Five questions with Chris Omni, the ‘Health Hippie’ earning a Ph.D. in Art Education

Chris Omni, doctoral student in the College of Fine Arts’ Department of Art Education.

Chris Omni is a published author, documentary filmmaker, international presenter, community mobilizer and self-proclaimed eco-spiritualist. She’s also a doctoral student in the College of Fine Arts’ Department of Art Education.

Affectionately known as the “Health Hippie” because of her 20-plus years in community health mobilization, Omni credits her current path to divine alignment, timing and opportunity.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in human services and a master’s degree in liberal arts from Washburn University, plus a master’s in public health from Kansas State University.

But she never saw herself getting a doctorate in art education. Then she discovered FSU’s Art Education website and Dr. Jeff Broome, an associate professor and the director of doctoral programming for FSU’s Department of Art Education.

“His research interest in narrative inquiry created an instant buzz in my soul,” Omni said. “After our first conversation, the idea of pursuing a degree that would allow me to use my natural gifts and talents made me feel like this was the path I needed to be on.”

She also reflected on a professional development workshop she attended after acceptance into another FSU doctoral program, before her interest in a doctorate in art education. It was taught by Antonio Cuyler, associate professor of Art Education in the College of Fine Arts. He’s internationally recognized for his expertise on internships in arts management, plus for his work on access, diversity, equity, inclusion and creative justice issues in the cultural sector.

“As a Black woman on a predominantly white campus, it was refreshing to see someone, Dr. Cuyler, who looked like me,” Omni said. “I found a course he was teaching and asked for more information; sadly, he was going to be on sabbatical and someone else would be teaching the class. When I searched the name of the other professor, I saw that she, too, was Black. Two Black people in the same department at the graduate level! I needed to know more about this Art Education Department.”

Omni’s research focuses on “Black Joy in Green Spaces” through auto-ethnography, narrative inquiry, photo-elicitation and nomadic inquiry. Her thesis Blacktivating Joy: An Arts-based, Digital Storytelling Adventure of Black Womxn and Joy won first place in Florida State’s 2021 Three Minute Thesis (3M) competition, in which doctoral students had three minutes to present a compelling oration on their dissertation topic and its significance. Her thesis earned runner-up in the statewide Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Additionally, in April, Omni also was+ one of seven speakers to present during the annual TEDxFSU conference. Her talk “Granny’s Garden: Growing Black Joy” guided listeners to a space where “Black Joy” is cultivated and cherished.

What inspired you to earn a Ph.D. in art education?

After my first conversation with Dr. Broome, he arranged a Zoom call with the Department of Art Education’s Chair, Sara Scott Shields, and the rest was history.

Dr. Shields invited me to attend the Department of Art Education’s orientation, even though I wasn’t even a student in their department; I was simply enrolled in a couple of their classes. In her opening comments, Dr. Shields said, “Welcome to the Art Education family.” This welcome, coupled with the previous divine situations, cemented my decision to change degrees; I was home!

How do you, as a “health hippie,” see health and art interact?

When it comes to the interaction of health and art, look at what happens when you blend the words. By blending, you can creatively arrive at the word heart. As an eco-spiritualist who works with chakras, this is poetic when you consider the heart chakra mantra: “My heart is open to receive the energy of love. I radiate this essence. I walk my path with ease and grace.” There is a special art to walking with an open heart, and there’s an equally special art to walking one’s path with ease and grace.

When I tell people that I’m working on a Ph.D. in art education, they instantly think that I’m a sculptor, painter, dancer, performer or some other form of artist. Rarely do they consider the art of joyful living or the art of listening. My approach to health is holistic, and my approach to art is rooted in eco-mindfulness and self-/collective restoration. Combined, I create an onto-epistemological praxis that encourages healing in/with/through nature.

What are the implications of your thesis?

My former research focused on health disparities that disproportionately impacted Black women while focusing on solutions like physical activity. However, the more I looked at the research that focused on Black people, the more upset I became. A significant amount of research is filtered through a deficit lens, and my work changes that narrative. This degree in art education provides a space and opportunity to focus on what’s right with Black people with an emphasis on Black women.

My research question is: “What can we, Black women, learn from being (together)…in nature?” Through the methodologies of narrative inquiry, auto ethnography, photo-elicitation and nomadic inquiry, I have reached a point in my research where I am now able to theorize Black Joy and provide a seven-pillar poetic summary.

So…what is Black Joy?

Black Joy is a statement.

Black Joy is a stride.

Black Joy is permission.

Black Joy is pride.

Black Joy is a form of resistance.

Black Joy is a form of rest.

Black Joy is anything you need it to be…

… because truly Black Joy is the best!

What are your plans/aspirations once you complete your doctoral studies? 

I want to travel and spread Black Joy! I am currently developing a #BlacktivateJoy tour that will visit various universities around the United States. Each experience will offer TED Talk-style presentations that are mirrored off my TEDxFSU and TEDxKU Talks. (www.MotherEarthAcademy.me/pathways and Www.TEDxFSU.com.)

Additionally, the experiences will consist of healing spaces exclusively for Black women and eco-mindfulness outings to be facilitated by a team of Black artists. When I complete my doctoral studies, I will move this vision to action and proudly share the message of Black Joy. My plan is to #BlacktivateJoy by activating new narratives about what is right with Black people rather than perpetuate that typical deficit narrative.

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For more information about Omni and her work, visit her website motherearthacademy.me or follow her on Instagram at @motherearthacademy.

Anita Shire

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