Shani's Blog

I’ve been working on an oral history project with my uncle, John O’Neal, who co-founded the Free Southern Theater (the cultural arm of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) fifty years ago during Freedom Summer. Excited to share that this work took a step forward with my first publication as a Huffington Post blogger. Check it out below!

Creative Resistance: A Study of the Free Southern Theater

As the country marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the landmark voting rights initiative that took place throughout the state of Mississippi in 1964, it’s important to note the key but often overlooked role the arts and culture community played in the social change of that era.

That summer, which fundamentally changed the shape of American democracy, was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the major civil rights organizations — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their efforts, which included Freedom Schools, voter registration and the noteworthy intervention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1964 Democratic National Convention, helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Right in the middle of it, the Free Southern Theater (FST), co-founded by my uncle John O’Neal, was born. The brainchild of O’Neal, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses, this was theater designed to “act as a stimulus to the critical thought necessary for effective participation in a democratic society,” a mission stated in the book The Free Southern Theater by The Free Southern Theater: A Documentary of the South’s Radical Black Theater with Journals. Letters, Poetry, and Essays and a Play Written By Those Who Built It.

The founders — O’Neal and Derby were SNCC field directors and Moses worked as a journalist with the Mississippi Free Press — viewed live theater as the best way to counteract the degrading impact of inferior education, the misrepresentations of the local media and the paucity of cultural resources available to Black people. When I was a child, FST and its organizational successor Junebug Productions held revered places in my mind. My parents made it a point to see their performances whenever they held a show within driving distance, and I spent a teenage summer with my uncle as he worked on a theater production in Appalachia. The theaters’ many accomplishments, which are rooted and reflected in our family of artists, educators and activists, have greatly influenced my own career and life choices.

Shani at SNCC’s 50th reunion with her Uncle John.

Recently I’ve begun working with my uncle on an oral history project about our shared commitment to working at the intersection of the arts and progressive social change. During one of our interviews, he told me that FST, which became a New Orleans-based institution, had piloted its efforts during this pivotal era in Mississippi. He said: “[FST] was not held up apart from the Freedom Summer, but as an integral tool of [it]. It gave the energy for… FST to be transformed from an idea into 50 some years’ worth of work so far. We’re still trying to do the same thing we started out to do.”

One of the company’s first shows, staged at more than 20 Freedom Schools during Freedom Summer, was In White America by Martin Duberman. The play, which was performed as often as twice a day before students, staff, teachers and community members of all ages, is a sweeping look at the collective history of Africans in the United States. Stories included the Nat Turner rebellion, Frederick Douglass’s abolition efforts and a depiction of school desegregation set in Little Rock, Ark.

“We did as many as two performances a day in a four-week period,” my uncle told me. “And then the next day we’d drive and set up and perform.” FST’s intrepid eight-person crew, which included actress Denise Nicholas, who later starred in the TV shows “Room 222″ and “In the Heat of the Night,” took the production across Mississippi to towns including Macomb, Hattiesburg, Greenwood and Greenville. Freedom School staff used it as the basis of its curriculum development, and community organizers used the play as a text for their efforts in voter registration. “The whole curriculum of the Freedom School was built around the play, because the play was built around the struggle of African American people. From the earliest days of slavery all the way up. We’d read it and give a context to people who taught and organized the community that we were performing in,” O’Neal said.

“Denise would be on one side of the auditorium and she would start singing ‘oh freedom over me… and before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.’ And then from other places in the auditorium after the first phrase or two, someone else would join her very nice soprano voice in harmony. All over the auditorium we’d start singing and moving towards the stage from wherever we were.”

The company was committed to staging free performances for the communities they served, so it drew support from individual and institutional donors, which included celebrities such as Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln. The theater’s first donation came in the form of a check from Langston Hughes. “We wanted to save it for history’s sake. He had such a distinguished signature — written in purple ink with a felt tip pen. But we needed the money so bad we had to cash it,” O’Neal recently told me with a laugh. “It was not a remarkable sum, except to people who were broke… so I’ll say it was a major contribution. We were scrambling for rent every month and for a meal every day.”

Have their efforts paid off?

