“Equality” is we all get the same. But when you’ve suffered the impacts of racism, getting the same is not enough. We have to change the paradigm and make it about equity.”
From the Jim Crow South to Harlem and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from Outward Bound to the JP Neighborhood Trauma Team, Bashier Kayou has dedicated himself to the work of education, racial equity, healing, and building leadership among youth of color. In this interview Bashier, who has served on JPNDC’s board since 2010 and is currently Co-Chair, shares some of his inspiring story (including a stint in fashion design!).
How did you get inspired to work for social and racial justice?
Bashier: My political education around civil rights really began back at the age of three, living in the south in a Jim Crow environment. We were farmers but when you came into town, you’d see the labeling of white fountains, black fountains. So I had that early exposure.
When I moved to Harlem, I became more radical. As a young person there, I would go to the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, which was then Seventh Avenue, and it was all Pan-Africanism. Everything about political, cultural, black power, all that happened on that corner! There was a bookstore, where literally you could walk in and grab a book and read. We had adults who were there to support you in your reading, in your research, about our history, our culture.
I was the kind of youth who was very active, very active in the community. My mom was doing similar work that we see here at JPNDC, around housing, education, really about the grassroots power movement. Her office became the space where I would do tutoring and afterschool programming for young people. She would just give me the keys and on Saturday, I would open it up and bring in young people.
As a student I was active in SNCC [Student Nonviolent/National Coordinating Committee), which was under the influence of Malcolm X. We took over schools and universities in our community, to hold them accountable for the education that was being taught.
You’ve spent most of your career working with young people of color. What does that mean for you?
Bashier: I had many, many adults in my life. My father was not there but I had a powerful, strong mom. She is one person you didn’t mess with! But it was more than her–it was a community. There was no way you would starve, no way. I actually don’t know how many mothers I have, how many grandmas I have. They could all beat my butt and send me home! That was acceptable. And then listening to Malcolm X and others, I was mentored in a really healthy way. I got the values about responsibility and compassion. I came to believe very strongly in the power of community, and, and what can happen when a community is effectively working together.
Working with young folks has always been a big part of that for me. You may know the history, about how there was intentional destruction of the Black Panther Party, of the Black Power movement. So what were we going to do next? For me it was education, giving back to young people.
I worked with street gangs in Harlem, trying to bring peace. We did a lot of actions around education, economics, safety in the community. That was my world. The New York Urban League took notice and they were able to sponsor people they felt were potential community leaders. They sponsored me and that helped influence my life, providing the resources and the means for me and others to do work in the community.
The adults in my life were very clear about “You’re not going to be in the drug trade. You’re not going to be caught up in the street.” I was exposed to it to understand it, but I was nurtured enough not to be a part of it.
Bashier with leaders of the Mildred Hailey Tenants Organization in 2016.
Another job you have is on the Mayor’s Trauma Team. That must be really difficult. Can you tell us about that? What motivates you?
Bashier: Very early on I saw the life of my brother, exposed to violence in the streets. He ultimately died in prison. He was one of way too many young men of color who we’ve lost to senseless violence. And there were two levels of violence. You had community violence, but you also had the violence from our police and others in the community that have been exposed to that violence. I became committed to “How can we change that narrative? How do we help young people look at different ways of dealing with conflict, building leadership, building character and courage?”
I did one project in New York that was an alternative to probation. Normally, if you’re on probation, you would go downtown to your probation officer, right? So in our concept, you brought the probation officers to the community setting. And we were educators. I had a caseload of like 20 young people. But in order to get that job, I had to go through a 30-day wilderness Outward Bound course. And that really showed me, there’s so much more we can do.
So I got involved with Outward Bound. Down in Florida I did a project that was an alternative to incarceration. Instead of going to jail, you spend 30 days in the woods. If you survived that 30 days in the woods, you were released back into the community. Still, to me, that wasn’t enough. I think that’s the problem we’re dealing with now: getting released back in the community but with nothing structured, nothing concrete for you. So we got them into Florida Junior College, into vocational training. We had group meetings once a month. Everything was like “Okay, here’s the next step.”
So my commitment to trauma healing began a long time before being on the JP neighborhood trauma team. In that work, we do help folks deal with the trauma of death, the trauma of violence, and recovering from their trauma. A lot of times people don’t heal, and it just goes on and on and on. What skills set do you have for recovery? We try to help the community heal.
Painting the “Unity” mural on Centre Street
But what’s most important for me is prevention of future trauma. I mentor 32 young men of color at the Curley Middle School. This is early intervention, versus waiting til later in their lives to change. I’m also the Director of Leadership Development at a summer camp, Camp Harbor View. I’ve been doing that for 12 years. We try to create leaders who can go back into their community and provide service to their community. We try to create the space where young people can see their worth and that there’s more than they could ever imagine. To give them the space to explore that.
