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Lom Nava Love: an Interview with Fanon Hill

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The Youth Resiliency Project has been a long-standing partner with Youth Passageways, merging historical reclamation with art and community integration to build new villages in and around Baltimore. Confluence Editor, Dane Zahorsky, spent some time with the co-founder Fanon Hill on his work and a new film: Lom Nava Love. See the trailer below.

DZ: Describe your work. In specific, how did the Youth Resiliency Institute lead to the Journey Project?

FH: The Youth Resiliency Institute facilitates youth and community development through a culturally relevant rite of passage framework embedded within the multiple ecologies that Black children, youth, and families interact and live in.

Operating in Baltimore, Maryland and in East Cleveland, Ohio in partnership with the National Rites of Passage Institute, the Youth Resiliency Institute not only works with families in both cities, but connects those families across state lines, that they might combine their strengths as they strive to push themselves, and their children, beyond the horizons delineated by institutional and social structures.

The many ways in which Black families strategize, organize and confront issues of housing, policing, education, health care, politics, policy, and systemic racism has yet to be truly explored. The Youth Resiliency Institute’s Journey Project celebrates the powerful ways in which culturally relevant family engagement undergirded by the arts manifests as a political act for Black families residing in disinvested communities throughout our country.

DZ: At what point did you know that film would play a part and how did Lom Nava Love begin to take shape?

FH: In the West African Ewe language, “ne e lom a, va dxim kpo” communicates the understanding that “if you love me, then you will come to me.” At the core of the Journey Project’s approach to family organizing lies the conviction that Black families are their own best answers to the challenges they face in their communities.

Lom Nava Love is the unflinching story of Black families residing in public housing in Baltimore, Maryland and residents of East Cleveland, Ohio who harness their strengths to challenge the systems and institutions that would dictate their realities.

Centered on the work of Baltimore public housing organizer, great-grandmother and artist Ms. Shirley Foulks, Lom Nava Love is a documentary that focuses on Foulks’ family engagement efforts with families in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill Public Homes and explores the central but often invisibilized role women have played in Black liberation efforts and the way public housing in America has served as a site of resistance against oppression.

Early on in the Journey Project, it was understood that the tactics and practices employed by “Mama Shirley” needed to be shared widely for the benefit of our nation and indeed the world. Every Lom Nava Love screening is a political act that shapes worldview and social activism. Unlike most documentarians who feature “subjects” in their films only to shine the spotlight on themselves during film screenings, all Lom Nava Love screenings include post-screening discussions with various community members featured in the film which directly challenges hierarchies about who has the right to be heard and speak on issues related to community-based rites of passage, cultural organizing and community transformation.

DZ: How have your own rites of passage informed your work in the world?

FH: Coming of age in East Cleveland, Ohio- a disinvested community populated by hard working educators, blue-collar workers, artists, and families, connected me to the functionality of African-centered rites of passage as well as the presence of elitism that some rites of passage practitioners often attach to rites of passage processes. Memories of rites of passage practitioners who were unwilling to participate in rites processes in my community due to fear, stereotypes and/or misperceptions they possessed about my “village” continue to inform my work. Today there are cities, communities, and neighborhoods populated by “unfulfilled warriors” fighting for the right for positive initiation in their immediate communities. They remain in a self-imposed “preliminal” stage shining brightly hoping that their light will be seen in their “village.” The Youth Resiliency Institute finds itself entrenched in the “East Cleveland’s” that exist in every city. We see the light.

DZ: A large theme in many practitioners’ and communities’ process is the intersection of tradition and innovation. How has your work been informed by this dynamic?

FH: Perpetuating the knowledge, history, and rites that hold special significance to Black families who find themselves living in a society that continues to be racist requires acknowledgment of the strengths of our ancestors and the presence of future generations waiting to be born. Cultural continuity reminds us that we are living ancestors and as such we must clearly live the indigenous that possesses the power to weave the basket that will hold the values and traditions we want for our children. Equally important, is the profound realization that not to reinvent oneself through the development of fresh tactics and traditions is to risk death. Strategies developed to assist community members through transitions in life often become obsolete seconds after they are born. Art as a specific rite of passage tactic allows us to actively unlearn what we think we know about the communities we work in and the families that reside in those communities. In this sense, the functionality of African art helps us prepare for and welcome forthcoming wisdom and burgeoning traditions.

DZ: How do you define resilience? Where does it meet resistance?

FH: In 1973, East Cleveland, Ohio resident Inez Moore received a citation from the city stating that her grandson was an illegal occupant. It said his presence violated the city’s zoning ordinance because it did not fit the statute’s definition of a “family unit.” The case went to the Supreme Court and was settled in Moore’s favor in 1977. Today in Baltimore, every Journey Project family must study Ms. Moore’s case and produce imagery about her that honors her legacy and the points where her resilience met and conquered resistance.

In the context of the Lom Nava Love documentary, which also celebrates Ms. Inez Moore, resiliency is what you see, hear and feel when Black families grounded in African epistemologies and beliefs rebel against unequal citizenship status. In Baltimore, the trauma of social exclusion experienced by Black families residing in public housing is often perpetuated by institutions and systems that view Black families as problems to be fixed. Black communities have been invaded and colonized by professionalized services with often devastating results. Sadly, very few systems regard the Black family as an institution where each individual contributes to its characteristic interactional pattern.

The Youth Resiliency Institute employs rites of passage tactics that assist Black families so that they can transform EXTERNAL stories of inadequacy and failure to PERSONAL stories of inspiration, creativity, and vision. Specific culturally relevant protective and promotive factors allow Black families engaged in Youth Resiliency Institute processes to define their own world and actualize power with cultural backpacks in tow.