Today, Mississippi has the highest number of Black elected officials of any state, a fact presented by director Stanley Nelson in his film “Freedom Summer,” part of the American Experience series on PBS. The New York Times reports that African Americans currently make up 36 percent of the electorate in the state, one of the highest percentages in the nation. FST members have spent the decades since its inception writing and producing plays, launching workshops for actors and developing a model of community engagement and liberatory theater that made an invaluable contribution — for many, work that continues well after a jazz funeral was held for FST in 1985.

As retrospectives honor those who faced danger for daring to register to vote and those who supported their sacrifice, we should not forget the integral role of the arts in social change. The book Free Southern Theater sums it up this way: “Through theater, we think to open a new area of protest, one that permits the development of playwrights and actors, one that permits the growth and self knowledge of a Negro audience, one that supplements the present struggle for freedom.”

Shani Jamila (www.shanijamila.com), a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow, is a New York-based artist and the Director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center. To learn more about the work of the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions, visit www.junebugproductions.org.

Spring News

Apr
05

Happy Spring!

As I strolled through the streets yesterday I could feel the city awakening. Dancers are back out in the public squares, bright colors adorn the most stylish people, long lines have returned to the street vendor’s carts. It’s good to feel us collectively shake off the remnants of winter, and welcome a new season of rebirth and renewal.

I welcome this opportunity to share a little bit about what’s been blossoming in my world over the past couple of months. If you would like to learn more about anything you read below, feel free to reach out via my website: www.shanijamila.com. I hope you’ll also let me know what projects have been making you happy, I look forward to finding ways to support each other.

Walk good family,

Shani

Art and Activism

I interviewed two luminaries of the art world for the February 2014 issue of the Harlem Fine Arts Show magazine, a publication that focuses on contemporary African diasporic art. The magazine, edited by the brilliant Khephra Burns, is distributed as an insert in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

I really enjoyed talking with art collector Tina Knowles for HFAS. Well known as the mother of Beyonce and Solange, in addition to her work as a clothing designer for Destiny’s Child and the House of Dereon, Knowles has another passion that fewer people are aware of. She deeply believes in the need to preserve African American culture and history. “We are everything we are because of the people who came before us and fought to have us where we are now,” she explains. Knowles has an impressive breadth of knowledge about the artists whose work she acquires, including masters like Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden.

Dr. Lee Gause was my next subject. The founder of Smile Design Manhattan, a private dental practice he runs with his brother Alexandre, Gause has devised an innovative solution to provide free care for patients who ordinarily couldn’t afford his services. “We bring amazing people into a room and sell them something they love, which is art. We use the proceeds to provide free dentistry,” he explains. Thanks to this innovative effort, approximately five hundred uninsured and underinsured people have been able to receive treatment.

A month or so later, the tables were turned and I became the interviewee for YES World, a non profit that “connects, inspires and collaborates with changemakers to join forces for thriving, just and sustainable ways of life for all.” Check out the previous blog post to read the transcript of that conversation.

Public Speaking + Publications

This month I had the opportunity to travel down to Charlotte, NC to deliver a keynote address at Johnson C. Smith University. What a joy it was to talk with the students about my career path and global travels, and to share stories about the rich history of artists and social change with the audience. To check out a picture and learn more, read the news article one of the students wrote about the event.

I was happy to return as a presenter at the annual Women of Power conference sponsored by the Center for Caribbean Culture African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI). I served as a moderator for a panel called Ancient Seeds: The Art of New Vision. As stated on their website: “This discussion gives platform to contemporary trailblazers in various stages of emergence on to the creative landscape. Using their work and experiences as touch points, they share their insights as to the opportunities and challenges in creating new work, new processes of production, and their personal sciences for remembering tomorrow.” Extraordinary artists from New York to Nairobi joined us for this discussion, including Sabine Blazin, Manueal Arciniegas and Erica Sewell.

During this period I also moderated a panel on police reform in Chelsea and spoke about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Arise Review, a broadcast hosted by Julian Phillips, that analyzes global finance, politics and development issues.

Finally, I’m happy to announce that the sixth annual Council Watch report, a publication I edited, was released just last week. The report card is a tool for education and action, designed to advance the use of a human rights framework in policy and advocacy. It also measures the commitment of the NYC council of promoting human rights in our city. There have been several articles printed about it, click here for coverage from The Amsterdam News. You can peek inside and order a copy by making a tax deductible donation to the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Next Up

The next big news starts tomorrow! From April 2nd – 4th, I will be leading the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center’s ninth annual human rights institute. We are pleased to have the co-sponsorship of the US Human Rights Network in this endeavor. The institute promotes good governance and social change by training a select group of participants from around the country to strengthen their local advocacy efforts by using a human rights frame. Alumni become part of a nationwide community of human rights advocates and have access to ongoing human rights education, technical support and dialogue. I’m really excited about welcoming everyone to town and look forward to sharing highlights about it with you in my next newsletter.

