Making Ubuntu Spaces, Addressing Insecurities and Peopling Our Commons (MAP)
By Roland Barksdale-Hall*
(A Tribute to Langston Hughes)
Honey, she’s gone.
Blowing her horn like Joshua
Around the walls…
As much noise
As she’s made
And as many parties
As she’s thrown
If we do the polka every night she
…I know where
I might have made her mad
When I said
“Kiss my ass”
And she said
“Who’s that talking to me?”
…And I haven’t seen her since
Thank you for reading my humble story. Max Macias congratulated me on the good news about our branch library’s summer food program being an outcome of a community forum, and invited me to write a blog about my experience. The time seemed right when Max approached me. Librarians with Spines where I am writing seemed the right Ubuntu space to share and tell my story. My goal is to promote quality service delivery, advance community engagement and outreach in an underserved community.
From a world forged by steel our library was a crucible for freedom’s exploration, providing roots and wings to soar. In a January 2022 Library Journal “LJ” interview, “What you need to know to help African American patrons start their genealogical research,” I shared as a subject expert how individuals are searching for their roots in libraries. Libraries are helping with preservation and telling of community stories.
Public libraries can be ideal Ubuntu spaces for sharing not limited by physical walls, racial, ethnic nor food, housing and health insecurities. Ubuntu, a Xhosa term, affirms the importance of shared existence, humanity experience and provides a locus for examination of common ground and better good. During the pandemic communication networks, both formal and informal, were disrupted. People struggled in the lack of social interaction and hungered for any Ubuntu spaces for sharing.
I am hyped to share with you that community members, who typically experience food insecurity, will receive a hot, nutritious meal at the site of the public library! From the library’s parking lot the summer mobile meal bus will provide two to three tables with chairs along the bus for our library patrons to eat. Takeout meals also are an option. The library plans include a robust canopy Ubuntu space with summer reading program, courtyard storytelling to complement the summer reading.
An informal intergenerational gathering of community folk joined an Ubuntu space for sharing, when I initiated a community forum, “Making Cross-Cultural Connections.” I extended an invitation to attend in person or join the scheduled Zoom meeting along with the Zoom link and did not want to exclude any person from attending due to technological barriers, although my expectation was for the majority to attend via Zoom. The platform for community building held in the Zoom meeting room, extended dialogic bridges, provided and supported anti-racism.
Several months prior to the event, I selected a speaker, who had an established track record of community engagement, played sports in his youth against our home team, and reviewed the local book about our community. Over the next several months I shared the Adinkra concept, developed a schedule and provided statistics about populations living in the county. In A Guide To Ashanti: The Kingdom of Gold readers learn of the uniqueness and significance of Adinkra symbols with “each an expression of some sound aphorism or proverb,” “commentary”, and “observation” (p. 17). Adinkra symbols comprise geometric characters, maxims and proverbs, stamped on textiles in traditional Akan society are an integral part of the Akan knowledge systems. By December I established the goals:1) to implement a streamline program planning approach and 2) to insure the library's reputation as “Our Friendly Place,” El Situado Simpático.
The January library newsletter included my letter of introduction, invited guest to two “opening cultural events”, and announced library’s role in community building:
DID YOU KNOW…
Our Library will sponsor “MLK Day of Service” Poster Contest for youth ages 9 to 15 years old. Youth will create a poster that emphasizes service to the family, community, or country. The poster should empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems and move society closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community”.
Prizes will be awarded in two different age groupings (9-12 years) and (13-15 years). All posters will be displayed in the Branch Library throughout February. The library will provide materials to create the posters. Registration is required and begins on Tuesday, January 4th.
January happenings included opening cultural events, a commemorative community service poster contest and exhibits opening with dialogue, designed to provide historical background and established a contextual understanding for community building:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service
Saturday, January 15th, @ 11:00 a.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service Poster Contest.
Make a poster of how they would be of service to a family, community, or country.
“Sharing Reflections, Celebrating Farrell and Sharon’s Neck District Exhibit”
Saturdays, Jan. 22 @ 1:00 p.m.
Come, see the exhibit, and hear a brief presentation.
February events correlated with an Akan worldview, exploring codification of wearable wisdom art, honoring our elders, setting a hospitable tone and laying the groundwork.:
Making Adinkra Symbols
Wednesday, Feb. 2 @ 4:00 PM.
Using supplied crafts, teens make an Adinkra symbol and learn about African iconic symbols.
NCTE African American Read-In
Tuesdays, Feb. 1; Feb. 15 @ 4:00 PM.
