Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting the work through sweat and, sometimes, tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: True Love Movement founder Ayanna Molina, who shares the self-love she found on her personal journey through poetry, music, dance, playwriting, and counseling work in her community.
Who: Ayanna Molina
What: Founder of True Love Movement, counselor, writer, artist
Where: All over New Orleans, with an office in Central City
Words come naturally to Ayanna Molina. She writes them in poetry and prose, sings and raps them on albums, says them on her weekly radio show with her partner, Brother Shack, and shares them with the True Love Movement community, in both one-on-one and group counseling and public workshops. Offering an alternative to more clinical approaches to mental health, Ayanna spreads the message of black self-love through her own story and deep connection with the people of New Orleans. In our interview, Ayanna and I spoke about the origins of True Love Movement, oppression depression, and the importance of trust in situations involving mental health.
Nora: How did True Love Movement begin?
Ayanna: It started off as a vision, a gift given to me. I’d gone through something really, really difficult, which I wrote about in my first book, Runaway Girl. It’s poetry and prose and it talks about my journey to what I call self-love. So I was at a crossroads, like a life or death situation—suicidal—and I had three children at that time. It was just really, really, really low. So I just called out for help, and I got ‘Do you wanna live? Do you wanna live? Then live!’ Then I took a deep breath, and I started cleaning up my life. Went to counseling, that helped so much. Went to group counseling, too. Once I started, I realized I’d gone through so much—not just self-hate but self-harm—disrespecting myself. From 18 to 20 I lived this tumultuous, sick life. Through the counseling and through journaling, […] True Love Movement was just gifted to me one day.
Through my process, I would have to tell people my full story, and then I would have to help. It started off specifically [for] black women to help find self-awareness and self-love. I was given the name True Love Movement and everything. I was 28 years old. So I was like, ‘Whoa, really?! Okay.’ So I just started my journey. I had already graduated from school in psychology, so I decided to go back to get my masters degree in counseling when I was 34. I’m 44 now.
I started off going into schools and classrooms and telling my story to teachers, high-schoolers, and pregnant teens. Then I realized in order to really make change, I would have to do it on a very intimate level. To really help people understand how to go from your lowest journey to your highest self. Got my master’s in counseling and came back to New Orleans. After Katrina we lived in Montgomery for five years. That’s where I got my master’s. Then the spirit was calling me again, like ‘New Orleans needs you. It’s time to go home.’
While I was getting my license I worked as a school counselor in New Orleans, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ New Orleans before Katrina was bad. After Katrina…the trauma. It was every child, on a spectrum. [I asked them], ‘Are you homeless right now? Living with grandma? You have food, it’s just unstable?’ or, ‘Are you straight up living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans? Dad incarcerated, Mom very sick?’ We saw a lot of mothers with cancer and things like that, the matriarch of the family. Just, these stories…it would trip me out so much that I would ask the children to tell me a story again, and they’d tell me again, and I’d be like, ‘I believe you, but I really need to talk to someone, like Mom or Grandma.’ I’d get them on the phone and say, ‘This child is telling me that this happened and this happened,’ and they’d be like, ‘Yes, we’re dealing with that right now.’ Story after story after story.
I realized after that that I was really boxed in. I had 400 children and 400 families to take care of. I saw that parenting support was needed. I saw that children with incarcerated families needed something specific. Children that were grieving from a parent dying needed something specific. I put together all these beautiful groups, but I was also called to put out fires. I did the best I could—and I did a really good job—but that’s when I realized I needed to have a private practice. I needed to control whoever comes to my agency.
Our office is in the worst part of the city, in Central City. […] We’re now a full-on counseling agency. We provide one-on-one counseling, group counseling, and community counseling, as well as parenting support, all these things—and we’re really kind of underground. We’re not in the forefront of this movement because it’s alternative. It’s not your average counseling center. If you go to the average counseling center, it can kind of feel medical. Ours is a home. […]
We also go to people’s homes, because that’s what’s needed. […] I know True Love Movement is important to the community, because we’re underground in a way [that] we are the kind of people that you talk to if something’s happening. People have our phone numbers, people call us all the time. Our clients, if they need to go to the hospital, we take them and we stay with them when they’re admitted, because sometimes the communication between a mental health professional and the actual person—you don’t know what’s going on, because you’re not speaking the same language. It’s difficult but it’s needed.
Nora: You’re from New Orleans, and that’s a big part of your work, right?
Ayanna: Yes, a big part. I know my people, and my people in New Orleans are very specific. Very specific culture and very specific experiences. New Orleans is very poor. Very poverty-stricken for black people. And it’s not just poverty of finances, it’s poverty of mind and spirit, from this being one of the biggest ports for enslaved Africans. New Orleans will forever be touched by that. It’s gonna take a real concentrated effort to get black people in New Orleans, knowing who they are, to rehumanize people. The rehumanization of black people for ourselves. Not from the outside, like we need white people to see us as human. We need to see ourselves as human. That we have ideas and concepts in our mind, we’re not just our bodies.
All our community programs are free. We give out information at events because mental health itself has a big stigma here in New Orleans. You don’t want nobody in your head. ‘I’m not about to tell you everything, you’re gonna take my children,’ [and] things like that. So us being like, ‘Listen sis, we’re speaking the same dialect,’ then they said, ‘Wait a minute, she’s from New Orleans! She ain’t trying to tell us what to do. She’s trying to help.’
Nora: So much trust is needed. It needs to come from people within the community, not just people coming from outside and imposing a structure that may not work for people.
