• >Women in Entertainment and the Power of No: An Interview with WEEN Chairman Valeisha Butterfield

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    Valeisha Butterfield is Chair of WEEN, Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network. She is dedicated to empowering communities. A former Executive Director of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network she was recently appointed as the Deputy Director, Public Affairs at the Department of Commerce – International Trade Administration.
    YLW: Tell us about your work with President Obama’s Administration.
    VB: It’s great work. It’s been five weeks. I work for the International Trade Administration . I was appointed by the Obama administration 5 weeks ago. It’s an honor to make a difference. We create jobs in my department. With the economy in the state that it’s in, it’s great to create jobs and help families sustain themselves. Even in my work with Russell Simmons in financial literacy I was creating opportunity . To come from a financial literacy background for minorities and now be part of a national or federal department responsible for trading jobs is exciting.

    YLW: For people who are unfamiliar with hip hop culture, the concept that it can be leveraged to facilitate social change sounds strange. How did you create that bridge between entertainment and social change when you ran the Hip Hop Action Network?

    VB: Numbers don’t lie. When you look at the bottom line, and benchmark setting, you can leverage and market a brand, but your program is only as good as its audience. You can have a great financial literacy program and have all the programming. But if you don’t have an audience or participants it’s a failure. For me, I recognized early on that not only am I a fan of hip hop culture, but I also saw the value it had.
    There are few other mediums that can compete with the influence that entertainment has on young people. As teachers, we can get in front of these kids and talk til’ we’re blue in the face. But when they hear someone and they already support their music, to hear that message coming from them changes the way they feel about it – it effects them and how they receive the information. [Hip hop artists] have a platform and an audience. Why not leverage it and create a vehicle for artists to give back, but also enable kids to get information that helps impact their lives each day.
    YLW: What is WEEN?

    VB: WEEN is an organization I founded with three of my friends two years ago. It started as a meeting in my apartment with all of the top ranking execs in entertainment. It was humbling for me at the time to see the great response. You get so caught up in your everyday work, you don’t know the respect you have from your peers. But what started as an invitation to 20 women wound up being for 120.
    We started the organization as a way for women who wanted to pursue a career in entertainment. We have 40,000 members. The goal was to help create more balance, by mentoring, educating them, and giving them the life skills required to be successful.
    It’s not just limited African American women, it’s for all women of all races and ages. We wanted to be as broad as we could and as inclusive as we could, for women who wanted a helping hand.

    YLW: What advice do you share with young women breaking into the industry?

    VB: One thing that I always tell young ladies that I mentor – and I believe this is the key to success although I figured it out late in life. One of the things that I did wrong in the beginning, in interviews and meetings, whenever I was trying to pitch myself, I would go in selling how great I was, how educated, how smart, how right I was for the job. I would never get the job and I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day a light bulb went off.
    The key to success in an interview or business deal is instead of selling yourself and how great you are, show that person how you can add value to their business and their program. Do your research, study and understand your target. Find out how you can help increase their value and their bottom line. In business, people want to know how can you help them.

    YLW: One of the great challenges that many high achieving women reference is this quest for balance. What is your take on that?

    VB: Spiritual balance and personal balance is important for anyone who wants to be successful. That’s something I’m still working on. Having a healthy balance between your career your personal life, and spiritual life. If you focus too heavily in one area, all three ultimately end up failing or not meeting your needs as a person. I’ve been guilty of focusing on one versus. another. But it’s important to have that balance.

    YLW: In this age, whether a woman can “do it all” is no longer a question. It’s been proven. But how does a woman with multiple talents in a land of multiple opportunities choose?

    VB: The founders of WEEN and I have have this debate all the time. It’s a healthy debate as a woman who is talented at multiple things. How do you choose and balance and do it all? I have a different philosophy. If you do 5 things well, I say choose 1 and do it exceptionally well. I’ve always been much stronger, in choosing one thing having a sharp focus on it and honing it and becoming known for that.
    Once you get that running, then you move and expand to the next thing. I’m very focused in what I try to do. But my colleague is a singer, a host, and an attorney. And she does 8 things exceptionally well, and she does it simultaneously and really well. It’s what works for you. My advice has always been, choose one and become the best at it,

    YLW: Why do you say choose one?

