Joy Donnell is Reclaiming Her Joy as a Reparational Act and Restorative Practice

A modern women’s history series by Tabby Biddle spotlighting the voices, leadership and feminine legacy of women artists, activists and social changemakers.

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Photo: Courtesy of Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles
Photo: Courtesy of Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles

Tabby Biddle speaks with Joy Donnell, the cultural strategist, producer, author, activist and co-founder of the Center for Intersectional Media and Entertainment (CIME), about her mission to use storytelling to help us reclaim our full humanity.

For nearly two decades, Joy Donnell has been a storyteller, producer, cultural strategist and activist dedicated to creating media that advances intersectional representation and builds cultural legacy. In 2018, she co-founded the Center for Intersectional Media and Entertainment (CIME), alongside entertainment executive Munika Lay and film and media professor Dr. Nicole Haggard.

Joy believes in owning your power, including your voice, image, narrative, influence and intentions. When Joy isn’t behind the camera creating editorials, documentaries, short films and digital campaigns, she’s on stage speaking about media, parity and public image. In addition to being a co-founder of CIME, Joy is Chief Visionary of SUPERJOY Media and co-founder of luxury lifestyle platform, Vanichi.

One of Joy’s most recent projects is with The Africa Channel and includes a 10-episode docuseries and social media campaign. Entitled “What If Movie Icons Wore African Fashion?”, the campaign raises awareness for pan-African entrepreneurship, cultural understanding and conscious fashion.

As an international speaker, Joy shares her insight about branding, digital media and public image, as well as women in media, entrepreneurship and gender parity. Joy has guest lectured at UCLA’s School of Film, Television and Digital Media, Mount Saint Mary’s University, CalState University, SAG/AFTRA, LA Women’s International Film Festival, and more. Joy’s ebook, Pitch Perfect, is a quick guide on establishing brand and PR best practices for the motivated entrepreneur. Her new book, Beyond Brand, focuses on using media to build cultural legacy.

Photo Credit: Jeff Moeller

Tabby: Let’s start with your voice. I know you use your voice in different ways — as an author, a writer, speaker, producer, strategist, a leader of CIME and more. How would you describe where you are right now with your voice?

Joy: Changing. Constantly evolving, which I think is where I want my voice to be. For me, life is about change. God is change, as Octavia Butler told us. It’s the only constant. For a long part of my life, when I was younger, I focused a lot on perfection. I focused on the perfectionism of things like: My voice has to be absolutely perfect, absolutely impeccable every single time. Everything about me has to be pristine. When things would start changing, I would wonder if I was going to be able to stay in that perfectionism that I had defined.

Now I’m starting to realize that there’s no such thing as perfect, and life doesn’t need to be perfect. You just need to have yourself be as perfectly aligned with life as possible. That means constantly embracing the evolution and finding new aspects of yourself—realizing that who I was last week is not who I am right now. And that’s fine. 

I dive into new areas of myself over and over again and challenge myself to grow. I wouldn’t do that if change was not a real thing. It’s the change and being disrupted in really interesting ways that forces me to find new aspects of myself. COVID and shelter-in-place forced me to find new aspects of my voice. I had prepared for this really beautiful, intense, multi-city, live in-person book tour for Beyond Brand, and I had to go virtual. It was a high-class problem to have, but it hurt emotionally. I was able to do it, and actually found these new aspects of myself by going virtual. I entered it very afraid of Zoom. I was scared to share my screen. I was never comfortable with it. Now I’m so comfortable with Zoom because I went ahead and just leaned into that live aspect and talking into the screen in a way that I had not before. That constant evolution, that constant changing, has me feeling aligned with my soul expression of my spirit, and also in alignment with the cosmos.

“I dive into new areas of myself over and over again and challenge myself to grow. I wouldn’t do that if change was not a real thing. It’s the change and being disrupted in really interesting ways that forces me to find new aspects of myself.”

Joy Donnell speaking on the connection between self-care and effective leadership at the 2018 Women’s Leadership Conference at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of Mount Saint Mary’s University

Tabby: Where do you feel the most natural and most powerful using your voice?