DZ: It seems, in many ways, YRI is using rites of passage in the larger process of community development and resiliency. Can you describe how you see these interrelating?

FH: Rites of passage teach our children how to rebel against all that aims to destroy them.

Black youth who do not happen to live in a two-parent home are too often discussed as though not connected to any actual family structure at all, ignoring and, by implication, invalidating a broader network of family relations that can be part of a child’s successful development.

Emancipatory family engagement, as practiced and supported by the Youth Resiliency Institute, is born out of resistance struggles waged by Black families across time. It is the intersection of the past, present, and future and begins and ends with families. Emancipatory family engagement unflinchingly expands the rim of freedom for Black families struggling under the weight of oppressive inequities in high poverty communities.

Black families residing in public housing are often viewed as refugees in their own city. However, within these communities exist self-determined masterful tacticians under constant threat of attack who have formed communities where everyone has a role. Much like West African secret societies, “community champions” in these communities practice initiation rites that regenerate, protect and prepare community members for important roles in the community. Indeed, rites of passage is a protective factor that seamlessly regenerates community by healing, redeeming and liberating community members residing in high poverty communities.

DZ: As a follow-up to the previous question: What part does the village play in your work [rebuilding interdependent community] and how does creating resilience fit into the larger narrative of Baltimore?

FH: Lom Nava Love focal point Mama Shirley Foulks’ creativity and vision has impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth in the Cherry Hill community. Yet, as a Baltimore-born artist residing in public housing, she has never been invited to a theater or museum in her own city.

The Youth Resiliency Institute has made supporting community-based youth development practitioners in disinvested neighborhoods a top priority.

Black families living in low-income communities often possess rich tactics and practices that can transform entire neighborhoods. Far too few institutional structures and systems value Black families residing in high poverty communities enough to acknowledge them as possessing solutions to ills plaguing our cities, which in turn, creates an unequal two-tiered notion of citizenship.

The civil unrest that occurred in Baltimore in April 2015 was a response to such a two-tiered notion of citizenship. Although often referred to as an uprising, the Youth Resiliency Institute refers to the April 2015 events that shook Baltimore as a revolt and connects those events to the many revolts that occur in Baltimore day after day, decade after decade led by residents whose names we may never know. The Youth Resiliency Institute “village” recognizes these individuals through a bonding process that taps into remembrance and the strength of our ancestors.

The Youth Resiliency Institute works to protect the “village” and “villagers” minute by minute, hour by up hour.

DZ: Music, dance, and the visual arts also play a huge part in your work. How have you seen the arts affect your ability to do the work you do?

FH: The Distinguished poet, playwright, and master youth development practitioner Useni Perkins once shared that, “art and activism are the fountainheads of a people’s culture and the path to liberation.” In the Journey Project, art is not a means of improving families, but a way to remind those families of the power they innately possess and which can be harnessed to effect a new vision for communities.  It is an approach to organizing that comes to families, rather than attempt to fix them.

The creation of art in one’s own community serves as a powerful tool that can reestablish community-based structures of knowledge, economic power, remembrance, and embodiment. The functionality of African art in rites of passage processes humanizes the dehumanized and evolves a place for Black families residing in high poverty communities to contribute important solutions and wisdom.

Although community art-based organizations such as the Youth Resiliency Institute have been much sought after partners to the established mainstream institutions, they have often not benefited equitably in the allocation of funds to support their contribution. As novelist James Baldwin once wrote, “the purpose of art is to disturb the peace.” Cross-generationally through the art of rites of passage the Youth Resiliency Institute is fiercely working to disturb the peace! We salute and support those on the front line “doing the work” in every village!

About the Author: Fanon Hill & the Confluence Editorial Staff

Fanon Hill is no stranger to community service through strategically engaged activism. Recognizing a need for youth cultural organizing in Baltimore City to confront the issues surrounding isolated community and youth programming that could not sufficiently address issues of violence, generational trauma, inadequate educational attainment and unemployment, he sought to create a movement, a way of life that could effectively and permanently create change for children, youth and young adults. As co-founder of the Youth Resiliency Institute, Hill provides community-centric programming to vulnerable populations through a performance and creative arts-based rites of passage process that has at it core the ideals of collective responsibility, artivism and philanthropy that will lead to civically engaged intergenerational teams of community-based advocates working to form a healthier and stronger Baltimore.

Hill continues to organize and strategize for community and youth equality in Baltimore City and throughout the country. He is a trainer for the National Rites of Passage Institute, has served as an advisor for the Tony award-winning musical Fela!, and for various Baltimore-based organizations. Equally significant, Hill’s work has been featured in the Justice Policy Institute’s Bearing Witness Report, the national newspaper, Youth Today and a 2010 documentary funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which highlights the role of rites of passage in urban communities. Hill has been featured on the nationally syndicated Michael Eric Dyson radio show, published by the National College Board, and has received a Congressional Citation from the U.S. House of Representatives for his work as a cultural organizer dedicated to the application of Resilience Theory in Baltimore’s most disinvested communities. Hill is a Case Western Reserve University Treu-Mart Fellow.

In 2011, Hill successfully launched and executed The Black Male Identity (BMI) project, which used the arts to create more positive imagery, ideas, and narratives around black boys and men who are barraged with negative stereotypes. At its core, the goal was to foster dialogue both inside and outside the black community that will expand horizons. Through art, BMI provided an opportunity for black males, and those extending love and support, to develop images, narratives, and video offering a diverse vision of positive black male identity functioning as a resource for others. During the year, more than 200 participants created art during the summer art workshops held at various community locations, while more than 1000 Baltimore City Public School and Independent School students engaged in BMI art making projects.

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