(This article is co-published with The Seattle Times.)
Listen to this column:
Americans are trauma-ridden people. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can heal.
Our inherited legacy is threaded together from slaughter, slavery and brutalization, the humanity of millions of Black, brown, Indigenous, poor, trans and other people sacrificed for this country’s prosperity.
Over the span of a month we have seen white supremacists raid our nation’s Capitol trying to rip out the throat of our democracy.
Marcus Harrison Green, South Seattle Emerald founder and publisher, continues to be recognized as a leader and voice for equity and justice. On this International Human Rights Day, Green is being honored with the Seattle Human Rights Commission’s Individual Human Rights Leader award. Other awardees are Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, recipient of the Human Rights Coalition award, and Choose 180, recipient of the Human Rights Organization award.
The Morning Update Show — hosted by Trae Holiday and The Big O (Omari Salisbury) — is the only weekday news and information livestream that delivers culturally relevant content to the Pacific Northwest’s urban audience. Omari and Trae analyze the day’s local and national headlines as well as melanin magic in our community. Watch live every weekday at 11 a.m. on any of the following channels, hosted by Converge Media: YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, Periscope, and whereweconverge.com.
We’ll also post the Morning Update Show here on theEmerald each day after it airs, so you can catch up any time of day while you peruse our latest posts.
Morning Update Show — Tuesday, Dec. 1
Today on the show:
#GivingTuesday; Live — Mayor Jenny Durkan; Live — Marcus Harrison Green; Coronavirus Updates; and #BelieveInGiving.
The might of hellos in dirty laboratories
Majestic words unlocked by reluctant caffeine highs
Assembling puzzle pieces of a dream
A disbelief in rising stars
Feathers sheared to mimic Michelangelo
An unkissed face lit by the sun’s mercy
Songs belted with a whole heart
Trails sought by two and found by one
A mother’s anguish for a child’s touch
The silence of untold truths unmistakable from lies
Honesty turned in too late to be given full credit
Cowardice of the heart, and tardy defenselessness
Too many untrusted tomorrows
The cleansing flame of goodbye
Supporters of Seahawks Defensive End Michael Bennett rallied in front of Union Station before Sunday’s game against the 49ers, expressing solidarity with the athlete as he continues protesting against systemic racism and police brutality by sitting out the national anthem. Continue reading Supporters Stand for Sitting Bennett→
Friend of Seattlish & the Emerald, and Confirmed Handsome Journalist Ansel Herz has had one hell of a week—but he managed to make time to sit around and gossip with Hanna and Marcus.
We recorded this last week so a bit of the info might be a little dated (our beloved producer, DJ, is still fighting the good fight at Standing Rock. Love you, Deej!)—but don’t worry! We’ve got another ep coming Monday with updates on the 37th and some other stuff.
The sight of students with rapt attention, hanging onto every syllable uttered by their instructors as their minds rush to digest the extraordinary knowledge being served – so it can promptly return for a second helping – would seem a dream scenario at any school across the country, let alone one located in the South Seattle area, but indeed that reality transpired last week as around forty students – from high school to college aged- willingly exchanged basking in the glorious summer sun for an elusive education on the systematic structures of racism at the Tyree Scott Freedom School held at Beacon Hill’s UCC Bethany Church.
If that sounds like some heavy scholarship during the dog days of summer it is intended to, shared Ariel Hart a school facilitator. “I feel like this is a rare opportunity for youth to unlearn lessons that they’ve internalized throughout their lives, and other ones that are absent from the majority of school’s curriculum. This is a place that teaches people how to organize to help change things, and to take a look at how racism oppresses everyone, whether you’re a person of color of not.”
The school- named in honor of Tyree Scott, the well known Seattle area civil rights activist and community organizer- models itself after the first Freedom Schools that emerged across the country during the civil rights era as a response to racial inequities within the public education system.
Seattle first joined the Freedom School movement in 1966 when around 4000 -mainly African American – elementary and high school students boycotted the Seattle Public School District to protest the racial segregation that was routinely being practice by the district at the time. A forgotten history of the city that is well worth remembering according to Dustin Washington of American Friends Service Committee, who also serves as one of the school’s lead organizers.
