Interview with Felice Belle - Poet, Playwright, and Pop Culture Enthusiast
Similar to our last interview with Justin Baldoni, I was also blessed to hear Felice Belle and her best friend, Jennifer Murphy, present at TEDWomen in New Orleans in 2017. I was immediately drawn to Felice’s presence and style and knew I wanted to meet her and feature her as an inspirational interview for the WeInspireWe blog.
And lucky us, Felice agreed. Below is a Q&A format for our time together in digging into Felice’s leadership approach and perspective. One of Felice’s first questions of me was why her, but once you read on, you’ll know that answer.
WeInspireWe: Hi Felice. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Felice Bell: Sure! I am a poet and a playwright, and professionally I work at the Brooklyn Public Library, as a Literacy Advisor in the Central Adult Learning Center. At the library, I work with the students who are reading anything from nothing at all, up until the High School Equivalency level. We help them with their literacy skills with the help of volunteer tutors.
My current obsession is the healing properties of stories, your own and other people’s I’m currently reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and in it she writes, “stories are medicine.” That really resonated with me and I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural narratives and how we use stories to wound and to heal.
WIW: That’s really interesting. Tell us more what you mean by “stories as medicine”.
FB: Jennifer and I wrote a two-woman show called, Other Women, which we performed an excerpt of at TEDWomen.
Around the same time that we were developing Other Women with our mutual friend and director Monica L. Williams, I was also doing a play based on my students’ writing thanks to a grant from the library. The BKLYN Incubator grant is for staff members who have innovative ideas that they want to be funded. The grant included $10,000 to take our students’ stories and create a play, and then bring in professional actors to perform that play for the public.
The first part of that grant involved our community partner, an organization called Narrative 4. Their core methodology is called the Story Exchange, where they visit communities, randomly partner people up, and participants share stories with each other. Then you come back together as a group and share your partner’s story as if it is your own.
Their approach is designed to build empathy as the foundation for social justice or change, or any connection beyond the moment. And there just was something transformative about that as a starting point.
That’s when I started to think about the function of stories in everyday life.
Then seeing the play that came out of my students’ writings, and how they responded to seeing their own stories told—it just solidified that idea even more.
I’m interested now, more than ever, in whose story is being told, who’s telling it, and what stories we haven’t heard. And how those stories can bring social and cultural ideas to life to heal communities and build connections.
WIW: So amazing to see how creativity can drive significant impact. Tell me a little bit about what your past world has been like? What helped you decide you wanted to be a poet and get you into the path of where you are today?
FB: I never thought I would end up where I was. I had a lot of plans and none of what I’m doing was in those plans.
My parents are immigrants, from Guyana, South America. I was definitely raised believing that getting a solid education is the key. So, in undergrad, I majored in Industrial Engineering.
And somewhere in there, I started writing poetry. I always had a love of the arts. And actually, I credit my parents for that as well. They took us to the theater growing up. My dad and my mom would recite poems from memory.
But halfway through college I realized: I don’t think I actually want to be an engineer. But I’m in this degree this far, so I should probably finish it.
And then I ended up going back to school for creative writing, because at that point, it had become a passion of mine. I had also gotten involved in the poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café—I even ended up hosting the slam at one point.
I was very much moved by poets on stage, wielding words in unexpected ways, and saying something I hadn’t heard before, with really interesting and engaging language.
Because I hadn’t ever really studied poetry, I wanted to study and really learn the craft of it, read the greats. At that time I was working as an instructional technology consultant, I wondered, am I doing what I was meant to do? The answer was no. I felt like there was a part of me that had a gift and a talent that I wasn’t exploring.
And so, I quit my job, and I went back to school to get an MFA in Creative Writing. It was a highlight of my life. And then I thought, it feels so good, all of that focus on my artistic life.
But at the same time, I live in New York City and have to pay the rent, right?
So, I joke that in my fantasies, it’s just me, creating art, writing and performing. But my reality is that I do this [literacy advising], and I create as much as I possibly can, with the end game being that my art is my life.