Honoring Dr. Martha Bruce, readers share both original poetry and works by published poets. Local authors and readers share works.
Iconic Adinkra symbols elucidated Akan knowledge systems. Peopling our commons with storytellers, poets and readers celebrated the power of the creative word, created a warm glowing ambience, reinvigorated existing Ubuntu space, increased attendance, and affirmed our reputation as Our Friendly Place. Storytelling from my book, Lion Pride, not only supported our library’s February theme of kindness and my existence as a librarian-author-griot, but honored Tata Nelson Mandela, weaved together two South African folktales, and provided a lesson about friendship. In the Xhosa language Tata means father. Tata is a title of high respect reserved for highly esteemed elders. In South Africa people call Nelson Mandela by this name. Our venerable elder, world traveler-reading specialist-author Dr. Martha Bruce taught in Nigeria, dispelled myths about Africa, dispensed wisdom, invited youth to travel abroad and gave autographed book copies to youth enraptured by her mystique. I repeatedly resisted all efforts by community forum participants to have a PowerPoint presentation about topics and ensured a conversational rather than an academic tone.
Our speaker, Dr. Anthony B. Mitchell, also known as Doctor Tony, responded favorably to my request for conversational delivery style, graciously complied and created an inviting atmosphere and framework for participants to assess how racism must be confronted. During the community forum, held for two to two and half hours, community partners discussed how to bridge barriers, how to create solutions to social problems and how to move society closer towards unity. I selected an Adinkra symbol, corn song corn song, representing unity through interconnectedness, the embodiment and the spirit of our work. I envisioned the forum as a fireside chat among friends and neighbors. This meant the forum was not reactionary in response to a community crisis. I identified an overarching theme, “City of Champions,” that drew community members together.
Marketing about the community forum included an announcement about the Making Cross-Cultural Connections, It appeared in the community calendar:
Making Cross-Cultural Connections
Saturday, Feb. 26 @ 11:00 AM.
Enjoy storytelling, a keynote speaker and a community forum. Learn how to build better human relations and community
The library newsletter also carried the announcement:
DID YOU KNOW…
Our library celebrates kindness during the month of Feb. Our youth library scholars will share their creative work and receive community recognition for participation in MLK Day of Service poster contest.
During the Making Cross-Cultural Connections forum community partners will discuss how to strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems and move society closer toward unity. You can attend in person or join the scheduled Zoom meeting, enter the shareable Zoom link. Visit https://us02web.zoom.us/j/4081928742. The Zoom meeting room door will open on Saturday, Feb. 26 @ 10:30 AM. You can follow along on Facebook and click Zoom link.
Flyers were distributed throughout the community and posted on the Urban League’s local affiliate website.
Our mutual goal of community building through sharing and courageous conversations in a safe space brought us together, cemented through dialogue by forum panelists, who reflected a cross section of the community:
Minority business leader, who operated a private preschool education center. Her education center operated from the basement of the public library during a move and transition to the current site several blocks from the library.
President of the local ministerial, who supported our library’s MLK Day youth poster contest as the representative for the faith-based community. The Ministerial leadership invited our library scholars to showcase their posters about community service, and presented participants with a certificate and cash award at the Annual King Day Celebration.
President of a civil rights organization, who partnered with the library to publish a local history about the community. Their office of the urban league sat on a hill several blocks from our library.
Professor of political science and international studies, who directed the peace institute and had participated in forums about race.
The program included:
As an alternate designee, a city council person gave the welcome to our community. I invited the local mayor, a library advocate, to give the welcome to our guests; however, she was unavailable. The mayor visited teen males in our library’s Community Game Room, one of our youth’s favorite Ubuntu spaces, for our NBA 2K20 March Madness, participated in the African American Read In, and read Stick It by local author Jarred Hood, and advocated for library building improvements.
I served as the moderator, kept the program on schedule, and opened the panel session with the following statement: Farrell, known as the City of Champions, is comprised of historic multiethnic churches, neighborhoods and communities with an established track record of winning in sports.
Panelists prepared a three minute response to the following questions.
1. How can educational, public and faith-based organizations work together for the common good to build and expand on this legacy?
2. How can we understand our biases, build on common ground and engage in honest conversations about our differences?
3. How can we partner to be examples of kindness, mold young minds to be kind to others?
4. Finally, how can our library partner to ensure your enjoyment and multiethnic enrichment in the future?
I opened the floor for questions from the audience. How-to questions ranged from reconstructing, deconstructing racism to tools available for promoting greater dialogue in smaller intra group settings. Community participants expressed a strong interest in bringing a similar antiracist community-based program that Dr. Mitchell highlighted from the local university.
