…H.E.R.O — Helping Everyone Reaps Optimism. Meaning, the more I help others, the better I feel. It’s not rocket science but it works — it really does. So, in that sense, I’m pushing myself to become a lifelong HERO — a person who finds tangible ways to help others.
As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sekou Writes.
Sekou Writes lives in New York City but is currently sheltering in Nashville during COVID-19 with his mom and aunt. Sekou has written for a wide range of publications including Essence, Ebony, Uptown, and Upscale amongst others. He has also edited three books (When Butterflies Kiss, Stories of Survival & Beyond, and The Sound of Silk at Midnight), been featured in several anthologies, performed in the NYC Fringe Festival, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from New School University. He has been featured as a guest on many podcasts, radio shows, and TV shows including Nightline, The Today Show and WGBH’s Basic Black. In the era of COVID, Sekou has unexpectedly become a playwright and is using the stage to both provide a brief escape from our stark realities as well as educate others about race and microaggressions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I was born in Boston but I’ve also lived in California, Nashville, and Atlanta before moving to NYC for my first job after graduating from Morehouse. People always think that I was an Army brat when I tell them that I grew up all over the country [laughs] but actually my mom was a professor at a few different universities.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’ve read 50 Self-Help Classics by Tom Butler-Bowdon several times during the “Corona-cation,” as I call it. It’s a book I just discovered recently and it’s really helped to expand my thinking and worldview about, well, everything. It’s a wealth of knowledge because it summarizes 50 different self-help books. I’ve also been reading about Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
In 2014, I had a flash of inspiration and I wrote my own quote on Facebook. Every so often Facebook serves it back up to me as a memory and it catches me off guard. Every time. When it pops up, I screenshot it again to keep it at the top of my mind. The quote? “Comfort zones keep you happy about not reaching your potential.” I’m doing everything I can to push past mine.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
We all have to choose our swords — the way we choose to do battle. The Corona pandemic has helped me find mine. For me, my chosen sword is the stage. It’s a very new decision. At the end of 2019, I met with a few of my closest friends and I literally asked them what they thought I should be doing with my life. I got a wide range of answers and suggestions but nothing really stuck. What’s funny is that I’ve talked to a few of them recently and they commented about how soon after those conversations I embarked on an entirely new path — becoming a playwright. It’s hard to explain how that happened but, basically, COVID forced me to think about my mortality and leaving a legacy. I wondered what I would want to leave behind if the worst were to happen. Thinking about it in that way suddenly made my path clear. That said, I’ve been using my skills as a playwright to both inspire and educate people in the midst of this pandemic. My current play is about racial microaggressions and, ironically, I released it before George Floyd’s death changed the world. So, I feel like I’m being called to both entertain people who are stressed by COVID-19 as well as educate those who don’t understand the anger that Black people feel right now.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
I wouldn’t call myself a hero, per se, but I’ve been thinking of it as an acronym that makes a lot of sense to me and my life experience. H.E.R.O — Helping Everyone Reaps Optimism. Meaning, the more I help others, the better I feel. It’s not rocket science but it works — it really does. So, in that sense, I’m pushing myself to become a lifelong HERO — a person who finds tangible ways to help others.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
I don’t think I have 5 characteristics but I do have a one really good story. I volunteered at my mom’s church after the tornado hit Nashville in March of 2020. We fed ten homeless men and gave them shelter for a night. One of those ten men was a HERO. He was a seeker. He wanted much more for himself than his current circumstances. I think about him often because he was literally 1 out of 10 men. In almost every tough situation I’ve encountered since then I ask myself what I need to do to be the 1 out of 10, versus the 9 out of 10. His HERO characteristic was seeking more for himself. I am challenging myself to do the same.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
In my case, I started pushing towards self-sacrifice as a means to an end. At the end of 2019, I decided to become a better version of myself and, let me tell you, getting better involves making a lot of tough decisions every single day. In the process, I’ve found that being of service to others gives me more momentum than just being of service to myself. I imagine other HEROs feel the same way. And that’s why they do it.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
