We have a journey to take and little time; we have ships to name and crews
– Henry Dumas
I was reminded of this quote, which I first encountered in the late 1970s, as I was digging into the FreedomNet archives and noting the prominent role of arts as a medium for deep healing and collective action in the midst of personal and social trauma. The original poem was written by Henry Dumas, who had been a prominent voice in the Black Power and Black Arts movements when he was gunned down in 1968 by a New York City transit policeman in a case of “mistaken identity.” [NOTE: It appears the source collection, Knees of a Natural Man has fallen out of print, I can email the full poem on request.]
I wanted to insert this reflection into the overall flow because a focus on the arts and liberation is sure to resurface in essentially every article I write about working in Rainier Beach, and the quote above offered an explicit grounding in the historic development of Black Lives Matter. And because I have also begun to appreciate the vital role of citizen journalism, particularly as explored by SE Seattle FreedomNet, in directly participating in and documenting these liberating moments of artistic expression, thereby preserving them in the common memory of the community. We live in times in which the “power of the press” is literally in the hands of the people, and people, as individuals and communities, now more than ever before, can and will select and narrate the events that constitute their own history.
In this context, one central event stands out most clearly as an example of the arts offering a moment of collective healing and opening a vision for action: The Gathering in 2014, with its explicit declaration, “Story sparks action.” This event actually represented the second “act” or centerpiece of a three “act” series of community engagement activities entitled, Breaking the Pane, which had been organized in response to rising community concern over public safety. In the first “act,” local residents and stakeholders met on location in five areas identified as “crime hot spots” and drew their concerns and visions on transparent tiles. These tiles were then assembled into a mosaic wall for reflection and conversation at The Gathering, held at South Shore K-8 School at Rainier and Henderson, the heart of Rainier Beach.
The Gathering then provided a community-wide celebration under the theme, “These are Our Stories,” centered on a particularly powerful multi-dimensional performance (starting at about the two-minute mark of the extended video) weaving instrumental music, spoken word, interpretive dance, and a painting. The event then closed with a workshop to identify one key activity (out of a brainstorm of 80 ideas) that could be implemented across all five hot spots within the next 28 days. The third “act” was the actual implementation of the selected strategy, “Corner Greeter” events, which called for neighborhood stakeholders to “occupy” each of the five hotspots with welcoming activities and information sharing.
This series of events seamlessly engaged the community in artistic expression at every step, generating a deeper appreciation for the creativity and dedication of local stakeholders, particularly youth and young adults, and set the stage for the sponsors of the event along with interested participants to follow through with organizing and attracting the funding for further strengthening relationships among neighbors and businesses as a pivotal quality of life factor. As a result, the Corner Greeter strategy was picked up by RBAC and extended to the present day, with suitable adaptations over time, as part of a larger coalition called Rainier Beach: A Beautiful, Safe Place for Youth (RB ABSPY). And I believe the energy generated by this event opened the way for the continuing emergence of other community-driven initiatives in, for example, community beautification and restorative justice.
As just one practical extension, the Corner Greeter program was formally launched in 2017 through the partnership with yet another organization, FAST (Fathers and Sons Together), leading a community march that stopped to “bless” each “crime hot spot” as a confirmation of a shared community commitment. Among other outcomes, the crime rate was subsequently reduced.
So I’m going to go out on a limb, as a “child of the ‘60s” with memories of the lives lost and the cost of victories won and subsequently eroded, that local communities are in fact rising anew. We are seeing before us the “ships,” in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and can identify by name the “crews” who have embarked on a new journey. And they are creating the symbols, rituals, and narratives to sustain them and those who join them on the way.
SPECIAL NOTE: In memory of Elijah Lewis, whose life and genius, like Henry Dumas, was cut short by gunfire, I’m providing these links to vital work he began in weaving the arts and culture into the heart of community building: The Ethereal Vision and The Covenant