“People see Seattle as a very progressive city, but the reality is that racism continues to persist in our classrooms and everyday life. There’s a reason that youth of color are 4 to 5 times more likely than white youth to be suspended in our school system. There’s a reason why they’re twice as likely to drop out than white youth, and it goes far beyond the myth that they don’t have enough individual will and self-determination. It has much more to do with the systems we’re all prisoner to.”
It was this focus on systems, rather than individuals, as the catalyst for the societal ills that plague communities of color that was at the forefront of much of the teaching the students received during the week. As a result, the subjects they tackled were ones you’d be hard pressed to find mentioned in any other classroom within the city limits – as they grappled with Economic Inequality, Long-Term Juvenile Incarceration, and Disparate Health Outcomes. All issues were intensely scrutinized through a racial lense.
It was a view that was truly eye opening according to many of the students. “What I learned was kind of a shock to me.” Said Asia Davis, a first time attendee who was aghast after learning about the potential causes behind the considerable discrepancy in infant mortality rates between African- American women and their white counterparts. “I go to a school that has mostly white students, so I feel fortunate that I m going to be able to bring back what I’ve learned to my school and share it with the others that go there who would otherwise have no clue.”
The school’s purpose was not only to present provocative subjects in a way that many of the students had never before encountered, but to also develop the next generation of civil and human rights leaders, fostering in them a sense of empowerment that would eventually allow them to impact their communities in an enduring way much as the school’s namesake did.
With that in mind the Tyree Scott Freedom School eschewed a top-down approach to its pedagogy, instead favoring a process that made its students largely responsible- via forged consensus and small group discussions- for everything from creating a decorum by which they agreed to treat each other by, to exploring creative solutions that acted to redress the social grievances presented to them at the school.
“I’ve really learned to be a leader here, and it’s something that I can apply whether I’m organizing people to help house the homeless, or to stop people from being racist as it’s a learned thing. No one is born with that trait.” said Saara Jones a student who attended the school to become a better organizer.
The tactic of allowing them a liberal amount of control in the educational process seemed to go over quite well with the students, many of whom were more familiar with having a pedantic lesson plan dictated to them at their respective public schools. “This school is really magnificent in terms of, not only the knowledge that is installed in the young people here, but in terms of wisdom, and creativity being reciprocal. We get to learn from each other, and teach each other at the same time.” Said Rashaud Johnson, a member of Youth Undoing Institutionalized Racism (YUIR) and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) who was attending the Freedom School for a fourth time to gain knowledge of how to best organize against the building of the new $210 million King County Juvenile Detention Center that he felt was an extension of the school to prison pipeline.
“I’ve realized from being here, and just talking amongst my peers, the responsibility that comes with being white. It’s hard to address that issue anywhere, especially in a normal school setting with teachers who don’t really get the topic, or want anything to do with it. So it’s great that we can have discussions with people our own age, so that everyone can get a deep understanding of how detrimental racism is, and that we really need to stop with the thinking that puts any race superior to another.” asserted Celia Carina Von Berk, one of several non African – American students who attended Tyree Scott.
The school had a commencement of sorts this past Friday, as all of the students traveled to Seattle City Hall, using what they had learned
throughout the week,to present- in front of an audience of city officials that included Councilmember Nick Licata, City Attorney Pete Holmes, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim and Office of Civil Rights Director Patricia Lally- their proposals on how to remedy the quagmires associated with the city’s Education, Economic and Juvenile Justice systems- problems that had perplexed many local legislators for longer than the majority of the students had been alive.
After the presentations the students blended amongst the audience and broke into three separate groups to discuss how the submitted proposals could be implemented at the city level. A discussion that the Freedom School attendees found worthwhile. “You had all these different generations cooped up under one roof and actually talking and listening to each other. There was no complaining, just a lot of respect, whether you were a student or an older person. This was a beautiful experience.” said Rashaud Johnson.
Added Simone Evans another student at the Freedom School who had attended to improve her community organizing skills “I’m going to take the information I’ve learned here and go out and do something with it. I can’t wait to come back next year!”
