Joyell Arvella is an advocate, connector, and founder of harp & sword, currently residing in Baltimore, Maryland. Joyell spent her life traveling in a military family, as well as her own travels, and knew she wanted to help and heal. Starting her career graduating from law school, Joyell quickly learned her journey was taking her on a different path. After working in education, the nonprofit sector, and traveling and working in over twelve countries, Joyell began harp & sword, a community for women and girls based upon using restorative justice to create equity for women and girls of color. As a womanist, Joyell believes in restorative justice within her practice and her work. We sat with Joyell on a Sunday afternoon in her favorite local vintage shop, Keeper’s Vintage, co-owned with Knits, Soy, and Metal and spoke about travel, equity, and a little bit of magic.
Tell us about your earlier life! Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Baltimore?
This is such a loaded question because I navigated many waters and airways to finally land in Baltimore. As a military brat, I moved every few years, spending a big chunk of my childhood in Germany and hoping through various southern and western states. After my father retired from the Army, my family moved to Maryland, but thanks to my Great-Aunt Shirley Wright, I was always encouraged to see as much of the world that I could. I lived in Egypt (without my family and friends) for an extended period of time. Then I decided to move to Boston for law school. After completing law school, I moved back to Europe to work at the UN Tribunal of Lebanon before returning to the United States and settling in Baltimore. Needless to say, it’s been a journey.
We love your concept behind Harp + Sword. Can you tell us more about what you do?
I finally understand the phrase “labor of love” because that is exactly what harp + sword is for me. After working in the nonprofit sector for a decade, I was tired of going through the motions and bringing other people’s visions to fruition. In 2017, I decided to finally listen to what the Universe has been pushing me to do since I was in law school – work for myself. With harp + sword, we are a small consulting firm that uses restorative justice principles to advance racial and gender equity. We offer personal coaching, consulting and trainings with institutions, universities, social impact businesses and organizations in Baltimore. We have expanded our services to organizations operating in Chicago, Brooklyn, and New Orleans.
harp + sword is committed to re-educating people to have stronger relationships with folx we may view different from us. We focus on anti-racism practices, intersectionality, restorative practices rooted in African cultures, and racial and gender equity.
What inspired you to work for justice and advancement of racial and gender equity?
Growing up, the only time I ever got sent to the principal’s office for fighting was when I was defending someone else, never myself. When I see maltreatment, injustice, or bigotry I have to say something. I cannot just sit in silence, oblivious to what is happening around me…even if that I means I have to be in the line of fire.
It wasn’t until I took my first African American Literature class with Dr. Alisha Knight (Washington College) that I understood how I could “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” do everything “right” and still lose. In her class, I was able to relate to writers who lived more than 100 years before me. That is sick. I should not be having almost identical experiences of marginalization that Ida B. Wells – Barnett and Zora Neale Hurston wrote about. I started to “wake up” in Dr. Knight’s class and have been dedicated to creating the life I want to live in ever since.
I will admit that sometimes I get discouraged because I wonder when will see real equity? At one point I questioned whether I wanted to have children – did I really want to worry about possibly burying them one day, or having many talks about how they need to walk through life more alert and aware than others simply because they have melanin in their skin? I have to push through that discouragement because I do not have the option to throw in the towel or quit. My livelihood depends on me working for racial and gender equity.
We love the Zora Neale Hurston quote from which you get your name from. What does it mean to you to have “a harp and a sword in my hands” in today’s social landscape?
Having a harp and sword means balancing harmony with justice. My harmony comes from my hope, joy, and a liberated mind. It also comes from surrounding myself with folx who pour into me, know how to make everything a laughing session, and do not live their lives from a place of inferiority inspite of what’s happening around us. It comes from loving all of Joyell, even the parts of me I do not understand. My justice is connected to my core beliefs in transparency, authenticity, and ubuntu.
Tell us about your herbal work! How can that be incorporated into Harp + Sword?
Yes! I come from a line of African women who secretly practiced root work and herbalism. In my spare time, I nurture herbal plants to make tinctures, healing bath cocktails, and tea blends for mental and spiritual wellness. Right now, I make them as people request them. I have not explored incorporating my herb and moon work into harp + sword officially, but I am not ruling it out!
Five years ago, I discovered that I am a healer by healing an ear ache from a young girl I use to mentor. I even use my healing practices on myself when I have insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, or just need to be grounded. It is my hope to continue the tradition of my ancestors to bring peace and light to the people who need it most.
How would you define success in your life?
My answer to this question has changed over the years because my priority for success has change. By many standards I am already a “success.” At one time, I viewed being the first in my family to graduate from law school as a success. Having achieved that goal I now define success in the words of Maya Angelou, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
For a long time, I did not like myself or what I was doing. Now that I have launched harp + sword, I can honestly say that I feel like I am my own success. I have not accomplished everything I want to do but I am loving who I am and what I am doing. I am living my life unapologetically. I am free.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned thus far? We know you advocate for having a tribe..can you explain that more?
So many lessons! The one that comes to mind is trust my intuition. I do not always know what is going to happen or where harp + sword’s next clients are coming from but I know my gut. My gut has never been steered me wrong. I used to let people put me in the background or define ME for myself instead of standing firm and listening to my intuition tell me the truth about a person or situation.
Having been taken advantage of and manipulated to fit a stereotypical role as a Strong Black Woman, I have learned to maintain a healthy inner circle of folx. I rely on my intuition to tell me who should be part of my inner circle and my intuition has not failed me yet. My inner circle is small but mighty. They care more about me as a person and less about what I can do for them. Having this type of tribe is rare. They are my home.
What drives you as an entrepreneur and connector?
I am driven by wanting to be the person I needed when I was younger. I am only in my 30s now but I am a true old soul. I could have benefited from working with someone who was a deep brown woman, being a boss by her own terms, and letting me know that I did not have to conform in order to have success.
Anything else you’d like to add? Any upcoming events?
Harp + sword now offers personal coaching for anyone looking to enhance their awareness and knowledge on racial and gender equity. I kicked myself for not offering this in the beginning. I was so focused on recruiting groups of institutions that I did not pay attention to the many people in my life who kept asking me to coach them one-on-one. We are offering one-on-one coaching that is custom designed to the person and a separate coaching session on overcoming imposter syndrome.
Learn more about harp & sword by visiting them at https://www.harpandsword.co/ or following them on Instagram @harpandswordco.
From Mother Muse Co. – We will be collaborating with Joyell in October for a very special event so keep an eye out for our announcement!
All images © Rachel King, 2018