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Creating Community the Personal Way

by Kali Ferguson

January 7,2008

This is a call to concerned citizens interested in social change through community building. After years of organizing coalitions and events, I see that to create lasting relationships between and within communities, we must start on a personal level. Charlotte has a knack for showing off and following big ideas. I propose a slower, smaller way to empower our communities, especially those that have experienced systematic marginalization. This is a story about what I learned through my partnership with Antonio, a local Mexican American organizer. I am an African American woman who speaks Spanish. I wanted to connect with Charlotte’s Latino community, and the answer to my wish came in an original project with Antonio titled Flor y Canto Meets the Harlem Renaissance: Black and Latino Unity through Creative Expression. We are now well into the creation of a performance of our experiences as minorities in Charlotte, to be presented in celebration of Cinco de Mayo 2008.

My partnership with Antonio built itself gradually. We met at an immigrants’ rights rally at Marshall Park. He was rushing around organizing things, but he was calm. I could see his wisdom and commitment to social change.

Eventually we went to lunch. There, we discovered our shared interest in being bridges between the Latino and African American communities here in Charlotte. Both of us had traveled to Latin America and Southern Africa, witnessing the similarities of challenges that people of color face worldwide. Both of us had been involved in organizing coalitions that aimed to unite brown and black people in North Carolina. Both of us were passionate people with creative gifts to share with Charlotte.

In our second lunch meeting, Antonio recited poems and prose from the Flor Y Canto literary movement, the first era of Mexican American pride and protest through literature. He had shared these works with Chicano children ten years before. I saw the similarities the pieces had to Harlem Renaissance poetry, which served as the first collective voice of Black Pride in the twentieth century. We agreed that Charlotte’s minority communities hunger for creative ways to uplift and unify them. We began designing a performance that affirms us as agents of change locally and worldwide. We had no idea how to do this, but we knew it must be done.

We met every Monday and formed a mission to: Highlight commonalities among African Americans and Latin Americans through the creative presentation of history, literature, and personal experience; Foster a calling for unity and self-education on what it means to be a person of color in Charlotte, N.C. today; Pay tribute to those who provided a path toward our belonging in an often hostile world.

During our meetings, I learn how to build genuine community first between individuals and eventually between large groups. Starting slow and small is more meaningful and sustainable than big, fast, and glossy. This project is empowering, and here are some of the lessons I am learning about true cross-cultural bridge-building:

Be Open - We opened ourselves to synchronicity, discovery, and collaboration. We show up every week with loose plans and trust the process. This is crucial in bridge-building, as no one person can dominate the steps taken toward cohesion. It must happen equally and organically.

Tell the Truth and Listen - We admitted that we were scared, angry, and unsure. We listened to each other’s experiences, hopes, and frustrations. The basis of transforming communities is people feeling safe to speak candidly and being acknowledged and understood.

Take Initiative and Responsibility - We did not wait for someone else to do this work. We own the work and bring anything we have to the table. We teach and support each other. We are here for the long haul.

Establish Clear Intentions - Before planning the show, we agreed upon a mission. Everything we do serves it; we review it every meeting. It focuses our work.

Reflect and Celebrate - Self-explanatory but often overlooked. In bridge-building, time must be made to relax, and appreciate the steps we have taken. Antonio and I probably do this too much!

Relationship-building must meet the needs of all those involved. Community building and social change starts on an individual level and requires steady, genuine, egalitarian effort from the heart.

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