Johnson was the president there, Martin Luther King managed to get a voting rights act and a civil rights act passed through Congress. Okay. And that was a, in those days seemed like a major triumph. But in spite of that, when he was confronted with the atrocities that were going on in Vietnam, he had the courage of his conviction to stand up [00:25:00] against the, against the Vietnam War.

And Johnson was, that was his war. And so for Johnson, he felt completely betrayed by Martin Luther King because of that. But in spite of that, Dr. King had the courage of his conviction. And said, I have to stand with all oppressed people. 

[00:25:20] Tolu Agbelusi: Yes 

[00:25:21] Renée Neblett: and that's what we somehow have lost in this landscape of money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money.

[00:25:29] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. Like it's, it's, yeah, it's really difficult at the moment because I'm having a really hard time watching people who. I'm just surprised at their, at their reaction to the whole ceasefire discussion. I'm just like, I don't know. 

[00:25:47] Renée Neblett: It's, it's hateful. It's, it's a, I have to say it's a, it's a, I mean, I, I don't even like talking about it to think that we're sitting here and 2021, while we know people are being massacred like they did, sorry, [00:26:00] 2023, being massacred like they did the American Indians, like they did the Aborigines, like they, you know, just mowing them down, you know, like they're, like they're not human beings and even saying it, yes, they need to be wiped out.

That we can even,

[00:26:16] Tolu Agbelusi: I mean, it's, it's, it's sickening. It's sickening. It is. And I feel like we. we seem to get some kind of moral superiority from speaking in, in retrospect. You know, we would never have done that. That is so wrong. Um, whether we're talking about any of the massacres and genocides or Holocaust, but now that we're going through it, somehow that same, that same moral superiority that people like to claim in retrospect just disappears.

And it feels like. It's a weird thing. It's a weird period to live through, which I'm sure somebody will be studying in future as to how this whole thing happened. But even in that, would you say there [00:27:00] is There is space for the practical action as well as the stand up on the streets and protest action, or are you in a space where you're like, I don't know if there's a point to the stand up on the streets?

[00:27:12] Renée Neblett: No, no, I think, I think it's, I think it's, uh, when I said, um, I wouldn't have my life consumed in protest as a young person, I did that. And I think there's a moral responsibility. I think everybody should be in the streets that, that they should show the world You know, that, that this, that, where people are against what's going on, they should, they should be able to visually see the outrage.

No, I'm completely for that. I'm completely for that. You know, completely for that. 

[00:27:42] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. And at the same time, I, I completely not just take your point, but see how you put it in action in the sense of, in the practical sense, I'm going to empower these people to know they have power and they have things that other people should be learning from, not just always them going outside to learn because [00:28:00] I think oftentimes we also forget that part, that we need to be making active, we need to be making active steps in the every day to remind people of their own power. One of the things that tickled me when we were taking a tour of Kokrobitey was when we got to where your tennis court. was. And I remember saying, what's that?

And you said, it's a tennis court, gotta have somewhere to play. Um, and the joy, the joy of it, particularly because when you're busy as you are doing 10, 000 things, we forget to play. And it was important for me to see you model that, like you can't forget the little things. Is that something that has always been with you or have you done the workaholic thing and then been like, no, I have to find space for myself here?

[00:28:49] Renée Neblett: You know, I don't think I've ever been a workaholic because I, I don't, You know, people say that, but you know, I've always, what I do, people always ask me, when are you going to retire? And [00:29:00] I feel like I'm just doing life. I just, I love what I'm doing. I mean, obviously there was a period there when I was teaching in a school and, uh, you know, I had, I was a single mother with two children, so I was negotiating a lot and occasionally I had a little stress, but once I got in the classroom, I enjoyed the classes I was teaching.

You know, enjoyed the dialogue and the discourse with the students. So I've been very lucky that I've managed to navigate a life where I've managed to put how I make my money and what I consider my work to be somehow in some proximity. It wasn't always as close as it is now, but I always was conscious that, okay, this might be how I'm making my money, but I never gave up my work.