    VB: For the average person, who is smart and has goals, it’s difficult, almost impossible to be exceptional at all things at once. Whenever I wanted to get many things off the ground at one time, I become very average.
    YLW: How have African American women unfolded in the past few years?
    VB: For the past 10 years black women have really come into our own. Statistics show that African American women are growing leaps and bounds academically and even the media is starting to reflect that. To have an African American woman as First Lady, to have so many great and positive women in the public eye, I think it’s an example of how far we’ve come. I think that as black women we remain as the backbone of the family structure, but we’ve expanded our options. We’ve become great professionals. . We have the confidence and exude the confidence of leadership that’s always been within us.
    YLW: In Post Black, I write about the vilification of the video girl. She’s always a target. How do you feel about that?
    VB: At the end of the day it’s all about options and the notion of the video girl being judged for her decisions in life are unfair. At the end of the day, whether you’re an actress, a singer, you have some type of role in front of the character. Do I agree with some of the things that are done. Of course not. Young girls are watching. When you have the world or segment of the world are watching. When you have an audience, why not take leadership in how people feel about themselves.
    YLW: What advice do you have for women in business?
    VB: As a woman, you have to have the ability to say no. I think by nature, most women feel the need to be nurtures. We want to get things done and be supportive and helpful and always find the answer and be available. But as a woman in business you have to say no without being apologetic. When you know your schedule is too tight and you don’t have time to take a meeting, you don’t have to squeeze it in. If a deal is on the table and a lot of money is at stake, but you’re not comfortable with it, it’s ok to say no. We want to say yes, but it’s important to know the business in saying no.

    YLW: Why do you think saying “no” is so difficult for women?

    VB: It’s just a part of our nature. We want to succeed and do good. We want to be liked and accepted by our male counterparts and we feel like it’s a turnoff , not just personal, but professionally to say no. But any professional can respect a decision. That’s something that I’ve had to overcome, and something my colleagues have had to overcome. In the end, it always works for the best, even it if it’s not comfortable at first.
    YLW: How did you gain the power of “no?”

    VB: It goes back to strategy and knowing what your long term goals are. Every decision that you make should all roll up to that bigger strategy that you have for your life. Know that there is a bigger picture for your life that you have created, that God has created. It makes you less focused on acceptance when you know where you’re headed in life. You focus less on being accepted and more on what your plans are in life.
    YLW: When you hear Post Black, what comes to mind?
    VB: There was a time when as black people the first adjective we’d use describing ourselves would be so say that we’re black and any other identifier was second. That was a description that was used more often in the past than today. As black people we are finding out who we are and our individuality is shining. I am absolutely 100 percent proud to be a black woman. But if you ask us to define ourselves, I’ll say I’m spiritual, I like to shop, etc. Because we’ve expanded so much as people. We have defined ourselves. Yes we are African American and proud, but we are so many things that we are proud of too. Individuality in the African American community is a part of who we are, but not losing our racial identity, is important, too.
    YLW: Some people fear that you can’t embrace individuality without dismissing the struggles of the past. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    VB: We cannot forget our struggle as a people. Although we’ve had great examples of success, we still have along way to go, so it would be a huge mistake for us to forget that our ancestors sacrificed for us to be who we are. We also have to educate our kids. I didn’t grow up during the Civil Rights Movement, but my parents made sure I knew about the struggle, so that I could know as a black woman who I am and where I came.
    We must not forget. We must learn from the past and we should have a sense of pride. We didn’t get here easy. It wasn’t a cake walk. A lot of people made sacrifices, a lot of people lost their lives. But we can’t let that hold us back either. We have to keep pushing forward, and keep evolving, in order to be who God wants us to be.
    For more information on WEEN go to http://www.weenonline.org/
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  • >Atlanta Housewives, Her Crown & Glory, and Service: An Interview with Celebrity Stylist Dwight Eubanks

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    Celebrity stylist and fashion leader Dwight Eubanks may be known for his colorful commentary on the hit reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, but he also devotes time to community issues, recently hosting Her Crown & Glory in Chicago, a fundraiser for African American women who have alopecia or hair loss due to chemotherapy. Eubanks styled women whose hair came out after chemo treatments. “I’d style them and their hair was coming out in clumps,” he said. But he reassured them. “We’re going to get through this.” Eubanks owns the wildly popular The Purple Door in Atlanta and is an internationally recognized stylist.