Joy: I feel the most powerful with my voice when I’m listening. I think that listening and providing space to other people is this really amazing way to communicate. So when I think about voice, I think about communication. I think about connection. One of the things that gets me really excited about this moment in time and what I’ve been seeing unfold as we’ve gone through all of the chaos that was 2020 and now the chaos of disruption that is 2021—is that so much of our conversation came from the mountain top down—and now there is this calling to come down off of the mountaintop. You don’t have to talk at people. You don’t have to talk down to people. We can actually talk with each other, and to each other. It’s about a horizontal conversation. It is not about the guru anymore, or the expert or the healer. It’s about the person who’s going to help trigger something in you that maybe you forgot about yourself, or had never been able to articulate in the same words as the way they say it. It clicks suddenly, and now you’re able to awaken it within you.

“You don’t have to talk at people. You don’t have to talk down to people. We can actually talk with each other, and to each other. It’s about a horizontal conversation. It is not about the guru anymore, or the expert or the healer.”

It’s this beautiful ability to actually shut up and listen and hold space for other people—and sometimes make space where space was not available before. I’ve realized now that I can use my voice to actually create space for others, and I don’t have to speak at all. I can hold that space for other people who have not been able to speak to find a forum, connectivity and alignment with others that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do if someone had not actually held that space like that. That’s when I feel even more myself. I don’t have to be standing there with a megaphone trying to be heard. I can actually create environments where people are able to have that horizontal conversation and collaborate in ways that they would not have been able to otherwise.

Tabby: Let’s talk about your leadership. As you know, leadership for so long has been defined by the male standard, male lens, and male perspective. And we know that for most women, that does not work. How would you describe yourself as a leader? And what do you value in leadership?

Joy: I don’t think I’ve ever actually defined myself as a leader. I haven’t thought about what that means, per se. When I do think about leadership, one of the first things that comes to mind is that all this conversation about alpha and alpha-ism is wrong. Human beings don’t actually operate that way. When you look at the animal kingdom, the alpha is not necessarily in control. The alpha is actually beholden to the needs of the group. There are times you’ll be looking at the elk and the alpha elk is standing over there doing something else by the water and the whole herd has decided to move over in the easterly direction, and he has to follow.  

So leadership in the truest sense is actually service. It’s not a “me, me, me, me, me.” It’s trying to figure out the “we, we, we, we, we.” How are we going to create systems that work better for most? It probably won’t be for all, but for more. It’s about being inclusive—actively—as an action verb. It’s about looking for what goes unnoticed, what has been unseen, what’s been unspoken, and doing your best to hold space for it, constantly staying curious and not sitting around thinking you know everything and you don’t need to listen to someone else. It’s about being able to trust people, and being able to ask for help.

That’s one of the things that I’m getting really excited about where feminine leadership is coming along. We’re realizing we don’t have to do it all by ourselves, and we probably shouldn’t do it all by ourselves. It was a really personal moment for me that made me start to think about this differently. I don’t want to talk about something very narcissistic and self- centered, but it was about my hair.

“That’s one of the things that I’m getting really excited about where feminine leadership is coming along. We’re realizing we don’t have to do it all by ourselves, and we probably shouldn’t do it all by ourselves.”

Joy Donnell relaxing outside the Getty Center in Los Angeles after interviewing supermodel Beverly Johnson. Photo: Courtesy of Joy Donnell

Tabby: I’d love to hear more.

Joy: I grew up in America, so I got the message of rugged individualism. That message of rugged individualism can sometimes have people of color, and especially women of color, really fetishize struggle, for lack of a better way to say it. We lean into, Okay, well, I’m gonna do it all by myself to prove that I have bootstraps in the first place. I’m gonna to work myself, grind and hustle within an inch of my life. Don’t need help from anybody. I don’t need anyone else.

