RELIGION, YOUTH & EDUCATION
REV. AL SHARPTON
"This pandemic is showing us the structural problems and inequalities in our society.”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating the Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights leader and political commentator, who has fed people at the National Action Network (NAN) headquarters, has persuaded Black church congregations to stay home, and worked to get protections for medical workers. He has also led protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.
The outbreak of the coronavirus and renewed calls for racial justice have called for extraordinary response. But for the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network, taking action to help calm the community and to address urgent needs is anything but unprecedented.
NAN joined forces with World Central Kitchen, founded by chef Jose Andres to provide disaster relief in the midst of global emergencies. NAN transformed its sites in Harlem and Newark into community kitchens to serve seniors and those in need. “With the traditional safety nets like school feeding programs, childcare services, and senior centers closing, many in our communities will not be able to provide for their families,” he said. “In times of stress and struggle, we all need to support one another.”
Sharpton joined with the Conference of National Black Churches in a call for people not to attend church services. He made it clear that this act was aimed at keeping the community safe – especially as more than a few churches around the nation were defying the advice of public health experts to avoid congregating in large groups He encourages online services as an alternative. “These separate incidents involving leaders of faith putting people’s lives in danger is not a matter of civil or human rights, nor is it a statement of faith,” said Sharpton. “It is self-aggrandizing, reckless behavior of those Shepherds who would risk their sheep rather than lead their sheep.”
And Reverend Sharpton, who appears regularly on MSNBC, has amplified his persistent efforts to challenge the policies of Donald Trump. Among other things, he called for a boycott of a Trump-called National Day of Prayer over the disease.
The Floyd police murder case once again pushed Sharpton into an active, recognizable civil rights role, to speak forcefully for Black rights and justice at Floyd’s memorial service and to the crowds marching in an eventual 750 U.S cities to demand change in policing in the country and equality for Black citizens. His very presence came as a call to conscience.
THE REV. DR. JAMES FORBES JR.
“To see the diversity in the marchers suggests there is a spirit dynamic at work. In these awful times, grace is manifesting itself.”
— The Rev. Dr. James Forbes Jr.
Senior Minister Emeritus, Riverside Church
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates the Rev. Dr. James Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church, whose preaching for forgiveness and understanding, seems just the calming note we all seek. Forbes attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and completed a Master of Divinity Degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was the first African American minister to lead Riverside Church and served it for 18 years. He played a significant role in the redevelopment of Harlem with the consortium of churches in Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement and is an honoree in Community Works’ harlem is… Gospel exhibition.
Dr. Forbes was one of the featured speakers at the program Live with Carnegie Hall: Juneteenth Celebration All-American Freedom Day in June 2020—in a year of pandemic and racial protest and calls for police reform. “There must be a divine source of the energy to help this movement to develop, particularly after George Floyd’s murder,” Dr. Forbes said. “I believe that God is at work even in the awful circumstances we lament. The groundswell of Blacks and Whites and Browns gathering for protest, I think that’s actually miraculous in Biblical proportions.” He continued, “There is an ugliness in the way the administration is dealing with the pandemic, dealing with protests, that is allowing us to see it is not just one person. . . that we see beneath individual actions of meanness and unkindness. I think we see America as a whole system, our whole society, has a malignancy of racial and class prejudice and bigotry. . . . Even people that have been in denial see more clearly than ever before how deserving of retribution from high places the whole culture is. And so, we have a much more systemic assessment of what’s going wrong and that there needs to be systemic transformation, radical revolution of values, especially as it has to do with people of color or people of lower economic status.”
“It’s a wonderful thing that Black folks know that white folks know that what we’re talkin’ about is the same thing. That’s helpful,” said Dr. Forbes. “A demonic presence brought the illusion of white supremacy and that people sufficiently bought into it, and our whole nation is based upon it.”
Forbes preaches forgiveness and understanding. “I hope that white people can see there’s no need to deny any longer. There’s no need to lie any longer. There’s no need to claim somebody else and blame somebody else for the evils of the past.” He adds, “I hope white people can see forgiveness is available if you decide you want to be a part of the human race in unity and justice and peaceful resolve.”