In love is an easy state to tumble into with Shontina Vernon’s music. Perhaps it’s because you can’t quite figure out what genre along the musical spectrum lays claim to her inimitable sound. Folk? Rock? Jazz? Blues? Soul? All season the flavoring of her melodious entree. Or, it could be that her lyrics, layered with so much meaning, provide a sharp counter to those currently being spewed from our radios – which seem to be directly rehashed from the dialogue of Green, Eggs, and Ham. Or, it might just be because her songbook spans such a wide range of human experience that it becomes nigh impossible for your ears to be infected by one of her tunes without it causing you to harken back to a pivotal moment in your own life – whether love squandered, hopes realized, or dreams stalled. In any case, Vernon’s music, similar to the emotion it inspires, simply put, is just really damn good.
The Texas native and University of Washington educated playwright/singer-songwriter, returned to the city last year, making South Seattle her home. And though she travels back and forth to the East Coast and internationally, our novel area has served to reignite her creative embers, while providing her a much needed site of repose between projects. We were able to stop replaying her last album just long enough to catch up with Shontina in person, to discuss her own love for music, her upcoming projects, and life in South Seattle.
Emerald: Common wisdom suggests that you have to leave Seattle, especially the southern end of it, and go somewhere else in order to achieve success in most artistic endeavors. You’ve lived in pretty much every major city in the United States, what is it that continually brings you back to South Seattle?
Shontina Vernon: It’s a combination of things, but mainly timing. I’ve lived in Atlanta. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, but Seattle is unique to me. It has a quaint small town vibe, yet feels like a great place to incubate new ideas. The pace here suits my life at the moment. I travel a lot, and re-entry here is always so easy. And the natural beauty could reawaken even the most dormant imagination. Being an alum of UW has also meant that I have access to a really solid artistic community. Seattle’s the kind of place where on one hand, I wish more people knew about it- and there were more people of color- but then again, I don’t always want to share it. Blame the introvert in me.
Emerald: The lyrics of your songs have so much depth and meaning behind them. They’re a welcome contrast to many that are currently produced by the music industry. How are you able to create songs that resonate so powerfully with the listener?
Shontina: I try to be a really good listener myself, to what my experiences at any given moment are trying to show/teach me. I had a very rich life growing up in Texas, so I pull from there a lot. I’m adopted, but my mother was born in 1917 and my father was born somewhere around 1893, so I had very old parents who were rooted in a time that is so not now. They were very much country people, very simple salt of the earth people. I think that the way that they lived their lives seeped into me, along with the way that I hear and experience music, so some of that root sound, blues sound in my music, comes from them. I’m also a theater artist, so I use what I know about playwriting/acting to help me get into different perspectives in terms of writing a song. It allows me to step into a character so to speak and write from that place. There’s so many ways to write music, and I employ them all, at least I try to.
Emerald: Would you say singer/songwriter is your primary occupation? You do so many other things.
Shontina: I would say my primary occupation is that I’m a storyteller. That is the one thing that is fundamental to all of the disciplines in which I work. As an artist, I have the unique vantage point of being aware of all the different stories for which I am the intersection, or the culminating event. Stories ask to be told in different ways, so I try to honor that and tell them with whatever form best suits the telling.
Emerald: Is it even possible to describe your creative process when working on musical project?
Shontina: No (laugher). It’s not. Because it’s so different depending on the thing I’m making.
Emerald: Okay, let’s isolate one of your works. The song Dreamer, which I think is absolutely amazing, how did you go about writing it?
Shontina: I don’t even remember writing the song (laughter). What I remember is where I was when I wrote it. That time in my life, who I was with, the conversations we were having. The conversations that I was having with myself. How I wrote it? I don’t really know. I just know what inspired it. I also seem to remember that the melody and the words came together. As of late, I’ve been experimenting with music and sounds, producing more tracks and allowing the lyrics to come as they come. My last song I released, “Snake Oil Man” was like that.
Emerald: So for you is art akin to that Ernest Hemingway quote that, “In order to write anything you have to live life first?” Essentially life itself is the muse for an artist?
Shontina: Yes, because life is everything, right? Everyone that shows up, every place that you live, every place that you visit, that is all fodder for what you write. But, how you will write about those things is always a surprise. You never know. I forget who the writer is, but there’s this quote about writing being as much of a process of discovering one’s self in what you write, because sometimes things about you are revealed to you right on paper that you weren’t quite consciously aware of, so there’s this relationship between you and the work all the time.
Music to me tends to reveal more about how I feel. I mean, I feel pretty intelligent in terms of what I’m thinking at any given moment. I do feel smart, but when I work in music, it all of a sudden becomes clear to me about how I felt about a situation rather than what I thought about a situation. Feelings are harder to get at.