I have a lot of hair. I was having a moment where for about a month-and-a-half I had not really tended to my hair the way that I needed to. When I sat down in my hairstylist’s chair, she asked what’s been going on with me. I admitted to her that I never feel so alone as when I have to do my hair by myself. She looked at me and said, “Well, baby, that’s because you’re not supposed to do your hair by yourself.” And then she started going into this beautiful story about my hair and my ancestry. She spoke about how if I was back in back in the Mother Continent of Africa, how it would be a whole village of women gathered around each other, tending to each other and loving on each other this way. She said that when you do a twist, when you do a Bantu knot, it is your ancestors reaching across space and time to show you how to take care of yourself. Even with my hair, it’s a community event. I wasn’t supposed to necessarily do it by myself all the time.

“She said that when you do a twist, when you do a Bantu knot, it is your ancestors reaching across space and time to show you how to take care of yourself.”

Photo Credit: Juhn Kwon

Joy: This story immediately helped me release all of this shame and misery that I have around needing help with my hair, like what was wrong with me? Why was I so weak that I needed help with my hair? She freed me up by reminding me of my ancestry, and the culture that comes along with my ancestry.

I think that when we look at women, when we look at ourselves and we look at our culture, and we look at the way that we were able to even get life to stay alive on Earth, it was because women actually leaned into egalitarian societies. We were communities. We were helping each other. It’s not like it is right now where you’ve got to figure out how to take care of your kids; you’ve got to figure out how to be a supermom; you’ve got to figure out how to be a super spouse; you’ve got to figure out how to be a super employee; you’ve got to figure out how to be a super boss; you’ve got to be 18 places all at once. And lo and behold, that you’re vulnerable enough to need help.

Actually admitting that you need help is one of the strongest, bossiest moves you can do as a leader. You are supposed to build that infrastructure of support. You are supposed to find your benevolent community. You’re supposed to find your collaborators and your contributors and your protectors and the people that you can count on, and they count on you—and you build something stronger than you can build by yourself. I think that the more that we can do that, and the more that we can show our male counterparts that that is possible and it’s not dangerous to bring in people that you are aligned with, the stronger we’ll be as a human species. Not just gender-wise, but collectively stronger.

“Actually admitting that you need help is one of the strongest, bossiest moves you can do as a leader. You are supposed to build that infrastructure of support. You are supposed to find your benevolent community.”

Photo Credit: Barry Druxman

Tabby: You spoke earlier about the Mother Continent of Africa and your ancestors. I’d like to hear more. How much do you know about your female lineage and ancestors? And how do you know it?

Joy: I know a good amount. Once you get to enslavement though, it gets a little lost for me. But I have a very strong Southern mother and a lot of strong women in my family. I have an amazing matriarch in terms of my maternal grandmother. I was able to hear stories about that side of my lineage and my heritage. You know, it was really hard. There’s only so far back that I go, but if I just even look at my grandmother, and I see the way that she was able to survive Jim Crow North Carolina, with seven kids, and she kept them alive. She kept them as safe as she possibly could. I knew her mostly at the end of her life. When I met her, she was in that final act, and I got to spend a good amount of time with her. She was so connected to nature. We would be in the garden together, and she’d explain things to me about the wisteria and the morning glory and the azaleas. She shared stories with me.

I didn’t have words for it when I was younger, but looking back on it now, I’m beguiled by the benevolence of her femininity. The way that she leaned into these little rituals for herself. There was pride there. Adornment rituals. Sometimes they get a bad rap, but they’re especially amazing when your culture has been messed with or your identity has been given this air of ‘you’re not enough’ or ‘you’re not good enough’. You just show up differently to lean into adornment rituals that really amplify your joy. Amplify your gratitude. That was so much of what I saw her do. She was able to lean into those types of things.  

My grandmother instilled a sense of pride and looking forward at the future. She didn’t talk to me a lot about the past. I knew about it. I talked to other family members about it. She was always talking to me about the now and the future. She had these incredible dreaming abilities. She encouraged me to not put a roof on myself. I think her encouragement combined with my parents is a large part of what gave me that fire and helped me stoke that fire.

“I didn’t have words for it when I was younger, but looking back on it now, I’m beguiled by the benevolence of her femininity. The way that she leaned into these little rituals for herself. There was pride there.”

