Leesa Renee Hall is inquisitive. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that when she launched a community called Inner Field Trip, its main focus was helping people question their long-held beliefs and biases. “What was your earliest memory around skin color?” and “Who holds power in the country you live in?”, are writing prompts Leesa provides to her patrons while encouraging her community to explore their unconscious understanding of identity in a way that motivates quiet reflection on white fragility and privilege.
Leesa first discovered the power of questions as an act of self-defense. While playing organ at her childhood church at the age of 17 years old, Leesa weathered the criticisms of a man from the congregation, who would pick apart her performance week after week. That is, until she diffused the situation with a simple question: “Can you show me what to do so I can play the organ better?”, which caused the man to stop criticizing her and never bother her again.
Since then, she’s used what she calls ‘the art of curious inquiry’ (i.e. the ability to affect change with meaningful questions) as a constant well of inspiration, whether that’s to help tell the important stories and truths about the structures around her, or to fuel her own process of self-discovery through creative writing.
This was the impulse behind a practice she started in January of 2017, where she’d wake up every morning before 5 a.m. to write. Initially, she used the time to work on a piece of historical fiction, but after a few months, the exercise became a lot more self-reflective. She started writing about some of the personal and professional setbacks she’d had in her life, and once she was done, she realized that she felt a lot better.
“I remember feeling refreshed after dumping my feelings out of my head and onto the screen,” writes Leesa on her website.
She continued to write this way, using curious inquiry to create prompts that she could use to fuel her reflective writing practice. But the exercise took on a much bigger purpose when one day, she offered to share her prompts with a colleague who was having a frustrating conversation about identity with a man on Facebook. The exchange inspired her to share those writing prompts on her blog:
“Name an early experience when a person of color made you feel uneasy,” Leesa wrote in a prompt from the post. “Why was that? What made them threatening? What was your response? If they were not threatening, how would you describe them? How does that early experience shape how you interact with people of color today?”
After sharing nine prompts in total, she then urged her readers to choose the questions that resonated with them the most, and to write expressively on the topics for 30 minutes. “Do not edit or censor yourself. Just write, without stopping, for half an hour,” writes Leesa in the post.
After publishing the blog post, going to dinner, and running a few errands, she found that it had been shared 1,000 times. After the blog post hit the 10,000 shares mark, Leesa got another surprise: she started getting donations from her readers.
“They were like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is such a gift. Can you give me your PayPal link, so I can send you some money?’ And I was just like, ‘Uh, what's going on here?’” Leesa recalls with a laugh.
In three weeks, she received around $1,500 in donations. At first, the outpouring of support confused her, but she had an ‘aha’ moment after a conversation with that same colleague (who also had a community on Patreon). Seeing that her work was resonating with people made her realize that she could use Patreon to amplify her efforts and create a community for people who were just as interested in unpacking their unconscious biases as she was.
Three years later, that seed of an idea has sprouted into Inner Field Trip, a full-fledged membership community. Using a combination of guided prompts and stream-of-consciousness writing, she’s created a space for gentle and highly sensitive personalities to explore their unconscious and implicit biases.
While she’s been curating conversations and educational resources for years on Patreon, her online communities started growing rapidly with the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests at the end of May: “I started seeing hundreds and hundreds of notifications coming through,” says Leesa.
Eventually, those hundreds of notifications became thousands. In six weeks, her Instagram following grew from 14,000 to 36,000, and her Patreon community went from 450 patrons to more than 2,000.
The growth was exciting, but Leesa found it overwhelming as well. Almost overnight, she had to figure out how to respond and engage with this new audience, which was growing every day. Also, though she understood why the Black Lives Matter protests had caused thousands of people to flock to her communities with such urgency, she hoped that this wake-up call would encourage people to engage in anti-racism work for the long haul.
“When something like this happens, and people wake up...they do so many actions to make people see that they're one of the good ones and they end up making a lot of mistakes and then the burnout happens,” explains Leesa. “I had to remind myself not to get caught up in the hype and not to fall into the trap of urgency.”
She continues: “I had done so much work in 2017 to use reflective writing to deconstruct and decolonize and interrogate the narrative that I've been led to believe about my gender and my race. If I allowed this excitement to change me, then I would have unraveled all that work. And then how can I stand in authenticity in front of my patrons?”
While Leesa is excited by the sudden growth of her Patreon, she’s learning to adapt her approach to community management amidst a global pandemic and massive social unrest. To help her stay grounded and to manage her own stress, she’s leaning again on her own practice of reflective, stream-of-consciousness writing. And, to engage more with her growing community, she’s setting up a Discourse, and working on a physical book of writing prompts, all with the intention of showing the world that there’s more than one way to engage in social justice movements.
“Not everyone can go to marches, attend sit-ins, or engage in protests. Some aren't able to do so due to a disability. Others are not able to do so due to distance,” writes Leesa on her Patreon page.
While Leesa’s work is inspirational to her community, that exchange goes both ways. By engaging with her prompts and participating in online discussions, Leesa’s patrons are a source of inspiration and encouragement, fueling not only her creative process but also her spirit.
“[My patrons] honor my labor, my intellectual labor, my spiritual labor. There's an appreciation for the body of work I bring to the table and for me, it helps me honor my ancestors because they could not make the choice that I've made,” says Leesa.