Ayanna: It doesn’t work. It obviously doesn’t work. Trust is a big component of it. And it’s love. It’s about self-love, the truest love being the love you have for yourself and that echoing out to everybody else. We, as black people, have a history of low self-esteem. […] Going through the process of debunking your own shit, like your own personal shit, your trauma that you’re going through now, your past trauma, then you gotta look at historical trauma and how that effects your state of mind. This is not a quick fix.
My story is all in Runaway Girl. I did two books, Runaway Girl and Keep It High. Keep It High shows what happened after Runaway Girl, which is a very heavy book. I talk about it all. It’s ugly. Keep It High kind of brings it together. It helps people understand why. Why did I live this life? Why did I end up this way? And then, how did I end up this way? You can turn it around in your life, it can happen. I am not the person I was before.
Just recently, we turned Runaway Girl into a play. Because some women will read it, but some women won’t read. And then some women, because the poetry is very heavy, won’t pull the jewels from the poetry, so I did a play. […] We’re trying to hit every single spot with this message. Meaning, somebody’s not gonna come to counseling; somebody might read a book; somebody might not read a book; somebody might come to a play; somebody might listen to my music; somebody might listen to my radio show. I’m doing it all, because the media meets people with the message that they’re nothing. […] We need to take our minds back. So any way somebody’s gonna get the message, I’ll put it out there to balance the message that we’re seeing.
Eventually, I’d like to turn Runaway Girl into a film. That’s the reason we did the play, to show people it could be done. The movie has always been in my heart, as part of the mission. The story in Runaway Girl is a story that everyone needs to see. Especially black women. Because we get this idea that if a black woman is pretty, if she’s light-skinned, and if she’s smart, nothing bad happens to her. But my situation—I was sexually abused from the time I was six to when I was 14. It was one person, and then it was another person, and there got to be the situations were promiscuity happened, and rape happened, and I just transformed into this person. When you see the movie Precious, she’s dark-skinned and she’s fat, but we need to see a child to a woman who’s pretty and smart, whose family loves her, and she still suffers from this thing. How it can take you all the way down. How it can affect how you’re thinking.
Nora: I read this phrase on your website, ’oppression depression.’ I’d never heard it before.
Ayanna: Yes, I made it up! I coined the phrase. Because that’s what it is. All of my clients suffer from that. Some of them also suffer from schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, these other things. […] Children are depressed. The way it looks is behavior problems and big displays of anger and sexual behavior, taking pills, taking drugs, smoking weed, eating trash. Their symptoms look like that. You’re stuck in this view of yourself. […] You don’t even see potential. That’s what I love about us, we come from that place where no matter where you are—if you’re incarcerated, if you’re a prostitute, if you’re a drug addict, if you’re a mama of seven—if don’t matter. You can be great. And we believe it. We totally believe it fully with our hearts that you can be great. It’s about being who you are. So let’s get to the root of it.
In my office, I’m like, ‘This is the cry zone.’ Because our people will not cry. They think it’s the weakest thing to cry. So I tell them, ‘Listen. Cry. Get it out. I’ll cry with you!’ I be in there crying too! It’s okay to cry. Because where do those uncried tears go? They go in rage, they go in physical sickness, they go in mental sickness. […] I say, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you.’ We get down to the real root of it, and a lot of the times it’s sexual abuse. 85% of my clients are sexually traumatized or have been sexually violated in some way. Even the little girls. It’s bad. But True Love Movement is the light, and that’s what it was supposed to be.
Nora: You’re giving a lot, all the time. What do you practice to give back to yourself?
Ayanna: I have a self-care practice that has to be done. It’s the way I’m able to maintain. And it’s radical. I fight for it. […] My favorite way to take care of myself is to listen to instrumentals and freestyle. Freestyle, hip-hop poetry. I start tapping in my Spirit and I start, like, talking to myself. I’m rappin’, then the time I’m into it, I’m crying, I’m singing. This is the way that I’m able to maintain. I do it everyday. In the car, I’ve got the children doing it! […] I’m a hip-hop baby. I grew up with hip-hop. When I was a teenager I was writin’ rhymes, and I’ve been freestylin’ forever. Through that, my Spirit will give me a hook, and I’ll just sing it over and over and over and over. Then I’ll take my recorder and I’ll record it, and it becomes a piece.
If I didn’t have dance, I don’t know what I’d do. So I go to a regular dance class at Sanchez Dance Center. Then the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture, my sister Greer is a beautiful elder in the community. Dance has been her everything—she’s so amazing. She does the Super Class every Saturday.
Nora: Who are some New Orleans artists who inspire you?
Ayanna: I’m well-connected with all the beautiful mamas in the New Orleans arts scene right now. My sister Cfreedom, she’s one of my favorite friends. She’s my forever sister. We connected through art. We were in a group called Queens of the Mic and we were doing hip-hop together, four of us. That group disbanded, but our love for each other never did. Cfreedom is mission-driven also—always caring about the community—and so talented. […] She’s getting ready to come out with a short film called The Essence of New Orleans Women. I’m in it, we’re all in it, all of these beautiful black women artists. It’s coming out this year. She’s been really working on it. The thing about it is, we don’t have resources. We need resources to do this work. We can do powerful things, all these women artists, but resources are the thing.
That’s my message to outside people who want to help. Money! We need money to do these really powerful pieces. C-freedom has had to hustle to get money and do one scene, then get money, and do another scene. It could’ve been done.
True Love Movement is hosting a series of group events, Self-Care Sundays, through the summer. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates about the place and time of each event. [Note: the series is unapologetically a black space.]
Ayanna is also recording a new album in September.