Her colleagues at the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute (IAHI) call Shonda Nicole Gladden by her first name. But off-campus, things are different. “Most people call me Reverend Gladden,” she says.
Shonda Gladden’s PhD research on Black Trans lives will inform the online symposium titled “The Soul of Black Folx” that will take place March 31, the International Transgender Day of Visibility.
“The SOUL of Black Folx Project,” according to the event press release, “seeks to provide a platform for students, staff, and community members to be educated, empowered and inspired to act to create just and equitable spaces for Black trans lives to flourish.”
One of those who will participate in the seminar alongside Gladden will be Kelli Morgan, associate curator of American art at Newfields.
Rev. Gladden, who is currently pursuing a PhD in American studies through the Cultural Ecologies track at IAHI, has served the African Methodist Episcopal church in various support and leadership capacities for more than 27 years.
With one foot in the clergy and one foot in academia, she is in an ideal position to serve as a mediator between academia and the wider Indianapolis community.
Rev. Gladden is working under the auspices of the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute (IAHI) to make inroads into Indianapolis communities through its interdisciplinary research program — called the Anthropocene Household Project— led by IAHI director Jason Kelly. It’s part of the Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenges Initiative at Indiana University.
What is the Anthropocene Household Project? The term “Anthropocene” comes from the idea that human beings have changed their environment so profoundly that the current geologic era should be named after it. The “household” part of the term refers to the fact that everything that happens in our individual living spaces matters, in other words. It matters in terms of our own health and the health of the planet.
One of its goals is to help individual households become more aware of their exposure to lead contamination.
Gladden comes to the project with a ground-level view of the problem of lead contamination. “I’ve recognized that there are serious health concerns that are present when there are elevated lead levels in communities, particularly as it pertains to ways that children become attention deficient and ways that the vulnerable population of elders can find their bones being deteriorated,” Gladden says. “As a clergywoman and a pastor, that is concerning to me. I feel called by the God of the universe to address that. This project gives me an opportunity to be part of that solution.”
She is doing that with help from her staff at Good to the Soul, LLC, a consulting firm for faith-based organizations, that she started in 2016. In cooperation with the Anthropocene Household Project, Good to the Soul is serving as community academic liaison — a subcontractor to the Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) at IUPUI.
Through this project, Good to the Soul, CTSI, and the Ministerium will assist the Anthropocene Household Project in collecting water, dust, and soil samples from concerned community-members. Through this project, both academics at IUPUI and individual householders in affected communities will have a better understanding about the extent of lead contamination.
One of Good to Soul’s roles is to organize community health information sessions, like the Community Health Forum that took place at Flanner House on Feb. 29. During this meeting, Indianapolis residents were invited to discuss their health concerns. They also learned about the Anthropocene Household Project, and about the process of sample collection, from IAHI director Jason Kelly. David Craig, chairman of the IUPUI religious studies department, also spoke on the topic of addressing healthcare outcomes in Indianapolis, a city where there are significant healthcare disparities. He mentioned a recent healthcare study “that found there is a 14-year gap in life expectancy from the top of the Monon to Downtown.”
Rev. Gladden began that forum with a prayer, invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also acknowledging those of other faith traditions involved in the project.
“I know God that you are so big and so mighty and so wonderful that you’ve had partners in this journey that may not even look like our Christian Protestant tradition,” she told those gathered at the forum. “So we invite you to use those agents of the universe that you have called from time past to time now that together we may feel the essence that is good to move through this space, as always you can, that the activities and the agenda that we have set forth will come to pass.”
Gladden has been in ministry since 1994. “I responded to the call from the God of the universe to do something with my life that was ordained,” she said about her choosing ministry as both her career and calling. Good to the Soul is housed at Crossroads AME church where she is a clergywoman. Her joining AME Crossroads might be seen as somewhat prophetic, as she is at the crossroads of so many different endeavors.
“I pastor people, I meet with people, I marry, I bury, I commune,” she says. “So there’s so many intersections. I run my company, my small business, I have a nonprofit … I’m an artist, I sing but before all of that. I’m a parent. So, yeah, I wear a bunch of hats.”
Her lens of a parent gives her a clear view of the problem of social equity on display in the poorer neighborhoods of Indianapolis where resources and services, such as high speed internet, are lacking.
Gladden sees the problem play out when she volunteers at her daughter’s school. “There are students who are supposed to be doing work online,” she says. “I sat with a student for an hour to do this work. Within an hour timeframe they had 10 minutes of consistent internet activity. The other 50 minutes, the internet connectivity kept shutting off; the connection wasn’t consistent, they would get logged out of the platform they were supposed to work on.”
And that was with Rev. Gladden just proctoring at the school for an hour.
“Imagine this is happening for eight hours a day,” she says. “Imagine the classroom management that is possible when teachers are having to readjust with students that they’ve assigned to do things on devices, saying “Ms. So and So, my computer, my computer.” And there’s 30, of those children at least doing this over the course of eight hours, it’s almost impossible for learning to happen.”
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic makes such disparities stemming from social inequity exponentially worse. Effective learning from home — for school students sheltering in place — requires a high speed internet connection which many families can’t afford.
“There’s so many intersecting variables that really just break my heart when I think about this coronavirus outbreak,” she says. “Because disproportionately poor black and brown people will be impacted and are being impacted.”