Co-founder, The Brotherhood/Sister Sol
“They depend on us for guidance and support . . . Maybe now more than ever.”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating The Brotherhood / Sister Sol, a youth services group that Lazarre-White co-founded with Dr. Susan Wilcox in 1995 to provide youth ages 8 to 22 with education and service programs focusing on leadership development. When faced with the coronavirus outbreak, the organization continued its 25-year tradition of providing programs for youth by moving to the Internet and delivering food and laptops to homes that needed them.
News of the city lockdown in response to the coronavirus spread hit The Brotherhood/Sister Sol hard, interrupting its in-person youth support programs. The nonprofit turned to internet-based meetings and programs that allowed staff to continue daily guidance for different age groups, a reflection of the kind of creative, heroic healing that this Community Works effort seeks to highlight. The Brotherhood/Sister Sol realized that by temporarily suspending its in-person programming its economically distressed clients would have an exponentially more difficult time facing this pandemic. It was therefore important to remain available and to help in new ways, including the delivery of .4,800 meals to those in need and has distributed 50 laptops for home schooling.
Actually, Community Works honored The Brotherhood/Sister Sol 20 years ago as a new youth-oriented organization embracing the spirit of the civil rights movement. Its goal is recognition of maturity, education, sexual responsibility and social justice as important, mixed with Pan-African and Latinx history and global awareness. They also offer training, school and home counseling, and college and work preparation. The organization provides 12,000 meals a year, after-school programs, and college prep, as well as opportunities to study in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. Young people can access mental health services and learn about environmental issues through a farmer’s market that handles 30,000 pounds of food a year.
Now the group is transforming the organization’s Harlem headquarters. A brownstone once stood on 143rd Street and served as the home of Bro-Sis until 2018. But that building has since been demolished. Though the coronavirus pandemic has delayed construction work, eventually the former building will be replaced by a six story, 20,000 square foot youth center next to the group’s existing community garden
Impact Repertory Theatre
“What we do is ‘artivism,’ our word for combining art and activism for healing.”
—Dietrice Bolden, managing director, IMPACT Repertory Theatre
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Dietrice Bolden, managing director of IMPACT Repertory Theatre. IMPACT offers a safe space for young people to explore current events and their own experience in theater and song, and Bolden is one of the beneficiaries of its services, having been among the first young people to join IMPACT in 1997 when it was co-founded by Jamal Joseph and Voza Rivers at Minisink Townhouse. She quickly responded to the pandemic.
When the coronavirus hit, Bolden had to postpone most of the multiple performances the group organizes each year, not to mention the regular meetings and practice sessions of this group that serves young people aged 7 to 18. She organized IMPACT’s youth to participate with the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and the Salvation Army to distribute food to infirmed neighbors. She planned and implemented an online town hall discussion with IMPACT alumni around the country, during which they were able to share their feelings of loss, anger and resiliency. “They found an outlet to express their feelings about being overwhelmed by disease, personal losses and their place in the social media wars.” said Bolden.
In October 2020, IMPACT, along with a long list of partner organizations, presented an online dramatic musical presentation entitled “Casting the Vote,” which retold the story of Black voting rights and encouraged voter registration. “The point is to use arts to heal our community,” explained Bolden. That voter registration performance “was meant to let our kids get together, safely, and use their voices with original songs about our history, about Our Long Walk to Freedom, and give ourselves a mental break and a moment of peace from all that has kept us cooped up.” She added, “Young people want their voices heard in a healing effort. What we do now will matter forever.”
“The knowledge I have, I want to share it with other people.”
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Alexis Loveraz, 16, a student at Harlem Prep High School, whose enforced home-schooling resulting from the coronavirus outbreak, has launched him as a volunteer math tutor to thousands – locally and internationally.
Alexis, who has a 4.0 grade point average, followed a suggestion from friends as he took to the video platform TikTok to offer tips on algebra, geometry and chemistry. Within a short time, he became known as the TikTok Tutor, drawing hundreds of thousands of followers and likes.