And my goal was always to bring them into alignment. And so I had to wait till I'm in my seventies when I'm finally enjoying it. But what the heck, the race doesn't belong to the swift.

[00:29:55] Tolu Agbelusi: It does not. It does not. Um, and when [00:30:00] I'm thinking about play, yes, on the tennis court, but even about the work you also do, um, at the Institute, there seems to be a, a a big permission to allow yourselves to just play with processes and experimentation so that it's not necessarily always about the result, particularly early on.

It's just, we're going to do it in a world that is consumed with the production now. That doesn't, there's not always space for that to happen. Um, So I'm wondering what the process was to that, or what has given you the courage to say, no, this is what we're doing. We can play with it and see where it goes.

[00:30:35] Renée Neblett: I think because I was always in the arts, and that was the one space where you were kind of given permission to experiment. And I think once I kind of imbibed that, you realize that that's really just the process with anything, you know, that you have to give yourself permission to go through the steps so that you can understand.

And those steps are [00:31:00] usually in process. I can read, I can memorize, I can conceptually try to make sense of it, but until I engage with it, at least that's the way I learn, that's when I'm most comfortable with it. And when you do that, interestingly enough, I remember reading this a thousand years ago, that there's only a few basic principles in the world.

It's just rearranging them that creates complexity. And you realize that's true. It really is a few basic principles. You talk about composition, you talk about tension, you talk about contrast, you talk about proportion. You could be talking about anything.

[00:31:37] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. You spoke about your work, um, and it sounded like you were talking about your purpose. How would you describe what that is.

[00:31:46] Renée Neblett: I always wanted you to be purposeful. Okay. So whatever, whatever, however that turned out to be, I mean, I never thought I'd be designing clothes. I never thought I'd be recycling glass. I never thought I'd be running an [00:32:00] institute. I never thought of any of those things.

In fact, when I was young, I wanted to be an actress or a poet. And I just couldn't, you know, the images I saw of how to do that. I just thought, well, that's not the way I want to express myself. You know, there were too many, too many factors that determined how one could express themselves. Now, if I could have been, you know, maybe managed and maneuvered or been lucky, you know, cause I, I, I really do like people who, who entertain and I love literature.

I love poetry. I love performance, but, um, I just, So, I do, you know, I do write things and I did performance art stuff when I was younger, but I knew I could never, I would never make it as a mainstream actress.

[00:32:46] Tolu Agbelusi: Because you wanted to do more. 

[00:32:48] Renée Neblett: Yeah, I knew I wasn't in control of the story. I'd have too little control of the story, the parts I would play and, you know, so that just confined or Redefined how I thought about [00:33:00] ways to express myself.

I think the bottom line was just wanting to be purposeful. And I was not, I was never raised to be materialistic. In fact, just the opposite. Now we were always taught a good name was worth more than money. And I think when you're raised with that kind of stuff, it's somehow really sticks, you know, I just feel sorry for kids now.

I didn't even, like I said, I didn't even know I was poor until I went to college. I thought we were fine, you know. I didn't realize the scope. I mean, I knew some people in suburbs had stuff, but I never felt overwhelmed by it. I never felt like, Oh, poor me. 

[00:33:34] Tolu Agbelusi: And did you feel overwhelmed by it when you got to college and realized the difference?

[00:33:39] Renée Neblett: I wasn't overwhelmed. I was like, wow, folks out here have some real resources. Wow. There's more to, you know, like I said, this is not a puddle. This is a lake, you know, from the lake to the river, the river to the sea. How do

[00:33:56] Tolu Agbelusi: you cultivate hope? 

[00:33:58] Renée Neblett: I was always taught as long [00:34:00] as there's life, there's hope. Because I remember, I remember reading W. E. B. Du Bois One of his books, he talked about the immortal child and my mother loved, loved, loved literature. And I remember one time she was reading James Weldon Johnson's text from the Negro National Anthem. And there's a line in that anthem that reads, In the days when hope yet unborn had died, We have lived in a time when hope yet unborn had died.

And I remember thinking about that imagery. Hope yet unborn had died. And then I read W. E. B. Du Bois, and I, I would ask myself if I had been that African that was snatched from that village and trekked along some frightful course, you know. Just overcome with fear, you know, and then locked in some dungeon with strangers, some deep, dank, dark space, [00:35:00] you know, standing in my own, in the excrement of others, you know, and then we, somehow that same person gets out of that horrific situation, ends up in the bottom of a ship.

I mean, and then they get off that ship, and then they're officially known as three fifths of a human being, you're no longer a human being, you're branded, you're shackled, you're constrained to daily, I mean, I just can't imagine what made somebody get up in the morning when everything just for almost generations seemed to get worse.

And Du Bois said it was the immortal child, that one day, someday, and I remember as kids, the teachers used to tell us, we're that child. They did that for you. They did that for you. So the least you can do is stand up.

[00:35:48] Tolu Agbelusi: And, um, we speak a lot about self care in today's world, but it's often wrapped around lots of capitalistic stuff. 

[00:35:57] Renée Neblett: Getting your nails done. [00:36:00] 

[00:36:00] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah, a little massage, which is nice every now and again, you know. But still, um, I feel like it's its own thing, which at some point has to be divorced from all the material stuff.

Uh, so I do like to ask, what does it mean for you at, what, seventy six years young to be at rest? 

[00:36:20] Renée Neblett: Well, just being around people I enjoy, listening to some good music, sitting in the garden, eating good food. Getting dressed up on occasion, doing life in peace. 

[00:36:32] Tolu Agbelusi: Doing life in peace. That's a, yes, I'll take that one for sure.

Um, I feel like the conversation is never complete until I ask, until I speak about sisterhood, because different people have different relationship with the idea of sisterhood. And I want to know what it means to you.

[00:36:51] Renée Neblett: I mean, I think it suggests a kind of level of comfort, dependability, sense of safety, support, confidence, a kind of [00:37:00] trusting connection, you know, an open, open trusting.

What's that? There's another word that I'm searching for. I don't want to say non judgmental, but accepting, you know, just giving people space. And then understanding the benefit of the doubt. 

[00:37:18] Tolu Agbelusi: Yes. Yeah. And I feel like the older I've gotten, actually, some of my female friendships have gotten better because I'm more in a position where I'm able to fully accept them and accept myself, uh, where there are things that I probably would have railed against before because I just didn't understand them.

Whereas now I'm able to be like, okay, you need another week for your silence, go. Okay. Cool. When you're ready in two days, come back. Because me and you know you don't need a week, but it's okay. And not, 

[00:37:47] Renée Neblett: right? 

[00:37:47] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. What scares you? 

[00:37:50] Renée Neblett: Being misunderstood. 

[00:37:52] Tolu Agbelusi: Okay. Why does that scare you? 

[00:37:54] Renée Neblett: I think that's one of the worst things that can be, can happen to you, is to be misunderstood. [00:38:00] And not finishing, not getting to where I, you know, I don't want to say that scares me. I mean, I hope I leave something in a good, in a good shape. 

[00:38:10] Tolu Agbelusi: I mean, I'm going to ask you what it is, what that is, but even before I say that, I think you have already left a lot of some things, not just in the place, but in lots of the people whose lives you have been in and touched.

Um, but I guess we're also here speaking a little bit about legacy. 

[00:38:28] Renée Neblett: Yeah, that's it. I hope I leave a decent legacy. I hope it's a, you know, this sounds corny, man. Maybe it's my generation, you know, Because people, you know, but I, I always just wanted my mother to be proud of me.

[00:38:42] Tolu Agbelusi: That's not corny. I think it becomes more important for me as I get older, now that we've worked out some of the kinks.

[00:38:49] Renée Neblett: Yeah. I mean, that's all I wanted. I feel like she did her very best and worked as hard as any human being could and modeled such incredible traits that I just, yeah, that's all I really [00:39:00] wanted in my life. And also. Yeah, to leave a legacy that. It's not just about money, you know, it's not about money. I don't, I don't care so much. I, my kids are educated. They can make a living. It's about a good name being worth more than money. 

