The child of the first African American director of nursing at Marlboro State Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey, Dr. Carol Penn, then 5 years old, initially wanted to become a doctor not because of an early passion for science, but because she wanted to smell and sound the way doctors and nurses did.
“Back then they were in all this white starch, right? And they walked down the hallway, and I just loved the way that sounded. My mom would bring me to work with her, and I was sitting in her office and I could just hear ’em coming,” Penn said. “I said I want to look like this, I wanted to smell like this, the white wasn’t bad either, I wanted to wear that, and I wanted to sound like that.”
It was these impressions that led Penn to pursue dance, as a dancer and choreographer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Teaching Fellow, before carrying those experiences through medical school and into her practice as an obesity and family medicine physician and on the faculty of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, through which she has assisted people in Parkland, Fla., as well as Kosovo and Ukraine.
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All of that started in her hometown of Red Bank, NJ
“Red Bank, New Jersey, is a town that is not unlike Buffalo. For, you see, we have a town that is divided by the railroad tracks, we have an East Side and a West Side. And depending on what side of those tracks that you live on, you have access to certain things and are denied access to other things,” Penn said Sunday in a speech at Unity of Buffalo on Delaware Avenue. “Part of my call to come here was a response to, ‘I’m just going home, it just feels like Red Bank. And why wouldn’t I show up here the same way I would show up in Red Bank?’ “
Penn has been in Buffalo for a week as part of Embracing Buffalo, a collaboration between the Western New York Peace Center and the University at Buffalo, among others. They’ve held workshops for first responders, survivors of the May 14 shootingand Black healers and leaders.
“We’re bringing the aspect of healing into the community using methods to show people they can tap into healing,” said Penn. “Through meditation, through prayer, through learning about nutrition and learning about moving the body, through having an opportunity to share and tell their stories; to have some agency over their life.”
“And also,” added Dr. Sabrina N’Diaye, a therapist and founder of the Heart Nest Center for Peace in Baltimore, “tapping into what’s available to the community for them. And tapping into the ancestors that had experiences that may not have been the same exact experience but the experience of loss, of separation, of tragedy, of murder, of death; all of these experiences have happened in the past. And so how do we guide people to be reminded of what they’re capable of transcending?”
Also at Unity was a large community-made mural. The mural – 10 feet of illustrations in tempera paint – is a menagerie of color and form, not unlike the community that created it. Regina Jackson, a founding member and alumnus of the Buffalo-based theater company Ujima Company, created a song from the mural.
“They asked each person, you know, what do you see? What do you feel?” said Jackson. “And I said, ‘From here, I see community.’ And then I said, ‘I see Unity in the Community.’ So the name of the mural design itself is ‘Unity in the Community,’ and I created a song around it, around what we did to bring it together.”