    YLW: You were a host for Her Crown & Glory, the Krystal Foundations’ fundraiser for African American women who have alopecia.

    DE: The event was fabulous. It would be a travesty if they don’t continue this and keep it up. Neiman Marcus was a sponsor, Carson Soft Sheen was a sponsor. Most important were the survivors. It just made my heart happy and sad to see them courageously share their true experience. I hope they take this event across the country.

    YLW: Why did you get involved?

    DE: I have a personal relationship with this experience. I’ve had clients that are no longer with me. I saw what they went through. This is a story to tell. We’re a special kind of people and this is a need that has to be addressed. For these people to come forward and share their stories is amazing. We have designers who make wonderful wigs. But on the other hand, if you want to go bald its okay. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We still have female baldness which we don’t talk about. The more we educate, the more we can help.

    YLW: You do a lot of service work in the community. Why?

    DE: Success is me helping somebody else. Helping The Jerusalem House, or The Evolution Project which is a part of AIDS Atlanta, where teens ages 13-18 who are HIV positive and homeless get assistance. Evelyn Lowery (Women of SCLC) and I put it together. Or my work with the Cancer Center. It’s about giving back and helping somebody. That’s why we’re here.

    YLW: You’re also a fashion expert. What role has fashion and hair played in African American culture?

    DE: We have so many options today. Years ago we didn’t have the same technology. You can be whoever you want to be. You can take a man and make him a woman. That’s the power of technology. And it still amazes me. There are no limits.

    YLW: Why do you think image plays such a big role in African American identity?

    DE: It’s not just about us, it’s about everybody. This is a looks society. It’s all about image. You want to wear it natural, wear it straight or do nothing. Either way its fine.

    YLW: Have perceptions on sexual orientation in our community changed over the years?

    DE: It’s a different day and a different time. We have evolved and we are still evolving. As Americans we always want to put a label on it. In the European markets they don’t. If you want to be with the same sex go right ahead. We are going to leave this world one day, we might as well live as if it’s our last . The bottom line is nobody really cares. They just want you to be honest. Be honest to your God and to yourself.

    YLW: Is “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” a groundbreaking show? Four black well-to-do women and their drama could be considered a television first.

    DE: No, it’s not groundbreaking for nobody. We don’t take it as a groundbreaking show just like Real Housewives in Orange County isn’t groundbreaking. These are 5 women and this is who they are. They didn’t win a pageant. People went knocking and they said yes. They don’t represent nobody. This is who they are.

    YLW: Whenever there are shows or films with an African American cast, this issue of image and responsibility comes up.

    DE: We have options, you can look at it or not look at it. You have choices . It’s the number one show, so everyone’s watching. It’s almost like being addicted to crack. The more reruns they show, the more people watch. My mom can’t stop watching. I think she has a problem.

    YLW: Why is the show so popular?

    DE: People can relate to it. When I was in Chicago, I was with people I didn’t think watched the show, but they had me down to a T, and these were some Jewish white women, They love the show and they love me. I met some wonderful people who watch the show. Straight guys, red neck guys. They run up to me. This one guy ran up on me in the airport and I almost pulled out my knife. I’m still shocked. You never know whose watching.

    YLW: You have a show in the works as well.

    DE: Once they figure out what they want to do with me they’ll let me know. And trust me, they’re working on it.

    YLW: In the age of reality shows, how do you become a successful reality star?

    DE: This is really who I am. The way I dress on the show is how I dress everyday. Either you love me or you hate me. I go on. I speak what’s on my mind. I am not an actor, I am not an aspiring actor. I am Dwight Eubanks, I’m true to myself and true to my God.

    For more information on Dwight Eubanks, go to www.purpledoorsalon.com
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  • >Natural Hair: An Interview with author Chris-Tea Donaldson

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    Chris-Tea Donaldson is a corporate attorney and author of Thank God I’m Natural: The Ultimate Guide to Caring for and Maintaining Natural Hair. She ditched her straightened hair for the beauty of natural hair styling. Now she’s prepping to launch a natural haircare line of her own.

    YLW: With Chris Rock’s doc Good Hair on screens it seems that everyone is talking about hair.

