Poet’s Log, July 6, 2015
I did not expect, when I became Cleveland Heights Poet Laureate that I would end up in high places. On May 7, I read poems at the Bluegrass in the Fields concert, which was held in a magnificent downtown penthouse apartment. Then on June 19, I found myself on the roof of the Fairmont Creamery in Tremont to hear RA Washington, a Cleveland writer and community organizer, talk at a CreativeMornings Cleveland event.
CreativeMornings is a global breakfast lecture organization with chapters in 117 cities worldwide. The presentations are free of charge and held at 8:30 a.m. on the third Friday of every month. The same subject is discussed in all 117 chapters all over the world. CreativeMornings Cleveland was launched in January 2015. Hosts have included MOCA, Spaces, and the Cleveland Public Library. (To find out more, go to CreativeMornings.com).
The topic on this breezy, cloudy day high atop the Fairmont Creamery was revolution. Yes, revolution. Something I have not heard mentioned since 1980, when we started talking about devolution. Of course, we’re always hearing about “revolutionary” new products that will change our lives, but that’s marketing and advertising. The kind of revolution where we – that is, “we the people,” — make change instead of being affected by it — that kind of revolution hasn’t gotten much air play lately.
I wondered, as I sipped my free cup of Phoenix coffee and looked over Tremont to the Cleveland skyline, wouldn’t a discussion about revolution be a little risky in Moscow or Tabriz or Jakarta? These cities are among the 117 where there are active CreativeMornings chapters.
RA Washington’s take on revolution was “Personal Politics, Identity, and Grassroots Organizing in Post Riot Cities.” “The first thing he told us was that the next day — June 20 – was Tamir Rice’s 13th birthday. He urged us all to take part in a community remembrance being held at the Cudell Recreation Center. Then he observed how few black people there were in the audience of 50 to 60 people, which led right into his concept of revolution. It’s not Che Guevara leading a guerilla insurgency, and it has nothing to do with advertising slogans. RA Washington’s kind of revolution has its roots in conversation.
He thinks that listening – really listening — and talking to each other is the only way we the people will achieve a fundamental, 360-degree change in the way we think about and relate to each other. This is neither as simple or as easy as it might sound. We are set in our ways, a lot of us are afraid, and Cleveland has been a segregated city for a long time. He suggested we pretend we’re outsiders, and told about coming from El Paso, Texas to Cleveland about 20 years ago. He didn’t know there were places he wasn’t supposed to go, music he wasn’t supposed to like, and people he wasn’t supposed to talk to. So he went where he want to, listened to music he liked, and talked to people who interested him. He crossed boundaries, which he now realizes, was revolutionary.
He pointed out that in Cleveland, as in other post-riot (the urban rebellions of the late 1960s) cities, most re-development plans for the affected neighborhoods have not worked because nobody asked the neighborhood residents what they needed. “And digital empathy is not enough,” he said. Digital media are good organizing tools, but exchanging views with your Face book friends is not action. “There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Only real, on-the-ground conversation will make change,” he said.
When a young woman in the audience asked Washington how to get started, he was ready with an idea. He said, “Watch my Facebook page. I’ll announce a Karamu Theater play that everyone here will go to. Karamu Theater is turning 100 this year. We’ll take this opportunity to talk to each other.”
This isn’t everything RA Washington said, but it’s the gist of it. Visit his bookstore, Guide to Kulchur, Text, Art and News at 1386 West 65th street in Cleveland. It’s more than a bookstore. It’s a hub, a place to think, talk, write, read, and make. RA is the big, African American guy behind the counter. You can’t miss him.