Grantee Partner Spotlight: The RealiTea ProjecT

The Realitea Project Juneteenth Celebration kids painting 2024

By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 7 minutes
February 19, 2024

Founded in 2020, The RealiTea ProjecT, based in Toledo, Illinois (Cumberland County) was created to discuss the reality of racial equity and racial injustice, to stimulate righteous actions, and to transform communities. Services offered by RealiTea include community referrals, public speaking engagements, and cultural humility education. RealiTea was instrumental in renaming the Powell-Norton Hall at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) to honor Zella Powell and Ona Norton. Zella Powell is believed to be EIU's first Black graduate, earning a degree from Eastern State Normal School in 1910. Ona Norton was the matriarch of a cherished Black family in Charleston, Illinois in the 1950s at a time when it was difficult for students of color to find off-campus housing in Charleston.

The RealiTea Project received an Illinois Humanities General Operating Grant to support their work and assist with administrative costs. 

Read more about The RealiTea ProjecT and its work in the following Q&A.

A Q&A with Taneya Higginbotham

Co-Founder, President, and CEO of The RealiTea ProjecT

The RealiTea ProjecT is an intriguing name. What is its origin?

It comes from a place of frustration, being frustrated with racial trauma, microaggressions in the workplace, and disconnect in my community. 

I felt like I was living and showing up in multiple realities and no one was talking about it. 

I wanted people to hear my reality of being fearful of my husband’s safety when out to get gas. Or my brothers’ hopelessness of success as a Black man in America. 

The ‘tea’ was getting to the gist, the heart of the matter. I didn’t just want to talk or ramble on or vent – though that is helpful, sometimes. 

I wanted to be able to talk, and to listen, to help educate, and also to help affirm others. To let them know they are not alone and that is where the reali-tea comes from.

The Realitea Project Taneya Higginbotham full photo 2024

Taneya Higginbotham

You mention the idea of cultural humility education. What is meant by this term?

It is something I’ve evolved, in working through The RealiTea ProjecT. DEI (or diversity, equity, and inclusion) is something that has resurfaced; its little brother is cultural competency. But cultural humility was created by two physicians, Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia and Dr. Melanie Tervalon, with the understanding that we have to acknowledge that we are not the experts of others’ lives, or of their experiences. So, in order to learn to have connections with others, we have to be confident in our own cultural identity, but also to learn from you. And what I might consider the most important thing might not be the most important thing. And it gets into challenging power imbalances and relationships – you must take a posture of humility and lifelong learning – and that’s one thing I love about the ‘RealiTea’ - I listen to and tell stories. We’re humbled by the experiences. 

You also mention ‘healing heart wounds.’ What do you mean by this?

One thing I truly believe is that true transformation starts with our thought process and then it comes and transforms in our hearts. So, when we have our hearts transformed is where there is true change. You can go to workshops – but if your heart is not invested in it, you won’t see lasting effect. So the heart is something we develop in The RealiTea ProjecT. When dealing with people, with trauma, you have to acknowledge that, and be healed from it. Sometimes we are the offended, and sometimes we are the offender, and then need empathy, and compassion. We are people, after all, not statistics or objects – we are still people. You need accountability, which is sometimes the hardest part. And have to keep it real. It is very important to keep it real. We see real stories being heard – it’s not about venting or complaining – it’s about sharing what I live. This is what I experience, what my children – and our teachers, and our police officers, and my husband, spouse, partner experience. We’re not the experts of other people’s lives. And you need transformation. And that is a combination, of everything together. You don’t want to just have a brief moment of understanding. You want long-lasting transformation, and that starts in the heart, from the inside out.  

The Realitea Project TH MCI Academy Keynote 2024

Taneya Higginbotham delivers the keynote address for the Municipal Clerks of Illinois Institute and Academy at Eastern Illinois University.

The Realitea Project Habitat for Humanity 2024
What are some of the biggest challenges in carrying out the work you do? 

At RealiTea, we have provided services all over Illinois. We’ve been in Dekalb, Macomb, Coles County, and various other places. One common struggle I’ve seen boils down to an unwillingness to address realities. We get so caught up with doing what we are doing and living everyday life – you cut off someone in mid-sentence, and you’re hiring people who are the same as you, or you’re having condescending conversations that people are supposed to ignore, due to pay grade. So microaggressions occur that are not addressed, and there is a disconnect. Some people don’t know how to change what they don’t know or refuse to see. And that can be very challenging. 

What gives you hope?

Even though there is a lack of understanding, or even desire to understand or see different perspectives, there are so many people who do want to care and to grow and are acknowledging that there are different realities for people who do not look like them and are actually willing to put in the work and go to racial healing seminars. We’ve partnered with SACIS, a sexual assault agency that serves numerous counties in central Illinois. They invited us to come in, saying we recognize that there are injustices and harmful things taking place because of a lack of knowledge and understanding, and we don’t want to be there. They said we want to make sure that everyone - staff, leadership, volunteers, and clients feel safe, and we cannot do that unless we put in the work and the time to grow. That commitment gives me hope.

But my favorite and most motivating thing that keeps me doing what I do is the impact and encouragement I impart to others. Every time I have provided a training, spoken word, or keynote presentation, 

I have had people of all ages, professions, and ethnicities approach me with tears, hugs, and feelings of empowerment to do what is right. That is a true transformation that starts in the heart.

Taneya Higginbotham's Suggested Readings:
The Realitea Project Juneteenth al and taneya 2024

The RealiTea ProjecT CFO and Co-Founder Albert Higginbotham and Taneya Higginbotham (Co-Founder, President, and CEO) address the crowd during the annual Juneteenth Celebration

The Realitea Project Juneteenth Celebration kids painting 2024

Kids painting during RealiTea's annual Juneteenth Celebration. Paintings in the background are from various artists including Antonio "Toni Picasso" Burton.

About The RealiTea ProjecT, Inc.

The RealiTea Project, Inc. (TRP) was established in October 2020 in response to the need to communicate racial injustice and racial equity disparities within Coles County and surrounding communities. 

TRP is unique in that the founders and boots-on-the-ground volunteers have been a part of the community served for over twenty years. Its leadership brings perspectives as Black/African American employees, parents, and church leaders who have established years of positive community connections and networking relationships. 

TRP services provided are not "one-size fits all," acknowledging the diverse needs of the community served to make the most significant impact, which creates space for evolution and relevancy. TRP can focus on healing heart wounds and building genuine relationships through community and conversation.

The Reali Tea Project logo Best

The RealiTea Project's work is centered around two programs: Cultural Humility/DEI Education and the Annual Juneteenth Celebration. TRP's educational framework is delivered through social media, interviews, workshops, support groups, facilitated discussions, mentorship, public speaking, and various community engagement and support. 

The Juneteenth Celebration is a free and public event recognizing the end of the physical slavery of African Americans in the U.S. Activities include historical education and cultural interpretation through arts, food, and music. The celebration also provides an opportunity to support Black-owned businesses.

Follow @theRealiteaProject on Facebook

About the Grantee Partner Spotlight Series

Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Grants partners through our monthly Grantee Partner Spotlight. It shines a light on our grantee partners' work and allows readers to get to know them better through a Q&A with members of the organization. Read more by browsing the "Grantee Partner Spotlight" series here.