Name 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 platform for immigration reform that uses interviews, storytelling, targeted problem solving, public intervention, and alternative media to encourage community dialogue, promote social cohesion, 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.
Immigrants to America from underdeveloped & developing countries are faced with numerous challenges such as costly and lengthy asylum and residency procedures, low wages, unfair treatment, and work conditions among many other high-stress circumstances. While seeking legal status immigrants may feel alienated; having to move through daily life sometimes in secrecy; seeking a new sense and place of belonging, often carrying an emotional burden which is hardly discussed, recognized and expressed. 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 people are one of the fastest growing racial demographics of immigrants to the United States and New York. Difficulties in the immigration process are exacerbated for Black immigrants who are disproportionately policed and deported. One of PWRs goals is to alleviate the emotional and psychological toll these experiences have on immigrant populations.
PWR is a series of events that aim to transform the lives of people who are Black immigrants in New York and people who live in neighborhoods in New York where Black immigrants tend to settle. These events fall into four main categories: weekly public gatherings; private discussions and interviews with Black Immigrants; partnership activities with groups who also focus on health and well being of Black immigrants and a public intervention at the culmination of the year-long fellowship. The events will start in Bushwick and extend to areas of New York City with significant concentrations of Black immigrants such as Flatbush, Harlem, and the Bronx. Using predetermined themes, each event will engage a different subset of the Black immigrant community to explore mental health and vocational balance while celebrating and recognizing the diversity of a global diasporic community.
Each week PWR will host a social gathering at Café Erzulie in Bushwick. Cafe Erzulie is a Black Haitian-American owned business at the nexus of Caribbean American culture. PWR co-founder Zane Rodulfo has been hosting a weekly live music residency at this location for over one year which attracts a diverse group of musicians and music lovers who are interested in social justice. This venue shall be used as a public space to share ideas through music, readings, and discussions in order to counter alienation and isolation experienced by Black immigrants. These weekly gatherings can also be used to showcase artworks created by emerging immigrant artists and artists whose work addresses the many facets of immigration.
PWR recognizes that some Black immigrants will choose not to attend widely publicized social gatherings. As an alternative to the public events, we will work with community partners like BAJI and CaribBeing to organize several private events in places that limit risk for undocumented Black immigrants Private events will be hosted in roving locations around Flatbush, Midwood and Crown Heights; which are home to largest Caribbean and African Immigrant populations. These events will be used for discussions, story circles and interviews that cover topics like mental health, vocational balance, family life, parenting, reclaiming public spaces and creating safe spaces for Black immigrants
Initially, we will use frameworks from sources like UndocuHealing to generate story circle and interview prompts that focus on mental health and vocational balance. 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. Yet, the project is flexible and discussion topics will change as we conduct fieldwork and learn from Black immigrant communities. 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. This information 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.
The year-long fellowship will culminate with a temporary poly-sensory site-specific public encounter. This public encounter provides a moment for collective reflection in public space that is activated by sound, video or virtual installation; it is essentially an alternative media campaign focused on reframing the Black immigrant experience. We intend to translate the Black immigrant experience into a context that deviates from the negative narratives that are widely perpetuated by mainstream media.
One example public encounter could utilize Charlie’s Record Shop and recording studio on Fulton Street in Bedstuy. This longstanding Caribbean cultural institution was established by Tobagonian Charles Rawlston is an essential part of the annual West Indian American Day Parade in Crown Heights, holding a party to start the Labor Day weekend. Charlie’s Records label, established in the 1970s, includes legendary Afro-Caribbean productions from the likes of The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, and many others. In the 80s through the 90s, gold Hip Hop records by Slick Rick and RUN-DMC were also recorded there. PWR may organize a private meeting of Afro-Caribbean recording artists to discuss how music can be used to heal during times of transition. Using a story circle format, we can document experiences, inspirational songs and perhaps even record sonic references from participants. Otitigbe and Rodulfo will stitch this media together into a looping soundscape that will be played at the record shop and other spaces on set dates and times. Information about this installation will be advertised to allow the public to experience it firsthand.
Another possible form of dialogical art encounter may focus on how the West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn affects the immigrant experience by acting as a medium for cultural retention and transformation. Otitigbe and Rodulfo will interview people, particularly youth, from different national identities who participate in various aspects of the parade. These interviews will take place in 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. Through this process of civic dialogue, PWR will develop a platform to share these perspectives.
Select interpreters, guest speakers, health and legal professionals will be present at public and private events. The mix of ancillary professionals and skill sets will be based on the events topic and target audience. For example, representatives from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and other community organizations that provide targeted services can participate in the private workshops to aid participants in need. A trained mental health facilitator may 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. Scholars, artists, activists and guest musicians can be invited to contribute to the weekly public gathering.
Artists Eto Otitigbe and Zane Rodulfo will co-manage the overall project. This includes forming partnerships with organizations that serve Black immigrants, organizing public and private events; and creating the final public encounter. They will follow up with participants from each of these events and work with the ABOG documentary film crew.
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 events will be recorded via audio or film and used for the final public encounter and ABOG documentary. However, not all events 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. We want to use Black immigrant voices to create safe spaces for healing and reflection. Through fieldwork, that includes interviews, organizing, story circles, performance and social gatherings PWR project can identify needs related to mental health and vocational balance for Black immigrant groups in New York. PWR will amplify their stories as public interventions to transform the public perception of Black immigrants to create a more inclusive society.
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.