WIW: That’s awesome that you are able to find a way to still connect your passion and purpose to your “day job”. Besides being driven to be aligned with your purpose, tell me about some of the successes that you’ve had in your life.
FB: I was commissioned to write a children’s play a few years ago. There’s an organization in New York called Hi-ARTS and they were doing a partnership with the Kennedy Center for the twentieth anniversary of Nas’s Illmatic.
The main character of the play is a young girl who is being bullied in school, but loves video games and is really good at them. And then, by some stroke of magic, is sucked into the game and has to clear these levels to get out.
And so that play was performed at the Kennedy Center, which was amazing. I remember being in the audience with all these kids and their families. I’m watching the kids watch the play that I created. They’re identifying with the main character, who is essentially me. That was awesome.
TEDWomen was another highlight. To be on stage with Jennifer, and to have Monica, who created and directed the show, there. And our friend Robyn, who is a photographer, who did the images for our show there. And just to be in conversation with people who are just doing such incredible things in the world…I was so inspired. I wanted to do more. I wanted to create more. I wanted to be more. I wanted to connect more. I just wanted to live harder and better than I had ever done.
And then I think that the work that I do here on a daily basis. I feel like our students have any number of challenges in and outside of literacy. The fact that they are so dedicated…they can work all night and then show up in the morning for class, because this matters to them and they want to be here.
WIW: Yes. It sounds like there’s so much inspiration in your life and like so much reward in the things that you do. I’m curious on your thoughts on what you do today that would connect with the idea of female leadership. What does that look like for you?
FB: I actually was thinking about this recently. I read something where someone said, leaders have to have followers. Whatever you’re doing has to be awesome enough that people say, “Oh, I want to do that!”
So, to me, the quality of someone who is a great leader, a great supervisor or manager, is that they make everyone around them better. They want to see their team grow. They want to see their team shine. If I recognize a strength in you, I want you to play to that and give you opportunities to excel.
WIW: When you think about your own personal leadership style, how would you describe it?
FB: One tenet that I appreciate: assume the best intentions.
Sometimes I’ll say that at the start of a meeting, especially if I think things are going to be contentious. Everyone at the table has a different agenda. Everyone at the table may have some backstory or behind-the-scenes drama going on, but I help remind people that we are here in this moment to discuss X, Y, Z.
Regardless of where you’re coming from, as a group, let’s assume everyone at the table has the best of intentions. Let’s assume everyone wants to succeed.
I also am somebody who is just fond of asking questions, no matter what the situation. And so, from my education background, there’s a lot of emphasis on asking clarifying questions. I ask them as much as possible, so that everyone’s on the same page.
WIW: Do you have any advice, or any counsel that you would give to a young woman who’s really wanting to tap into the arts, into writing and poetry, or getting more into a creative field? Or more generally—really embracing and owning what’s inside of you?
FB: Yeah. A big piece of advice is to find your tribe. Depending on where you are, you might feel like there is no one like you around, or you might see a group of people, and you think, “I want to be like them, but I don’t know how to get there.”
I owe so much of who I am to my community. And that’s family—blood family as well as chosen family, and artists I look up to.
With technology, it’s so easy to connect and reach out to people and build your tribe that way – easy to see an author you like and send them an email, or go to a reading and make a connection.
When I was working in instructional technology and feeling like I was really disconnected from my artistic-self, my friend Courtney invited me to join her writers group. They kept me motivated and engaged. When I was talking about a book project and I stopped talking about it, they followed up and asked me about it.
So, I think there is very real function that community serves in propelling you where you want to go.
Felice, you are a breath of fresh air. The WeInspireWe community believes that everyone is a leader and everyone has a voice. You bring your voice to life on a daily basis and we are so happy to know you and to hear a little about you. We can’t wait to see how your creativity and passion continues to unfold and impact the people around you – from the individuals you are supporting with literacy, to the team you are supporting to make a difference, to the viewers of your creative work. They – and now we – are all better people because of you.