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We Must See Ourselves as Catalysts

Käthe Swaback, Program Officer

Hannah Parker holding a piece of spinning art she created
Hannah Parker with her artwork.

Just a year ago, Hannah Parker was part of a group of dedicated teens ages 16-19, from the Creative Youth Development (CYD) organization, Raw Art Works. In my former role there as artistic director, I facilitated an art project, designed for Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, where teens created a body of spinning art for the hallways of the hospital entitled, “Project Revolution.” One of the questions that the young artists replied to was, “What core elements are needed to help you revolve and propel toward your future with greater mental, physical, and emotional health?” Hannah responded with a beautiful art piece and the wish, “When this art spins I want people to understand their worth. We are capable of changing the world and the worlds of other people, we just have to believe in ourselves.” The following captures some of the conversation between Hannah and I, as she shares her wisdom regarding health, outrage, and next steps in creating systems of change.

It is now a year later, you have graduated high school, completed your first very challenging year at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), and we are in these trying times of a pandemic, deep racial injustices, and protests. How do you see your connection to revolution now?

I now see how revolutionizing ourselves is similar to how we must revolutionize the system of oppression that is racism and how art can help. Coming back to my city from my freshman year of college and seeing that Lynn has one of the highest rates of Coronavirus in Massachusetts has given me no option but to face how capitalism and racism are literally killing us. Lynn is a low-income community and the majority of us are essential workers. When other communities were able to stop working, we continued out of necessity. This exploitation has led to death and a greater trauma rooted in anxiety and fear. I think fear is one of the most crippling emotions anyone can feel, and it is no coincidence that it is disproportionately affecting people of color. Fear destabilizes you, and I definitely felt disempowered for a while. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Ahmad Aubrey created a shift in me. These police murders could have been prevented by our government. My parents being told they tested positive for Coronavirus could have been prevented by our government. These events combined led me and so many other youth to the streets. Fortunately, art allowed me the process to unpack what I was going through in relation to the world. We live in a very fast-paced society that forces us to compartmentalize the majority of our experiences. Control is an emotion everyone needs in order to feel some sort of peace in life. Peace for me comes from stillness. As an artist I now operate from a place that allows me to be more tender with myself.

That reminds me when Maya Angelou said, “The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.” What is the importance of stillness and tenderness to you and how might that add to your health and strength?

Stillness is not categorized by our ability to do nothing, but our ability to focus on something. During a meditation you are asked to focus on one thing, your breath, an image, a moment, like being in the ocean and feeling waves crash at your bare skin. Sitting in racism for everyone is uncomfortable and if you have enough empathy or patience to allow your mind to wander, it begins to take you places. As a Black person you may begin to think about that time your boss said a microaggression that left you feeling undervalued, confused, or isolated. You may even begin to visualize how you may become the next victim of police violence. As a white person, sitting in racism, will likely evoke a rush of guilt throughout your body, you may think about the times your ignorance allowed you to stereotype a person of color. Or how you are passive toward that family member who constantly belittles Black people. In these times where we sit with the full weight of forced degradation or our unethical elevation, the natural thing our bodies may want us to do, for lack of better term, is reject and that would not be stillness but freezing. We may want to close our eyes and think about how we should never bring ourselves back to those cringey times again, but in this state, where we are able to physically feel or even see the suppressed emotion we hold, that is where our responsibility starts. Like most wounds we must be delicate at first but at some point, we are given a choice, to heal or let our wounds fester. Unchecked suppression turns into projection and to break the vicious cycles of shame that we live in, we must think about how the world needs us to productively go about our pain.

In Creative Youth Development we talk about the important outcomes of CREATING, CONNECTING, and being a CATALYST. Which of those words do you feel needs to be amplified the most right now?

To revolutionize the system of oppression we currently live under we must see ourselves as catalysts. Many of our terrible habits are rooted in the fact that we don’t believe there is more out there for us. We stick to the same routines. Same ways of thinking and that in turn creates a limited reality where we are blinded by the borders of our own mind. These thoughts and ideas are often inherited, our coping mechanisms are passed down from our grandparents to parents, to us, the ones who unknowingly or since our recent shift in consciousness, knowingly bare the wounds.

Our old ways of thinking simply no longer work. When we take on the role of catalyst, which we all need to during this revolution, we must be ready and willing to do something that has never been done before. We are making strides not just for ourselves but for the next generation. When Black and brown people are dying at alarming rates it is no longer about passively making change, change needs to happen now and rapidly. What you realize in your stillness is why you must change. Right now, we must re-imagine this world with radical thought that creatively focuses on equity and not just equality.

Can you speak more about the problems of equality and equity as you see it today?

