Fields and Freedom: Youth sports deserve attention

August 1st is a holy day: part reunion, communion, and boot camp. The sun, peering from the sky. Waiting. Witnessing. Arms folded watching our boys march onto the barren fields, lined with bleachers and baby sisters. August 1st – the start of youth football season. I remember my son’s first summer. Sending him to the field was like seeing him off to college. His cleats, tied tightly against his chocolate skin. Helmet snug against his head. Behind the pads, this lengthy boy put down his video games to become an athlete.

I have the privilege of hovering between worlds. By day, I spend my time convincing people that the skills youth develop by practicing art extend far past what can be seen on a canvas. As a former football volunteer for the West Elmwood Intruders, I learned that sports can be just as transformative. Over the years, I’ve met many people who are responsible for this transformation. Pamela Huges, former president of the Mount Hope Cowboys, ran track for Hope Highschool and still holds multiple high school and college records, including a 38-year RI High School Girls Outdoor Long Jump Record. For her, running track was more than running fast. Track created opportunities for her to travel and compete. Pam understands that she and her Mount Hope staff create more than football teams: They create community.

Photo by Diana Perez

Nadim Robinson is one of those staff members. As a Cowboys coach and founding director of Behind The Pads – Nadim views coaching as a way to practice his most sacred values. As a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths, “One of our main duties is to teach the babies,” says Nadim. “Everyone has their form of protest; an individual’s idea of how to change the world.” Changing the world starts with our youth. Behind the Pads is a youth travel league that elevates the value of discipline, structure, and teamwork – “If you’re signing up to play football, you’re signing up to block and tackle.” Nadim’s sentiment demonstrates the way football teaches youth to be accountable to themselves and others.

Photo of Carter Perry courtesy of Gameday Fitness

It’s also about the joy, which is so connected to not only our kids’ mental health but their life force. 10-year veteran coach Zayquan “Ziggy” Gadson of the West Elmwood Intruders gets it: “My favorite part of the job are the smiles we create. Those moments when a kid scores, makes a tackle or catch. Win or lose, the feeling lasts a lifetime.” Youth sports undoubtedly cultivate life skills. So why are youth sports organizations (YSO) so under-resourced? YSOs are independent of school system support; they’re lone non-profits. They have three streams of income – registration fees, sponsorships, and grassroots fundraisings. Staff are unpaid volunteers. There are very few grant opportunities, which is different from youth arts programs, whose operations are largely grant-funded. As workers, we are paid. On the other hand, YSO’s operational expenses are at the whim of a team’s ability to hustle, which often means passing the can at busy intersections. Lorenzo Perry – Cowboys coach and founding director of Game Day Fitness, a training arena for youth athletes, says lack of funding was the reason for diversifying how he approaches his work. “There was never any money. I eventually decided to start my own gym with a privately funded model.” Lorenzo believes his kids deserve more. Waiting for funding is not an option.

Working within the arts, I’ve come to understand:

  • People fund what they know about. Lack of public visibility impacts advocacy efforts. Pam recalls news outlets affirming that they “don’t cover youth sports,” but as soon as a far-from-flattering situation occurs, the cameras show up. “Where are they,” she asks, “when our kids go to Nationals?”

  • People fund what they care about. Does a country obsessed with competition really not care about youth sports? Or do they not care about the people playing them? Demographically, art organizations are heavily non-Black and attract families that come from more affluent backgrounds. However, the football field is filled with African Americans who have grown up in PVD and are underrepresented in formal leadership roles within our community. Does the difference in racial makeup explain the difference in care/funding?

  • People fund what other people fund. People are followers. We know this… but so are philanthropists. The more funding an organization has is often tied to how much more they can get. Maybe it’s the law of attraction? What does it mean when an organization has 0 dollars? Does zero keep attracting zeros? Lack of existing grant opportunities makes it harder to attract future funding, creating a perpetual cycle of little-tono support.

The bottom line is youth sports organizations, especially inner-city youth football, deserve our attention and investment.

This is not about pitting arts against sports. We should be investing in both. As both teaching artists and coaches, we know our work is much deeper than creating rock-star athletes and celebrity artists; it’s about supporting youth in becoming the best versions of themselves – a self that has the capacity to hold the challenges and beauty of life ahead. Let’s fund our youth, period. Our kids deserve it.