On behalf of our community I presented Dr. Mitchell with a piece of handcrafted African art for his sharing. The audience applauded. I closed by sharing an invitation to our upcoming event, “Searching Our Roots: Celebrating Our Multiethnic Heritage.” Refreshments were provided.
The majority of participants attended through the Zoom meeting room. Program comments included:
Very informative, questions were well thought out. You were the perfect moderator! You had a very diverse and informed panel
Provided an opportunity for sharing not available at school board or city council meetings.
The program last Saturday was excellent. I literally had to laugh when you said we have lunch but not dinner. It truly could have gone on for hours.
There was harmony.
For an ice breaker it went well, but now the real work needs to begin… I would like to watch it again. Dr. Tony had some great ideas.
Outcomes from the event included:
addressing food insecurity through summer food program in partnership with pantry;
increasing health awareness through social worker and health community advocate;
the library became a distribution site for 2 COVID-19 home test kits, N95 masks and vaccinated bracelets;
raising sensitivity to sensory compromised in partnership with county health team;
collection building opportunities through collaboration with community organizations;
supporting community study groups.
Overall, the community forum was a success and one of the most egalitarian events I’ve participated in. What went as not expected? While the president of the Ministerial was unable to attend, other ecumenical leaders attended and actively participated. The program was to be recorded and made available. The person forgot to turn on the recorder. When I observed in-person attendees who maintained a demure appearance, making an effort to be hidden, I speculated this may have been a veiled attempt to limit any adverse impact on ambitions. A few attendees left the Zoom room and came over to the library to furtively ask their questions about community building in person during the reception. For example, I overheard, “How would you start a rite of passage program?”
Notwithstanding, I earned a merit badge for being a librarian with a spine that day and now earn a greater respect, receive referrals from forum participants, and record increased volunteers. In my reading Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching I thought about on an historical and fugitive “insistence on Black humanity”, how Carter G. Woodson worked constructing Negro History Week and Association for the Study of African American Life and History (Givens, 2021, p. 35). In reflection I commit to telling our stories, realize the program was viewed in some circles with a similar “clandestine” nature, and continue to make Ubuntu spaces for sharing. I drew parallels to the undercover teaching of Black History by former enslaved persons and saw this work as part of an ongoing historical continuum.
The contradiction of an image that to some might appeared like chains of slavery, moreover align with some subservient roles or status, was not loss. Yet, corn song corn song was a powerful message of restorative empathy, unity and community building. Research and historical analysis rendered the tools to reclaim the significance of corn song corn song, and counter-narrative. Identification with corn song corn song, an Adinkra symbol, fostered an environment of mutual respect and unity, core to development of Ubuntu spaces. As earlier mentioned, this is true historical recovery work. Employing corn song corn song drew parallels to earlier work when I explained the origins and employed it in a commemorative golden jubilee reunion booklet: “The emblem for the reunion comes from Akan culture of Ghana. It not only represents unity and responsibility but our interconnectedness and richly shared heritage.” Understanding the imagery for the iconic Adinkra symbol, corn song corn song, offered empowering visualization, required heritage studies with interpretations on human relations, implications for rethinking iconic symbols and freedom's journey.
Making Ubuntu spaces for sharing, addressing insecurities and peopling our commons (MAP) can fuel risk-taking. How might you make Ubuntu spaces for sharing, address housing, food and health insecurities and embrace people in and outside your information commons? Let’s build a better Ubuntu-centered world! I invite you to join us, and expand the dialogical bridges in your community. In Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, Bishop Desmond Tutu expounds, “Ubuntu recognizes the human beings need each other for survival and well-being. A person is a person only through other persons, we say. We must care for one another in order to thrive.” (Tutu, 2010, p. 15) Join in caring and getting on the MAP. Give me a holla!
*His book chapter, “Development, Implementation, and Assessment of Empowerment Curriculum for Public Housing Residents: Advances in Teaching, Engagement, Collaboration, and Resolve,” appears in Librarians with Spines. Roland Barksdale-Hall (firstname.lastname@example.org), librarian-author-griot, is a community partner.
A Guide to Ashanti: The Kingdom of Gold. (1987)
Givens, Jarvis R. (2021). Fugitive pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the art of pedagogy. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.
Tutu. Desmond and Tutu, Mpho (2010). Made for goodness: And why this makes all the difference. New York: Harper.