America’s terrible habit is racism. Right now, in Boston, the median net worth of African American families is $8 and the median wealth of white families is $274K. This wealth gap is the byproduct of our American history. A history rooted in the deprivation of Black humanity and the elevation of white superiority. This same history has systematized white supremacy with reinforcement such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the achievement gap, mass incarceration, redlining, colorism, and so much more that we can’t even fully name right now. These forces, as well as capitalism, are meddling with our ability to be present in our lives making us accomplices in the oppression of all minoritized groups, even the ones that we belong to, functioning for a system that was not created for the highest function of us.

Power is often thought of as “strength, force, or might.” But a deeper and wider definition of power is, “having the strength to care for and give to others” or it has been described as “the capacity to produce change” (Miller 1991, p.198). How has protesting and your creative pursuits helped you feel your own power and your ability to produce change?

Protesting is how I also find my peace. If you tell me I do not have power I will simply show you that I do. In my poem, “Billy Sings the Blues”, that I performed at Louder Than a Bomb in 2018, I have a line that reads, “Art has always been in protest to the loss of our voices.” Recently, I have been writing and performing poetry centered around affirming people who are feeling the hurt that I am. In my current work as speaker, writer, and visionary, I focus on affirming my pain and using stillness as a means to either go back and heal a moment, or explain to myself I am not crazy for all that I feel. Art to me is one of the only places where non-judgement is a norm and that is priceless in a world that is so focused on suppressing truth. When I write, I bend time, and in that, I begin to reconnect to the parts of me that need more affirmation. My work is a reminder of all that I have inside of me, and what I hold inside of me is a freedom from this world that I am itching to share. Although these killings were extremely devastating, I believe they generally aligned many more of us together in thought, and a bit of spirit, for the first time in a while. There are not enough changes being made, but the shift in consciousness that we are stepping into as a country is a start. It reminds me that we are the most powerful when we come together. It illuminates the fact that we are still a democracy, even when our president is doing everything he can to extinguish our power.

How do you want to challenge CYD organizations, teaching artists, and white allies to be stronger catalysts for change?

We need accountability. And it is important to hold yourself accountable but you cannot wallow in regret or guilt, that is what creates phenomena such as the “white savior complex”, or “white guilt” where white people begin overcompensating for their whiteness. We must use our shame and guilt as a catapult to build a lifestyle that is pro-Black and anti-racist. You have to be willing to throw your ego out of the window. It is not about just any ONE of us, deconstructing racism is a collective effort and that is when your creativity comes in. Regardless of your role, you need creativity to execute what is needed. It is important to begin asking yourself:

  • How can I use my connections, my talent, my influence, or my resources, to reallocate power that has been systemically unevenly distributed?
  • As a teacher how can I shift my curriculum to be more celebratory of Black and brown power?
  • How can I push the board of the nonprofit I sit in to be more progressive?
  • How can I use my generational wealth to support those who need money to feel more secure in their endeavors?

Becoming catalysts for change, requires many of us to acknowledge our privilege, directly face the truth, and use our creativity to envision a revolution of equity with the powerful capacity to create change. Sitting with those hard questions seems to be very important first steps, especially for white people. Your latest poem that you read last week at the March Like a Mother Protest in Boston, “Being Black is No Small Feat”, ends with questions that need to be asked, deeply heard, and thought about. Could you read the very end of that poem?

Being Black is no small feat.

So, will you vouch for my humanity

when they stop sharing Instagram posts about systemic oppression?

Will you push for diversity and equity when no one is pushing you to?

Will you defend my 4c hair when your boys at the table say my hair is too kinky, too nappy?

Will you deem my Black worthy of love when it talks too loud,

when it takes up too much space, when its nose is too wide?

When it questions your authority?

Will you still deem my Black worthy of love when it’s unconventional?

Will you treat a Black child like your own?

Will you treat a Black person like a person… for once?

Thank you so much Hannah for your thoughts, questions, creativity and inspiration to become accomplices in creating a revolution of change.

Hear Hannah read her poem in its entirety

Hannah is self-described as a Liberian American activist, creative and leader. In high school, at KIPP Academy in Lynn, Hannah founded her school’s first ever Black Student Union and was a teacher’s assistant for a freshman level class on Activism and Advocacy. As an activist in the student led poetry club, Indigo Society Poets, Hannah performed for three years at the Louder Than a Bomb state poetry competition and won the state championship with her team in 2017. In 2018, Hannah took her skills to a new level when she joined a prestigious poetry team representing Boston at the Brave New Voice International Youth Poetry Competition winning fourth place in the world with her team. In addition, Hannah attended groups at the CYD organization, Raw Art Works and for two years she co-led RAW’s girls elementary school age group, Mariposa. Currently, Hannah attends Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts majoring in Arts Management with the hopes of one day having her own nonprofit focusing on Creative Youth Development. She is currently using her passion for the arts and for the people to be a strong voice for her community.

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