ame of Collective: Scopic
Project Name: PWR
Project Location: Brooklyn, NY
Material Presence: Community Org/ Storytelling/ Workshop/ Public Installation and Intervention
Issue(s): Criminal Justice, Immigration, Race, Vocational Balance, Mental Health
PWR is a model for immigration reform that uses storytelling, targeted problem solving, and public intervention and alternative media to activate communities, transform the immigration process, and change the public perception of Black immigrants. PWR is a stylized abbreviation of the phrase “The power of the word in the rhythm in the word” which was used to define Rapso, a revolutionary musical movement that grew out of Trinidad in the late 70’s in response to injustice and inequality against Black people.
PWR is a series of story circles and public encounters based on the Black immigrant experience that will start in the Little Caribbean neighborhood of Brooklyn, Flatbush, and perhaps extend to areas of New York with significant concentrations of Black immigrants such as Harlem and the Bronx. Using predetermined prompts, each story circle will engage a different subset of the Black immigrant community; to explore mental health and vocational balance. At the beginning of each story circle, participants will agree upon and if necessary revise the prompt.
Information from the story circles will be used to organize a series of ephemeral public encounters around Brooklyn, starting in the Little Caribbean and extending throughout New York. The sites for public encounters may be where story circles took place or inspired by the story circle dialogue. Each unique public encounter provides a moment for collective reflection as a public space is activated by sound, video or virtual installation. We intend to translate the Black immigrant experience into a context that deviates from the negative narratives that are widely perpetuated my mainstream media. These public encounters are essentially an alternative media campaign focused on reframing the Black immigrant experience.
Immigrants face many problems such as costly and lengthy asylum and residency procedures; low wages; and unfair work conditions. While seeking legal status immigrants may feel alienated; having to move through daily life in secrecy. These issues strain the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities; making it harder to traverse the murky legal landscape required to prevent deportation or attain residency and citizenship. Black immigrants are one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States and New York. Difficulties in the immigration process are exacerbated for Black immigrants who are disproportionately policed and deported.
PWR will focus on mental health and vocational balance for Black immigrants. Each story circle will involve up to 15 participants. Community partners, like CaribBeing and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, will assist in securing locations for each story circle or public intervention and attracting participants.
Select interpreters, guest facilitators, and legal professionals will be present at each story circle. The mix of ancillary professionals and skillsets will be based on the story circle topic and target audience. Representatives from BAJI and other community organizations that provide targeted services will be available at each workshop to aid participants in need. A trained mental health facilitator will be present during each story circle to ensure that participants needs are ethically addressed. Individuals who are certified as Wellness Recovery Action Plan Facilitators or who have been trained to through organizations like UndocuBlack and UndocuHealing are possible candidates for the role of facilitator.
Artists Eto Otitigbe and Zane Rodulfo will co-manage the overall project. This includes forming partnerships with organizations that serve Black immigrants, organizing the story circles and public encounters; and following up with participants as well as working with the ABOG documentary film crew. A program assistant will aid in story circle organizing, outreach and follow up.
Story circles will take place in roving locations around Flatbush, Midwood and Crown Heights; which are home to large Caribbean and African Immigrant populations. We plan to complete approximately five story circles and public encounters over the course of one year. Initially we will use frameworks from sources like UndocuHealing to generate story circle prompts that focus on mental health and vocational balance. Yet, the project is flexible - the target audience and prompt for each story circle will change as we conduct field work; learn from Black immigrant communities and collect responses from public encounters. Our initial research for this project has led to three possible story circle/ encounter ideas that are described later in this proposal.
We seek to collect personal narratives that go beyond immigration stories, which can be a “pain point”, to gain a better understanding of how to maintain a healthy lifestyle outside of these problems and discover which coping skills can be most useful. The nuanced anecdotal case study information we gather during the story circles can help a broader audience understand how the immigration process is different for Black people. We also hope to identify resource or service gaps that may place someone in the immigration process at risk.
During the story circles we will address what immigration organizations like UndocuHealing refers to as “impact moments” - situations that disturb, undermine and/or disrupt our central way of being and transform them by establishing a holistic sense of balance. Each session will be used to build a sense of togetherness and fellowship; develop a shared diagnosis of needs and evaluate available resources.
The public encounters will be used to cultivate awareness around the challenges Black immigrants face, their intentions and the immigration process. They provide opportunities for people to relate to each other and expand the dialogue around mental wellness in our communities. The public encounters can also be used to challenge how the discourse on immigration is addressed by mainstream media.
