There are hearts beating strong with love and power that grace my life. The hearts of friends and neighbors who face challenges I can never fully understand. Visionaries calling for a paradigm shift that will lift us all up, especially those who the system is designed to keep down. I am humbled to be in community with them.
My Saturday morning was spent amongst such hearts at Hillcrest Apartments, volunteering for the Women’s Wellbeing & Development Foundation’s (WWDF)‘s annual February free breakfast program. On that dramatically cold day, my own heart was warmed beyond my expectations.
“This program is in celebration of Black History Month and honors the original Free Breakfast Program that was begun by the Black Panthers during the height of the Civil Rights era,” explains WWDF, “They offered a free hot meal to the children of their communities in the morning, preparing them for the day nutritionally, and empowering their minds and spirits through education while they ate. The community leaders educated the children about their true rights and history, and taught them how to stand up for what they believed in, and for fair and equal treatment. At one point the head of the FBI at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, declared that the Free Breakfast Program was the single largest threat to national security.”
The WWDF breakfast truly had the spirit of a happening that is making things happen.
Arriving early, volunteers prepared the big breakfast and decorated the room in red, gold, green and black. Some of the volunteers were members of UNC Asheville’s very active Black Student Association (including contributors to Shades of Color, an online publication run by UNCA students of color). I was impressed with them. I also want to shout out to my friend Angel Redmond and her children. Angel is a dedicated community leader and part of the Asheville Freedom School, an exciting group which I will be writing more about soon. There was a great collection of folks there to pitch in for the breakfast.
After a crowd had gathered to eat, Olufemi Lewis (of Ujamaa Freedom Market) welcomed everyone and, following an African tradition, offered libations and prayers for the ancestors who have gone before. Then the food line opened up and plates were piled with delicious food that had been prepared with great care.
During breakfast, we heard from officers of the Residents’ Council of the Asheville Housing Authority (click here to like their FB page). I will try and capture some of the topics discussed here, though I did not catch quite everything because as folks were talking I was busy putting syrup on kids’ pancakes.
Olufemi read a powerful piece written by Carl E. Johnson, the man who the Hillcrest Community Center is named after. While I need to learn a lot more about him, I do know that he was a great leader that did important things for his community. One of Johnson’s accomplishments was helping to establish the Residents’ Council, and each neighborhood’s Association, as entities separate from the Housing Authority administration, and not under their direction. The current leadership of the Residents’ Council is using this autonomy to advocate for jobs and education for residents. I was impressed by the remarks made by the officers: Sir Charles Gardner (of Pisgah View Peace Gardens), Iindia Pearson, and Keith DeBlasio. Olufemi is also an officer.
One announcement that was made is that on Tuesday, March 3 City Council will be discussing a proposal to placepolice officers in all of the housing communities in 24-hours-a-day stations. Residents will be at that meeting expressing their opposition to this idea. I stand in support of them and will share more about this issue as I learn.
Also discussed was the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) and highway building plans. Speakers questioned what the future of their neighborhoods will be, and what will happen to current residents when redevelopment occurs. (Want to know more about RAD? The Asheville Blade provides an overview in this article: “Different roads: the future of public housing”).
We also heard briefly from Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a long-time activist from Chattanooga, TN who is reaching out to folks in Asheville. Ash-Lee is a member and organizer with Concerned Citizens for Justice, and is a board member of the Highlander Education and Research Center. I look forward to hearing more from her.
The speakers were moving in their passion and willingness to stand up for justice.
When I finally sat down to eat, I thoroughly enjoyed my food and the company at my table.
One thing that continually troubles me is how the majority culture in Asheville is, for the most part, extremely uninformed about the realities of their neighbors that live in public housing. Many people do not even know where Asheville’s public housing developments are located. Ignoring this population perpetuates systemic inequities in every area – health, economics, academics, etc. This can change. We live in a wonderful place with great abundance. Asheville can open it’s eyes to everyone who lives here. Manifesting this change will not be easy. Institutional racism is real. However, those of us that benefit from it are responsible from dismantling it and for supporting those the system has left behind.
There will be another free breakfast program next Saturday, February 28th. If you’d like to volunteer, show up at the Carl E. Johnson Center, 100 Atkinson Street in Hillcrest Community, between 7:30 and 8:00 am, ready to serve and to break bread with beautiful people.
photos by me. editor’s note: there are some great links in the post, click away!