    CD: Hair is the thing to talk about. It’s tied to self esteem. It’s a remarkable time especially with Chris Rock’s movie to have these conversations, to talk about some of the damaging processes – not talking about relaxers and weave as a judgment, but rather talking about an unhealthy obsession with them. Sometimes it’s fun to switch up your look, but when it’s about hiding self consciousness about your own hair, that’s a different issue. I did a TV show last night with a guy on WGN, he decided to devote a half hour on his show to talk about this issue. It’s interesting that the men are taking such an issue. Maybe they’re trying to tell us something.

    YLW: I’ve had men tell me that they don’t care about a woman’s hair. They want it to look nice of course, but whether it’s straight, curly, natural or weave . . . they could care less.

    CD: Men are concerned about body. That’s what Chris Rock said when they look at King, its all about ass. On the other hand, men might not know subconsciously what kind of emphasis they put on hair. Women do it for other women, not for the boys.

    YLW: Why do you say that?

    CD: When it comes to natural hair, one of the biggest myths is that it’s unprofessional. I work for a company that is largely white and male and I’ve been fine. I often found that when it comes to natural hair, that the ones who make the most critical remarks are black women.

    YLW: I wear my hair really big sometimes and when I do get criticism the issue isn’t the hair style, it’s the fact that I have the confidence to wear it and still look good. Almost as if to say how dare you wear your hair in a way that’s supposed to be unattractive and still look cute.

    CD: Exactly. It’s more from a place of feeling uncomfortable. Like you’re wearing big hair, what does that say about me? Why does she feel she can wear her hair like that? Or what does it say about me to be around someone who wears their hair like that.

    It wasn’t until we came to America that we started straightening our hair. These are practices we adopted to be a part of mainstream society. There are ads in my book from the early 20ith century for hair straightening serum. They’ll say “achieve happiness marriage with straight hair.” Today, you’ll see an ad for weave and the same sense of happiness is implied.

    YLW: But hair is not purely an African American womens issue. Hair is an obsession with women in general. Weaves, coloring, straightening are popular in America among all cultures.

    CD: Across cultures, long full hair is considered to a big asset. Jessica Simpson has a popular weave line.

    YLW: Then why is their such a focus on what black women do with their hair?

    CD: Black hair is more politicized.

    YLW: What do you mean?

    CD: If you wear your hair in your natural state you’re being rebellious, militant. If you’re a white person wearing a different style, it doesn’t have the same political weight .Meaning the afro of the 70s was seen as a rejection of white beauty standards or seen as militancy, protest, rebellion. No other time in history will you see those labels for women who changed their hair.

    YLW: What role does hair play in identity?

    CD: I think hair plays a major role in identity. By the time you’re 30 you get used to your hair. At a very young age in our community, by age 3, you know if you have what people consider good hair or bad hair. It’s not always expressed verbally. But you know if you are the girl with the long silky hair that people fall over and if you’re not. It creates a deep impression on black women throughout their lives, or at least the early part of their lives. The same goes for skin color. By the age of 3, you know what people consider attractive. That’s why when they do the doll experiments black kids are still picking the white doll. They know from a very young age what people view as beautiful.

    YLW: Why did you write this book?

    CD: I think so many people have misconceptions about our hair in its natural state. They think you have to have hair like Mariah Carey or Alicia Keys to wear it natural. You can have kinky hair and wear it natural. It’s not going to jeopardize your ability to navigate in the workplace and you won’t be rejected by men because of it.

    YLW: Then why do many women believe that approval in their work life and relationships depend in part on their hair being long and straight?

    CD: Because you turn on movies and the videos and that’s what you see. The woman with the natural is not the leading lady. The media is pushing the image down our throats. There are men who want weave. But I think men are naturally drawn to big hair. They love women with the confidence to wear it in it’s natural state. You can wear hear down to your ass, but if you don’t have confidence, it doesn’t do anything for you. We’re our harshest critics. My boss is worth millions of dollars and he doesn’t care how I wear my hair. It’s all about being comfortable. When we accept who we are for what we are, it goes a very long way.

    For more info on Chris-Tea Donaldson go to www.ThankGodI’mNatural.com
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  • >Community Organizing- A Career Choice: An Interview with Oxford Grad Quinn K. Rallins

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    Quinn Kareem Rallins is a community organizer with the Brockton Interfaith Community. A Rhode Scholar Finalist and recent grad of Morehouse and Oxford University, he’s focused on empowering community residents. He also studies movements of the past including the fights for Civil Rights and Womens Rights to better understand the challenges of today.