Spiritual education is one of the tools I use a lot in the work that I do. A lot of our young people don’t know about Self—that history of who you are, where you come from, I don’t believe traditional education has been effective for my world.
What do you think are the most important things we can do as a community to fight racism?
Bashier: It’s about institutional change. Oftentimes what we do is personalize it: “You’re a racist.” But that’s not going to get us anywhere. Structurally, racism has been set up across all of our systems, our education, our hospitals, our health system, you name it. Fighting racism is about changing policies, all those institutions.
When we’re not very clear about our roles, oftentimes we say, “Oh, let’s talk to the children of color who have experienced racism.” But the system of racism was not one that we created. Going back to slavery, it was intentionally created but not by people of color. So we should instead think about how to talk to White kids and White adults. And yet, my role is not to go to a White person to teach them about racism. That is the role of someone who is White to have that conversation with them.
My role is to work with youth of color around healing. There is a project I do called Racial Reconciliation and Healing at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center. where we work with youth from different backgrounds. It’s a healing space where people can recover, and connect with each other. They have deep discussions and start to understand, “Okay, here’s the impact of racism, and this is what we need to do.” Everybody needs to find roles.
My commitment is to racial justice and racial equity. “Equality” is we all get the same. But when you’ve suffered the impacts of racism, getting the same is not enough. We have to change the paradigm and make it about equity. I think that’s the beauty of JPNDC–we’re working on equity.
What makes you so committed to your work with JPNDC?
Bashier: Healing and bringing joy. I want to bring that joy because there is so much pain. We have to heal.
When I first moved to JP in 2007, I went to a community event [“Building an Equitable Community,” a summit organized by JPNDC]. Everyone in there was predominantly White. You had White folks speaking for people of color. So that was a problem. But it made me wonder, “what organization is doing the work around equity?” That’s when I joined the JPNDC Organizing Committee, and understood that JPNDC is doing that work. JPNDC is asking the questions, “how do we keep our community equitable? How do we challenge racism in who gets building contracts? Where are the women? Where are the men of color? What does our board look like? What does our staff look like? Who do we serve in the community? What are people in the community facing and struggling with on a daily basis?”
At the JPNDC Annual Meeting in 2019 (with former board member Girma Belay)
JPNDC is about family, is about small business, is about community. It goes beyond housing. A mom may get a house, but can’t go to work because there’s no child care. Mom-and-pop businesses are being pushed out. Maybe you help lift up your community, but then you can’t afford it and you’re pushed out to somewhere else. Losing your community is so traumatizing for families. And losing families is traumatizing for the community.
It is a much larger picture than just housing. It’s about all the social determinants that are needed in order to be a healthy family, a healthy community. Safety, financial security, leadership. That’s how I see JPNDC.
We are not just confining ourselves to just Jamaica Plain. JP is still primary. But now we have folks who come to our Prosperity Services from everywhere. That means we have something to offer that will improve people’s quality of life.
I often go to a small business that JPNDC helped to get started, Juicygreens. Ammy, the owner, just told me they’ll soon be down at the TD Garden. That’s tremendous! From having that little space on the corner of South Street, they have gotten to a whole other level! She just said to me that this would not have happened without the help of JPNDC. We do the coaching–”this is how you get there.” That’s why I am deeply committed to JPNDC. We are not suit-and-tie board members. We are active. We are out on the front line doing that work.
We heard you were also into fashion design. Can you tell us something about that?
Bashier: Coming to Harlem as a young person–it was a huge difference from the south. I was used to dirt under your feet, not concrete! It was traumatic, and art came to me like therapy. I had an art teacher–and sometimes we say this to young people, there will be that significant person that you will never forget. I loved the way this man dressed! He encouraged me to go to a high school for the fashion industry. We learned all these skills, designing, tailoring, making the patterns, making clothes from scratch. We brought African fashion to our fashion shows with African clothing, music and drumming. I did pretty good.Although I also learned how crooked the industry could be. There was a group of us young men that designed our own sweaters. We didn’t patent the design. Somebody took it and the next thing, we saw the sweaters on the market.
Fashion helped me to deal with my own trauma, the death of my brother. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that was what it was all about. It was very therapeutic. I would change my clothes up to three times a day! I would walk in, take off my old clothes, get something new, make something new and wear it. I would never wear sneakers. It was always shoes and ties!
I had clients and made clothes for weddings. I got into the Fashion Institute of Technology. But there was something about that that just didn’t sit well with me. It was focused on making money. It was definitely a conflict with my values. So I walked away from it. I went back to my root values of community.
JPNDC stands in solidarity and protest against racist violence. #BlackLivesMatter