Communique Extended Interview: "Black Man Running 5K" At Hugh MacRae Park | Social Justice

Mar 10, 2017

Working Narratives presents "Black Man Running 5K." Parade, Justice Labs, Dance, Drum, Song, Food Truck Rodeo. Saturday, March 11, 9:00am-4:00pm @ Hugh MacRae Park. Free.

This is extended raw tape from Gina Gambony's (GG) interview with Nick Szuberla (NS) and Rend Smith (RS) from Working Narratives and Free Movement/Black Man Running 5-K. 

  • NS: Working Narratives is an arts and social justice organization based here in Wilmington but we primarily work nationally. We've been around for about 20 years but we came to Wilmington about three years ago and decided that we wanted to do some local work and that is happening in the form of Black Man Running. The core belief of working narratives is the belief in the power of stories and that's both telling stories and listening to stories. And it's our experience that when communities that are closest to the problem can share their experiences, can share their stories, then we can actually create solutions to some pressing problems. 
  • GG: What are the pressing problems from the viewpoint of working narratives?
  • NS: Well I mean, we really look at inequality and inequality in our criminal justice system. That's inequality in the way people can make a living or struggle to make a living. It's inequality in who is driving the political process. So we really kind of try to look at where are¬†people's voices not being amplified and how as artists can we use ours our skills to work with communities so that they can fully engage in the democratic process. So we spent a lot of time working on criminal justice issues which we think is a big challenge to America. It cuts across all political demographics, it cuts across geographic demographics, and that you have a situation in the country that we have something that's broken and a lot of people are trying to figure out how to how to fix it.
  • GG: What are some of the problems in the criminal justice system?
  • NS: Sure. So one of the main issues we found when we sat down with families was that the cost of the criminal justice system to them directly. And so you have a system that's actually been privatized. And so a family might be spending $20,000 a year to speak to their loved one behind bars. What we see there is you have people who are trying to maintain family contact with their loved one which we can all agree is a good thing. But because corporations have come in and figured out an angle then it's turned into a profit center and we find that problematic. 
  • GG: Like for instance ,we can call long distance for free. People don't pay for long distance...It costs money to talk to somebody in the jail. 
  • NS: And what you could understand is that there might be some fee for the security. But as we dug in to the issue what we found was that municipalities and the states that were bidding taking the bids from the from the companies they weren't bidding on the lowest bid;¬†they were bidding on the highest bid that offered the largest kickback return. And so they were they were funding other programs within the system asking families to subsidize things. And so states were making millions of dollars off of this. And for us what we believe is that you know, if we have an even playing field in society, if we allow folks who are the most vulnerable to be protected-and certainly prisoner families are some of the most vulnerable people in our society-then we can actually have a healthy and safe community that we want. But as long as you have unchecked abuses then you're always going to be running into a kind of a declining situation where folks are folks are being victimized that we don't want victimized.
  • GG: When you are just talking about the low or lower and higher bidders, you're talking about the whole running of the prison?
  • NS: No that was just specifically in regards to the prison contracts. You know what we found was, hey why, for example, do prison phone calls cost so much? And you would think that the county jail, when they took a bid to have their service run, they would go for the lowest most affordable contract. In reality most were taking the contract that offered the largest kickback return to their to their municipality. 
  • GG: Can you elucidate, you know in a simple way, the philosophical problem with prisons being run by for-profit corporations.
  • NS: When prisons are profit centers you create a situation where there is a conflict of interest and that suddenly you have people lobbying to keep the prisons full. Not because they have a moral dilemma but they actually have a profit reason. And so that you have lobbyists going up to your state capitals saying we need to keep these prisons open because it's a way for them to make money. And then we the taxpayers end up paying for that one way or another. 
  • RS: There's an obvious historical context here. We know that with the 13th Amendment we eliminated slavery but we left the door open on a certain kind of slavery. So it was understood that you know African-Americans were free but that people who were involved with the criminal justice system could still be used as forced labor. So it is a form of slavery. I mean and as far as the context of you know, where is this philosophically. You know from a strictly utilitarian perspective we know that if you create an incentive for you know this kind of behavior for warehousing folks in prisons, that incentive is going to win out. So you know if your profit margins are dependent upon people being incarcerated you're going to lobby politicians for stricter policies. You are going to support candidates who are law and order candidates and you're going to exploit the most exploitable. 