Contacts: Lorenzo Perry, @gamedayfitness; Pamela Hughes, fb.com/pamela.hughes.100; Nadim Robinson, @behindthepads_btp

It’s On Us: An interview with Dewayne “Boo” Hackney

Photo by Justin Case

Dewayne “Boo” Hackney is a legendary community organizer, barber, father, husband, brother, musician, and so much more. His commitment to justice especially here in Providence cements his legacy as one of our City’s most Beloved Community heroes.

This piece is dedicated to my brother, Bucky. He paid the price of allowing me to do this work without complaining about not having time with me.

To my I.O.U. brothers: Gerard Catala, Pastor Sherrod Jones, Pastor Rah’D, Dennis Lassiter, Ray Watson aka Two Hawks, Brother Arthur Johnson, Brother Everett Muhammad, Brother Osiris Harrell, Brother Ray Smith, Terrell Osborne Jr. aka DJ Spin, Sterling Mousey Washington. And last, but certainly first, to my wife Kia Clement Hackney. I am incapable of adequately expressing the significance of your role.

Anjel Newmann (Motif): Who do you hail from?

Dewayne “Boo” Hackney: My roots are in Mississippi and Virginia. My dad is J.C. Thomas. My mother is Gloyce Hackney. They raised me as royalty and that started to permeate through the city, through the people. Everybody around me raised me. And I don’t mean “raised” me like my parents. I mean, they held me up. Kept me up. That gave me very few opportunities to fall off or be less than what I was supposed to be. There are places in PVD that we consider the “eyesores” of our city: in front of Dunkin’ on Broad Street; Central High School; McDonald’s. The people hanging outside those establishments have a history, a legacy, and played a role in protecting me. I have so many surrogate uncles that lived “that life.” A lot of my friends were some of the biggest hustlers, victims, and victimizers. I was in it, but never in it. Never smoking, never hustling, so when it came to me understanding my influence, I’m like, “I owe you.” I owe you a better and more powerful influence. Those letters (IOU) turned into, “IT’S ON US” because I want that culture to exist. I want us to be held accountable. I want us to not only take accountability, but for us not to look outside of ourselves for our solution and our salvation.

AN: What is It’s Hair?

DH: It’s Hair barbershop was always a space for everybody. We had priceless conversations there. My brother, Mike Hoston (rest in power) and I were co-owners. In many ways, It’s Hair was an extension of the Southside Boys and Girls Club. The ethics and etiquette that came out of that building came from Mr. Roosevelt “Bells” Benton, Ms. Beatrice, and all the other staff members. Ms. Doreen Dennis, we called “Auntie Dor,” and the rest of em, Kyle and Kobi Dennis came from there, Shawndell Burney-Speaks. All of us came from there. That’s what I hail from as well.

When our barbershop was on Broad Street next to Tony’s Meat Market, we had a sign that said, “No niggas in here, just brothers. “We drew the line on the term and how we would address one another. So we were either “mister” or “brother,” you know what I mean? And we weren’t elevating ourselves like we are “mister” because we’re older than you – we’re all “mister” because we are somebody and we’re going to put respectful titles on ourselves. We had mentees in there from high schools and middle schools that we would call “Mr.” whatever. Everybody was Mr. and Mrs. It became a way of life. We set the tone with “Peace.” That’s not a “hip-hop” term. That’s greetings. Like, we’re opening up with peace.

I also hail from Minister Farrakhan, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. All of that was in the barbershop. Farrakhan said the names Muslim, Christian, and Jew were just labels that separate the family of God and I saw the names South Side, East Side, and Chad Brown as labels that separated the families of Providence. That understanding allowed me to connect with my Christian family. It allowed me to put a group of accountability partners together – myself, Mr. Kev McNeil, Mr. Kev Saunder, Mr. Joey Gomez, Bold Island Troopers – using Its Hair as the home base.

I’ve given young men their first haircut and if, unfortunately, they get murdered at 18, their family asks me to give them their last haircut at the funeral parlor. Nine times outta 10, I’ve been cutting the person who killed them as well. So I have like a 20-year relationship with these young men on both sides of the gun. We used It’s Hair as a mediation center. We stopped a lot of murders. We’d have brothers who had murder beef, and we would set up a date to bring those guys there. Its Hair was the safe haven. Guys would leave their weapons outside. Sometimes we had to take drastic measures to the point where we would suspend a whole crew or a whole block. We lost a lot of money just off of responsible suspensions, but we saved a lot of lives.

