What's Important to Us: The Baltimore Imagining

In mid-April, West Baltimore was the site of an uprising as people took to the streets to protest to the killing of Freddy Gray, who died in police custody. Just two months later, on June 20th, West Baltimore neighbors took part in one of the fifteen Imaginings across the U.S. this summer and fall, dreaming together of a future unmarred by violence and racism. Baltimore is a seaport city with an economy that has morphed from manufacturing to service. Nearly 40 percent of the West Baltimore population lives below the poverty; 85 percent of the population is African American. 

Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed West Baltimore-based Cultural Agent Denise Johnson, who organized the Imagining with partners CultureWorks, Out4Justice, Theatre Action Group, the Parks and People Foundation, and Bon Secours Community Works (where the Imagining was held). 

Arlene: How was the Imagining received, given all that’s happened in West Baltimore?

Denise: People wanted to stay! They didn’t want to leave! I think the biggest things that came out of the Imagining are the next steps that individually and collectively people want to do.

Folks are at a place where they want to find a way to address and improve the community. Not only the physical aspects of the community but the way that the community interacts with itself. They want to find a way to move from just services—the community being serviced—to a community that is more interactive with one another, to have a more powerful voice in terms of what they really want. I’ve heard people say we have to find a new narrative to talk about community and that has to be a narrative of what’s important to us. Why can’t we access certain resources in our community? Why is it so difficult? People want to move forward and think in a different way—in a more powerful way—and be bold enough to ask for what they want.

Arlene: It sounds like this really gave people that opportunity to apply their creativity rather than the typical thing of go to a public meeting, complain, feel frustrated, go home.

Denise: Absolutely. At the Imagining there was no complaining. It was folks interacting with the art, interacting with the music, interacting with each other and defining the dialogue. Like Sacred Space was one of the dialogue groups. When we planned it, my thought was to talk about spaces within the community that can be reused. But it ended up being a conversation about finding community in your own home. That is what happens when people come together: they define things a little more. 

Arlene Goldbard: I understand you began engaging people outside the building, even before they got to the Imagining.

Denise Johnson: Outside we engaged folks as they were passing through, asking them two questions and letting them decide which they would respond to: “Tell us about your community” or “Give us an image about what you would like to see in your community. Most people wrote down words like love—more love, less violence—helping each other more. Many people drew images of flowers and added symbols to those flowers.

Arlene: I think you had four dialogue sessions: Sacred Space, Intergenerational, Re-entry into Child Support, and the other one was iJustice, is that right?

Denise: Yes iJustice was both an exhibit and a conversation. [Note: This work by West Baltimore artist Ashley Milburn showed at Gallery 1448 in March. It was described as “an exhibition of social justice art inspired by iPhone images that have turned into provocateurs for justice and image making.”]

The exhibit consists of images of alleged police brutality. They’re these really big, bold, bright-colored images of the young men that were killed: police standing over them, a woman embracing them, things like that. The facilitator, Ashley Milburn, started the conversation off with why it’s called iJustice: the power that young people have bestowed upon themselves to take images of these things. If it wasn’t for them and the cell phone, we would not have been able to capture things the way that we did. His end result for the conversation is to move people past anger and frustration, to get into a conversation about race, but then to try to visualize race and race relations. It’s a session that allows people to enter and exit however they want to, whether it’s with anger, frustration, sadness. But the end result is really to ask “how can you think about race differently? How can we talk about race differently?” 

Arlene: What about some of the other dialogues?

Denise: The Child Support Re-entry conversation, that included guided meditation. They ended up summarizing that one of the things that can be done right now was to turn off the TV, the cellphone, and the computer, and spend at least one hour with your children without any of those things. That was a first step that any and everybody can do. And they defined that the most important thing that we’re talking here about is family. And so, we will be planning another one of those conversations; the facilitator is a licensed social worker and wants to plan another conversation. 

Arlene: Tell me about the music and readings.

Denise: The music was just unbelievable. Jahiti, he’s a local artist, he teaches at one of the schools in West Baltimore. He started off sharing a story about he and his brother. They used to be a group and he lost his brother; he’s grieving and he’s trying to get used to singing by himself. He sung us three different songs, and everybody felt what he was feeling. Shakia and Friends played and sang outside. Horace Ellis did a powerful spoken word piece breaking down the word “imagining,” and people got connected to one another, they got connected to the event, they got connected to the concept through it. Sheila Gaskins did a reading of a scene she wrote based on Ashley Milburn’s Last House Standing

Arlene: So what did you take away from the Imagining?

Denise: One of the things that we planned was to have boards all over the building so that if at any time people felt something, heard something, wanted to say something, they could just write it on those boards. When we came back together from the dialogue groups, we took all of the boards from outside and throughout the building and we put them all around the floor. I asked people to do a movement or make a statement about today and to stand in between the boards, like claiming or naming, kind of like a bold stance. Before he took the picture, the photographer said, “Wow!” 

People really enjoyed themselves. I could tell from the fact that folks said that we should do this again. The fact that someone called another meeting right after the Imagining, and I didn’t have to do it as the Cultural Agent. The fact that people had time scheduled to continue most of the conversations—for me that meant we chose the right conversations to have. The fact that we got some outside resources that can be useful in moving the work forward. And I think the biggest thing is that the groups that got together to plan this, from the Imagining everybody has built some additional resources and gotten input from the community about some of the things that are important. So the Imagining served its purpose: to imagine and to take what folks have imagined along with that energy and move an agenda forward.