    YLW: When you tell people that you’re a community organizer how do they respond?

    QKR: The major response I get is that people don’t understand. They wonder what exactly is it that you do? Who exactly do you work with? There are different forms of organizing. Issue based organizing. Faith based organizing. The organization I’m with works is a faith based organization. It’s more complex than people understand.

    YLW: Are there other African Americans organizing with you?

    QKR: I’m the only one.

    YLW: But you’ve met others?

    QKR: Yes, I’ve met others. There are a lot of organizations. But there aren’t a lot of people of color.

    YLW: What do you attribute that to?

    QKR: Once you graduate you take out a $100,000 in loans, there’s a need to pay that back. I have a lot of friends who have to help out their family. I’m not in any debt, so I have a certain level of flexibility in terms of how I pursue dreams, and I’m not financially constrained. Plus, [being a community organizer] is not financially lucrative.

    YLW: I wonder, too if people know to view it as a career option. Do you feel that President Obama has inspired more people to look at community organizing as a profession?

    QKR: It’s more organizing going on than people realize. People have been organizing for decades. The Civil Rights Movement is just one example. However, Barack Obama illuminated it as a profession and showed that working for the people can be a part of your career.

    YLW: Do you think people in Gen X and Y are committed to service?

    QKR: I think for the younger people it’s ingrained or possibly artificially ingrained. In Chicago, we had 40 hours of community service we had to do in high school. In college you do it to boost your resume. People do it, but I don’t know if it’s ingrained. It’s being done,but I don’t know how you can gage sincerity.

    YLW: Tell me about the work you’re doing now?

    QKR: I’m organizing in Brockton, Ma. We organize around a range of things – health care, housing . One of the priorities is working on health care and foreclosures. Brockton has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state of Massachusetts. Forty four out of every 1,000 homes are in some state of foreclosure. I’m working in a community which is highly minority. A lot of Cape Verdians, Latinos, African Americans, West Africans. It’s a small city with big city problems.

    YLW: What role do you play?

    QKR: I take the stories that people have, the pain that they have. The stories that people have illustrate the problem within the community. A problem might be lack of diversity within administration, say the the city council, the teachers, etc. Within the problem, we focus on a specific issue. So if it’s a problem of diversity then we work on a specific issue, getting more people of color.
    With foreclosures, the specific issue is to get more of the bailout money or TARP money to go to homeowners who are unemployed. Right now most of the money goes to banks to do modifications or have incentives for them to assist homeowners. We’re trying to get a portion of the money to go directly to homeowners to help pay their mortgage while they’re unemployed, and when they’re employed they can get it back.

    YLW: What’s the difference between community organizing and activism?

    QKR: Activist make demands. We need water, we need affordable housing. But organizing doesn’t just make demands on the government. It’s about making people the part of the solution. Government doesn’t have all the solutions. So we don’t come into meetings making demands, we have come in with proposals.

    YLW: Many people probably use activist and organizer interchangeably. I know I have. But there’s a difference in strategy. What’s the organizer process?

    QKR: We listen to the stories, we listen to their pain which tells us the problem. After we go to the overall problem, then we find out which issues we want to tackle. You can’t tackle everything. Something that’s feasible. Then we go from the issue to research. So if it’s finding teachers of colors, then you find out where has this been implemented? How did it work? Then you go to action. Meeting with public officials to get their commitment.

    YLW: What have you learned?

    QKR: I’ve learned it’s a big difference between the world as it is and the world as it should be. It takes a large degree of honesty and a hunger for power to move from how the world is to where it should be. A lot of times we want to recognize how things work, the realities of how it works. But to improve the world, you have to be very real about how it is. I found that organizing puts the power back into people’s hands. But power almost has a negative connotation.

    YLW: How so?

    QKR: People have misused power for so long. Power is good. If you’re going to change the situation , you have to see power as something that’s good. But we need a good balance of power – the legislative, judicial, and executive branch. In our government, people don’t see themselves as the 4rth level of power. People need to see public officials as their employees. They’re working off of your tax dollars. They can’t make decisions without your say so. You have the power to elect or reelect them.

    YLW: Any other insights?

    QKR: Just recognizing the power of people. Just recently, it was illustrated in the 08 election. It was witnessed in the Civil Rights movement. But it’s something powerful that can happen when the masses get on the same page.