AN: What was it like to move on to that next phase of your life?

DH: I ran into a brother yesterday, whom I haven’t seen in 10 years. He was like, “I’m angry with you.” I’m like, “What’s the matter?” He said, “You closed the barbershop. You guys were the Black Pillar. You left us.” But like Deion Sanders said, “I left the Black school. I didn’t leave Black people.” I had a strategic second phase of my life orchestrated. As a people, we are in such despair that any symbol of hope, we latch onto it and we hold it sacred. We think that the symbol is ours. That’s why we get so emotional when that symbol transitions when that symbol is called to do other things or more on different levels. As that “symbol,” it’s painful to be restricted when you’re supposed to be doing so much.

Photo by Justin Case

I never disconnected from my people. I wanted to be a symbol of freedom. I wanted to show everybody you can just bust a move and jump in another lane. I even went to grief counseling as part of this move. I needed a break from the 24-hour access, open-door policy. Someone could just come through the shop and be like, “Yo, my son just got shot,” or, “The cops just beat up my nephew.” Never ever tired of that work but also telling myself 20 years ago, “I’m too valuable to be unorganized.” Transitioning was about playing fair with my family. They submitted and supported all throughout my journey. They weren’t gonna ask me to stop. So I needed to be the man, make the move, and acquiesce to their interests.

When my daughter was 11, I said, “I’m gonna turn my phone off for two weeks and just be with the family.” She said, “Dad, if MLK turned his phone off, you think we’d be where we’re at right now?” I said, “Damn. She understands.” But she didn’t understand the cost that she and her brother were gonna pay. Dad might not be home at 3AM cause he might be running to the emergency room. He might be with the Nation of Islam taking shooters to DC, which we did. Southside and East Side crews. Took them to DC for the anniversary of the Million Man March. Rival members sharing seats with each other.

People also didn’t understand my paranoia. Nipsey was literally dedicated to his hood when he was killed in front of his business. People were inboxing me like, “Mr. Boo, I know that would never happen to you. The hood got too much love for you.” They don’t know that I never slept on the possibility. Maybe it’s PTSD – in this case, PRE-traumatic stress disorder; like the anticipation, because of the environment that we’re in. I would always look both ways when I came out of the barbershop. I don’t park my car nose in. All of these things were necessary steps for me to make the transition to what I’m doing right now.

AN: What are your future hopes for our Beloved Community here in Providence?

DH: I hope we end up in a better place, not heaven, but heaven on Earth. As we create and contribute to the hell on Earth, create and contribute to heaven on Earth, on a tangible, visible level. Some of the stuff I’ve been working on are the aesthetics of the city, inclusive neighborhoods, for example, the red, black, and green stripes on Ms. Rosa Parks Boulevard. We have to start seeing ourselves. You never know what’s going to turn on the “Malcolm” in you. The “Serena” in you. The extra extraordinary in you.

I definitely wanna see policy change, but we have to be a part of it. We’ve been beaten down so much, that we’ve perfected the art of complaining about organizations from the outside, so that’s why I chose to join the board of directors of the Nonviolence Institute and the NAACP, and do some things on a city level like being a member of the African American Ambassadors group. I’ve always had a super active relationship with my council people, cause I understand that they’re really the president of your daily life.

I also hope that we always remain hopeful. Never fold. And we don’t. It’s not in our DNA. I have so many pillars of my thinking. Lil Wayne said, “This is my theme park, so what should I scream for?” Like, I own this. I gotta have that mindset. I come from God. I hail from God. Nas says, “As long as I’m breathing, I’m winning.” Jay-Z says, “Never let ‘em see you frown, even smile when you’re down.” Denzel in Training Day; when it was all said and done, was found to be a dirty cop. Lost all the money. His cover – blown. All shot up. Car flipped over 30, 40 times. Dying… and he’s patting his chest, patting his body – and it looks like he’s counting how many times he’s been shot, but he’s only looking for his lighter. He burns a cigarette like, “Shit! I’m winning anyway, I can’t lose.” These are the pillars of my thinking. I can’t lose. I literally can’t lose. So it’s just that type of thing. Us knowing who we are. I hope we know who we are, you know what I mean?