YES Interview

Mar
29

Shani Jamila is an artist, traveler and human rights advocate. She has spoken about African American culture and history at global gatherings like the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Switzerland, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Turkey and the World Social Forum in India. Her international experiences deeply inform her work as a collagist, fiber artist and creative writer. She has exhibited or performed her work at institutions including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the Phillips Gallery, Rush Arts, Corridor Gallery, Le Poisson Rouge, Busboys & Poets, Bohemian Caverns and the City College of New York.

Shani is the Director of the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project. Previously, she designed and directed an arts based mentorship program to support the education and empowerment of incarcerated teens. She also led a seminar series at Howard University that utilized cultural work to examine domestic social justice issues in an international human rights frame.

A proud graduate of Spelman College and UCLA, she has been awarded multiple grants for post-graduate study at institutions including Cornell University and the University of the West Indies (where she spent a year as a Fulbright fellow). Her work has received international recognition in publications such as the Trinidad Guardian and Express newspapers, the London based literary magazine Sable, and ESSENCE– as “One of the 35 Most Remarkable Women in the World.”

Shani participated in the 2005 Leveraging Privilege for Social Change Jam.

YES! had a chance to journey with Shani…

where are you now? and, if applicable, what were your last three trips?
I live in Brooklyn, NY. The last three places I visited were Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Jordan.

describe your current project.
I direct the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, which promotes domestic compliance with universally accepted human rights standards. We work to:
- Educate local legislators, media, and the public about our government’s role in advancing or restricting human rights.
- Equip advocates with human rights tools, models and networks.
- Inspire positive action and collaboration.
- Develop and share models for using human rights to demand higher standards of government accountability at local and national levels.

To learn more about our work, visit our site:

http://www.urbanjustice.org/ujc/projects/human.html

what’s your vision for the next year – for yourself? for the world?
As an artist, advocate and public speaker, part of my work is to inspire people to believe that “another world is possible.” Over the next year, I’d like us to find innovative ways of applying our creativity and passion to its realization.

two truths and a lie about yourself?
(readers, guess which is the lie.)

1. My greatest passion is exploring global cultures, so I have traveled to over 35 countries so far.

2. I am a certified scuba diver.

3. For six years, I interviewed an array of leading writers, artists and scholars, as the host and producer of a talk radio show in Washington, DC.

a quote that inspires you?
“A Woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing.
She goes where she will without pretense
and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself and only herself.”
- Maya Angelou

the best thing you took away from the Jams you attended?
I left my Jams inspired by the collective commitment to the creation of a better world that the attendees shared. It was a pleasure to be in the company of a diverse group of people who are committed to supporting progressive movement.

any time sensitive announcements?
Our 9th annual Human Rights Institute will be held from April 2-4, 2014, in New York City. The Institute is a three-day professional development conference that brings select human rights advocates and policymakers from across the country to network, share ideas, and collaborate with others who are working to advance domestic human rights. Participants learn about the international human rights framework, apply it to their local organizing efforts and become contributors to the growing domestic human rights movement. We are delighted to offer this event in partnership with the U.S. Human Rights Network.

You can learn more about Shani at www.shanijamila.com

*#2 is the lie… For now.

YES! connects, inspires, and collaborates with young and intergenerational leaders for a thriving, just and balanced world.
Please visit www.yesworld.org if you would like to learn more!

Happy new year everyone! I hope this newsletter finds you all warm and happy.

It’s now been one year since I began this newsletter to stay in touch with each of you. It’s been a joy to have this tool to share tidbits about the work I’ve been engaged in. One of my favorite things about doing this is the communication it’s inspired with many of you about the ways we can collaborate and support each other.

If you would like to learn more about anything you read below, feel free to reach out via my website:  www.shanijamila.com. You can also revisit last year’s letters there, they are archived on the blog page. Thanks for reading.  I’m wishing you a year filled with more blessings than you can count.