    YLW: It seems as if people are having more conversations about service. More volunteerism, fundraisers, etc.

    QKR: There’s been an emphasis on public service for the past few years, the need to work on the ground and give back. Some people have a top down approach, but increasingly people are trying to have a bottom up approach where they work in the communities to get things changed. It’s been going on for a long time, but it was a certain level of illumination towards it.

    YLW: How did you get involved in community organizing?

    QKR: I went to Morehouse. I was in college when Hurricane Katrina hit. I was working with Katrina on the Ground. I along with some colleagues from Morehouse were working with organizers in New Orleans to help rebuild the community. We did things including rebuilding houses to working with residents. It was a different approach to solving problems. Organizing is different from advocacy. In advocacy, the people don’t even have to be there. But its an entirely different thing to get people to talk for themselves. It’s different from social service.

    YLW: How so?

    QKR: In college I worked with soup kitchens and helped where needed. But at the end of the day you have to stop grabbing the weed at the top. Do you want to get at the root of the problem? Then you have to dig in and get it at the root. Why do these things exists? Why did the foreclosures take place. At the same time while we’re focused on the short term crisis of getting people in their homes, we have to go back and make sure this doesn’t happen again.

    YLW: How did your education at Morehouse and Oxford shape your views on working in communities?

    QKR: Morehouse is an institution that is constantly focused on developing the whole person. The president [of the college] said I want you to be so concerned about the plight of others that you can’t sleep at night. HBCUs have traditionally been schools that created concerned people in the community. I spent as much time in the community as I did in the classroom in undergrad. Spending time in public schools, summers in Malaysia. Doing a campaign against capital punishment. I found a school that really embraced community work and leadership.
    Oxford helped me to really analyze policies. This goes to getting back to the root of the problem. Whey do these health care problems exist? When was reform tried before? When did it fail? Right now the Senate is about to debate health care. How can it pass? If if fails, why? If it is to succeed what things have to be implemented for it to pass in the future?
    Read more »
  • >Farming in the hood, growing up with white parents, and black identity in the Dominican Republic: An Interview with Social Activist Beth Gunzel

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    Beth Gunzel is a Chicago based community advocate, working with microfinancing, urban agriculture and workforce development. She is Program Manager for Employment Training at Growing Homes a nonprofit/social enterprise that produce organic vegetables in the inner city. Raised by white adoptive parents, Gunzel wrestled with identity issues that were only complicated when she lead a microfinancing program in the Dominican Republic. As for her DR experience – “Here I am in a black country with black people and they don’t know what black is.”

    YLW: You’ve dedicated your life to social service and food justice. Are your fellow GenX’rs and Yers boggled by your decision to ditch a corporate job?

    BG: You have this upward mobility about being dedicating to an activity because it brings me power and privilege vs. I do what I do because it unleashes my innate potential of me as a human being. I see people struggling with that. I struggle with this. But I have to really center myself. As a little girl I knew this work was what I was going to do.

    YLW: Do you take issue with upward mobility for the sake of money and status?

    BG: I think that what people are doing on an individual basis addresses those wrongs of the past.

    YLW: You mean exclusion, or African Americans being excluded historically?

    BG: Yes. But, it’s a paradox. We’re trying to move from exclusion in a number of areas, but I wonder are we doing it in a way that’s challenging the larger issues that created that exclusion to begin with. Because that situation exists for others. So if blacks move to heights never imagined, believe me there will be another group that comes in and fills that void. My concern is are we engaging in the humanistic values.

    YLW: How did you get involved in organic urban farming?

    BG: I moved to the Dominican Republic after I got my degree in Urban Planning and Policy – to head a micro-financing program. I was working with farmers, urban entrepreneurs, people selling food or doing hair. The grant that paid my salary was the Global Food Crisis Program. I began understanding these issues of food production, who’s benefiting from what, and how food gets to our tables. I was thinking a lot about food security issues.

    YLW: What’s a food security issue?

    BG: The movement is still trying to come up with a concrete definition. But food security is rooted in local reliance. Communities, not just low income, but even the city could be considered food insecure in that most of the food is imported. If there was some big catastrophe where would we get our food from? So our movement deals with that, in addition to getting healthy food to communities.

    YLW: How did you wind up in Chicago?