Photo: Courtesy of Joy Donnell

Joy: I also have family members that showed up and helped with movement making. They helped with organizing around people that needed help. I’ve always seen my family be very active, and always seen women educating themselves and striving for what they want, and not necessarily waiting for someone else to show up so that their life can begin. It’s been a big help for me to know, Okay, this is possible, and that over there as possible. You see it, and you can start to figure out if that works for you.

Tabby: You spoke about how your grandmother’s adornment rituals brought out joy. I know you also speak about joy as a reparational act and restorative practice. Can you tell me more about that?

Joy: Well, being in this body, being a Black woman on planet Earth, whoooo. It is a lot. The anti- Blackness is real. The misogynoir is real. So, again, we’re getting into the intersectionality of things. All these layers within identity. Identity that I didn’t choose. There are things on my birth certificate that no one asked me about, but they’re on my birth certificate. So whenever I hear these identity politics, I feel like: Okay, what exactly are you talking about because it’s not like I chose to play these identity politics.

A lot of times these identity politics that get played around us about ourselves show us certain things. It shows us where the money and the attention go. If we want to know the priorities of something or someone, check the calendar and check the bank account. In storytelling, there’s always been so much leaning into black trauma, black fear, black marginalization, black misery, and not a whole lot into joy. Joy isn’t monetized the same way. Those stories haven’t had the same economies built around them. Stories always have an economy. Stories always have stakeholders and shareholders.  

I believe that when you’ve been marginalized like this, and everything around you has encouraged you to lean into your trauma more than anything else—to actually stand within your joy and within the Lightness of Being in your body, and the gratitude that you have with occupying space and time in this body, that so many things outside of you are trying to say is not enough, that your soul has shown up the wrong way in the wrong body—to actually lean into that unapologetically is a reparational act. It’s part of how you reclaim your space, your existence, your soul expression. You reclaim the fact that you are just as valid to be here as the expression of the Spirit as anything else that is alive. You are in the flow of life and nature.

“In storytelling, there’s always been so much leaning into black trauma, black fear, black marginalization, black misery, and not a whole lot into joy. Joy isn’t monetized the same way.”

Photo Credit: Barry Druxman

Joy: For me, it’s the next conversation—to start to talk about how do we restore this? How do we actually restore our joy? How do we actually restore our aliveness? This gets beyond shame and blame. This gets beyond what has happened to us. We know what we’ve been through at this point. Now we start to talk about joy. We get to lean into what we’re made of. That for me is the really exciting conversation.

There’s a reason why I exist because my ancestors decided to not destroy themselves. They were given a situation where they could have in so many ways have ended it so that their suffering would be over. But they stayed and they endured and now I am here, and I exist.

So me reclaiming my joy and leaning into my aliveness is honoring their spirit, their sacrifice, showing that their bodies were not just exchanged to make capitalism sacred. At the time of the Civil War, their bodies were worth more than the railroads and the banks combined. They had created the largest amount of millionaires in concentration in the Mississippi Delta. That was not the exchange. That was not the sacred exchange of their bodies. The sacred exchange of their bodies was for me to be here. So that I too can be me.

“So me reclaiming my joy and leaning into my aliveness is honoring their spirit, their sacrifice, showing that their bodies were not just exchanged to make capitalism sacred.”

Joy Donnell with some of her cohort sisters from 50 Women Can Change the World in Media & Entertainment, a gender parity program in Hollywood. Photo: Courtesy of Tabby Biddle

Tabby: Yes to that! Tell me about the CIME Creators Fund you recently launched. What’s that all about?

Joy: When we talk about white supremacy and ideology, one of the things that we’re hopefully starting to understand is that it’s not a person. It’s not a place. It really is an ideology. It is something that has been around for hundreds of years. You know, the word Ethiopian means “burnt-skin people.” That’s the Greco-Roman validation of that. This categorizing of people into different things is what we’ve inherited. This is the past that we stepped into. We stepped into that idea of three-fifths of a person, tethering enslavement to blackness and melanin, Manifest Destiny, the Doctrine of Discovery—when all of a sudden whites showed up in the legislature after the Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1600s so that they could have deeper classification and class divide and keep people from actually aligning together and fighting for their rights.  

