In April, Kelly Marie Wofford, the founder of Front Seat Life, spoke with the curators of In These Truths, Aitina Fareed-Cooke and Edreys Wajed, about mental health in the arts. In Part 1 of our interview Wofford sat down with us to talk about her story of healing from trauma and reaching out to help others. In Part 2, Wofford answers our questions about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and healing from the trauma of the May 14 shooting in Buffalo.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited from a conversation that took place on June 7, 2022. We support the right of community members to express their views candidly and to push forward discussions on the important issues of our time.
AKG: This has not been an easy time for mental health, whether we are talking about the last two years globally or the last few months for Buffalo and Buffalo’s Black community after the recent shooting. Are there any trends that you’ve been noticing about mental health with COVID-19?
Kelly Marie Wofford: This is anecdotal, but many people that I know that have mental health challenges and live with mental health disorders, for a long while we were okay when things were falling apart for everybody else, because we had the tools. We knew what to do. We knew how to handle isolation. We knew how to handle anxiety. We knew how to handle these things, because we've been in therapy and support groups, and we have the toolboxes. We've been using them to live.
I saw a lot of people that had the tools helping other people that didn't have the tools. People didn't even know that they needed to see someone. They didn't know what they were experiencing. They didn't know what the anxiety was. They just knew that something wasn't right, and so COVID has allowed for us to talk about mental health more.
AKG: I was wondering if you could talk about the attack that occurred on May 14 in the Tops on Jefferson Avenue.
KMW: Speaking about the massacre, I didn't have anyone that I personally lost, no family, or close friends, or loved ones. I know some of them because Buffalo is Buffalo; we’re a big town. But it's more than that. There has been this misunderstanding: people have been saying since the very first day, “This was an attack on Buffalo,” and it wasn’t; it was an attack on Blackness and Black people, and that very much impacted me.
When you consider that the next week after the shooting at Tops was Porch Fest, and the message was, “We're Buffalo strong. Buffalo is hurting.” Buffalo is clearly not, because there's thousands of people having a good time. It didn't hit everybody the same way, and it says a lot about racism in America to see that, for many people, life goes on.
A question that came up for me was, How do you continue to take care of yourself when you've got a community that's hurting and this is the work that you do? I'm thankful to be in a position where I can do so. I'm the Director of Health Equity for Erie County. For my day job, I was called in on Saturday night after the attack, and from Saturday night until two weeks later I worked thirteen-hour days every day to help staff one of the healing centers that was set up, and I didn't really have time for myself. I didn't get a chance to grieve, or to cry, or to allow myself to feel much of anything, because I knew I had to be in gametime mode.
But that's impossible to carry on forever, so I did step away.
Often, we don't take care of ourselves, but we also don't encourage people to take care of themselves. Or we encourage them to take care of themselves, but we don't lead by example. There are all these ways that mental health is stigmatized, but it can be destigmatized just by having conversations, being open, and practicing what you preach.
AKG: I’m wondering what you anticipate people will need in the future, in the coming months?
KMW: Everybody heals at a different pace. This is not a short-term process. This is something that's going to take us decades, because people heal in different ways and in different times.
What's most important to realize is that just because you may have healed, someone else may not have even stepped on the path, because they are so stuck in grief or fear. People are afraid to leave their homes.
It goes back to two things: taking time to heal and being the light. The two sides of that are: if you're healing, heal. Some will move through it faster than others, and there's no required timeline for someone to heal. And if you have not been affected in the same way, hold space, begin looking for ways to make the situation better: How do we not end up in this place again? That requires work from people that are not as affected, because the folks that are grieving are busy grieving, and they need the time to do that.
AKG: When you came to Albright-Knox Northland you spoke about mental health in the arts but particularly for Black people. How do you think about white supremacy and its effect on mental health?
I do a podcast, and I actually took a pause from doing it, because I just couldn't function. However, the last episode I did, I talked about how hate is not a mental illness, and as long as we do not address the root problem, we're always going to be confronted with issues like this. Until we address the root cause, there will always be another method by which people will continue to hurt other folks. There just will be.
The issue is racism, and until we can come to grips with our history as Americans, we're never going to get rid of this problem. We're founded on theft and murder. I mean, those are the facts of how we became this great nation—and no one's that old, right? So no one alive today is responsible for what happened 400 years ago, 300 years ago, 200 years ago.
There is a saying, and I don't know who said it, but it goes something like, “Just because I didn't build the house, doesn't mean I'm not responsible for maintaining it.” The whole point being, people are benefiting from racism, and it doesn't matter if you built it or you didn't build it, if you don't speak up about it, if you don't confront it, if you don't dismantle the system, these things will continue to occur.
I was talking to a colleague, who said, “I just try not to think about it.” Like, that's an incredible privilege. I wake up Black in America every day. I don't have a choice but to think about it. The massacre at Tops was an attack on Black folks. I have to think about it. I don't have the opportunity or luxury to not think about what it means to be Black.
That is where we have to come to grips with the discomfort. It's not a comfortable conversation. It's not comfortable work that needs to be done. But we still have to do the work.
Listen to Wofford's podcast here:
AKG: Is there a way that you feel like museums can contribute to this uncomfortable process?
You see things like In These Truths, right, dealing with our history, having these conversations, having art that draws out conversation, that gives voice to those whose ideas have been stolen, who have not had the same opportunity to present incredible works of art, simply because of the color of their skin.
People ask, What can I do? There's always something one can do. You just have to find it.
AKG: What about in terms of addressing the mental health outcome of events like May 14?
No group is a monolith. No, one thing is going to be the thing, but I think opening up ways to heal through art. I don't know if it's pottery classes, or painting or, something else. But to give people an opportunity to begin to heal.
There are basic needs that people still need to have addressed, and until those things are taken care of, people aren't necessarily going to be open to healing, because they're still trying to put together the trauma piece.
But there is healing in using your hands, there's healing in feeling the Earth moves between your fingers. There's healing in the stroke of a paintbrush. Maybe there’s healing in having a room that people can go into and just scream, or a place filled with old LED screens and TVs that people can take a bat to and break stuff [laughs].
There are healthy ways to get out the anger, because it's going to come out. So can we provide guidance, so that people can get the emotions out in a healthy way? Or do we allow it to fester and sit and become cancer and then become diabetes, and become abuse? There are creative ways to open up that space of healing through art, whatever that may look like.
Be sure to read Part 1 of our interview with Wofford, where she shares the story of her own mental health journey and how she came to found Front Seat Life.
Kelly Marie Wofford is the founder of Front Seat Life, LLC, an organization devoted to eliminating barriers to mental health and wellness. Her dedication to mental health and health equity has given her the opportunity to be an instrumental asset in the development of the Buffalo Center for Health Equity and the UB Community Health Equity Research Institute. Wofford, in her many roles seeks to elevate the importance of mental health care access and reduce the stigmas related to seeking support, especially in BIPOC communities, ensuring that all people have the same opportunity to live a healthy life no matter where they live, work, play, or worship.