Charlie’s Record Shop and recording studio on Fulton Street in Bedstuy, is a longstanding Caribbean cultural institution established by Tobagonian Charles Rawlston which housed Charlie’s Records and is an essential part of the annual West Indian American Day Parade in Crown Heights, holding a party to start the Labor Day weekend. On the Charlie’s Records label, established in the 1970s, were produced legendary Afro-Caribbean recordings from the likes of The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and many others. In the 80s through the 90s, gold records by Slick Rick and RUN-DMC were also recorded there. One story circle will take place at the record shop and studio with a target audience of Afro-Caribbean recording artists. The discussion prompt will focus on music as a form of healing during processes of transition. From this story circle we may extract songs, sounds and if possible recorded phrases from participants. With input from the story circle participants Otitigbe and Rodulfo will stitch the media together into a looping sound scape that will be played at the record shop on set dates and times. Information about this encounter will be advertised such that the public can visit the site and experience it firsthand.
Another possible story circle will focus on how the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn affects the immigrant experience and acts as a medium for cultural retention and transformation. This circle will include people, particularly youth, from different national identities who participate and perform in the months prior to and during the parade season. These circles will take place at locations where carnival preparation occurs, for example, musical rehearsal spaces, steel band yards and masquerade or costume-making camps. We will investigate how first, and second-generation immigrants express and perform their cultural identity in New York and how enacting their “West Indian-ness” provides a space for healing and transformation. This circle will be followed by a public encounter that coincides with the events surrounding the 2018 West Indian Day Parade.
We intend to hold another story circle at Ebbets Field apartments in Brooklyn which is widely populated by immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa and is near Medgar Evers College and many public schools where first and second-generation immigrant students attend. Young people, students, and their families will be invited to focus on the role and importance of education within the immigrant experience and its many challenges. Excerpts from these stories can used to create a collection of Black immigrant avatars; animated characters that are placed in augmented reality around Ebbets Field. These avatars shall be viewable through a custom app and they will relay testimonials from circle participants along with useful information for people who want to better understand the immigration process. We will design a short workshop series where young people, ages 14 - 18, can design the avatars which will be used in the public encounter and learn about augmented reality.
We are open to working with the ABOG documentary film crew throughout our entire project. We invite their presence during the planning, implementation and follow up phases of each story circle and public encounter.
Since the PWR involves participants who may be vulnerable if sensitive information about them is not treated appropriately, we have considered some possible strategies that will affect how the project is documented. We believe the decision-making power behind the documentary should be shared with participants. With their permission, some stories will be recorded via audio or film and used for the public encounters and the ABOG documentary. However, not all story circles can be recorded. We will have to utilize different techniques to protect the rights and identity of participants, especially if they have undocumented status. Participants will be allowed to review documentation that is slated for public viewing prior to its use. Video consent and release forms will be provided. We will enlist the help of immigration attorneys to determine whether any documentation may put people at risk and, if so, explore alternatives.
The film will be especially useful in documenting the response to each public encounter. The documentary film can be used to increase the number of people who participate in the PWR project even after our year-long fellowship period is over. It can be an educational tool that shares the stories that would not be covered by mainstream media. Perhaps it can even uncover the reasons behind the lack of media attention to Black immigrant experience.
In conclusion the PWR project seeks to empower and echo the voices of Black immigrants. Through fieldwork, organizing and story circles the PWR project can identify needs related to mental health and vocational balance for Black immigrant groups in New York. PWR will platformed their stories as public interventions to transform the public perception of Black immigrants.
Scopic is the studio and research practice of artists living and working across the African diaspora. When combined with other words, the term “scopic” describes how something is seen and examined; artists in the Scopic collective look to writers such as Achebe, Ellison, Fanon, Hurston and Said to frame their analysis of the African diaspora today. Scopic uses hypervisibility to critique the visual and speculate on cultural production. They source sound and music from West African Afro-Beat to Trinidad’s Rapso to deep house and electronic music that originated in the clubs of New York, Chicago and Detroit to represent the cacophony of the diaspora voice.
Scopic members Eto Otitigbe and Zane Rodulfo are both first generation immigrants based in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Otitigbe is a US-born Nigerian-American and Rodulfo recently emigrated from Trinidad. The two met at NYFA’s Artist as Entrepreneur Bootcamp. Through an ongoing dialogue they were led to use the principles of socially engaged practice to address issues of inequity that were personal to them and systemic within their community.
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) is a racial justice and migrants’ rights organization that engages in education, advocacy, and cross-cultural alliance-building in order to end racism, mass criminalization, and economic disenfranchisement of African American and Black Immigrant communities.