Before this huge COVID-19 outbreak hit, we had the opportunity to share a moment with the amazing spirit, Mrs. Tonya Jefferson Lynch. This fierce and Substantial J Girl is a wife, mom, entrepreneur, and award-winning film producer. The list could go on and on so without further due take a moment and learn more about Tonya and the Black Light Project.
How has COVID-19 impacted the Black Light Project?
We were supposed to have our grand unveiling of the Public Arts Grant project with Z. Smith Reynolds in April; although that has not been officially postponed, I am almost certain it will be. In addition, I was scheduled to speak at two additional community events with the City of Rocky Mount and Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. Of, course we’ve been in talks about how to handle these events and future opportunities given what’s going on right now.
How has COVID-19 impacted you as a working parent?
I work from home anyway and was not teaching this semester. My schedule has been devoted to putting the finishing touches on the project with Rocky Mount and developing new projects. I have spent most of my time prior to COVID traveling and working on material. I pulled my youngest from daycare last week and, of course, my school-aged children are home.
This has taken me from my workflow because I am the teacher now. My husband is working from home, so he handles the kids until I take over at 8:30. The main thing is adjusting. The kids think “Oh we are at home! This isn’t school!” and don’t quite take this seriously. My junior high schooler thinks he is on an extended vacation. I had my schedule in place for 4:00 – 8:00, but managing the entire day is challenging. But we will adjust. I just “hired” my older kids as the little kids’ Encore teachers (music, art, PE). We will see how it goes.
What are some creative ways you are moving your work forward at this time?
Well, recently we started a giving campaign to help people meet small things in their lives. The amounts distributed have been $25-50. Every little bit helps right? Sometimes folks need cash! As far as the direct goal of what we are doing, we have to maintain a presence and a resource on social media. That is important in these early stages of what is unfolding in our country. We are thinking: Where can people get help? How do they understand what is happening? What clarity can we bring? Presently, I am working on the audio for the Rocky Mount Z Smith Reynolds Public Arts Grant Otocast (it connects audio to the visuals). That is pretty cool and another avenue to share the stories. On a lighter note: We are lining up a few of the guys to take over the BLP social media accounts and share “A Day in the Life”. The goal is to make the narratives come to life. And of course, we are talking about the work and are welcoming any opportunity to share the work!
Any words of wisdom or inspiration for other business owners and parents reading this.
You know, this is a chapter in the story. It’s a tough chapter; no doubt. But it is not the entire story, It is not the finish line. It is an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we are a community and we are strong enough for our season of difficulty, and we DO NOT have to suffer alone. Thriving doesn’t mean perfection, so when the days are harder than others, rest knowing that prayerfully you will get another chance tomorrow. It is going to be those little things that will make a difference in how we survive these times. Showing grace, exercising patience, praying, taking a deep breath, hiding in the bathroom for 5 minutes (ha!), sipping a good cup of coffee, laughing loudly, purposefully seeking peace…these are things that will make the difference.
Let’s turn the page back to our regularly scheduled moment already in progress.
Who is Tonya Jefferson Lynch?
Gotta keep that Jefferson spelled out! Right after Christ, it is the central name that ties down my identity. My earthly father gave me that name and it holds value and meaning. I strive to live up to what it meant for our family: Love, acceptance, creativity, hard work, but back to Christ – FAITH! I am a thinker who is infinitely curious about the world around her. I love to see creativity and be a part of creative processes, as a participant, but my heart is happy when I see people allow their minds to shape something beautiful. One of my life philosophies is “People are people…” and I strive to see them as God’s creations who are navigating a spiritual existence in a social context.
Tell us a little bit about The Black Light Project?
The Black Light Project is simply a push to make people think about their preconceived notions about people in their communities using photography and film. It is about self-esteem and community awareness. We began the project with black males but the concept can be applied to several groups who are marginalized or suffer violence and other forms of oppression because of the way people perceive their outward appearance. I wanted to talk about how we all want to be seen naked, although I don’t use that term in the film, that is what we wanted to show emotional nudity. My clothes, my hair, my car, my jewelry, my tattoos, none of these things should define me…who am I naked?
What inspired you to start this project?