All of this is still here in play in the 21st century. As a result, it doesn’t care whether or not you actually want to go along with the system. The system is the system. It doesn’t have time to ask about the origins of things. Institutions are busy trying to get things done.They don’t sit around and ask about the origins of things. So all these isms, it’s not just the institution. It’s not just what people are doing— dressing up in this and that and hoods and trying to terrorize folks. It’s also access. It’s access to information. It’s access to resources.

“We don’t think that lack of access and lack of resources should halt creativity, and halt these stories from coming out. We want to think differently about the system, and how we can energize people.”

Joy: We started looking at the fact that there are so many amazing creators, and 200 – 300 dollars can actually keep them from independently creating something because the system overall is inequitable. While someone is flush with thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, maybe millions of dollars, someone else is trying to figure out how to put together 500 dollars to finish a project. If they don’t have enough resource of community around them that have access the excess capital to be able to contribute that way, then they’re not going to get any lift. So we wanted to put together the CIME Creator Fund so that we could provide lift for amazing, innovative, independent creators that are having trouble getting the kind of financial lift and access that they need.

We don’t think that lack of access and lack of resources should halt creativity, and halt these stories from coming out. We want to think differently about the system, and how we can energize people. No amount of money is too small. These are micro-funds. These are micro-contributions to the media-makers, but it’s also us saying, “We see you, and our community wants to invest in you. We want to invest in your future. We want to see you grow, and here’s just a little bit of love. We trust you to know how best to apply it.”

We’re not trying to micromanage people when we provide that lift in the funding. We are entrusting them, not infantilizing them, to be able to know how they need to place it. We’ve already gotten feedback from people saying, “Oh my goodness, we can hire the editor that we’ve been wanting to hire.” “Now we have duplication that we weren’t going to have.” “Now we’re going to be able to get our post-production done.” They were literally just being held back by a few hundred dollars. When we realized that this was something that we could do, we were like, Why wouldn’t we provide this type of support?  

Joy Donnell and her CIME co-founders Munika Lay and Dr. Nicole Haggard speaking at 100 Women Change Hollywood, a collaborative day for women leaders in media & entertainment working toward intersectional gender parity. Photo Credit: Jacqueline Legan

Tabby: Let’s talk about legacy. I like to think about it as what you’re creating now, as well as what you want to leave for future generations. With this in mind, what do you see as your feminine legacy?

Joy: I see my feminine legacy as storytelling and systematization that will help us lean into our true humanity and reclaim our true humanity. I’m not anti-despair. I have realized sometimes you need a little nudge of darkness, as Mary Oliver would say. You need a little thing that’s going to disrupt you so much that you cannot sit still with it. You have to answer it some sort of way. If that stuff didn’t exist, we would all just be perfectly happy and not change anything whatsoever. [Laugh] Joy for me is so powerful. Not just because it’s my name. It’s the thing that balances everything else out. It’s the thing that helps us remember what all of this is about, and what we’re supposed to be doing.

A powerful moment for me was when I realized that I could go into the deepest parts of my despair and come back with something beautiful. If those are the types of stories and programs that I can help put into place so that more people can lean into their creative ability to do that—can do their inner work and their outer work in a way that it helps them go into those places, find the beautiful thing and come back with it and frame it in a way that it is a different type of gift, a different type of offering to humanity, collectively—then I think I will have done what I was supposed to do here.

“A powerful moment for me was when I realized that I could go into the deepest parts of my despair and come back with something beautiful.”

Photo: Courtesy of Joy Donnell

Tabby: You speak to women about owning their voice, their image, their intentions and their narrative. I know that there are a lot of women who want to use their voice and their leadership to create social change in their area of focus. What would be your advice to them on how to increase and elevatetheir impact?

Joy: It might sound incredibly simple, but I think you have to start within. You always have to start within. I don’t know if it’s because we’re human and the way that these bodies are made up and the way we work, but we have to start self-centered. Because of these bodies, we don’t understand life any other way. We understand it through what we experienced through our senses. We understand our mind in relation to our body. We understand the environment in relation to the body. We understand the environments, culture, and the context of that culture in relation to how it is enacting upon the body and affecting the mind.