With eyes to the future,

Shani

Art and Activism

In December, I was honored to join Paloma McGregor to co-facilitate Dancing While Black at New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. Giants of dance including Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Bill T. Jones, John Perpener, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, and Nia Love gathered to discuss the ways that race, justice and dance have intersected in their lives and practice. It was a fantastic experience leading the group in story circles about their performance and activism.  Truly a special night. More coverage of the event is available at  Black Dance magazine.

Since my last update to you, I also had the opportunity to take my first trip to the Middle East. My travels took me to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. One of the highlights of  my visit was attending the Abu Dhabi Art fair.

 

What an incredible opportunity to bear witness to modern and contemporary art from galleries around the world! I left deeply inspired by what I saw both in this space and more broadly by the cultural immersion that travel uniquely provides. I can’t wait to see what new international journeys 2014 will hold.

Public Speaking + Public Service

On the evening of Monday, December 2nd, the Human Rights Project (HRP) along with Common Cause/NY and New York Law School/Center for New YorkCity Law, held a roundtable at New York Law School with six New York City Council members -Inez Dickens, Daniel Garodnick, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma, James Vacca, and Mark Weprin – on the future of the City Council.

The roundtable, moderated by Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause/NY and Christina Greer, Fordham University Professor, featured an in-depth discussion on the Council’s rules and operations going forward, touching on topics including discretionary funds, the progression of legislation, the roles of Council, working with Mayor Elect DeBlasio, and the incoming 21 Council members. In my capacity as the director of HRP, I provided opening and concluding remarks.

I also co-facilitated an introduction to human rights webinar and a panel on the arts and human rights at the bi-annual conference of the U.S. Human Rights Network. It was a fantastic opportunity to join with colleagues from around the country to assess the state of the domestic human rights movement and share strategies for how we would like to move it forward.

If you would like to contribute to building this movement, the Human Rights Project would love to be one of your first tax deductible donations of the new year. We welcome your support, work like this can only continue with the generosity of individuals like you.

Thanks family. I’m looking forward to continuing to build with you in 2014!

Next Up

Tomorrow evening, I’m really looking forward to participating inBlink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited at the Harlem Stage. I will be offering a contemporary analysis of art, democracy, diversity and imagination with Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg, Rob Fields from the Festival of the New Black Imagination and Kamilah Forbes of the Hip Hop Theater Festival. The conversation will be moderated by image activist Michaela Angela Davis.
For those of you in the New York area, I would love it if you joined us! For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Public Speaking + Public Service

 

In September, the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library held a gala event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It was my honor to  celebrate some of the Brooklyn voices who have played a role in advocating for civil and human rights by serving as the moderator for  an intergenerational community conversation. 

 

Also in recent news, I’m pleased to announce that I accepted an invitation to join the U.S. Civil Rights Commission New York State Advisory Committee. I’m excited about the opportunity to inform federal policy on the local social justice issues we are currently contending with.
The past few months have been punctuated by a series of  interviews I’ve conducted about the arts and human rights. I am always inspired by the experiences of the people I get to interview, and for these I’ve been joined by some of our community’s best: poet and publisher Dr. Haki Madhubuti, vocalist and composer Imani Uzuri & arts advocate and painter Danny Simmons.  I also spent a fantastic evening at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, interviewing the Queen of Swing, Norma Miller, during an event sponsored by the Lincoln Center.    My sincere thanks to each of these talented artists for giving of their time and expertise. 

Art and Activism 

 

Finally, a HUGE shout out goes to my uncle, actor and writer John O’Neal, who is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Free Southern Theater this month. To mark the occasion, there will be a not to be missed convening of artists, scholars and activists going down in New Orleans from October 17-20. To learn more about the schedule and registration details, just follow this link.

 

As I watched today’s commemorative activities of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the time I spent on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial as a speaker during the 40th celebration. Thanks to the treasure trove that is today’s internet, I was able to find the video. If you click on the link below, my speech  begins at 4:26:26.

March on Washington 40th Anniversary Video

 

A Conversation with Norma Miller 
 

In Conversation with the Queen of Swing
Visual and Performance Art

The Bearden 100 Artist Talk

In May, I joined Sol Sax, Dread Scott and Aisha Tandiwe Bell for a standing room only artist talk and digital exhibition at Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea. This event was organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and Full Spectrum Experience, and featured   contemporary visual artists who are members of the Bearden 100.  Each of us displayed images of our artwork, discussed the impact of Romare Bearden on our artistic practice and shared a  piece  of his art that we chose to highlight as particularly influential.  It was truly a historic night, one for the record books.

