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Black Celebrity Moms: Tonya Lewis Lee Is On a Mission





Tonya Lewis Lee, best-selling author, award-winning TV producer and wife of acclaimed director Spike Lee is on a mission

Black Celebrity Moms: Tonya Lewis Lee Is On a Mission

Interview with Kimberly Seals-Allers

Tonya Lewis Lee is busy enough as a best-selling author, award-winning TV producer, wife of acclaimed director Spike Lee and mother of two. For the past two years, she’s added national spokesperson to her already full plate. She is the face of the “A Healthy Baby Starts With You,” campaign, a service of the Office of Minority Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, dedicated to reducing infant mortality rates in the U.S.
Kimberly spoke with Tonya, author of the best-selling novel “Gotham Diaries,” and co-author of Please Baby Please children’s favorite, to talk about motherhood, our health, our hair, hoochies, and her and Spike’s formula for raising confident kids.
Kimberly: What do you think is the greatest stress facing black mothers today?
Tonya: I think it varies by stage. When I talk to young women who want to be mothers—they are trying to find the right stage for motherhood and strike that balance and finding the right time in your life from a career and relationship perspective. Stress from all of it is one of the biggest issues we all face.  More specifically, when we have black in predominantly white schools  there is a stress that comes with that too. And when I take my kids to the doctor, I’m always making sure that they get the right care and advocating for them properly. And whether that is real or imagined in my head—it is still a stress.  And the hardest thing as women is often finding the ability, time will and energy to make sure that our body, mind and spirit is in peak condition—that  our machine is functioning at its best.
Kimberly: Black women are notorious for taking care of others. Why do Black women seem so bad at self-care?
Tonya: For years, we had little choice in the matter. We’ve been trying to take care of our families and careers. We never had the expectation of me time—I mean, getting our hair done was just basic maintenance. Now we are learning that we have to take care of ourselves, but what does that really mean. We may try to take an hour to exercise or have quiet meditation. But we’re thinking, I could be doing something with that time to forward my career or my family. We are just beginning to appreciate the importance of the quiet time, the”me” time.
Kimberly: There’s a price we pay for not looking after ourselves, and its affecting black women’s health.  Black women have some of the highest incidences and/or death rates of far too many diseases. What is going on here?
Tonya: We need to prioritize our lives to know that if we are not strong and healthy, the whole house comes crashing down—it’s like on the airplanes, you have to put your oxygen mask on first.  You cannot just keep running until you run out, or keep everyone else’s care  in front of your own. Beyond that, as a country we have to talk about our healthcare system and fix it.
Kimberly: What’s your biggest parenting challenge?
Tonya: Trying to make sure my children (grades, ninth and 7th grade) are really disciplined academically and feel very confident in their academic ability. From the time my daughter entered kindergarten, the school thing is something I have struggled to understand and learn how to work.  I think I started in the dark and understanding the dynamics of the teachers with these black children, the administration and making sure they feel confident and know their innate ability. And for me, not being so defensive all the time and ready for a fight. That for me has been very difficult. I’m learning and relaxing more about it. The other piece is socially. I hope they have a real sense of who they are as black people and are very complete with who they are.
Kimberly: You’re knee deep in the teenage years now. God be with you! LOL! What advice do you have for keeping the lines of communication open.
Tonya: As parents we have to talk about our days with the kids, so it’s a conversation and not us grilling them about their day. If they have other adults that they can talk to and those adults come to you, that is a good thing. Don’t be upset by it.  My babysitter who is a younger woman and my daughter can talk to her.  And I know the babysitter will let me know what’s going on.
Kimberly: What’s your advice for raising strong, confident kids?
Tonya: First of all, they must see images of themselves from a very early age. They need books, movies and toys that reflect them as regular kids. I also talked about slavery from a very young age, instilling a sense of their own heritage and the history of where they came from. Second, they must know that they are loved unconditionally and you will fight for them. Kids also really need boundaries, and for us to talk with them and not just to them.  Most importantly, they should know that anything is possible if they work hard at it.
Kimberly: You also have a daughter. In this booty-shaking, video hoochie world, those of us raising daughter are scurred! What can we do?
Tonya: For those first five years, you are everything to your children. They really look to us to be role models. What you look at, what you listen to, what you value—they take it all in. The types of music that we listen to and the way we dress really is a model for behavior. I also think we have to really limit what they see and try to put in front of them books, movies and other things that give a positive image. And when we do see negative images, use it as a teaching moment. Ask, What do you think about what she’s doing?  And then really listen.
Kimberly: In this Hannah Montana, Disney Princess world, our girls seem to be having hair issues younger and younger. Any tips?
Tonya: One of my key goals as a mother was that I was determined that my daughter would love her hair. I hated my hair growing up. My mother was a woman who had nappy hair in a straight- haired family. So when I was born, she didn’t know what to do with my hair. For me, to learn how to do her hair in its natural state was very important.  I was determined. It took time, energy and faith that even on those days when she looked crazy (and other people told me she looked crazy!) that she was going to be okay.  Now my daughter loves her hair. She has beautiful thick, thick hair and she feels so good about it.  That makes me very happy.
Kimberly: Tell me about the OMH campaign to reduce infant mortality in our communities—a cause very near and dear to my work at MochaManual.  What are some of the initiatives of the campaign? What work will you be doing?
Tonya: Well, the Healthy Baby campaign began as an awareness building campaign to get the word out to women that all African-American women are at risk of losing their child before its first birthday regardless of their level of education or income. We travel the country encouraging women to make informed choices about diet, exercise and their general health care. We also have a program for college students whom we call our “preconception peer educators.” In the fall of 2008, we piloted the program at Spelman College, Fisk University, Morgan State University, Lane College, LeMoyne Owen University and The University of Pennsylvania Nursing School. The peer educators produced health fairs for their local communities and traveled to high schools to talk to young people about how to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We have also just finished a documentary film about our program and the issue of infant mortality.

KSA: We can’t wait to see it.

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