Weighty book discussions at the barbershop? In Newburgh, located just across the Hudson River from Beacon, Naomi Hersson-Ringskog and Gabrielle Hill brought HNY’s Reading & Discussion program to places where conversation already hums.
Contextualizing current events, these conversations provided a opportunity for further community work. At times, these conversations led to other projects. In Newburgh, organizers look forward to the celebration of Frederick Douglass’ birthday bicentennial as an opportunity to deepen the ties they have started with these conversations.
In December, 2018, Humanities New York spoke with Naomi and Gabrielle to learn more.
HNY: How long have you lived in Newburgh, and what would you like people to know about it?
Naomi: In 2016, I was invited to speak at the Columbia University urban design program, which was doing a project in and about Newburgh. From that introduction, I just kept on coming back to Newburgh. Part of the reason I kept on coming back was the architecture, which a lot of people marvel about, but also the cultural diversity combined with the historical layers of the city–there’s George Washington’s headquarters, and the underground railroad, and the suffragist convention, and many more historic places. There is a rich cultural history that can inspire community pride and community collaboration in Newburgh.
Afterwards, I was invited by Michael Green, the founder of the Fullerton Center–a historic mansion on Grand Street that belonged to a very curmudgeonly lawyer, Judge Fullerton–to join the board. They have a strong conviction that history can be a tool for revitalization. We had an intern take the history of the Fullerton Center and the Fullerton Mansion and make it into a guided tour, asking: can you draw connections to present-day issues or contexts through the history of the Mansion? This experience led me to move up to the Hudson Valley in February, 2018, as the rich history of Newburgh has led so many others.
Gabrielle: I am a lifelong resident. I was born here, I’ve been here my entire life and I’m proud of that. Geographically we have the Hudson River, Mount Beacon, and George Washington’s Headquarters. We have many historical buildings, but more importantly we have such a wide variety of people, unlike many other small towns. Now more than ever it’s very exciting to experience different cultures and foods and share each other’s family stories. I think it’s really special how we come together as a diverse community. At the end of the day we all want to come together to discuss what matters to the community.
HNY: What are some of those matters, or challenges that Newburgh faces?
Naomi: Newburgh is very diverse. It’s 50% Latino, 30% African American, and 20% Caucasian, with a steady flow of newcomers from New York–whether it be Harlem and Brooklyn, or the Bronx. One of the things that I have noticed is the silos or the social fragmentation. You don’t see a lot of collaborations that are attracting a diverse, mixed audience in the way that the city is mixed and diverse. Many of the organizations in Newburgh are volunteer-only. They don’t have paid executive directors, they don’t have staff.
HNY: What role can the humanities play in addressing Newburgh’s challenges?
Naomi: I myself feel that the humanities jumpstart a conversation. The humanities are timeless. Finding that solace and strength and inspiration and reflection on current day issues. That belief is what lead us to HNY’s Reading & Discussion program.
HNY: We’ve had partners hold Reading & Discussion programs in a wide variety of contexts but yours are the first held in barbershops.
Gabrielle: It is a challenge sometimes to reach our youth and engage them in civic opportunities. The barbershop conversations opened up a new door. It actually met them where they are and where they feel comfortable. Because a challenge in other gatherings is the absence of the male voice, but here, they would be reading aloud or being heard in what they had to say. The old way was: invite them to come somewhere and then tell them why voting is important; the new way is: ask them “Is voting important to you? What would you like to see change?” By doing it this way we made a path for them to want to be involved because we put the ball in their hands, as opposed to just telling them what to do. The humanities have been helpful in allowing them, through these readings, to have a dialogue in the community.
Naomi: The barbershops have always been a place where African-American men spend time, they come to get a haircut or a shave. They have been visiting the same barber for many, many years. It’s a place where your son is introduced and gets to hear men speaking. People are usually very loyal to their barbershops. Recognizing this sanctuary, it was important for us to offer this conversation where people are, as opposed to the reverse: trying to get them to come to other places. The barbershops are a very important audience precisely because they serve African-American men. Already these topics are being discussed in these barbershops; we are just complementing that discussion by bringing in humanities readings.