    BG: I came back to Chicago at the worse possible time, in 08 when they announced the recession. I thought about getting another masters in crop sciences. Then I saw an ad for Growing Homes. I was a little intimidated. Urban farming is different from helping farmers grow cash crops in the DR. But the job was focused more on the planning and upkeep of the farm, and it’s a transitional program.

    YLW: How does Growing Homes work?

    BG: We welcome up to 25 individuals a growing season to work with us. They’re trained in basic horticulture and soils, and they are involved in supporting the operations of this business. It’s a way of getting people who face employment challenges to build resumes and to organize some things in their lives. In addition to the work, we do job readiness training, job management, food issues, and teach nutrition. Interns also work in sales, so they learn marketing, community outreach – getting people to know about organic produce. It’s a pretty dynamic program.

    YLW: How do you sell your produce?

    BG: We sell our produce in Lincoln Park at Green City Market, through a CFA program (community supported agriculture), so when a person who wants our produce can buy a share before the growing season, and then they’re provided with a box of produce every week. We also sell at our Englewood farmers market. We also have a farm stand at our Englewood office.

    YLW: I’m a total city girl, so I have to ask, how do you grow food in the hood?

    BG: We have three sites. One site in the Back of the Yards, 50th and Laflin, which is an outdoor plots. We have Marseilles , IL, a 10 acre, rural farm, 6 acres . In the Wood St./Englewood site, we do growing in hoop houses, so we grow in an unheated structure. The inside structure is in the shape of a hoop but it’s covered in plastic. It works like a greenhouse, it captures the sun’s energy and increases the temperature. So we can grow longer. We can grow plants that wouldn’t be thriving outdoors right now. We can also grow earlier. We can do our first sales of produce in March, using the hoop house.

    YLW: What do you grow?

    BG: We grow pretty much everything. It depends on the season. We have carrots beets, leafy greens, arugula, kale, herbs of all king, basil cilantro, eggplant, tomato, watermelon, turnips, asparagus, strawberries, beans of all kinds.

    YLW: Wow. How long does the program last?

    BG: It’s a six month program. It starts in April of every year. We graduated people in October.

    YLW: How do the participants like the program? Are any of them thinking about doing food advocacy work or starting urban farms?

    BG: You have people who say ‘it’s everything I needed, I feel more confident, my job search skills have improved,’ and a couple of those people have been hired on with us. We also had people who said ‘I don’t want to learn how to farm, but I need a work history, I want to build my resume.’ So although, they don’t want to work in food advocacy, they got what they needed. We have other people who are thinking about getting into health, nutrition or culinary school.

    YLW: What kind of food issues do low income communities like Englewood face?

    BG: In Englewood the issue you have is that you don’t have fresh healthy produce readily accessible to people. Also, people are in survival mode. How to get beets or kale may not be at the top of the list. They might just be trying to get calories.

    YLW: Is there a high awareness of the need for organic food in the community?

    BG: You’d be surprised at how much people do know. Englewood is a predominantly African American and the program participants are African American. People tell me they’ve been green all along, but green wasn’t feasible anymore. People that I talk to have a lot of connection to the land. I don’t know if it’s a South side thing. But many of the participants either grew up on a farm, or they’re parents grew up on a farm, or they have members who are still farming.

    But for Americans, it’s a difference between what we know we should be doing vs. what we do. So they might do beets and carrots one day. But it’s about incorporating it in your daily life.
    People need to know how to prepare things and feel economical. But they also need the confidence to change their identity, because it causes a lot of anxiety.

    YLW: You were raised by adoptive white parents and you’re biracial. Did that present any identity challenges for you?

    BG: There’s this feeling that biracial children in the 70s were put up for adoption not because your mom couldn’t take care of you, but because this relationship was not accepted . You can’t prove it, but a lot of adopted biracial kids my age feel that way and are starting to talk about it. Biracial kids can be given up for adoption for race alone.

    YLW: I never knew that.

    BG: There’s the issue of being adopted and there’s the issue of being black. Within my family there wasn’t any type of contempt for people of color, but they couldn’t protect me from what was outside of our home. My parents have never said anything about someone talking to them about adopting a biracial kid. I grew up in a cooperative neighborhood for people of different colors and sexual orientations, so I was very privileged. When I was 12, my mom didn’t quite know how do deal with my hair, though.