[00:39:15] Tolu Agbelusi: Mmmh. What else, like, even in thinking about that, something more than money, a name, uh, the things you live in people, practically, what else are the things that you're still, the world that you're still trying to conquer or build, I guess, now?

[00:39:31] Renée Neblett: Well, I should have added my grandchildren to that list. 

[00:39:34] Tolu Agbelusi: How many do you have? 

[00:39:35] Renée Neblett: I have four. I want them to feel like they had some good grandparents.

[00:39:43] Tolu Agbelusi: What brings you joy?

[00:39:45] Renée Neblett: I honestly can say just watching young people and people, you know, fulfilling what they set out to do. People, you know, you, young people, you know, imagining that they have something to say in this [00:40:00] world, that they can be agents of good, agents of change, agents of fairness, you know.

I don't know, I just like that, obviously. I mean, that's outside, you're asking me outside, just listening to some slow grooves of Motown. you know, what makes me feel good. You know, it's, you know, it gives me joy just seeing, feeling that there's still hope even though sometimes it really does seem hopeless.

You know, it's amazing to me just watching the fact that I can bear witness to almost two thirds of the world standing up for Palestine. That gives me a great, that makes me feel good because it's, you know, it's, it's, it's, it's shrinking the world of those who are so hateful. They're becoming so exposed.

Yes. And that feels good. 

[00:40:50] Tolu Agbelusi: Yes, that is a feeling I share because I'm like that whole thing, that whole thing backfired because I think it was meant to say, a lot of the initial [00:41:00] furor was meant to say, we can do anything because, and, and the fact that, that even people who were on that side, some initially as saying, actually, no, you can't, because how do we justify this?

[00:41:14] Renée Neblett: You know what I mean? And the, and this business of trying to hide behind, you know, equating Judaism with Zionism and trying to make victims. You know, it's like when I think of, I think of like Palestine, say Palestine was Ghana, you know, and there was a war that broke out in Monrovia. And so Ghana opens up, you know, refugee camps and invites the Liberian in and they set up Buda Buda and these other places. And then all of a sudden some foreign countries decide, ah, you're there. It'd be great if we had that whole country and support you in taking on the, you know, Buda Buda now, the refugees should take over the entire country of Ghana and wipe out.

That's exactly what it's like. 

[00:41:56] Tolu Agbelusi: Yeah. That's exactly what it is. 

[00:41:59] Renée Neblett: We think you're [00:42:00] strategic and we want to have access to this or to that. So we're going to support you to take over this whole country now. It's, I mean, it's madness. 

[00:42:08] Tolu Agbelusi: But the fact that it's been allowed to carry on for so long, the support of it, that is more madness because I, yeah, I don't, I don't know how over the last, I don't know how many decades people have been pumping money into that apparatus without questioning.

Well, maybe they questioned and they didn't care. what it's doing. I don't know.

Good people. Thank you for rocking with us on another episode of Unlearning Strongwoman. We recorded this episode in December, 2023 and since then, the genocide in Palestine has intensified. I contemplated how to end this episode, [00:43:00] especially since technology wiped the last five minutes of the recording, which wrapped up the episode pretty nicely.

But then I decided, I think it ends in the right place. We landed on Palestine again, because Aunty Renee was speaking about hope and joy. How seeing people rise up for Palestine means that the camp who thrive on hatred are reducing. And hope is a great place to end. I asked, what brings you joy? And her answer was, watching people accomplishing what they set out to do.

This brings us full circle to the beginning, where the women who embodied strength for Auntie Renee, were people who had the strength of their convictions. And what is that, if it's not following through what you said you were going to be, and do? And it occurs to me that being principled in this way requires us to be ready to interrogate ourselves and ask, what is my [00:44:00] work?

Find out more about the amazing woman who is Renee Neblett from the links in the show notes. We will be back with a new episode at the end of next month. In the meantime, do subscribe. share, and feel free to let me know your thoughts on the episode. You'll find me on Twitter or Instagram at Tolu Agbelusi.

Details and spellings appear in the show notes. Until next time, this is Unlearning Strongwoman.