Props to Humanities New York! The readings are short, they include a biography, and they have guiding questions. That’s great! It makes it easier for us to facilitate the conversations, and to encourage others to go back to them on their own time. There are some people who have requested the readings and are going to use them for their own purposes.
From the book [The Civically Engaged Reader], we selected six seminal African-American authors, both women and men. That’s also an important point for the general public, to not just recognize the names, but to know the biography and the image as well as the readings and the powerful quotes. The barbershops have been anchors of the communities where men have come to discuss, to confide, to learn, to decide, to observe, to spread the word. Recognizing that barbershops are just as important as a church or a library or a city hall I think is way of strengthening the discourse. Applause to Gabrielle!
These barbershops are black-owned businesses. That’s something really exciting. The barbershops are beautiful in terms of the interiors. I feel very privileged that I’m able to sit there for two hours and to soak it all in. Someone’s sitting in this stool and their getting their hair trimmed. They’re hearing the words of Langston Hughes.
Gabrielle: We had discussion members as young as six! A boy and his father were both getting their hair cut. The oldest attendees were 88 and 78, and they attended all six conversations. We had all backgrounds, all ethnicities: Black, White, Spanish-speaking, German. It was just beautiful.
What we’re trying to do with the Barbershop Reading Group is to encapsulate a quote or reading that can be a source of strength or inspiration to whatever we confront. The current readings that we’ve done thus far are James Baldwin and W.E.B. DuBois, they have framed our issues very clearly. James Baldwin talks about a consumerist society and what that does to one’s self. He also asks: how can we act if we don’t know ourselves? Those are two things that came up in our first conversation.
HNY: How do you create a space or situation where people will feel comfortable discussing a text?
Gabrielle: My experience as a Circle Keeper at the Restorative Center gave me the skills to create an atmosphere that is inclusive. I give people the freedom of choice. I do a lot of preparation to set the mood. Before beginning we do a little breathing exercise and I let everyone know that this is an opportunity to speak and share your thoughts but you’re not obligated. I make sure I have enough printed copies for everyone to get a copy. The first person would start reading aloud, and we went around the room. People felt comfortable even though they hadn’t met the other folks before. If you welcome people with a smile as they arrive, and treat people with respect then people can feel that, and it makes them more willing to be open.
HNY: Tell us a little bit about what a Circle Keeper does.
Gabrielle: At the Restorative Center in Newburgh, which is a restorative justice program where we host a variety of conversations in conflict resolution, family, and community building circles, I am the program director. When we host these conversations we don’t know who is going to show up. You have to be ready to receive resistance, anxiety, and hostility depending on the topic. We learn how to understand ourselves and how we feel, and not put ourselves in the conversation but just be ready to receive the energy with a smile. I treat everyone like they are my relatives. That’s how I train my mind to think of it. I’m starting from a place of love and compassion. The Restorative Center has been in Newburgh for a few years now. Participants come and sit and have their voices heard. It’s a safe space with other community members.
HNY: What’s next for the barbershop discussions?
Naomi: We have a Facebook page and a gmail account, we don’t even have a website. As a run-up to the event we sent it to our personal contacts and on Facebook. Right now we are figuring out how best to sustain the audience. We’re collecting the emails of attendees and continuing our personal outreach. We’re looking to build a paper trail or living blog to disseminate the information. We’d like the event to happen again. Already there are some ideas coming from the barbershops themselves which are hugely important as community stakeholders. One of them is interested in giving free haircuts to boys who read a passage out loud. We’re hoping this can happen on an individual basis without an organizing entity. We’re hoping other barbershops will hear about it and be interested in the future.
Gabrielle: We are working on a photography idea along with the Newburgh Community Photo Project that would go into barbershops to ask questions about civic engagement. The barbershop is where it’s at. The interest generated is amazing, people continually send me stories about barbershop conversations. So many different stories are coming out of this. We wanted to continue that because we feel that it’s an area that needs a lot of work. Minorities, especially men, are not as civically engaged as they used to be. Many feel like it doesn’t make a difference.
