The Photography Collective

When Reginald L. Jackson became active in Community Change, Inc., the organization benefited immediately from his remarkable ability as a professional photographer. Then came one of the finest programs the organization ever initiated. Under Reggie’s leadership we formed the Photography Collective, which became active in 1993. Local photographers joined in an effort to make photographic images of the struggle against racism available to people who educate about racism. A photographic image bank was housed in the CCI library, and at one time several dozen photographers from around the country had subscribed to the bank, and had images in it. Educators, activists, were able to view the images, determine which images they could use in their work, and then they could negotiate the cost with the individual photographers.

The Photography Collective opened with two simultaneous juried exhibitions of Photographs, displayed under the theme, “Struggles Against Racism”. One exhibition site was the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, in Roxbury, and the other was the Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge. It was the first time these two museum sites, in different parts of the Boston community, had cooperated. That, in itself, was an accomplishment. “Struggles Against Racism” then became the theme of the Collective, inviting photographers to submit their work for juried acceptance; all photographs had to relate to the “Struggle” in the United States.

Locally, photographers from the Boston area met regularly at the CCI library, shared their work, critiqued ways in which they could more adequately reflect the theme of the Collective. Some of the exchanges were sharp, but as differing views were challenged, learning increased. It was an exciting time and idea. One of the great regrets for me is that we were unable to gain enough financial support to maintain the Collective beyond a few years.

Immigrant Action

The interest in education and immigrant issues led us to Tom Louie and the work he was doing on the politics of bilingual education. For several years we worked in the English Plus Coalition, and became a co-founding organization for the Immigrant Solidarity and Action Alliance. One of the programs offered by ISAA included bringing representatives of immigrant groups together with prominent members of the Boston media community. We worked to plan ways to counteract the racism which too often appeared in the news. A major emphasis was to gain access for immigrant groups to radio, TV, and print.

Recognizing the intersection of race, gender, and citizenship in the nation’s history, ISAA also initiated a program bringing together new immigrant groups to discuss the meaning of “citizenship”. Groups of recent immigrants shared their experiences with
”citizenship” in the country’s from which they came, and what they thought “citizenship” ought to mean in the United States. The discussions were exciting, but the urgency of addressing more immediate tasks of finding jobs and housing made it difficult to maintain the program for long. The definition of “citizenship” remains one of the most important issues our rapidly diversifying nation must face.

Harassment of Black Leaders

Another early example of a group which used the library-conference room was a group who studied the patterns of Harassment of Black Elected Officials. In the early 90’s there was a deliberate local and national effort to undermine the credibility of black elected officials through attacks in the press and other public means of communication. The program was not limited to elected officials, but to anyone who might be gaining prestige and leadership in the black community. We brought both national and local black leaders together with our CCI constituency, to share plans to counteract the program. Studying this effort became for us at CCI a lesson in the deeply rooted fear in the white power structure. That fear led to deliberate efforts to undermine the personal lives of black people who were seen to be gathering too much popular power. Desire to control and the fear of losing power were dominant in the movement. All of it pointed to the ultimate weakness and insecurity of whites who could not stand the prospect of black leaders gaining power. It was an instance of a systemic fear that we were later to see abundantly illustrated in the history of white over black.

1492 Becomes 1992

One of the groups to meet in the library-conference room, was a crowded gathering of forty people, who, in 1991 formed AQUA, Alternative Quincentenary Understandings and Actions. AQUA began preparing for 1992, when lots of people would be celebrating Columbus’ “sailing the ocean blue” to “discover” America. We determined to provide an alternative celebration. The theme was: 500 years of Resistance to Racism. AQUA continued to meet at CCI every month.

AQUA was particularly active during 1992. We joined with other groups in demonstrations near the wharfs when three replicas of the Columbus ships came into the harbor. With Jimi TwoFeathers we boarded one of the boats, and engaged its Captain in conversation. He invited us to write and post on the ship’s watery information site a weather-proofed statement presenting an alternative view of Columbus alongside the traditional one on display. I’ve always wondered how long after leaving Boston, the Captain allowed our version to stay on display.

Perhaps the most innovative action of AQUA was sponsoring, with local Wampanoag elders, the native Ceremony of Four Colors, celebrated on Boston Common. Tlakalel came from Mexico, to lead the ceremony, and about one hundred people, mostly curious onlookers, stepped forward and participated in the ceremony, which invites all participants to move from one station to another, giving honor to all the Four Colors of the world. We were told by the elders that this was probably one of the first times this native ceremony had been conducted in public. When we planned the event we could not have predicted this, but the Ceremony actually took place just days after the police beating of Rodney King had shocked and revealed a divided nation.

One Boston response to the King incident was a call for white people to gather on City Hall Plaza, in witness that they rejected and despised the “white structures” that supported and condoned the beating. Several thousand people stood in pouring rain on that occasion; as one of the white men invited to speak, the day had taken a personal meaning. Here, with the Four Colors Ceremony, my native friends were renewing my vision, healing a wounded heart. I still knows the yearning I felt on that day, wishing that everyone in the United State could have participated. The heart of “dis-ease” was quieted for a moment, and hope revived.

An insight into life came for me during that Ceremony of Four Colors. I was there on Boston Common with the native people who were setting up for the Ceremony. At one point several of them began pointing into the sky above our circle. They identified a hawk, so high in the air that I saw it only as an unidentified bird. The hawk was circling right over our site. I would have quickly dismissed this as an interesting coincidence. No such thought of “coincidence” occurred for my native friends. They saw through the eyes of a culture which had taught them of the close connection of their lives with all living creatures. For them here was a clear sign of blessing on the Ceremony. I stretched to want to believe, and their confidence helped me to see a phenomenon I had only heard about. That hawk was there and it was no “coincidence” that it flew exactly over the spot where the Ceremony was prepared. I believe it now also, but my belief is not rooted solidly in a culture, and I shall probably never be able to experience the depth which my native friends knew in that moment.

“People” not “leaders”

One nationally known blind man, Dr. John Langston Gwaltney’s book , Drylongso, became the inspiration for the Community Change Drylongso Awards, begun in 1989. As Libbie Shufro and I shared lunch, we began to name people we honored for their consistent dedication to anti-racism work. We wanted to lift up individuals who were not often publicly recognized. That discussion led us to our library and to Dr. Gwaltney’s book. Together we read excerpts from it and found stories of remarkable people who lived quiet lives of dignity and resistance in the face of oppression; they are the “Drylongso” of the world. Thus was born the Community Change Drylongso Awards, celebrating people who have been called “ordinary” people doing “extraordinary” things. We were purposeful in the beginning NOT to recognize those who had already been noted and made notable by public attention. We wanted to name the “Drylongso” people of Boston.

Commensurate in purpose with Drylongso, and with the concept of our library as an “Oasis”, we began inviting people to “bring lunch” and to engage in conversation. Emerging from these gatherings, came the anti-racism “Brown-Bag” lunch program, with focused discussion around the work of a particular person or group. The “Oasis” was becoming a place of purposeful networking and planning.