We Are Each Other’s Harvest

Ayan Felix will be working in Durham, NC with peers to research how art can influence trainings on harm reduction and prevention.

“We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Gwendolyn Brooks’ phrase is the grounding in every de-escalation training hosted by Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) Durham Chapter since I joined in January 2020.  BYP100 was founded in 2013 by youth organizers who gathered with Cathy Cohen and the National Black Justice Coalition at the Beyond November Movement Convening near Chicago. Upon hearing of the news of George Zimmerman’s verdict, members of the convening decided to collectively work against anti-Black institutions in the US using grassroots and relational organizing techniques. Since then, Black youth from metropolitan areas around the U.S. joined with the intention of sharing resources and knowledge towards the liberation of all Black people. The organization in 2018 gained 501(c)(3) status, and is now a coalition of 9 chapters and a Squad (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Jackson, Milwaukee, New York, National) united in principled struggle under a Black Queer Feminist lens. The Durham chapter, founded 2017, in its first few years joined into the Durham Beyond Policing coalition to support policies that divest in policing institutions and invest in public health and safety resources. When I entered this group of people, the chapter finally saw a win after the city accepted proposals for the Community-led Safety and Wellness Task Force.

BYP100, a Black-led and Black-liberation-focused non-profit provides a wealth of information for me, a researcher of Dance at Duke, to learn how art and activism can be approached virtually. My project aims to examine how artists engage their practices in facilitation of spaces like our de-escalation trainings or transformative justice circles. This is inspired by my own experience at BYP100 as well as my peer’s experiences as artist activators, engaging community in ways that centralize Black LGBTQIA+ people and their political engagement. This project is a growing aspect of my larger MFA thesis that examine how to create more equitable dance spaces through Black feminisms. My experience as an independent artist in a gig-based industry has led me to focus on the idea of itinerant safe space, which community organizations like BYP100 help create by hosting political education seminars, trainings, and book clubs.

Importantly for this project, Durham chapter members have developed and facilitated a series of bystander intervention trainings. Our most recent de-escalation-focused event was a national training-for-trainers this past November, where the Durham chapter and Community Action for Safe Spaces DC (CASS DC) joined to share de-escalation and transformative justice skills with people from 8 other chapters. Our November 2020 training started a toolkit and facilitation manual to allow people to then lead bystander intervention training sessions in their respective cities during 2021. In principle, this training aligns with previous efforts of BYP to decrease policing within marginalized communities by encouraging more Black people to be confident in their conflict transformation and harm prevention skills. One of the goals in de-escalation is to increase awareness of situations that would often end in calling the police, determine how participants feel comfortable responding, and identifying local alternatives (if any) to policing. We found de-escalation and resource sharing to be particularly urgent during a time where we are isolated and experiencing an increase in intimate partner and family violence (Critchfield, 2021).

A prominent component of the training is embodiment and knowing that safety can be felt much like danger. As a dancer, there was no doubt that body language plays a large role in my social environment, but often times we are not asked how do we feel physically when we are safe or unsafe? Asking this question during the training required me to lean into my prior creative work. Maybe I did feel unsafe that time I called the cops? What about it? During trainings, I had a group of people who were able to take my situation and connect it to a larger frame of what resources I had available to me in that moment. My shame in that situation was transformed into knowledge and eventually steps for me to take should my situation happen again. And it almost has, even though most of my daily interactions are virtual.

In the scope of transformative and restorative justice projects in Bay Area, California or even New Zealand, this training is small and hyperlocal. In the wake of M4BL campaigns, BLM demonstrations, and the thousands of other grassroots orgs moving action in the summer of 2020, the virtual training provided a way for me to settle and reconsider my own reliance on hyper surveillance of Black communities. Yes, I have called the cops on someone. And prior to these trainings, I have only admitted this in my art. As I continue developing these trainings, I imagine what my home community would look like if everyone there had the time to critically analyze their personal relationship to hyper surveillance and policing like I have. I know that by sharing this training, I am taking a step towards that community.

Ayan Felix is an MFA in Dance student currently researching how physical and social improvisational practices interact in spaces that affirm Blackness and gender fluidity. Their most resourced practice is site-responsive using improvisational styles based in modern/post-modern dance, physical theater, house, and majorette training which they learned over years of experience in Texas, Pennsylvania, and now North Carolina. As such, experimentation in ephemeral movements leaks into their arts organizing work. Ayan’s research relies on multi-disciplinary collaboration to choreograph worlds that blur the line of audience-participant, performance-practice, and artist-organizer. By approaching dance performance capaciously as a type of social movement, Ayan seeks to understand how to produce performance spaces that are accessible yet not necessarily material. They are in their second year at Duke.

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