 

 

In other news, one of my textile based pieces, “A Candle In the Dark,” is  currently on view  at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. It is included in a show that pays tribute to the Underground Railroad and one of its most celebrated figures– Harriet Tubman.  The exhibit, “Homage to Harriet,”  will be open to the public until June 23rd.

 

Public Speaking + Public Service


I was recently invited to speak  at the NAACP Leadership 500 conference– an annual  gathering designed to help set an  agenda for emerging advocates and leaders.  I traveled to Florida to participate in a discussion about  Black America and our relationship to international initiatives with long time colleagues Dr. Deborah Robinson, Lori Cooper and Jotaka Eaddy.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to have shared some ideas with conference attendees and I look forward to seeing how our recommendations are implemented!

 

Over the past two months, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Public Library and the New York Council of the Humanities, I facilitated a series of community conversations in Bedford Stuyvesant. Employing poems and short stories by authors including Toni Cade Bambara and Gwendolyn Brooks as foundational texts, participants were led in a discussion of how they could relate the themes in the literature to their own lives and neighborhoods.


Finally, check out my latest edition of The Spin with Esther Armah,  Dr. Brittney Cooper and Dr. Yaba Blay– broadcast  on New York’s WBAI, 99.5FM.  The show covered topics including immigration, gun violence, the carceral state and women in the workforce.  Click the following link if you would like to  listen to the show. 
The conversation begins 29 minutes in.
 

Visual and Performance Art
During the month of March, Shani had her work include in three exhibits that ran concurrently.

Shani’s quilt A Candle in the Dark is included in an exhibit dedicated to the legendary Harriet Tubman at “Baltimore’s premier facility highlighting the history and accomplishments of African Americans,” the Reginald F. Lewis museum. A Smithsonian affiliate and the largest African American museum on the east coast, it is located near the Inner Harbor at the corner of Pratt and President Streets. The exhibit will be up until June 23rd.

Shani also had a piece in the Harlem Memoirs fiber art exhibit, a show that highlighted the work of Dindga McCannon and her students. She was featured in a short film about quilt making that was screened at the exhibit.  For more, check out this article on Ebony.com. 

Finally, Shani’s fiber art work is included in an exhibition called Freedom Now! at the Harlem State Office Building. The exhibit is a celebration of African American, Haitian and Dominican art and culture. This picture is of Senator Espaillat delivering remarks at the opening reception, next to her piece “Cotton Club.” The exhibit will be open to the public until April 5th.


Public Speaking + Public Service
HRI 2013 Participants
Shani organized a national institute on art and social change from March 20-22, 2013 at the Ford Foundation offices, in her capacity as the Director of
the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center (HRP).  A cohort of thirteen advocates from around the country came together for this highly specialized training experience, which was co-sponsored by the US Human Rights Network.  Additionally, she presented at the United Nations 57th Commission on the Status of Women NGO Forum Parallel Event, “Promoting Human Rights and Ending Trafficking in Persons,” on March 7, 2013 in honor of Women’s History Month. HRP was pleased to co-sponsor this discussion with members of the New York Anti Trafficking Network.

Finally, trainings are currently available for any organizations interested in learning about the methodology and implementation of the New York City Council Human Rights Report Card. Shani edited the 2012 publication which evaluates the legislative record of local politicians.  It is designed to advance the use of a human rights framework in policy evaluation and advocacy.  Please click the following links to schedule a training or order a copy of the report.

 
Next Up
Articulations

 

Coming up, Shani will begin leading a community dialogue series on service, in collaboration with the New York Council for the Humanities and the Brooklyn Public Library.

 

I’m pleased to announce that I currently have art work included in three exhibits– “Homage to Harriet” at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore (until June 5th); “Freedom Now,” sponsored by Senator Espaillat’s office on the 8th floor at the Harlem State Office Building on 125th (until April 5th); and “Harlem Memorabilia,” a fiber art exhibit being shown at 120th and Riverside (until March 29th). I’m honored to be in the company of some amazing fellow artists in these shows. If you are able make it to any or all of the above, I promise beauty and inspiration await…