    My brothers had a lot of problems. They are white, and they had to defend me and be around people who talked about people of color. I liked heavy metal. I listened to that. I still do. And I was really proud of the groups I liked. I saved my money and would buy the Metallica T shirt. But in public, I would turn it inside out.

    YLW: Why?

    BG: Whites would think ‘what is a black girl doing with a Metallica T-shirt?’, but my friends of color, not just black but Mexican, Pakistani, would look at me and say ‘that’s white.’ I wasn’t listening to Bobby Brown or New Kids on the Block. I grew up not having any particular identity. But as I grew up, it helped me talk to all people. At lunch, I didn’t go to the black table or the white table, I ate outside, and they would come to me. I dealt with it by learning to speak Spanish.

    YLW: How did that lead you to learn Spanish?

    BG: I’m looking at this from an adult perspective. I wonder if it was me trying to escape from these rigid expectations.

    YLW: Rigid expectations as they related to you as an African American person?

    BG: Right. I think I felt that this language was mine and mine alone. I grew up in among a large Mexican population. Some of it was I did well in it, and I wasn’t a good student. It’s not that I wasn’t smart, I just didn’t apply myself. Learning this language was really a passport, not just to traveling but to having other human interactions. You learn about different things. I was really interested in Afro Latino countries. That’s what brought me to the Dominican. It’s a country of blacks who have the same background as we do, but they speak Spanish. You can speak another language and be black. There are a lot of black people in Latin America, Panama, Nicaragua, Columbia . . .

    YLW: I regretted that I didn’t master French.

    BG: Me, too. In the D.R, they have over 1 million Haitian immigrants who speak French and creole. I learned some creole.

    YLW: Did living in the Dominican Republic impact your views on black identity?

    BG: The question ‘what does black mean?’ is an American thing. Black doesn’t exist there. I was wheat colored. And they told me that. Black is Haitian, or African. There’s a strict color hierarchy. That was weird for me. My parents never told me I was light. I didn’t know what that meant until I started hanging out with black people. My parents never said I was biracial. They said I was black. They didn’t bring it up until they saw me reading all this black literature, like Malcolm X. She said why are you reading about Malcolm X, I said I want to learn about my history. And she said, don’t forget that you’re half white, which she never said before.
    Anyway, I go to DR and I wanted to go to a place where there are other black people, and when I get there, they’re like, who are you calling black?

    YLW: Was it confusing living in a black country that had a different concept of black identity?

    BG: It produces a lot of anxiety because we’ve fought a lot for that identity, and when it doesn’t exist in other places, you’re like, wow. Then, and I’m not trying to make light of it, but it looks silly. It’s a framework that’s useless in terms of separating people and resources based on these things. I got to the point in the DR, where I figured they’re lucky that they don’t have to deal with all this, ‘you’re black and what does that mean.’ What does it really mean to be black? We identify ourselves on a foreign concept. We came as Africans, or people of different ethnicities, we came as free people, as explorers.

    YLW: But asserting black identity at home was very important for you. Did it feel weird being in the DR and they had no idea what you were talking about?

    BG: At first it was difficult, in defending black people at home, then when I get to the DR, they’re like ‘who are you calling black? Then I realized, it wasn’t necessary in their culture to have that definition of black. Then I said wow, this is a really huge social construct tied to the economic structure.

    YLW: Why do you say that?

    BG: My Haitian friends called themselves black, they identified with African Americans, but my DR friends did not. And they both look the same. In Haiti, they had the chattel slavery system, where there was a strict distinction between black and ruling class. But in DR they didn’t have that. There wasn’t a need for a strict concept of black and white in their country. The DR was a defunct country, the Spanish who moved there married African people. So I have a concept of black, I ‘m moving to a black country that doesn’t have a construct of black. Who am I?

    YLW: But there is a concept of black in the Dominican Republic, they just don’t apply it to themselves.

    BG: When Dominicans come to the US they get schooled in it real fast. They’re no longer looked at as Dominican unless they’re really light. They get grouped in with blacks. But in the DR the term black is a oppressive political word against Haitians.

    YLW: Do you think the concept of black identity should be abandoned?

    BG: What I’ve found is it’s a human need to have one – any identity. That goes across all time periods. People are intimately involved in shaping their identity. Although I’m critical, I’m sensitive to the need to know that. I still think it’s a fascinating thing, the identities we come up with.

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