To get started, you literally have to start with you. You have to get really uncomfortable with yourself. And then you have to figure out where you are comfortable with yourself. You have to constantly do inner work. It’s never done.”

I wish I had realized at a younger age that it’s a spiral. If you’re lucky, you spiral up. [Laugh] I thought for so long it was point A to point B. I thought I would just arrive there and I could take my mind off of it. But no, you constantly repeat. If you haven’t reconciled it, you repeat. Whatever you’re not comfortable about in terms of your leadership or your voice, it will keep coming back. It will keep challenging you until you reconcile it.

Whatever you have not leaned into where your passion is concerned, where you get your energy, it will keep challenging you. It will keep frustrating you with other people’s passion and energy, until you actually start to lean into your own and claim it for yourself. I don’t know if it works for everyone like this, but I think it works for a lot of people this way. So you have to do that inner work.  

You also have to keep fortifying yourself inwardly so that you can keep staying strong outwardly. You won’t even be able to create the kinds of friendships and ally-ships that you should be having for support if you don’t do that inner work and reconcile some things within yourself. You need to ask yourself, Do I even really have friendships that energize me? Or do I have friendships that drain me? For some people it’s their family. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t love your family, but maybe you need to do some self-protecting so that you can actually hear your voice and get quiet within yourself and understand what you want to do.

“Whatever you’re not comfortable about in terms of your leadership or your voice, it will keep coming back. It will keep challenging you until you reconcile it.”

Joy Donnell hosting a panel at United Talent Agency (UTA), co-hosted by her organization CIME and Inclusion in Hollywood. Photo: Courtesy of Tabby Biddle

Joy: It always starts with you. The answer is always you. The energy that you’re putting out there is you and the only thing that you have to pour from to fill another vessel is yourself. If you do not keep doing that inner work, you won’t be able to show up for anyone else. You won’t be of any use to any movement. You won’t be able to maintain anything. You won’t be able to grow a community. You won’t be able to even do your newsletter. [Laugh] So you’ve got to do the inner work.

Tabby: Are there any last words of wisdom you want to impart to the readers, or any other elements of your work that you want them to know about?

Joy: I don’t know if this will make sense when I say it, but from my experience, the energy obeys the laws of the form it takes. Everything is an energy exchange. Whether it is knowledge or wisdom. Everything is potential energy and kinetic energy, and it obeys the laws of the form it takes. There’s an energy around your media and your message. Just like everything else, it obeys the laws of the form it takes. This is part of why you have to think about the energies that you’re putting into your message that is part of the impact and the intention. But you’ve also got to find where the energy is around your message. We don’t have to swim upstream as much as we think that we do. You can actually redirect the stream if you start to look at how it’s flowing.  

Spend some time to actually look for how is the energy moving? Where is it going? What is the pathology of the systems that you can tap into within media? Start to study them and understand that energy is obeying the laws of the form it takes. If you have an audio piece, it’s going to live in certain places online. A tweet has certain places that it can live online. A written piece has certain ways it can show up and how it can be used. So this is what I mean by “the energy obeys the laws of the form it takes.” Find the ways to put the message into things that are accessible forms of media—audio, written pieces, Clubhouse, Twitter and Instagram and things like that—and look at how that energy flows. Then you start to understand how you actually move the message through and find the community that’s looking for your message.

Tabby: If you had a loudspeaker that could reach the ears, hearts and souls of women and girls around the world, what message would you want to impart? 

Joy: Trust yourself. It’s really that simple.

Learn more about Joy Donnell.

Learn more about the Center for Intersectional Media and Entertainment (CIME).

This interview first appeared on tabbybiddle.com.


Tabby Biddle, M.S. Ed. works at the intersection of women’s leadership, feminine spirituality and social change. She is the co-founder of 50 Women Can Change the World in Media & Entertainment, the bestselling author of Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, and an internationally celebrated women’s leadership coach, educator, strategist, and group facilitator for her unique approach to activating women’s leadership. Learn more.

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