Kabwasa: Poet addresses generational trauma in the black community

Ashley Cornelius cares about the community's mental health.

Though Black History Month, which we celebrate in February, has ended, it is always an appropriate time to honor our history, process historical trauma, reflect on and teach what we’ve overcome and contributed to society.

It can also be a time to highlight where racist policy still exists and how it affects our lives. One area in which society has historically failed us: the health care industry. To learn how, look into current maternal mortality rates for black mothers, or historical research subjects (exploited without consent) like Henrietta Lacks or the men of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or research current policies that limit access to health care.

Unfortunately, mental health care is no different. Black minds matter, and some creative approaches to the issue are happening right here in our community.

Ashley Cornelius, born in Flint, Michigan, moved to the Springs when she was just 3 years old. At the time, young Ashley was diagnosed with life-threatening asthma, and her mother had one choice to save her daughter’s life: Move. She immediately sought employment at Colorado Springs Utilities and they made the Pikes Peak region their home. Moving to Colorado literally saved Ashley’s life.

At age 28, she is now a psychology major at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, working toward a second master’s, with an existing master’s in International Disaster Psychology from the University of Denver. This El Pomar Fellow has traveled the world and directed programming at Art from Ashes, a Denver nonprofit that focuses on poetry to help youths regulate their emotions. Oh, did I mention? She is a poet, a therapeutic case worker/psychotherapist at Denver Health, and incredibly humble. She also runs Poetry719 with founder Philip J. Curtis and her partner Christopher Beasley, radiates pure joy and — in her spare time — makes jewelry and promotes body-positivity.

Using art to guide folx to mental wellness has always given Cornelius purpose and is why she decided to get her second master’s degree. “I realized that [I] would give these kids these prompts and real intense things would come up and [my] job was to say, thanks! cause, [I’m] not a trained therapist. I started saying that to so many kids, that I wanted to be able to help them, I want to go a step further,” she says.

[pullquote-1] It was a summer in Liberia that showed Cornelius how trauma can be passed from generation to generation, and how important it is to address generational trauma here in the U.S. In Liberia, former African American slaves, forced out of America, struggled to survive in a new environment. The influx created tension between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians that has resulted in centuries-long civil wars, complicating immigration policies in both nations. Similarly, cultural trauma in the U.S. affects descendants of those who first suffered it, and colors our sociopolitical landscape today.

“There’s so much stigma about mental health and illness in the black community… I think it is so important for us to start talking about it... we are getting killed, we are being murdered, we are being raped, we have been enslaved and there’s so much trauma that’s generational.” She continues, “What I’ve found is maybe you don’t go to therapy for yourself. But [go] for your ancestors... for your mom... for your great-great-grandfather who never got a chance to tell his story.”

She adds the need to decolonize mental health is paramount if we are to address generational trauma before passing it on.

Although Poetry719 (which was honored by the Pikes Peak Arts Council in 2019), is not yet a traditional nonprofit or space of therapy, it is therapeutic. It’s a black-run event-making organization, focused on helping marginalized communities and people of color process their world and experiences through poetry and connection. There are many ways to support Poetry719, like donations, but just showing up is incredibly important. Cornelius says all people are welcome and it is important for all people to attend events who have a genuine heart to be a better ally.

Sometimes it’s good for bodies of privilege (whatever that may look like) to just listen, she says.