Emerald: As an artist, how do you define a successful career? For some it’s monetary reward, for others it’s acclaim for what they do. What is it for you?
Shontina: For me it’s, “Does it feel good and am I happy doing it?” And I don’t mean that superficially either. If I’m making art, but unable to sustain a life for myself, then it doesn’t feel good. And it makes me worry for the kind of art I’m making from that place. It isn’t successful. Now, if I’m making tons of money, but my creative life is languishing and there is no art. Same. There is no joy in that either. It’s not about accolades or lots of money. I think those things are fine. I don’t personally have a judgment about those things, but at the end of the day, you still rest with you, and those just aren’t the things that I imagine will stand out on my deathbed. It’s got to feel good on all fronts or I’m just not doing it (laughter).
Emerald:. Your songs often mix tragedy and humor. Why is that?
Shontina: Life is just like that. And I think you see and understand things more clearly with contrast. Something is sadder if it follows something really, really joyful. It’s more joyful if it follows something really tragic and really sad. So I think that’s the musician in me that says that they have to play together. I’ve now lived long enough to see myself make decisions that I thought were really good, that farther down the line turned out to be bad, and I’ve made some decisions that I thought, “this is really bad,” and farther down the road they turned out to be the best thing, so the truth is that you don’t really know. You just have to include it all in the telling of a good story.
Emerald: I know that Joni Mitchell has been a major inspiration for you, but who else has played a role in your artistic development?
Shontina: So many! I’m a huge fan of Junot Diaz as a writer. When I first read his book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it sort of freed my writer’s mind me from some of its constraints. I think, because he is someone coming to the states from the Dominican Republic, he has an eye that peers into this world, and that world. Again, contrast. There is also Audre Lorde. I was here in Seattle, when I went into a bookstore and found an anthology of her work. Poetic, pointed and raw. I was just like, “Where has this person been my whole life!” Growing up in Texas there wasn’t a lot I was exposed to. I was dreaming a life for myself with no evidence that it was possible. Neither of my parents had much schooling, so there’s a lot that you’re like, “Well, how do I do this? Can it even be done?'”
Musically, I listen to everything. I’m a huge fan of the old jazz heads – Thelonius, Mingus. Abbey Lincoln was a revelation for me. Her compositions are so beautiful and wise. It’s funny, I love her music, but Joni Mitchell is more of a literary influence for me, because of the way she used words to paint pictures. She was a visual artist that approached music from that mind. Hearing her and Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading, a lot of them reminded me, that, “I’m a musician, and story is my way in.”
Emerald: What do you want people to say about you after seeing one of your performances?
Shontina: I want them to come out with the feeling of not wasting the hour or two, with the feeling of what’s possible. If their imaginations get stretched at all, if they come out with any questions, that’s good for me.
Emerald: So what’s next for you?
Shontina: Several things. I’m working on a collaboration called the Storyband Project, a kind of theatre lab for musicians to experiment with storytelling. I’m also expanding a new theatre piece that I presented here in March at CD Forum’s Creation Project. It’s called NOTE TO SELF: Postcards from Cuba and Beyond, and it takes a look at Black American identity against a global canvas. Of course I can’t wait to record some music. I’ve already started working on material for the next album. And finally, I’m collaborating with a group of writers on a web series being developed through Eclectic Brew Arts. It’s a story that follows a young church, and the evolution of some of its members. And it’s called BATTLE AXE.
Emerald: What advice do you have for any burgeoning artist from around this area? Especially for those who keep hitting a bump in the road? Shontina: The first thing is, don’t kid yourself about what you want or why you want it. I encourage people to really look inside themselves. If you’re pursuing capital A – ART, just to seek validation of your worth outside of yourself, that’s a dangerous place to begin. Not that some haven’t started there and found their way. But I say that because we have the kind of culture here in America that really knows how to exploit that individual. The machine is waiting to eat you. But If you’re committed to making art because you know you have something of value to give/to express, then make it. It will find its proper place if you are simply committed to the discipline required to make it. Take care of yourself. Fill your life with good people, take note of the beauty that is around you, and make a point to leave the world better than when you came.
For more information on Shontina, including upcoming shows and events, please visit: http://www.tinavernon.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @tinavmusic
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle