January 14-18, 2019 Amani Public Charter School, Mount Vernon, NY
Pulling together my thoughts now from my most recent Shared Spaces project in Mount Vernon, New York. Located at the southern edge of Westchester County, Mount Vernon could be described as an under-funded town sitting between the Bronx and wealthier communities further up in Westchester. The scene on the streets is almost 100% African diaspora population, with an especially large contingent from the Afro-Caribbean region (my whole time there I never saw a single Caucasian person on the street, and very few Hispanic/Latino members of the community were visible.)
For this Shared Spaces project, as with all the others, I saw my job as bringing this community’s voices into form through the Shared Spaces flag creation process. From my perspective, the planning and execution is getting more familiar (and less stressful!) now so it’s allowing me to focus more on the people at hand and their experiences. This project in particular took place in a school: I was there three days as a two-hour after school program, and for one morning as a visitor in the art curriculum for the regular classes. (It was a middle school so everyone was grades 5-8.)
Chelsea, the aide who was with our groups during the afterschool programs, is of Jamaican heritage (her mother is Jamaican and her father was raised in England.) She brought the lovely “Peace” charm that is in the center of the flag in this Shared Spaces work. She had wanted to bring a Jamaican flag but didn’t have one with relief (which means it would not have shown up in the medium we’re working in). Still, it was interesting to connect the Jamaican cultural threads into what I was seeing there. Jamaica is a country I’ve visited many times, and I enjoyed seeing how Jamaican values flower in the daily lives of its descendants here in the U.S..
I couldn’t help notice the interplay of traditions in the school, too. The charter school students - who were always referred to as Scholars - wore uniforms, though the 8th graders seemed to be allowed a little more latitude and many were wearing school sweats. (This may have been because it was after school.) The afterschool program lasted from 4-6 PM each day and was always relaxing. This fit my fluid way of working - I’m pretty much incapable of being a disciplinarian anymore with kids. But during the sessions of the regular art classes I watched, much impressed, as the teacher and dean held the kids to very high, school-mandated standards for quietness and rectitude in the classroom. It was clear that about half the class was right on target, holding themselves to strict standards of behavior while another group, maybe a quarter, were essentially ungovernable for a lot of complex and individual reasons. I was told that in the nearby Bronx public school classrooms this kind of behavior was the norm (The term “Lion Tamers” was used by one of the faculty to describe an occasionally needed though unwritten job requirement.) In any case it was a joy and a privilege to directly experience the kids, the school culture and classroom environment.
The first day, a small group of scholars assembled the name “Ana” from letters I had available in the objects ‘library’. It turned out that this was the name of one of their classmates who had died of a terminal disease a few years ago. I was moved that they were finding a way to use the flag sculpture as a space to memorialize her. The very next thing to go in the flag was a string of Chinese characters, chosen by an 8th grade girl. “Tell me about why you chose these?” I asked. “Because I’m studying Chinese,” she shot right back. The characters were the Chinese names of African locations where the Chinese are building massive infrastructure projects now, I explained – ports, bridges, highways, rail lines. I found myself reflecting on how these areas of Africa and Mount Vernon might share some of that relationship of being the one historically bypassed or even ‘taken from’ by rich, powerful outside interests, and how that might change in the future.
The nature of the Shared Spaces project is frankly not that time-consuming for any individual participant, so one of the issues when kids participate is what do they do after they’ve selected an item, placed it, and helped see it pressed carefully into the clay. Those hands frankly wanted to keep going and messing in the clay of the flag, which sympathetic though I was, would I knew leave a lasting trail of unreadable clutter in the finished piece. The solution was simple, handed to me by the kids who asked me bluntly, “Can I have a piece of that clay?” Soon we were a busy and happy room full of Scholars, as they pressed various objects into their clay, rolling it out, smacking it around, turning it into a ball for tossing around with a friend. The clay handled it in stride, taking all into its infinitely flexible and forgiving embrace. I was struck by the stark visual contrast of the whiteness of the dried clay on their dark-skinned hands. And of their eagerness to add their voices to the project, to personalize their American experience in the context of the flag. The project was off to a great start.