I was inspired to do the project initially because of the rapid-fire of cases where Black males were being gunned down. Literally back to back. Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, and most notably, Trayvon Martin. And I say most notably because when that verdict came down I literally cried with my children. I thought ‘Wow. People are really this afraid of a young man in a hoodie, minding his business, that they would stalk, confront, and kill him with no repercussions??’ You feel helpless or powerless in a moment like that. When I thought through it, I came to the conclusion that we are making instant decisions based on outward appearances and how dangerous that is, but also how that steals the joy of self-expression and the humanity from a person. I wanted to show Black males as I know them. Brothers, fathers, sons, husbands, friends. I have to be honest as a mother, it was just scary to think about the world seeing my sons as a threat and all I see is love.
As you go into the different communities, what’s been your biggest takeaway?
When you go to different communities, you realize like I said, that people are people. They are struggling with the same issues, but it is dressed up differently. Issues of self-esteem, economic stress, kids, family…etc. People just want to be seen and valued for their worth and not put into a corner like ‘Ok you go here and we will treat you this way.
What’s been one of your biggest challenges in doing this work?
Of course, the biggest challenge is expanding, especially as a non-profit. People see it as valuable but it can be hard establishing it with the support you need to make the work as encompassing as you would like. I am a former educator, so education is key and we want to expand to educational pieces. That takes a lot of support. I love the process of creating and developing, so that hasn’t been hard necessarily. I will say, making the selections or the cuts has been tough. We get so many cool stories, you want to choose them all. You want a way to show appreciation for them all. But ultimately, we can only choose a few.
What is one thing that you’d like folks to take away from The Black Light Project thus far?
First, I want Black males from all walks of life to see themselves. I hope that they can identify with one of the stories on some level.
They can say “Yeah I used to be in the streets and now I’m not.” or “I read to my kids also.” I want them to see that someone sees them as POSITIVE. The project is not about perfection. It is about acknowledging people on their journey and to encourage them to take the steps to live a good life – and a good life means different things.
On the flip, I want people who struggle with labels and preconceived notions to start to challenge those thoughts. I wanted to put a wedge in the closed portions of their minds so some truth could filter in. Like a sweet scent wafting in the air “What’s that? Something has changed the atmosphere.” and to investigate. When they walk away from photography or the film, they think about what they’re thinking about “metacognition” – thinking about those automatic thoughts and making them a little less automatic. I want people to think about the media they ingest. But take from it that Black men are beautiful and contributors to our society; that they possess such awesomeness.
Nationally do you see the narrative of the black male changing in America, if so how, if not what can be done?
Largely Yes and a little no. Yes because we have seen the hip hop community really start to step up to the plate to help shift the way we talk about Black males. Even in sports entertainment. We are in the age of Lebron James, Steph Curry, Jay-Z, Colin Kapernick, J. Cole, Nipsey Hussle, and the conversations are shifting from whips and chains to ownership and education. They have taken up the mantle to be family men – not simply good fathers but also good partners/husbands, which is SO important. We had Black Panther and the work that Jordan Peele is doing. Showing Black males as leaders and creatives; that we have appeal across genres and racial distinctions. I see us, as Black people, working harder to become aware of our positive attributes and to share empowering stories. And then there is little no. We are still struggling to change the way media portrays Black males. We still can almost identify the race of the person who committed a crime by how quickly the mug shot goes up. We still see major news outlets still not bringing black males into conversations that involve them. OR misunderstanding diversity – or misusing that term. We have to charge them with representing Black males across the spectrum.
I think we continue to put in the work. Music is such a huge part of who we are as a culture, I think we really continue to make being “Woke” and socially conscious the pivot in our music. We continue to make films and projects that not only reveal us in a positive way but ask us to level up. In our communities, we work to get our youth to see themselves beyond their environment.
Any major events or adds to the project coming up that you’d like to share with us?
Yes! We are presently working on a Black Light Project in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. We are working with Nash and Edgecombe counties. It will go on display in January 2020 in the Imperial Arts Center. And always behind the scenes work is always happening. Hopefully some new announcements soon! We have to keep treating them as PEOPLE and when they are recognized with respect and love, it’s natural that we see them want to change their own negative narrative.
Behind the scenes, moments captured by Maci Jefferson
during filming for PBS (UNC-TV) in partnership with Z. Smith Reynolds.