“I am more than my scars and bruises. More than my sad stories and abusers. I am this heart. Whatever that may be. I am this love. If that means anything at all. I am all of me.” Imani McGee-Stafford

Photo credits: Aaron Encalade

BTCF: Growing up in a family of basketball players, can you share a little bit about that and how it influenced your life?

IMANI: I’ve been around basketball since before I can remember. There are literally pictures of me as a baby with a ball or at a game.

BTCF: As someone who has many artistic interests, how has art made an impact on your life?

IMANI: Art is air. I appreciate how it connects strangers on the basis of human condition, how I can walk in a room and understand someone based on our shared sense of vulnerability.

BTCF: How and why did you make the decision to play basketball and not pursue the arts?

IMANI: Honestly, it was just a realistic decision. My freshman year of high school I’d made the lead in the school play and varsity basketball and I couldn’t do both. At that point I was a 6’5” 13-year-old so it just made sense to pick sports.

BTCF: You have been very open about your own personal story and shared that depression is one thing that athletes deal with, and it can have a huge impact on their lives. In your experience, are more and more athletes getting the help they need or is it something that does not get the attention or support needed?

IMANI: Definitely still A LOT of work left to do. We have to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness. Couple that with the “tough it out” mentality instilled in athletes and the idea that they have a better or privileged life, and it is often hard for athletes to honestly take inventory of their mental health.

BTCF: You are a published poet! At what age did you start writing poetry? If you could describe your poetry in 5 words, what would they be?

IMANI: I started writing poetry at 12 after a segment in 7th grade English about Tupac’s poetry and reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Up until that point, I had written music – original songs. The idea that Anne Frank’s voice was relevant, a little girl, really stood with me. My poetry is honest, sometimes painful, sometimes hopeful, but most important mine – my voice.

BTCF: What inspired you to write your poetry book Notes in The Key of Heartbreak”?  What process did it take for you?

IMANI: I wrote that book after my divorce from my college sweetheart. I’d had enough work to publish a book for a while, but nothing felt important enough. My marriage and the subsequent demise of it felt important. I wanted to prove it was real. That however misguided, young, and dumb we may have been – the love was real. It happened.

BTCF: BTCF uses art as the process to unmask the stigma of individuals affected by eating disorders & negative body image as a vehicle for healing and a bridge to recovery.  As a poet, can you relate to that and how has your poetry aided your healing?

IMANI: Poetry helped me find my voice when I didn’t know I had one or that my story was important and needed to be told, out loud. Poetry has always been a safe space for me.

BTCF: Are there some other artistic ways you express yourself?  If so, what are they?

IMANI: I love to sing, by myself though lol.

BTCF: Sometimes those who have experienced trauma stay in a mindset of the trauma defining who they are as a person.  How important is it to you to not have your trauma define you and why?

IMANI: Very important. It took a very long time and a lot of work to not find comfort in chaos. Living and surviving aren’t the same but when you are constantly use to being in survival mode it’s easy to not understand the difference.

BTCF: You have stated “I found my purpose through my pain”.  How did you come to that acknowledgment for yourself and what does that mean to you?

IMANI: I do not subscribe to the idea that you must go through darkness and pain to ultimately become better or find yourself – however, some of us do. I was that person. I wouldn’t be so passionate about the things I am if I didn’t have these experiences. I am so passionate about mental health and ending sexual violence because these things directly affected me. I just realized why I’m still here.

BTCF: What does the name Imani mean?  What does it mean to you?

IMANI: Imani means “faith” in Swahili. I always tell people that my mother must have known what this life had in store for me. I have needed faith every step of my life. I haven’t always had it or been hopeful but these days faith is all I have. I am spiritual or religious, whatever you’d call it and my faith plays a large part of my life and what I believe my purpose to be on this Earth.

BTCF: Can you explain what you meant by “we see everyone’s amazing moments in social media”? What is your goal(s) or intention(s) when you post on social media?

IMANI: Social media is a highlight reel. Even for people who try to show more authentic sides of themselves the images and moments shared are still curated. So understanding that comparison is the thief of joy has to be the basis of social media intake. I share on social media to give people a glimpse into my life.

BTCF: There is still a stigma that surrounds mental illness?  Why do you think that is?  What is a positive message you can send out to others who experience this stigma and the negative impact it has on their lives?  How do you cope today?

IMANI: It’s important to acknowledge that we may not all have mental illnesses, but we all have mental health. The more we share our experiences and allow people to not be okay the further we will go in destigmatizing mental health.

BTCF: It’s a very wonderful thing that you use your platform to talk about mental illness and sexual abuse to aide others in their healing journey.  Was there ever a time you thought you were the only one?  How did you take steps to come out from the darkness and not suffer in isolation?

IMANI: Growing up, I definitely felt like the black sheep and that my story was mine and mine only. The first time I shared my story (via poem), a friend of mine’s mother came up to me crying, saying I had just told her story, the same story she had never told anyone. That moment allowed me to realize that my story was more common that not and that my voice was not only powerful but needed.

BTCF: There are many athletes who have eating disorders. As a professional athlete for WNBA, how important is it for you to take care of your body and what does that mean to you?

IMANI: My body is my job. But there isn’t one specific body type that makes a great athlete or WNBA player. Understanding that health doesn’t have a look and instead is just the best you.

BTCF: How important is it for young athletes also to engage in their education?

IMANI: Sports are a vehicle. Eventually you have to get out and the question will always be did you make the most of the ride.

BTCF: What inspired you to study law?  What kind of lawyer do you want to be?  Goals?

IMANI: I want to make tangible change. I felt like law school was the best way to put action behind the things I say and believe in.