Sunday, August 26, 2007

I'm not at all sure that this is what is meant by the term "Civic Engagement," but hey ...!

What a party!

Something wonderful is happening in this city, and we're all a part of it. The somber beginnings of the Fourth Street Park's annual picnic and barbecue gave way to a most wholesome and delightful community event imaginable. There were children everywhere, and families; nonprofits tabling and food vendors galore. There was great entertainment from a portable stage -- headed up by the New Orleans Gumbo Jazz Band from who knows where -- who were wonderful followed by the performers from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts -- located in the Iron Triangle for about 40 years! The music was irresistible and when these photos were taken I'd succumbed to the traditional "Second Line" lure and found myself snaking my way in rhythm with the rest, waving my white rag while dancing along beside Jacqueline Vaca from the Redevelopment Agency twirling her purple umbrella! We circled the park a couple of times dancing to "When the Saints go marchin' in...", gathering more and more folks along the way as the contagion spread and caught others up in the joy of it all.

Back story: Within the first few minutes after I arrived from Berkeley, a photographer/historian friend from U.C. Santa Cruz approached and told me that he'd heard one of the men who hang out in this park regularly say to someone, "...if they wanna do sumpthin' good with this park, we can always do our boozin' someplace else!" Here was someone with absolutely nothing to his name offering to give up even his turf for the good of the order.

But the best was yet to come.

An hour or so later as I walked the long block back to my car -- and in so doing passed an open garage where; sitting in a back corner -- was Mrs. Lillie Mae Jones, matriarch of the Iron Triangle. She has been valiantly battling city hall for many decades for this community and is about to be honored by having a new housing development named in her honor. She has been wheelchair-bound for years and spends almost as much time now in the hospital as she does at home.

Lillie is visibly fragile now, and looks weary and in pain much of the time. I heard my name called while walking past so turned and headed back to where she was sitting in her wheelchair at the back of the garage -- two dogs and a small child huddled nearby. Lillie Mae said little, but waved to the child and asked that she go upstairs and "...get that picture for me." She greeted me with few words -- I sensed that she wasn't feeling well. It was also clear that this encounter was no accident. I waited for the child to return without a lot of talk; just a few pleasantries between us. She had been at the picnic earlier and may have been waiting to catch me in just this way.

When the little girl came back she was clutching something quite small in her little palm which she handed to Lillie Mae who then gave it to me with the words, "...this is my brother. He worked on the Home Front in the war. I want you to have it." Here was what was obviously a treasured possession and this was really a mini-ceremony as she released it to me with great solemnity. It was his worker's badge from Bethlehem Steel Yard in San Francisco. It held a tiny photograph. "I got some other stuff to give you when you have time to stop by." With those few words I felt dismissed. It was a precious moment I won't soon forget.

And now I was quietly pleased that I'd not changed out of uniform. This was an extremely important gift that was being presented not to me, but to an institution. This was gaining status for her now deceased brother by giving this record of his existence and his work to be honored by a federal institution. I could not have been more deeply honored than to serve as the bridge between this remarkable African American woman and a national agency that I'm growing to revere more with each day.

Tomorrow I will go back to take the proper forms that will give even more shape and solemnity to the ritual of the giving of this important artifact to our museum collection. This may be the first such gift we have from an African American male veteran of the Home Front war effort.

Maybe we need to add a chapter to the manual on Civic Engagement that will validate my non-traditional approach.

What an amazing and glorious day!

Photos by Ellen Gailing

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