I had already achieved a certain amount of positive life momentum when COVID-19 hit. Conventional wisdom dictated that I should’ve sat still and stayed home. I tried to do that but I couldn’t — I had too much momentum to slow down. It was like trying to abruptly stop an 18-wheeler. So, instead, I started pivoting most of my activities towards the Coronavirus and towards social justice.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
The heroes of today are the people who can move fearlessly and seamlessly into action. I was fascinated by some of the stories of people who very quickly figured out how to fight the Coronavirus and also fight for social justice. I remember walking into a bookstore not even sure if they’d still be open. Not only were they open, but they had already changed all their inventory to reflect the changed world. They were selling masks and immune system boosters, for example. So, to me, the heroes are the people that didn’t miss a step when the world changed and figured out how to be of service to others overnight.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
I haven’t really experienced fear around COVID. I’m certain that this epic interest in Black Lives Matter wouldn’t have happened without the whole world sitting at home watching George Floyd die on their various devices. I see so much good coming out of COVID. And I don’t have any fear for my personal safety because I never wasted any time trying not to catch it. Instead, I just assumed I already had it and, therefore I fight hard every day to keep myself healthy enough that it won’t matter if I have it. To me, trying not to catch it is a position of fear while fortifying myself with diet and exercise and mental toughness is a position of strength.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
I love watching the way the world has banded together both in terms of the Coronavirus and in terms of social justice in the wake of George Floyd. I’ve seen more solidarity recently than I’ve seen at any time in the past. It gives me hope for the future and, honestly, it’s a great time to be alive. We’re witnessing historic events that will be written about in the history books for sure.
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
Mostly, I’ve been impressed with everyone’s willingness to chip in and help each other out. For example, I know someone who has been making masks just to give away to anyone who needs them. I also know of some big companies that are rewarding regular people who are contributing their time, energy, and talent to helping the first responders.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
In terms of the pandemic, it has reminded me that we should live our lives in a perpetual state of readiness. Whenever anything happens, we should be prepared to take a deep breath and pivot in a way that both benefits others and keeps us calm. This also relates to George Floyd in that we should always be willing to take a stand for what we believe in as well as tailoring whatever our day job is into a tool for social justice. It’s possible. And it’s necessary.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
My father recently had a Zoom birthday party and what occurred to me is that he was able to have friends from all over the country tune in, but if he’d had a normal birthday party only local people could have attended. I’m fascinated at how quickly our world has become global in scope, both personally and professionally. I pray that continues. Same thing for my play. It started hyper-local at a college in Nashville and now it’s available worldwide via the internet.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
One surefire way to make a positive impact on society is by deciding what you want your legacy to be — think big, think broad, think in terms of many, many years from now. How do you want to be remembered? Then get out and work hard for it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve already done it. Entirely by accident. When I first decided to reach for the outer edges of my potential, I had a t-shirt made for myself that simply reads, “doing.” I use it as a reminder that I should always be in the act of doing something — not wishing, not waiting, but doing. As I began to wear the shirt, people would ask me how to get one and now there are people all over the country wearing my “doing” t-shirts — amazing. As a result, I’ve created a “doing tribe” Facebook group. In the group, we talk about the ways in which we’re striving to make ourselves and the world better. So, accidentally or not, my “doing” movement is underway.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
David Goggins has a philosophy that he calls the “cookie jar.” Basically, it means that whenever you have to do something difficult, you bolster yourself by keeping your biggest accomplishments at the top of your mind. It’s the ultimate internal pep talk. I love that idea and I’ve been employing it as best I can. Anyway, I’d love to sit down with him to talk more about his strategies for transforming his life so dramatically.
How can our readers follow you online?
Online, you can find me via my primary website, www.sekouwrites.com, and across all social media, I’m @sekouwrites.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thanks so much for your time and for celebrating those of us who are trying to do the work.