  • NS: I just want to share one story that we have told quite a few times as we've worked around the country. Sometimes we'll work in a area and some will say hey this doesn't really...the prison system doesn't really affect us. We're hardworking people. And I like to tell a story about a group of miners in Tennessee who are working their coal mine and the state decided to bring in prison labor and replace them. And the miners rebelled. They said no this this is this is a form of slavery and we're being replaced by slaves. And so the miners went and freed all of those slaves. And today if you go into some of those homes in eastern Tennessee mountains, you can find quilts in people's homes on the wall that have the threads of my of those former prisoners uniforms woven into the quilts of those miner families. They gave them clothes. They took the uniforms and wove that story literally into the fabric of their community. I just love that story. Any time I can share it--but it kind of gets into just how people understood it. So there's academic work now saying, you know, the 13th Amendment...But people understood who were historically living in the moment that the carceral state was part of a system of slavery. 
  • GG: Tell me about Black Man Running. 
  • RS: Sure. So you know as Nick mentioned, you know there is this sort of incredibly regenerative nature of oppression. So in order to speak to that you need an incredibly regenerative form of protest. So Black Man Running has a lot of spokes. But it starts with bringing people together with community building and you know, allowing people to cross limits, contested spaces, borders, have a conversation about, you know these oppressions, about these limits. So we know that there are incredible kind of works of resistance going on right now. And that they are built around flashpoints. We see that there's a problem we call our friends we get on Facebook we organize we come out we rally. And that's an incredibly effective way to address things in the short term. But we also need to look at long term sustainable ways of keeping engaged with social justice. So Black Man Running, which is a 5K event, among other things is one way to kind of have this reiterative way to keep fighting, to keep coming together, to keep engaging. 
  • GG: So is it just for black people, is it just for black men? 
  • RS: Not at all. I mean the name obviously sort of suggests that. And I am a black man and I certainly identify with the phrase "black man running," but it is not exclusive by any means. In fact you know when you look at the genesis of black man running, when you look at who has helped keep it going you're really talking about a group of women who are of color. So you know while black men running certainly is useful in the sense that it conjures some very important issues and images namely what's happened in terms of African-Americans and African-American males in particular and their relationship with public space and how they are patrolled how they are criminalized and the result being tragedies like Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell and Walter Scott, folks who were merely moving through public space and who were executed for it. So you know while it conjures in references these things, it is not -that's not its complete mission. It's not it's complete limitation. So we are asking people of various backgrounds various ethnicities to help us address these issues. 
  • GG: And ladies.
  • RS: Yes. 
  • NS: As a white guy who doesn't really, didn't know I'd like to run, I've since found out through this process, this two year process now, that I don't mind running, especially with our weekly running group that has come out of this project. But at the base is building community and that we want to hack the idea of the 5K which is often used as a fundraising tool and around an issue but really, A: we lose money on this event. We're not making money. And B: it's not really designed as a 5K. It's a holding space and it's creating a public art project driven by the community. 
  • GG: What is this public art project of which you speak?
  • NS: Sure. So Black Man Running is conceived in itself as a public art project. And the day unfolds it starts with a parade that includes drummers and puppeteers. And then the run unfolds the run/walk,¬†and after that we have a community stage that includes a mime troupe from a local black church, singers, dancers, and then also during that time we have these what we called the social justice rap where people have brought forward workshops and there will be those workshops where we kind of running throughout throughout the day. And when you kind of add it all up it's a Happening. It's it's a public art event. And so what we saw the first time that we did it was that people were a little confused. They came out, they ran the 5K, they walked it. Some people were real runners that showed up because there are people it just turns out to show up to every f5K that happens, and they're like, something else is happening here. And I think they started to get sucked into the spoken word poetry and then suddenly there's like there's all these drummers and this is really this is really an art space that you've walked into. So when we conceived it neither Rend or I had much experience with 5K runs, but we could see that it might be something we could hack into something creative. 
  • GG: And this is happening Saturday...
  • RS: Saturday,March 11. 
  • RS: So we are talking about racial justice issues, which is a Black Man Running's primary preoccupation. We are also talking about issues that affect our LGBTQ community. We are talking about issues that affect women. We are opening conversations that are about sort of various kind of systematized institutionalized oppression that we all confront. The history of black man running is that it came together in order to confront issues of racial justice and it did so by bringing people together and across zip codes to kind of have a discussion a conversation about that. The participants wanted to continue that conversation. And so we formed a free movement project. Free Movement Project is you know again you know a way to engage that conversation on a daily basis. I'm sorry. Or rather on a weekly basis, and also a way to expand on its themes. Now, the Black Man Running 5K is going to happen hopefully time after time. 