HNY: The Women’s Suffrage Centennial–both state and national–and the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth are important historic anniversaries that you’ve helped Newburgh plan for. What are you working on?
Naomi: Through Johanna Jung, who is the Orange County Historian, and Cher Vickers, who writes the Newburgh Restoration Blog, I learned about the suffragists who held their convention in 1898 in Newburgh in the beautiful Palatine Hotel, which is no longer there. I got connected to a local artist, who two years previously had done a little intervention. I got excited to use this history and to amplify it. Together with Wolf (the local artist), Chuck Thomas, who is the library director, Gabrielle, Willa Free, who is the [head of] Orange County Democratic Women, and a few others, we organized a multi-faceted event to commemorate this history. I think it’s universal that sometimes you can live in a city that has such rich history and not be aware of it. That’s the role of projects about suffragists or Frederick Douglass: to revive that and to find new interpretations, or new meanings, or new relevance to who we are on an individual basis, but also as a community.Community engagement is a muscle that needs to be constantly exercised. You’re constantly finding different ways to do collaborations or community outreach.
HNY: What is the vision for 2020? What do you hope to achieve?
Naomi: Some of the ideas that we’ve floated for the 2020 celebration include a reenactment of the Jubilee March, which attracted 4,000 people, and to put permanent markers in the city of Newburgh. We’re talking about civic engagement. We may find that people are getting involved in this particular project or starting their own. Seeing a constellation of other activities that are responding to that shared history and shared community pride would be a major success in Newburgh.
HNY: Why celebrate Frederick Douglass in Newburgh?
Gabrielle: Several reasons. Douglass was such a positive speaker and a man of determination. He taught himself to read. He freed himself from slavery. Pursued his rights as a human being. He is a role model to us all. In the times we are living in now we worry about so much negativity and hatred. It’s important that we stay grounded and return to the roots of humanity and pursue those things that don’t just benefit us, but see how Douglass could impact America for the better and change the lives of people who weren’t even born yet. I think it’s very important that we are reminded, that we keep others like Frederick Douglass at the forefront of our conversation. We are people that pursue our dreams and not let anything hold us back. The 15th Amendment was the right thing to do and he would not give up that fight. We need to fight for the things that we want and follow in the footsteps of leaders like Douglass.
It’s also good for Newburgh. It gives the community an opportunity to come out in a different way, instead of just music and fun and food, that we also sit with each other and talk about a meaningful topic and gain collective wisdom, from the youngest to the oldest. My dream is to do a reenactment of the speech. We have a couple of community members who have volunteered to play the role of Frederick Douglass. I’d also like to see one of our children interview him. We want to prepare them to feel comfortable speaking out and asking questions. I see a lot of wonderful programs coming out of the celebration. I don’t want it to end in 2020.
Interview by Scarlett Rebman, Grants Officer
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Naomi Hersson-Ringskog is the founder of the Dept of Small Interventions (DoSI) which launches place-based projects to amplify cultural assets, galvanize collaborations, and build social infrastructure. Before launching the firm, Naomi co-founded No Longer Empty- a New York City non-profit. where continues to serve as a board member. She also serves as a member of the Awesome Newburgh Foundation, Storm King Art Center’s Young Council and Institute for Public Architecture. Naomi earned a Masters Degree in Urban Planning from Columbia University and completed the CORO Leadership program. She also co-chairs the American Planning Association’s Arts & Culture subcommittee.
Gabrielle Hill is a Program Director at the Restorative Center and she works for McDonald’s Corp at two locations as a Crew Trainer. At night you will find her home snuggled with her youngest daughter while sharing stories and reading books to her granddaughter. Gabrielle is very much involved in her community. In addition to The Restorative Center, she is on the Police Community Relations Board and is a mentor at The Center For Hope for local teens.