Alexandria Onuoha blends dance, psychology, and activism in her quest for equity

Alexandria Onuoha. Photo by Frantz Jr. Bernadotte.

Malden resident Alexandria Onuoha has a multifaceted approach toward her social justice work.  From psychology to dance to advocacy, Onuoha channels her passions into working for equity and equality in diverse ways for the local BIPOC community.

A PhD student in Applied Developmental Psychology at Suffolk University, Onuoha is the Director of Political Advocacy at Black Boston, a nonprofit community organization that fights to end racial inequities while uplifting the creativity and solidarity of the Black community of Greater Boston.

She is the founder of ACO Styles,  a business that aims to give advanced meaning to the complexities and excellence that comes with being Black, by centering Black women and girls through developmental science, dance, and fashion She is also a dancer; she performed at the Urban Media Arts studio for the virtual Juneteenth celebration last month.

“I’m really interested in how fashion and dancing come together to make sure that women and youth of color feel their best, as well as how these different art forms and counseling come together. How do [youth and women of color] want to feel about themselves? How do [they] want society to perceive [them]?” Onuoha said.

Onuoha grew up in the Somerville area, where she was raised as an only child by her single mother, who is originally from Jamaica. Many women in Onuoha’s family grew up with Afro-Caribbean dances like reggae and dancehall. She explains that dancing was a way to express themselves and “to foster community in a sense of togetherness.”

“Sometimes when it comes to emotion or trying to get a point across, you can’t always vocalize or verbalize those things. Sometimes, it’s an out-of-body experience,”  Onuoha said.

However, Onuoha never took any formal dance classes growing up. She also noticed that there weren’t a lot of professional dancers that looked like her,  not only in terms of race but also size.

 “The Eurocentric standard of beauty, especially in dance, is very detrimental to the development of other women who are thicker, as well as young girls of color,” Onuoha said.

After starting a dance team at her high school, Onuoha practiced and studied dance at Bates College, where she also pursued a degree in psychology. She brought different dance material to Bates College, which she describes as “very human and very pedestrian.” Rather than focusing on the physique, she focuses on “emotion, leaning into human experiences and channeling people in [her] family.”

Although Onuoha was not interested in modern dance, she realized that she could infuse modern dance and the Afro-Caribbean dance of her heritage, intertwine them together to create a dance material that is representative of a lot of girls of color.  

Onuoha is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Psychology at Suffolk University in the Youth Equity and Sexuality [SB5] Lab. The goal of the lab is to address white supremacy and promote the well-being of youth and youth of color. She says that one powerful aspect of developmental psychology is that “you’re able to understand experiences in order to cultivate solutions to optimize someone’s wellness, their emotional health, their social health, etc.”

Onuoha combines dance with psychology to “get at that development aspect to promote the well-being of young girls of color.” Conducting such workshops for young girls of color during her time at Bates College inspired her to create ACO Styles.

At Bates, Onuoha realized how much she could learn from young people, as “they have so much culture and so much knowledge about what needs to happen in the world.” Onuoha also realized the value of creating dance spaces for young girls of color, explaining how “When you create a dance space that is community-oriented, and you allow people not to just dance but to talk about their experiences, that’s transformative.”

Onuoha’s role as the Director of Political Advocacy at Black Boston involves ensuring that Black youth in Boston are politically engaged, holding elected officials in Massachusetts accountable, making legislative language more accessible, and raising awareness about often-neglected issues. As part of her role, she emails or writes letters to create collaborations with other organizations, and plans panels and events to get Black youth involved with social justice efforts.

Although Onuoha believes that the Greater Boston area, including Malden, is supportive of great social justice work, more needs to be done. Since Malden is so diverse and has a strong youth community, Onuoha says that the city “has an incredible opportunity to start youth initiatives. A lot of youth are ready to start not only having conversations but doing something about it. And on an educational and policy level, they want to see change.”

For youth who want social justice change in Malden, Onuoha advises them to start small by “getting a group of people who are passionate about the same thing, have those conversations, and figure out ways to spread their message further.” She points out that sometimes when advocating for social justice, you have to make people uncomfortable in order to get their attention. She says you can do this and build political power by “writing an op-ed, doing a sit-in at a protest, writing a letter and having multiple organizations sign on it.”

Onuoha is currently working on holding more workshops for young girls of color via ACO Styles. She aims to have these workshops focus on the mental health of Black girls, Afro-Caribbean dance, and activism. She also spoke at the screening and discussion of the documentary PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School on July 10 via Zoom. The event was hosted by the Malden Public Library, NAACP Mystic Valley, and the Network for Social Justice. She also co-hosted a virtual community discussion with Malden youth leader Billy Zhang about the 2021 local elections coming up this fall.

“Now it’s time for us to include everybody and have a community-informed approach about everything, and make sure that we are centering those at the margins,” Onuoha said.

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