A nurturing and ever-evolving path

A year after graduation, BCHS alumna Monica Henderson reflects on her personal and professional journey.

When Monica Henderson addressed her fellow graduates as the student speaker at the 2022 Pitt Public Health Graduation ceremony, she encouraged her classmates to work towards optimum health by embracing collective care. She urged them to always remember their humanity in their work as researchers and practitioners and to define success in their own ways. There is more than one path forward, she said. 

Henderson is still living this advice a year later as her own path continues to evolve. Specifically focused on balancing the demands of change-making work, she is the program and outreach coordinator for the Race and Youth Development Research Group (RaYDR) in the Center for Race and Social Problems, part of Pitt’s School of Social Work. Henderson was a research assistant with the group while pursuing her MPH, and was hired full-time after graduation. 

Today, Henderson coordinates RaYDR’s three main programs, Parenting While Black, The Just Discipline Project, and DREAMS. “We do a lot, we care a lot, and we give a lot,” she explains. 

She still strives to focus on herself as a human first, amidst work that is both rewarding and challenging. “When I wake up, I'm Monica. I go to work, I’m Monica, and when I come home, I’m Monica. I’ve learned that I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t always work for a better world,” She explains. Henderson remains present by staying cognizant of not only what parts of herself she’s giving, but when she has the energy to give them. She’s learning to trust that what she’s doing in the moment is enough. 

As a young, Black woman, Henderson is accustomed to operating in racist and capitalistic systems and spaces where physical and mental well-being aren’t always prioritized, so she makes sure to prioritize her well-being. She constantly reevaluates what she needs, whether it’s in the way of learning, crafting her professional image, or maintaining a good balance between her personal and professional lives. She asks herself, “How can I become more confident in my experiences and my knowledge? And how can that impact the spaces I’m in?” And, perhaps most importantly, “What do I need to keep going and do the work?”

“When I think about what we want success to look like in our programs, what we want for these families and for these children, I know that 20 and 40 years down the line, I want to still be Monica with the same drive and not be depleted,” she adds. 

To do so, Henderson looks for a balance between her work and personal life. “Sometimes, I have to clap back or break ceilings, but I also know that I don’t want to be exceptional or to be 100% all the time. I don’t want to lose who I am through doing the work,” she says.  

Henderson is passionate about her work and appreciates that her days change significantly based on the progression of the varied programs. When asked, it’s easy for her to name the best part of what she does: the kids. 

“I’m rewarded constantly by the little moments: their smiles, their looks when they’ve mastered something, or just the joy of being kids, whether that’s excitement over a snack or that it’s snowing outside,” she says. “Our children are doing so much and they're expected to come into the world and unfairly deal with problems that they didn't create. It's our job to be there for them.”

If Henderson were giving that graduation speech today, she’d add one thing: Change-making work is hard and change-makers have to take care of themselves in order to be a part of the optimum health of the populations they’re serving. For any change maker at any stage of life, it’s about finding balance so that you can keep doing the work, she says.

“Resistance means that our existence is doing something and that’s enough,” she adds.  “We're planting seeds. We are creating ideas. We are investing in lives. We are changing the next generation.”  But, she says, it’s also about taking care of ourselves so that we can show up and keep doing the work. “It’s going to get tiring. But, don’t worry, we have the younger generation behind us. They are here to help us too.” 

She will nurture them in the meantime. 

 - Caitlin McCullough