The world is so much better when you can see yourself in it. – Kiarra Watts
The moment I stepped into Senegal, I saw myself in the world. All the art that surrounded me looked like me. We visited a church, and for the first time, I saw sculptures of angels with my hair and my facial features. From the art in the sidewalks, paintings, statues, monuments, even the billboards all spoke to me, whispering, “Hannah, you belong in this world.” I finally saw me and felt that I belonged. When I returned to America, not only did the images I saw in Senegal stay with me, but the feeling of empowerment lingered.
When IDEAS xLab co-worker, Josh Miller, and I visited Smoketown to take pictures for our website, I started to notice the signs throughout the community. Signs were encouraging people to sell their homes for cash; signs were encouraging those with diabetes to sell their test strips, billboards for a multitude of lawyers, among many others. The signage and messaging in the community did not reflect the Smoketown that I knew, where my father lived, where my daughter first learned to ride a bike and tie her shoes. The images did not reflect the Smoketown that I loved and worked in for nearly 20 years. I was reminded of what I felt in Dakar, and immediately I thought, “What would happen to this community if we simply changed the billboards?”
Through a series of community meetings, we asked Smoketown residents how often they noticed the billboards and signs in their community? With no hesitation, everyone attending the meeting said they noticed them, and one participant said, “We are tired of companies coming into our community and selling us death.” When we asked, “What words came to mind when looking at just the built environment of Smoketown," one person responded, “A community with low self- esteem.”
But the community knew better. The community knew the history and heritage of Smoketown, the oldest continuous African American neighborhood in Louisville, and knew they deserved to see images that uplifted the residents. Through a series of grants, we were able to change 19 billboards in the Smoketown community, replacing the advertisements for lawyers and drug-sniffing dogs to images of Smoketown residents along with words they would like to say to their community. One of the billboards stated, “You Are Worthy. Worthy of Everything.” This billboard became a mantra for the community, and they truly understood that while Smoketown may have its challenges, it is a community that is worthy of having anything.
Not long after the billboards were changed, two liquor stores were attempting to open in the community. Smoketown is a community just 50 feet from the most extensive medical campus in the city but has some of the highest alcohol-related illnesses and deaths in Louisville. Opening yet another liquor store was unacceptable for a community that realized that they were worthy of anything! Smoketown champion and business owner, Nachand Trabue, rallied with the community and started a letter-writing campaign that stopped the liquor stores from opening. In addition to that, in meeting with the city, we were able to get a policy instituted that any person that is attempting to open a liquor store in any community in Louisville must alert the public with a poster-size canary yellow notice prominently displayed on the building. This poster would allow the public to notice the sign and be aware that a liquor store was opening. Through the letter-writing campaign and policy change, residents were able to defeat the two stores opening in Smoketown. Smoketown community members also worked with other predominately African American communities to stop liquors from opening in neighborhoods that are filled with liquor stores and have high incidents of alcohol-related illness and death.
One Poem At A Time showed the power of using art to drive a movement and to change policy.
There is a reason these billboards and signs for selling your home or diabetes strips pop up repeatedly in marginalized and underserved communities across this nation. If we are going to be honest, it is because these communities are predominantly African American. It is very inexpensive to advertise in these communities. These are communities that are impacted by racism, redlining, and are currently suffering under the weight of gentrification. These are communities where it is rare that their voices are heard. When I am asked, “Why did One Poem At A Time work,” the answer is simple, “People want to be seen, and people want to be heard.” Too often, people enter communities and tell them what they need. They come into communities and label the community with predatory signage that doesn’t reflect the community. One Poem At A Time allowed the community to feel what I felt in Senegal. They were allowed to see images of people that looked like them where they lived, worked, worship, and played. One Poem At A Time allowed the community to speak, to stand up, and demand change.
The power is in the people, and we can change each community, one poem at a time.
Hannah L. Drake is a writer, spoken word artist-activist, and cultural strategist at Ideas xLab in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work focuses on the intersection of arts, culture, and health with an emphasis on the impact of race and injustice in under-served communities.
*One Poem At A Time Photo Credit: Josh Miller, courtesy of IDEAS xLab