“I was, like, really shocked,” Alexis told CBS 2 New York. “Things that they probably forgot before COVID-19, this is like a refresher. It’s really cool because they understand it even better the way I’m explaining it to them.”
Quarantining students are tuning in from the United States, Canada, Australia, Philippines and Singapore, among other places. They have commented, “How did you explain it better than my teacher?” and “You explain 1000x better than my math teacher!!!” Next, Alexis is joining Google Classroom as well. His mother, Likmilian Hiciano, proudly said, “I’m excited about this. I know he can do this and more. I’m so proud that he helped a lot of people.”
M. SCOTT JOHNSON
“Distributing food is about giving hope.”
—James Gonzalez, co-owner, La Fonda Boricua
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates M. Scott Johnson, sculptor, photographer and educator who explores African ancestral traditions, for working online during this pandemic with young people through two programs sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where he has taught over 15 years.
The New York-based, multidisciplinary artist began his sculpture work in Zimbabwe, where he was captivated by contemporary African art. “I started experimenting with the medium by appropriating broken and discarded sculptures left by artists who worked in the alleyways of the city,” he says, before becoming apprentice to master sculptor Nicholas Mukomberanwa. Johnson learned map imagination and aesthetic parallels with African ancestry. In his work, Johnson embraces a mixture of fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism – as he calls it, the metaphysics of the African Disapora. Johnson, recipient of the 2005 Dr. Vicktor Lowenfeld Sculpture prize, has works in collections at the Hampton University Museum, private collections, and his art has been displayed widely both locally, including with Community Works, and internationally. As an educator, he has been part of programs and residencies at the Schomburg Center at the Cork Gallery/ Lincoln Center, The Town Hall, The Dwyer Center, The Williamsburg Historical Society and Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art.
“How do you provide a way for young people to air their feelings, to express their loss and to say what is in their hearts,” Johnson says to describe what goes on in the Junior Scholar and Teen Curator programs. “We start from the idea that ‘Harlem is in the center of a hurricane,’ and the learn to put together displays of art, writings, research, videos, interviews that address pandemic, social unrest and their emotions.”
As a result, the programs have grown from very local to include a widened online group of participants, aged 12-17. “Activity outside the classroom that speaks to these issues is necessary for healing,” Johnson said, particular in the aftermath of recent deaths at the hands of police. Pandemic and social tension “have touched these children of color at this time. They have to worry about their safety in very specific ways that often reflect a heavy, heavy burden.”
Education at Apollo Theater
“It’s important to hear young people wanting to persevere through this, just as Harlem itself has persevered through tough times.””
—Shirley C. Taylor
Senior Director of Education, Apollo Theater
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Shirley C. Taylor, senior director of education at the historic Apollo Theater, for continuing programming for young people during a pandemic, for providing teachers with relevant curricular materials on racial tensions over police shootings and for encouraging young producers to post online peer discussions about troubled times.
A visual artist and native New Yorker, Shirley Taylor lives in Harlem and has been at the Apollo since 2006. She has a long career in arts administration including at ArtsConnection, the New York Foundation for the Arts, University Settlement, Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning, the Noguchi Museum and Fashion Institute of Technology. She has served as a member of the NYC Department of Education’s Advisory Board for Arts Education, on the Board of Directors for One World Arts and has been a consultant for a number of education and cultural organizations and received awards for her work.
Education programs at the Apollo were “taking baby steps into an online format, but now we’re in it fully,” she explained. Following the closing of schools due to the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and others, Shirley Taylor made recorded performances and teaching-artist discussions available to school groups and supplied teachers with performances relevant to Civil Rights history and combating racism. She also organized an online summer group to create Teen Takeover discussions to teach production skills and to air the voices of young people about current issues and has encouraged graduates of her programs to share ways of coping, job-hunting and maintaining mental health.
“Yes, there was dismay and anger, but I’ve been hearing a lot of hope,” she said of the Dear Future themes that her teen producers tackled. “People don’t realize just how much our young people have been affected here in New York City, and the voices I heard, the personal stories they told, were hopeful of a day when these problems would no longer exist, when these young people would not be stopped on the street just because of the color of their skin.”