This is an article that will give you hope: hope for Kingston, Ulster County, the Hudson Valley, and New York. With any luck, it will make you feel like the region has turned a corner and is heading toward better times.
Kingston is a hotbed right now for civic entrepreneurship — the notion of “doing well by doing good.” At the forefront of this movement is a group of nonprofits founded by people of color. These nonprofits are changing the days and the lives of residents in ways we can see and feel, and in more subtle ways as well.
Black History Month event at Lace Mill Artist Housing
In Kingston, the organizations overlap and intertwine, and their many founders are genuine friends who each bring their unique vision to fruition. Bryant “Drew” Andrews has been around longest. Founder of the Center for Creative Education (CCE), which is turning 30 this year, his optimism is infectious.
To spend ten minutes talking to Drew is to understand that creative outlets for kids, youth, and even grownups are far more important than we tend to think. I first learned of CCE when I started seeing his youth dance troupe — aptly called ENERGY — perform around town. The routines fill you up with a feeling you don’t recognize at first, but soon realize is exhilaration and even exultation.
MyKingstoKids Fest Tea Party
2019 will be a busy one for CCE, which works with RUPCO, a Kingston nonprofit for affordable housing and community development programs, to design an 8700-square-foot, state-of-the-art studio, classroom, and cafe space in which to expand its arts, culture, and technology programming.
With the move slated for 2020 into Rupco’s mixed-use, mixed-income green building, Energy Square, Andrews says, “I am so excited to see dreams manifest into reality! The new facility will allow us to grow our programs, creating a legacy for generations to come where our children and their children’s children can come together as a community to cultivate ideas through creative programming to teach, learn, and express themselves, while having fun and meeting new people.”
Energy Dance Troupe, Rockin’ the Vote
Working closely on February’s Black History Month Kingston are several newcomers, starting with Harambee, a mid-Hudson valley coalition that hosts cultural and educational events. Tyrone Wilson came up with the idea for Harambee while working at a cultural festival at the Kingston waterfront. After asking around and learning that there had never been a cultural festival in Kingston for people of color, he worked to get one going with his self-founded coalition.
After tweaking Wilson’s original festival idea, work started on 2018’s Black History Month. Like last year’s celebration, 2019 festivities will encompass nearly 40 distinct events, including film screenings, comedy shows, and historic reenactments. It’s a great balance of celebrating black culture and increasing our understanding and knowledge of a history most of us know little about.
Once settled on the way forward, Wilson began to build a board.
“Odell was the first to join me on this ride,” he said in reference to Odell Winfield, the founder of African Roots Library. The name Harambee was chosen because it describes a time when warring tribes came together, united under one language (Swahili), and danced, ate, laughed, and cried, all in a circle. The tribes began gatherings by reciting the word seven times, “Harambee! Harambee!” to show unity and raise energy. In the Hudson Valley, locals can join the chant with everyone at the 2nd Annual Black History Month Gala on February 23.
Pass It On Reading Program at African Roots Library
At the front of this movement is the Library at the AJ William-Myers African Roots Center, named in honor of SUNY New Paltz professor AJ Williams-Myers, who is also a member of the group’s Elders/Scholars who speak to the community about history issues. His knowledge is vast, and he shares it in a way that is intellectually easy to digest, but emotionally challenging. Did you know, for instance, that at one point the Hudson Valley had more slaves than anywhere besides Alabama? How could this be? In fact, the river created easy transport, while our fertile soil fed many cities. As the region developed, African American slaves worked that soil and grew our food.
To counterbalance that disturbing new paradigm, Winfield shared amazing news: in 2019 the federal government is hosting a 400-Year Commemoration of African American History. The Library has been chosen as the lead sponsor of the National Scholars program. It will work with teachers and local scholars to teach this history in schools.
Some attendees at the Black Women at Work Conference
Programs at the Library are open to everyone, and all are encouraged to attend. The Library works closely with Native American groups and has had events with the Redfeathers and the Cloudbreakers which were uplifting and well-attended. It also hosts movie nights, after-school reading programs, and whatever the community needs.
“This library was put together by the community,” Mr. Winfield says. “We chose this location [an out-of-the-way street in a predominately low socio-economic part of town] because we saw there was nothing here for the residents. We created this community space for us, for them, for self-direction and ownership of our mission.”
Story Hour with Ubaka Hill at MyKingstonKids Fest
Integral to Black History Month Kingston are Frank Waters of MyKingstonKids and his wife, Shaniqua Bowden. Frank is the tireless force behind some of the best free festivals Kingston has ever seen, like My Kingston Kids Fest and Halloween Fest. All are day-long, free events that create happy memories for kids and families in the Valley.
“It’s not just a cliché to say children are the future,” Waters says. “Yet there was no organization in town dedicated to them.” In what is a common theme, he saw a need and met it. MyKingstonKids is multifaceted and ever-expanding. Currently, there is the radio show, which airs on Saturdays at 7 a.m. on WKNY; a website, which contains a small universe of information for kids and their families; events all year long; and partnerships with other organizations and businesses that exist for kids.
Waters shines on the radio show, which features guests from all areas — the arts, childhood wellness, kid’s magazines, and local kid-friendly businesses. Each show has a theme, which ranges from the importance of play to how to manage the maze of special education. Notably, Waters is not the only family member on the radio. After hosting the original Nubian Café as part of 2017’s Black History Month, Bowden just began hosting her own radio show on Thursdays at 1 p.m.
The Nubian Café Live promotes self-evaluation, change, and camaraderie through open dialogue and awareness. A panel of women of color shares life experiences concerning work, spirituality, relationships, politics, family, and wealth. While under the banner of women of color, the series provides a unique opportunity for all cultures to connect and learn how to work with each other while continuing to empower women. Says Bowden, “I honestly feel my purpose in life is to spark creative thought and to fortify happiness through new experiences that help to conquer fear.”
Working with Rashida Tyler, she did just that. The duo announced the Black Women at Work Conference at a live Nubian Café. Women leaders including Ozzie Williams, Nikita Hardy, and Janice Brown presented on various topics like “How to Negotiate Your Salary.” The workshop offered real-life examples of negotiation and showed how to find information about job descriptions, titles, and salaries to strengthen one’s case.
Tyler, who is on the state board of Citizen Action and serves as Ulster County Director of Research and Operational Programs, recently worked to establish the Ulster County Restorative Justice Center, which will strive, through innovative programming, “to give kids a chance to make things right and choose good paths.”
Tyler’s desire to help women of color (and all women) has led to partnerships with organizations all over the state. She hopes the conference will serve as a future model for “empowerment,” a word often thrown around and rarely fulfilled. I myself attended the conference and it was wonderfully informative and useful. That’s a rare result in a world of buzzwords.
I have talked too long and left out much, but urge you to please check out the links below to find out more about these organizations and events and ways to help. Join along on the radio or at a festival or for Black History Month and remember that we are all part of the solution. We can’t all found organizations, but we can all work to improve our little corners of the world. If we all did that, soon enough, the whole world would be brighter for everyone.