For Denisha Seals, her lived experiences have defined her in many ways — filmmaker, author, poet, survivor. She uses each experience to advance a central message through Water2Spirit and her nonprofit The Jamii Project.
“When you think of water, it revives, it replenishes your body, your mind, your spirit. You can’t live without it,” she said. “Through Water2Spirit, I am essentially providing information. I am providing resources. I am providing lived experiences in workshops, films, and books for those in the marginalized community who are hurting.”
Seals’ story is a powerful one. Born and raised in Omaha until the age of 7, she was sexually abused by a family member from the age of 5 until age 9 at which time she entered foster care. After living in Minnesota for a time, she returned to Omaha as a teenager where her family settled in public housing. By the time she enrolled in Omaha Central High School, she’d experienced enough hardship in life to make it difficult to relate to people her age.
“I was in the foster care program and I felt that I was more mature than the youth around me,” she said. “They were more focused on shoes and clothes and I was more focused on where my next meal was coming from.”
The culmination of her experiences, as well as a strong spiritual connection, gave her an iron-clad sense of self and a clear vision of what she wanted her life to stand for. Anytime someone told her she couldn’t do something it was merely the prelude to her achieving it.
“I earned a full ride to UNO where I got my bachelor’s degree,” she said. “I also studied abroad twice simply because somebody told me that I couldn’t do it at all. You can’t tell me what to do; I’m going to do what I want to do, and nobody can tell me what I want to do. I guess that’s always been my attitude.”
Healing Through Art
Seals would eventually weave her life experiences into art. She released the documentary “No Longer Silent: Hear Our Voices Project” in 2019, bringing survivors’ stories to the screen in their own words. The film was selected for the 2020 International Black Film Festival and the 2021 Great Plains Film Festival.
She has also created a children’s book, “Butterflies in Me,” which focuses on mental health in children, particularly those in marginalized communities.
“Butterflies are a metaphor for children’s mental health,” she said. “A butterfly is strong, yet fragile; its wings are strong enough to fly but if you pull on them too hard, they will never fly again. That’s what I think of a child’s mental health. The mantra at the end of each story in the anthology is ‘You’re special, strong and you did nothing wrong.’”
Water2Spirit also took root. She leverages her experiences in workshops and presentations to help others handle the trauma of their past. In time, she discovered the benefit of therapy, through which she was finally diagnosed with PTSD, another resource she preaches to her audiences.
“In the African American, African, indigenous, and Latino communities therapy is such a taboo concept,” she said. “I try to engage people in discussions about it and how therapy is something that has assisted me in this journey.”
A Future Helping Others
The Jamii Project will carry that mission forward, specifically to young people, with after-school and summer programs. Seals looks forward to the good that she can do, while at the same time recognizing the good her work is doing for her.
“Most people, when they see the success I’ve had, they think my childhood didn’t affect me which is not true at all,” she said. “Honestly, I would say the work that I do is very cathartic; it’s part of my healing and I try to encourage the youth with it. Let them know that OK, this did happen to you or you’re frustrated about this but you can still be the change you want to see. It’s easy to complain about it and feel defeated but you have a right to be heard, so stand up for yourself.”