Valerie Mason-John and Bertha Clark of Gibsons have stories to tell on subjects that have affected their lives deeply. They are also accustomed to performing and getting their message out to a wide audience.
Recently they used their spoken word skills to give a lively TEDx presentation in Vancouver. (TED talks are an engaging and free series featuring remarkable speakers and original thought.) Mason-John's subject, titled We Are What We Think, was about bullying — a subject she's familiar with in her own life.
“Teachers ask: 'what can we do?'” Mason-John told Coast Reporter, “thinking they must get through to the kids. How to access adults is the problem,” she said, “as they won't come to an anti-bullying workshop. It's not the kids' problem. It's society's problem.”
The TEDx presentation in Renfrew Collingwood was a chance for both performers to reach a wide audience on that day and later, through their YouTube videos.
Clark's presentation focused on getting the message out to youth before the violence begins in their lives. Her message is strong and she's lived it on a personal level.
Her son is in a California prison sentenced to 20 years, a situation she describes in one of her prose poems (she's also known as Adelene da soul poet). He didn't kill or hurt anyone, she notes; he hijacked a car, leaving his mom heartbroken. She knows there are many walking that road of having a loved one incarcerated. Clark is open about it, although she admits it's difficult to sit down with a friend for tea and chat about it.
“I wanted to get my son's story out,” she said. “It needs to be heard by youth and parents to let them know that no one is alone in that situation.”
When she announced that her son had 18 months left in his imprisonment, the audience applauded; they were listening.
The two presented their message to the TEDx audience with drama, often using poetry or rap rhyme.
“It's hard to knock the performer out of us,” laughed Cark. “It's the way we deliver.”
Mason-John originally worked with conflict transformation in U.K. schools. When she moved to Alberta she was asked to put together an anti-bullying program to take to the schools. Any one of the current tragic stories of bullying could have been her. Mason-John has written a book, a fictional memoir based on her own life, about a black child who grows up in an orphanage, a Dr. Barnardo home. The book was published in Britain as The Banana Kid, a slang term in that country for a Barnardo child, and it was awarded the Mind Book of the Year in 2006.
Demeter Press is now reprinting it in Canada under the title Borrowed Body. It's an evocative read about an imaginative child with angel companions who learns to survive at the orphanage, until the day comes when she must reunite with her birth mother.
Mason-John is currently working on a novel, I Am Memory, a family saga involving conflict or “blood” diamonds and a white woman with a black child. She has also co-authored a book, Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha's Teachings to Overcome Addiction, that includes audio-guided meditations by the authors and a foreword by Vancouver's renowned addiction guru Dr. Gabor Maté.
Clark also keeps busy. One of her poems “Homeless” became part of a Knowledge Network series, Take Me Home. Last year she was honoured as one of the distinguished people of BC shown in the series, and she was invited to a reception where she rubbed shoulders with Trevor Linden, Nelly Furtado, Joy Kogawa and Olympic medallists. Clark's background represents early African Canadian settlers in B.C. Her grandmother's restaurant, Vie's Chicken and Steaks, was a landmark in Vancouver and she is currently working with a producer who will turn this piece of Vancouver history into a phone app that will navigate visitors to the area.
Both artists will once again be part of Black History Month celebrations on the Coast in February.