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LOCAL Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights : Peace & War : Race & Ethnicity

A Night with the Richmond Youth Peace Project

On January 21st, the Richmond Youth Peace Project held a free "Edu-Concert" honoring the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Berryman Center. If you attended this event or if you are involved in RYPP, please feel free to add a comment to this story to help everyone get a better idea of the organizing and significance of the event.
On Saturday night in Woodland Heights, people were hurrying in and out of the Berryman Center on 32nd Street, just off of Forrest Hill Ave. Some of us found seats in the pews of the old church, while others carried instruments and made last minute adjustments to the stage for the Richmond Youth Peace Project Edu-Concert in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The venue sits between two neighborhoods, one black, one white. The potential of this community space is evident, considering the increasing development in the nearby Manchester district and the recent focus on the communities just south of the James river. Young people looking for "something to do" won't have to go far to find the Richmond Peace Education Center, which now makes its home in the building.

When I walked in the front door, I was greeted by two pleasant volunteers. Tallia, for instance, a senior accounting major at VCU, said that she was recruited by her roommate to help out with the event. She said that in the past she celebrated MLK day by volunteering with the Richmond Community Action Program (RCAP), but this year she didn't do anything special, so she figured it would be a good idea to pitch in with the Peace Project. She also volunteers at Summer Hill Elementary school and plans to work for a Virginia based defense contractor upon graduation.

About 70 people were seated inside the auditorium. The show got a 30 minute late start. Some of the school age folks in the back giggled and played musical chairs to amuse themselves. Other than the array of instruments decorating the stage, there weren't many clues as to what to expect. When Iman Shabazz stood in front of the microphone he declared "As the Richmond community, we can bring all of our different ideas together to promote peace." His words resonated with the hopes of those of us in the audience. Just three weeks earlier, a family of four, including children ages 4 and 9, were murdered in their home just blocks from the Berryman Center. The psychic effects of the recent local tragedy, together with Richmond's sustained frequency of murders, violent crime, and drug abuse brought many to the event looking for healing and perhaps a new direction.

Adria Scharf, the new director of the Richmond Peace Education Center, stepped up to the front and welcomed everyone to the space, proclaiming, "This event is very much in the nonviolent spirit of Martin Luther King." Many in attendance have high expectations of Ms. Scharf, who spent some years in New England co-editing Dollars and Sense, the bi-monthly national magazine that claims to "meet the need for left perspectives on current economic affairs." (www.dollarsandsense.org). The reputation of the national magazine proceeds her. But will she be able to help the Peace Center respond to local and international bloodshed as it seems to march on unobstructed? Will Richmonders come to her aid and help revitalize the 25 year old Peace Center? Considering that over 20% of Richmonders are living below the federal poverty line, perhaps Scharf's background in economic matters will help the city make sense of its most deep-seeded problems of inequality and mistrust.

For the time being, a group has come together to have their spirits lifted. While Ram Bhagat, of Drums No Guns and a Peace Center board member, performs yoga sun salutations at the front of the room, the audience is encouraged to take a moment of silence to reflect on what they know of Martin Luther King's message and what brought them to this event. I could not help but contemplate my own anticipation at this time. Seeing Ram at an event means that inevitably half the audience will be playing the drums at some point in the evening, that we will all be encouraged to sing, and that every young person in the room will be free to make a profound level of noise and everything will be alright.

The silence is broken by sixteen year old Community High School student, Lynwood Spell. Wearing a three piece suit Spell shouted the words of Dr. Martin Luther King from Dec. 10, 1964 in Oslo. "I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice."

This presentation was impressive, not only because the young man was belting out this speech from memory with such composure and dexterity, but also because the words that Dr. King spoke at the moment of receiving world recognition were so honest, defiant, and packed a painful punch that hurts the listener now as much as it must have then. "I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize. After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression." *

Spell appeared hard on himself for missing a line of the epic speech. But, after several rounds of applause, Martin Luther King's words still hung in the air. Iman Shabazz started the whole room singing one line in repetition, "We are ready to bring peace." These words, together with hand claps and feet stomping provided a background for Iman's blast of rapid spoken word poetry. By this time, Tallia, the volunteer, was up on stage playing the cow bell, stoic and on time. To her left a toddler beat a djembe drum, also in time with the rhythm. A couple young men descended the stage and found drum sticks and congas.

By the time the audience tappered off with it's refrain, more poets stepped up, one after another, reciting their verses. The topics ranged from the immorality of handguns, to the importance to the present moment, to a world out to "kill our dreams" as one young man put it. The expressions were varied and bold, sometimes uncomfortable, and other times clever, playing tricks on the listeners' minds.

One young woman named Soraya from the Islamic Center of Central Virginia recited a dense description of her feelings on the world including the line, "Peacemaking, a notion so eccentric the ground shuddered in reluctance." I couldn't help but feel the appropriateness of her words as Richmond (and the world community) grapples with the way forward out of these dark times.

As the evening marched on, more instruments found their way to the stage. Two drum sets, an electric violin, clarinet, more African drums and poetry from people of all ages and backgrounds. I don't know how long the event wound up going. I had to leave early, but I felt like there was something there for me and perhaps for all of us, should we choose to participate.

* The full text of Dr. Martin Luther King's Nobel prize acceptance speech can be found at nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance.html

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