On September 25 at the Rustik Tavern in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a crowd of more than 100 people convened for the launch of a new political campaign — Jelani Mashariki is running for a seat on the New York City Council (District 35). I knew Jelani through his work on George Martinez’s recent Congressional campaign, and as a founding member of both Global Block and Bum Rush the Vote (blogged previously). I have seen him on video and on stage performing “Occupation Freedom” with the Global Block Collective. I knew of his involvement with the Paul Robeson Freedom School that was co-founded by Bed-Stuy resident and activist Justin Wedes (himself a founding member of the NY General Assembly).
I learned more about the wealth of Jelani’s activist involvements from the email invitation to the launch party:
Jelani Mashariki is a Brooklyn native, child of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, a Brooklyn College graduate, an inaugural AmeriCorps volunteer focusing in HIV outreach, an activist with Black Veterans for Social Justice, the Director of Pamoja House Homeless Men’s Shelter, Co-founder of the Global Block Foundation & U.S. Cultural Envoy, an Occupy Wall Street & Occupy the Hood activist, and is currently the Dean of Liberation of the Paul Robeson Freedom School.
What I didn’t know about Jelani until that night was the strong legacy of social justice he comes from, raised by and amongst community activists who have continued their work in Brooklyn from the height of the civil rights movement in the 60s (with roots that undoubtedly stretch back much farther) right up to the present day.
And what I didn’t know about myself until that night was the extent of my ignorance of a vital, long-lived self-reliance movement in my own city. Nor of the grassroots service groups they established, many of which still power on. Nor of the youth and community educational programs that were born of — and promote — political awareness, self-improvement and civic engagement. Nor of the origin of the name Mashariki, which I am almost too embarrassed to admit “sounds Japanese” to me (and I had wondered how Jelani came to have a Japanese surname).
I was there to socialize and to support Jelani as well as to “take notes,” and in the dark and crowded room I decided to not take out my notebook and pen. Instead I kept mental notes and the next day did a lot of web searching to catch up on the wonderful people who spoke and the groups they mentioned that piqued my interest.
Speakers that night included:
- George Martinez who co-founded, with Jelani, Global Block Foundation — an organization that uses the power of hip-hop culture to connect with communities in local programming around the globe, inspiring hope and proactive citizenship and cementing community bonds. George recently staged a run for Congress under Bum Rush the Vote, a “PAC” except that it’s not about soliciting funds but, instead, volunteer people-power to support campaigns of candidates who rise up from amongst the people willing to truly represent them. (Jelani’s campaign is also under the Bum Rush banner.)
George I already knew well from his campaign for Congress in the Spring, and I learned more about other speakers after a little research, including:
- Job Mashariki, Jelani’s father who (I discovered after coming home and doing some research) founded Black Veterans for Social Justice in 1979, an organization that to this day helps returning veterans as well as the community at large. Job was born in Bed-Stuy, attended CUNY and Columbia, and has had lifelong deep involvement with various local and regional service groups. In 2012 he was inducted into the New York State Senate’s “Veterans’ Hall of Fame,” cited for “his dedication, organization and innovative approaches to service delivery…. Job has demonstrated his leadership skills through serving on several boards, including the Fort Greene Senior Citizens Council, Inc., the NYC Coalition for Veterans in Pain and Distress, the Bedford Stuyvesant Legal Services Corporation, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, the Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford Stuyvesant, the Black Agency Executives, the National Association of Black Veterans and the Human Services Council of New York City.”
- Jitu Weusi, a lifelong activist, educator and founder in 1969 of “The East,” an Africa-centered arts and educational organization that included a school “whose curriculum and pedagogy were rooted in Kawaida philosophy and concepts of education for self-reliance.” (see the Book Description of A View from the East: Black Cultural Nationalism and Education in New York City by Kwasi B. Konadu). [I had to look up “Kawaida” and learned that the principle of Kawaida is “directed toward building and sustaining moral community, and strengthening and maintaining the community’s capacity to define, defend and develop its interests in the most positive and productive sense.” Kawaida is about liberation via culture, self-reliance, and a continuous process of transformative personal and community improvement.]
When Jelani spoke to the crowd, he repeatedly referred to himself as “a child of The East and the Crown Heights Collective.” The Crown Heights Collective (I learned, once again, only after looking it up) is an organization founded by Richard and Myrah Green in Richard’s native Crown Heights, that offers to local youth “an astonishing array of top-drawer programs: job skills, chess, peacemaking, tap dancing, entrepreneurship, horticulture, math—even ‘urban navigation’ (how to use New York’s complex subway system). More than 1,600 young people go through the Collective’s programs each year; an impressive 60% of graduates get jobs or enter college.”
So, whereas I had previously thought of Jelani as an activist involved in what I had considered to be new movements aimed at empowering, enlivening and inspiring The People of “the Hood,” I now see that his campaign actually extends a long legacy that much farther down the road. This isn’t “BP2” so much as a continuum of growth and innovation and service. People in that room had been involved across generations in community-centered self-reliance and liberation activism. It was a real, old-skool campaign launch in a bar packed with multi-generational extended family.
Oh, and that “Japanese-sounding” name Mashariki. Looked that up too. Mashariki is a Swahili word that means “east, eastern” … looking back even farther to the roots of African community and philosophy.