By Camilla Zhang
Oftentimes you need a small, metaphysical kick in the head to fully comprehend that your every action and inaction has consequence. In theory, this is a no-brainer; so obvious it blends into the background of your routine, hum-drum life. In reality, that which divides understanding and living a statement is paperthin. The only force required to break this barrier is a small action. This can range from an email to a smile; from saying hello to your neighbor to reading a book that was recommended by a friend.
My motivation derived from the latter. I have the good fortune of being friends with Alice Meichi Li, an illustrator from Detroit. She told me about a legendary activist by the name of Grace Lee Boggs. Not only was she a graduate of my alma mater, Grace was also Asian American, like Alice and me. She’s been a part of the Civil Rights Movement since its incarnation and continues to be active in Detroit at the ripe age of ninety-eight. I developed a healthy obsession with Ms. Boggs, picking up her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.”
My life had been changed forever by this simple phrase: “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” Ms. Boggs talked about change, not through a grandiose, mass movement lens, but through a local, interpersonal one. She encouraged people to bridge gaps, whether they be generational, cultural, linguistic, or socio-economic. Prior to reading this book, my ignorant self believed that to be an activist meant that you had to get a job at a non-profit or non-government organization. I wasn’t aware that I could have my day job, work on my novel, and be an activist.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ms. Boggs had talked about the “beloved community,” but I’d never felt like I belonged to one. Born in Manhattan, raised in Jamaica, Queens, an alumna of the Bronx High School of Science, and a five resident of Brooklyn, my identity had never been localized to any one particular neighborhood. Yet I chose to live in Bed-Stuy, Bushwick’s neighbor, because I wanted to be close to the burgeoning artistic community. However, I could not deny the fact that I was part of the gentrification that was stratifying the diversity of Brooklyn.
“Diversity”. I find that the implications of this word conflict with it’s actual meaning. When I tell non-New Yorkers about the racism that exists in this city, they are often shocked. “But New York is so diverse,” they’d say. Being an American woman of Chinese descent, I’ve overcome batterings of racism, sexism, and combinations of the two on my own turf. Meanwhile, I am acutely aware of the “Model Minority” myth that is used to cause a rift between the Asian American community and other communities of color. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that many of my neighbors see me as a gentrifier. How could they not? I am a light skinned, white-collar woman in my late twenties.
The longer I lived in Bed-Stuy, the more aware I became of my role in gentrification. Alienated, I felt powerless in my ability to affect positive change. The writings of Grace Lee Boggs confirmed what I could already see with my own eyes: that big government was unreliable. If I could not rely on the government to solve problems, how could I, a single person, possibly be instrumental in making change? The answer, as I would later discover, was that change is like a cloud. Made up of many, it’s origin can’t be traced to a solitary person.
Making the commitment to do good is the biggest hurdle, but it’s easier than you think. This New Year’s Eve, I was lucky to bump into Kunal Gupta–a dear friend, who I had lost touch with–at Silent Barn (a Bushwick art’s collective). I told him about Ms. Boggs’ inspirational book and my desire to do more community oriented activities. His eyes lit up like a furnace. He said that Silent Barn had a community outreach group to which I’d be a great contributor.
A few emails later, I joined Silent Barn to brainstorm collaborative art programs with the local Diana Jones Senior Center. It certainly helped my motivation to have other friends who were activists with day jobs. Enter Leslie Fine. Through a simple facebook message, she forwarded me a link about Bushwick Bridge (BWB). I few days later, I heard about BWB’s first meeting via a listserv Kunal had added me to. I had two sources telling me about this amazing publication that stood for what I believed in. It seemed like fate.
I walked into Express Yourself Barista Bar, where BWB held their meetings, like a girl on a blind date. I had heard of Jaz Colon, one of the co-founders of BWB, through Kunal, but had never seen a picture of her. How would I know who to look for? Would I be welcomed? Would they turn me away, saying they had enough people in their group? True to their mission, though, Jaz and Sarah Quinter, another co-founder, accepted me with willing hearts and open arms. The other members were as new to this as I was and it felt good to build something together. That’s an understatement. It felt incredible!
We all had something to bring to the table; our varied skills, our experiences, they all counted for something. They were valuable in the most humanistic sense. There is no equivalent to the symbiotic satisfaction you get when connecting to people of different backgrounds and personalities. Through empathy, I hope Bushwick Bridge touches people in a way that shows them their own value and their own voice.
Nothing sparks revolution like empowerment and agency. Once people realize that they not only have a voice that deserves to be heard, but also have an outlet for that voice, real magic happens. I see it on the faces of the hip-hop youth group, ELM (Educated Little Monsters), which is organized by Jaz. Their poetic lyrics tell the true stories of Bushwick. I felt the same magic when I introduced Silent Barn to the Diana Jones Senior Center. While coordinating a live-plaster casting with artist, John Ahearn, I interacted directly with the seniors. As I expressed Silent Barn’s desire to be of service to the community, I could see that they wanted to reach out as much as we did. It’s this personal spark, this incredibly beautiful connection, that takes “change” from an idea to an experience.
Even though I’m from Jamaica, Queens, I’m still a transplant to my neighbors and that’s OK. I can see their guarded curiosity and I hope they can see my openness to connect. This is not about being a savior (a familiar trope that is all too colonial for my taste). This is about starting a conversation. Opening the lines of communication, I ask Bushwick to teach us how to be family. Let’s talk. Let’s get all the ugly stuff out in the open so that together, we can create a community that serves everyone. Our seniors give us a sense of history and a wealth of knowledge. Our youth broaden the scope of the community’s potential.
This year, I learned the obvious: that there is evolution in the word, “revolution,” and like evolution, revolution is a slow process. It isn’t about overthrowing the government. It’s about seeing the humanity in others and most importantly, in yourself. It is a thing that can only be felt first hand, but that’s the beauty of it, that you get to feel change in real time. It’s not through the internet, or a book. It’s through people.
Grace Lee Boggs, herself, said, “…we must have the courage to challenge ourselves to engage in activities that build a new and better world by improving the physical, psychological, political, and spiritual health of ourselves, our families, our communities, our cities, our world, and our planet.” But don’t let that intimidate you, because what she really meant was that the culmination of small changes often lead to bigger effects. Join us, say hello, or just smile at your neighbor. Who knows, it could be the kick in the head we’re all waiting for.