Alex Kimball Williams, community activist, facilitator and artist, played her baritone ukulele as she sang the protesting lyrics of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.
Her performance set the scene for a collaborative conversation urging the nation, specifically Lawrence, to acknowledge that strides toward racial equity are far from over.
B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence (Black Literature & Arts Collective of Kansas), the Indigenous Community Center and Sanctuary Alliance — all Lawrence organizations centered on and led by people of color — gathered together on Saturday morning at Holcom Park Recreation Center. Their racial unity event and community potluck meal represented solidarity within the community and among each group’s individual work.
“We’ve found creative ways to get together and make things happen,” said Kimball Williams, co-founder of B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence. “Events like this have been happening for generations — this isn’t a new thing. It’s now, maybe more recently, become more tolerable to do these and invite the public to them.”
Saturday’s event capped off Martin Luther King Jr. Day week 2023. The conversation focused mainly on the concept of reparations and what that means to individual speakers from each organization.
On a national level, advocacy for reparations — the act of making amends — has mostly been in regard to the United States government allocating money and property to descendants of enslaved Black people. The effects of slavery can be seen today through systemic inequities, like acquiring generational wealth.
Tai Amri, poet and B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence member, read a poem about the precolonial Ashanti Empire in modern-day Ghana, known as the Gold Coast for its gold richness. He spoke about “reclaiming [his] name in the peace of Ashanti” and being able to “raise children who know who their ancestors are” as a meaningful form of reparations to him.
“I am a Black man in America and what reparations mean to me is very specific,” Amri said. “I think a lot of times when we talk about reparations, our minds automatically go to money — the money that my ancestors were owed for working on this land for hundreds of years without compensation. And when I think about reparations, I think about what my life would look like if the colonizers never came to Africa.”
Amri said he recently formed a creative partnership with The Truth Project, a Chicago-based organization focused mostly on healing and reparations for Black people. That got him thinking about what reparations would look like for all people of color.
Kimball Williams said reparations can be produced in various ways in addition to money, such as acknowledgements, removal of racist statues, policies, land rights and more.
“Reparations to me [are] money. It is a couple different things, but I also think apology is a big part of that,” Kimball Williams said. “We live in a society that does not apologize or acknowledge. It looks away. It does not acknowledge past harms or present harms … People think because Kansas was a free state, we have nothing to apologize for … People aren’t even acknowledging that Haskell (Indian Nations University) is there — that Haskell is just as equal, if not more given its uniqueness, to KU.”
When discussing the advocacy work each organization does in Lawrence, Sanctuary Alliance member Lacee Roe offered up her knowledge about sanctuary policy.
“We know that anti-immigrant laws lead to over-criminalization, labor exploitation, xenophobia, family separation,” Roe said. “Sanctuary policy is just good policy because it strengthens community trust and public safety. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, contribute a lot to our economy and to the essential fabrics of our communities.”
Roe, who’s also the Lawrence Community Shelter’s director of community engagement, talked about the growing issue of homelessness. She questioned why society criticizes unhoused people more than housed people when it comes to mental health struggles and substance abuse. Unhoused people also tend to lack access to addiction recovery and medical resources as well as social agency, she added.
“Substance use is often used as a coping mechanism in response to trauma,” Roe said.
“During the pandemic, we were under this collective stress as a society. We went through this collective trauma, and we saw drug use go up. We saw alcohol use go up. And this was mostly people who were housed and still couldn’t keep it together. So why is it that we judge people so much more harshly just because they’re not behind closed doors? Why is it that we judge people when they’re just trying to survive?”
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Art forms were integrated into Saturday’s event along with the discussion. In addition to Kimball Williams — whose artistic name is Bad Alaskan — and Amri’s poetry reading, Indigenous Community Center Chairperson Robert Hicks, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nixon Nevada, performed with a drum.
Mariel Ferreiro, co-founder of Sanctuary Alliance, led attendees in a grounding exercise at the start of the event to help everyone feel present in the moment. Amri poured water libations, a spiritual ritual to honor ancestors.
Before concluding the discussion with another grounding exercise to then break into the potluck meal, Ferreiro shared a lasting sentiment.
“We did a little grounding practice to get us centered for this conversation to hear all the incredible work and labor that people of color are doing, and I encourage people who do not fit in that box to join in,” Ferreiro said. “That’s where the reparations work starts is listening, acknowledging and starting to see the direction of being proactive.”
B.L.A.C.K. Lawrence is a network of local Black musicians, poets, artists and other creatives. To inquire about joining the network, visit blacklawrence.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Indigenous Community Center hosts events and programs and offers support to Indigenous community members in Lawrence. It also has a farm where people can volunteer. Learn more at indigenouscommunitycenter.com.
Sanctuary Alliance works to strengthen immigrant rights and sanctuary policy as well as provide emergency services in Lawrence. Visit its Facebook page, Sanctuary Alliance Lawrence, to learn more.