  • RS: It's now part of a broader dialogue about you know social justice. 
  • GG: Tell me about Hugh MacRae Park next Saturday. 
  • RS: So Hugh MacRae Park is the site of the Black Man Running 5K,and that's for very particular reasons. We know that Hugh MacRae Park has a very controversial history. Hugh McRae was a participant in the 1898 massacre. He was one of the architects of the white supremacist regime that was installed afterwards. And one of the ideas behind Black Man Running is that we are re-occupying this space for justice and for African-Americans and all people. So we are...we will be there. We will be at Hugh MacRae we will be encouraging folks to recontextualize that space to make it their own. Although you know we acknowledge,¬†understand, support those in the community whose reaction to Hugh MacRae park is to avoid it. We also think that you know, that particular form of resistance is a form of resistance that would please Hugh MacRae. That was part of his original thinking mandate in terms of willing park to the county under the restriction that you know, no African-Americans would ever be able to use it. And we know that, you know, certainly in terms of the fight against segregation, it has been very important for African-Americans to show up in spaces where they're not invited. 
  • NS: And so we we begin the occupation of the park with a parade in the park and that starts at 9 a.m. It will probably end at around 10. And then we begin our-the running starts with the full run beginning at 11.¬†And then we figure that will end around noon or so for some of us,¬†some much quicker,¬†and then we move into the community stage which runs from 12 to 4. And then at 1:00 we have the social justice labs and we'll have these tents set out in the field. And each of the three tents will have circles of chairs and people can come check out all sorts of different dialogues and presentations about how to build a culture of health in Wilmington.
  • GG: When you're talking about a culture of health you're talking about social health. 
  • NS: Justice-think about it in the broadest terms. And you know the amazing thing is if you start to add the idea of culture to health,¬†and you say hey we're going to build a highway here, and you go, well what's the culture of health angle, how are we preserving walkways for people who ride bicycles... Or if you say well we're going to invest in technology for our police force, but we might also look at our budget and go, how do we build a culture of health for employing young people in the community? Because we actually know when you employ young people, even for just a few weeks a summer, it dramatically drops rates of incarceration. So there's all these ways that we can start to think about, not just getting out there and breaking a sweat which is good, and for us another form of culture of health is bringing diverse communities together. In dialogue, in organizing, and building something. So we have that type of culture of health also. 
  • RS: And I think, I mean, one of the advantages of engaging is from a public health perspective is that I think in terms of politics in terms of the social people often I imagine it in terms of a zero-sum game. Like we are always in competition with one another. But the fact of the matter is if we really think clearly about the problems that we're confronting and think about how we can create healthy neighborhoods, how we can create healthy communities, states, and a healthy country-then suddenly we're able to kind of see the fact that you know we're criminalization hurts everyone. Overall, in terms of keeping people healthy, that benefits everyone. 
  • NS: You know it's funny like a lot of times in the arts world, there's a lot of talk about community engagement and art space. And our community engagement, if you look at the numbers, happens through weekly walks and runs with folks. And it happens through being outside in the community in a different way, and so we're thinking of this as expanding the idea of art space by having a project that's just all your around actively engaged in walking different routes through downtown Wilmington and other place. And to us at the bottom of of that is it is building a community really dedicated to a culture of health. We learned through those walks and runs that we have a lot of veterans in our community dealing with PTSD. And so part of our week of activities is to bring "Speed Killed My Cousin," a play about a veteran returning with PTSD, and delving into that. So we're really using the run and walking activity as a way to kind of network and engage the community in a unique way. We might be the only arts organization in the country that has a weekly running group attached to it. I'm not sure though we can try to research that.
  • GG: But it's that iterative, like constant...so it's not just kind of like one of those things that just falls you know falls away. And then -oh well, there's a crisis, let's come together. 
  • NS: So one of our early works was looking at how can we bring urban and rural communities together. And so what we did was we brought a traditional mountain musician together with a hip hop musician and it created what musicologists claimed was a new form of music called Hick-Hop.
  • GG: It's hick, like hick?
  • NS: Hick. Yeah, if you want to be more polite, you could say Hill-Hop. But we feel OK with Hick-Hop and so do all the now Hick-Hop practitioners. 

 Transcript by PopUp Archive