In a light-filled auditorium at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center, nearly 40 people from different neighborhoods, backgrounds and experiences gathered in early July to talk about things that usually don't come up in casual conversation. They talked about the elephants in the room: race, cultural identities, reconciliation.
“It was just meaningful to talk about serious things like that with people that you don’t know,” said Sam Cooper, a local businessman who is also a board member at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center.
And the conversations happen while quilting.
"Often times we need to find a point of connection for people and art is a wonderful way to do that," said Kathy Wade, CEO of Learning Through Art, Inc. and a well-known jazz vocalist. "Art is our most common bond. It’s what makes us human."
The project, called Story Quilts, tackles the issues that tear away that human connection. Wade is spearheading the local piece of the pilot project being conducted by the Center for Community Resilience at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The result could change the relationships you have with your neighbors, co-workers and people you encounter every day by combatting head-on the things that separate us.
"Because a lot of this is about assumptions, but assumptions that are engrained within our culture and America," said Wade. "So, to ‘un-grain’ it, you’ve got to meet people where they are and let them speak. Let them talk."
Across the Cincinnati area this summer, the project works to bring people together in three parts: a story quilts exhibit, community conversations and a musical performance.
'We are the story'
Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi is considered one of the foremost authorities on story quilts. Some of her work is on display in museums around the world. She is the founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network.
“I look at these quilts as cultural documents. They’re no different," said Mazloomi. "We have people around the world that study quilts. Quilts give a glimpse into the history of the places that we’ve lived and what’s going on in our society, our lives, our communities, our churches."
She collects, creates and curates story quilts on a variety of social justice issues, including following the death of George Floyd.
“I asked the director of the textile center, which is located in Minneapolis, if he would help me find spaces in Minneapolis to show seven exhibitions that I curated that opened simultaneously in Minneapolis,” she said.
That show was called "We are the Story: A Visual Response to Racism," and many of the quilts are on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center through September 24. The quilts submitted for the show came from American and international quilters. Mazloomi said quilts are something everyone can understand.
"We have a relationship with the cloth from cradle to grave. It’s the first thing we're swathed in at birth, it’s the last thing to touch our bodies upon our death. So, to me, it’s an easy way with quilts to tell a most difficult story. And that’s the story of racism and its history here in America,” she said.
Cultural identities and quilts
The first community conversation at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center attracted residents from that community, the neighboring village of Woodlawn and other nearby neighborhoods. The two Cincinnati suburbs have been working together to foster stronger connections.
Wyoming is approximately 83 percent white. Woodlawn is approximately 67 percent Black. The event attracted a diverse group of participants.
“What I immediately saw was the ages, not just the diversity of color,” Wade said.
Facilitators guided the participants through the plan and process for the event, which included setting ground rules for conversations at their tables and what to think about when creating their own quilt squares. They also went around the room to ask participants about their unseen cultural identities.
“I said I’m a bi-racial Jew. And that’s not something that people normally see when they see me,” said Cooper, whose mother has African American heritage and father has Jewish heritage.
"It’s interesting when I was younger and had a lot more hair, people always used to see different things. Less these days," Cooper said. "But, when I was younger, it was, ‘What are you?’”
He said he has found that people see him differently depending on the geography. For example, while living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has a large Arab American community.
“Because they would just walk up speaking Arabic to me. And I would go, ‘Oh, no, I’m Jewish. Hi, how are you?’ And it was kind of a conversation piece that I would start," he said.
Cooper also found the event to be valuable in helping people unpack their cultural identities through the quilt squares.
“As I thought it through was imagining layers of identity characteristics with love and logic was how I kind of created my spin on it,” he said.
Sharon Lamb sat next to Cooper while creating her quilt square. She said for her, attending a historically Black college or university is part of her cultural identity.
“It’s a very big part of who I am I guess,” said Lamb.
She's a graduate of Hampton University in Virginia and has lived in Cincinnati for about 40 years. She said she was drawn to the event by the quilting.
"The quilting brought me in and plus I was interested to see what the conversation was going to be,” said Lamb. “I think Cincinnati is pretty segregated in terms of where people live and the neighborhoods and that kind of thing. So, I think there’s a lot we can talk about.”
The conversations at the tables varied from what to put on their squares to their cultural experiences.
“Things that we go through every day, you know. And sometimes it’s to the point where we ask ourselves, is this really happening because I’m Black? Or what is it? Sometimes we can become paranoid about it, I guess, because it happens so often,” said Lamb.
Kevin Gillie, PhD is also a board member at the Wyoming Fine Arts Center. He attended the community conversation because he said he and his family are on a learning journey.
“The last couple years have really been a point of connection, right, both with my own heritage, both with my granddaughter’s heritage, and just trying to sort out in this world how to be supportive in my community,” Gillie said.
He said his unseen cultural identity is that he is a musician. He said he plays the French horn and has even taught. Gillie grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and can trace his family to Jamestown.
"There appears to be some records that we at some point owned some slaves in my family." He added, "I kind of just thought maybe the family didn’t do the slavery thing and just recently found out, yeah, there are. There is, we did.”
Gillie said it has caused him and many family members to take a journey into their family history. He credits his daughter with helping to guide them. It is also important to the family because the father of one of his grandchildren is South African.
“(Our journey) has become more intense the last couple years. And the whole family is coming along. We’re all taking steps as a family. And doing that means that I can be stronger in reaching out to my peers and other people, so helping them in their journeys, too,” Gillie said.
He described his quilt square as having symbols of rising hope and anxiety. Other squares created by participants featured images of tears, messages of diversity or unity and music. After each conversation, the quilts will be collected and used to create a quilt to hang on a wall in the community. The hope is it will generate more conversations.
Wade said the final piece of the pilot project is to have a jazz concert at Music Hall on September 12. "A Black Anthology of Music: The Resilience of Jazz" will be a kid-friendly experience that includes the Cincinnati Boy Choir, Revolution Dance Theater, Elementz and the Cincinnati Public Schools Jazz Academy.
"We will host what we call our 'Books Alive Family Adventure.' And that adventure is taking you to Music Hall and through a book called the 'Sound that Jazz Makes,' how that looks in a performance situation."
Tickets for the show range from $8-$60.
A place to say your truth
Wade said she hopes the program gives people a place to "speak their truth" in a safe space with the ability to make a difference.
"How are you going to deal with that truth? What are you doing to do to make something different? Do you think it needs to be different?" she said.
Registration is open for these upcoming community conversations:
Aug. 11 Elementz (Cincinnati)
Aug. 13 Harriet Beecher Stowe House (Cincinnati)
Aug. 17 Fitton Center (Hamilton)
Aug. 19 Booker T. Washington Community Center (Hamilton)