Find Dewayne Boo Hackney online:
Instagram: @dewayneboohackney
Facebook: Dewayne Boo Hackney

Bliss Body: Struggle is a part of it

Guest Editor Anjel Newmann was recently a featured performer in Bliss Body, an experimental performance at Everett Theater and School in PVD, along with Christopher Johnson, Ari Brisbon and Grace Colonna. She talked about the piece and its impact with both makers and audience:

“Struggle is a part of it.” In some ways, this is the production. A single line that encapsulates the entirety. This line has become a sort of mantra for our cast. It comes from a longer Bliss Body poem where Christopher Johnson illustrates his journey through meditation, a practice that started 13 years ago. “Seeing Christopher finally being able to talk about his meditative practice instead of talking about his response to racism was such a beautiful growth space for me,” said April Brown, writer and co-director of the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading Committee. Brown was in the audience on the last Sunday of our 11-show run. As we reflected, she said that it’s evident that the cast discovered a Divine Practice. “That’s the genius of us having the arts. We actually get an opportunity to show our humanity by singing, dancing, writing, acting on a stage, and being vulnerable, and there’s something about a spiritual practice that involves those same components and pieces.”

April is right. This production is much more than a performance — it’s a journey back to who we were. The creative process is a shovel that helps us uncover and pull out pieces, limbs, fragments of ourselves that were buried deep beneath the sands of time. A cave of wonders. Every rehearsal, we practiced meditation and yoga as a way to teleport into our untapped truths; a place that resides within each of us, like an underwater garden hidden far beneath the surface. Bliss Body was created from that garden. For a year and a half, Creative Director Aaron Jungles and our cast worked to understand the meaning of Bliss.

Two years prior, Everett Company Stage and School, the creators of Bliss Body, dedicated an entire production to exploring trauma, even bringing in a therapist to work with the cast. As the newest edition, the most recent Bliss Body was meant to be a pilgrimage back, away from trauma, but as we danced, sang, meditated, remembered more — there was Christopher’s reminder, “Struggle is a part of it.”  April says that there is something about our piece that elevates the “dysfunctional aspects of who we are as people and with our bodies” and that our efforts model what it looks like to get that dysfunction out of our bodies, “like this illustration of body betrayal.”

I think the audience can relate to that summation. Night after night, they reflected back gratitude for the complex layering of not only our personal stories but the dips and pulls of emotion. The piece has a way of positioning dark melancholy memories against other bright, almost manic instances of pure elation. Some say that what we created is a microcosm of life itself – demonstrating the highs and lows of a universal human experience. Together we offer the ingredients of a storm — pressure, cold and hot air, clouds, water – all hovering, swirling above the heads of both performer and audience. 

April pointed out that the soundtrack of this production is so undeniably jazz, which she loves. And considering the juxtaposed themes of motherhood, racial disparity, celebration, spirituality, and even suicidality, who better than the likes of Coltrane and Simone to provide the backdrop for such a tumultuous ride through the past? April felt deeply connected to Ari’s pieces, many of which were crafted and performed with a jazzy, smooth-guy aesthetic. Even as he reflected on prior NA meetings, the creatively humorous nature of his presentation made his recollections relatable and digestible. 

Grace’s work carried a graceful feel. As she danced, whether with cloth, a box or a ladder, she unpacked her journey of self-love, which in some ways seems to have prepared her to be the loving mother, dance teacher, and community member she is today. 

My own pieces explored elements ranging from my hair, the origins of my name and what it means to have both love and smoke with your 16-year-old daughter, who is a living representation of all the pain in bliss in the world. My mother was also a muse for my dark and dramatic ending piece, “Night Goddess.” 

On the stage, our stories pour down and somewhere in the overlap between pain and promise, a rainbow emerges. A stand-in for Bliss. This moment can be experienced but never kept. Bliss is not ours to have, it is ours to behold and to let go. “Bliss is really about several things,” said April. “It’s about the breath but it’s also about centering my mind… it has a lot to do with being able to get my thoughts out of my head and into my body or into my mouth.” When I asked April what she thought people would take away from this show, she said, “It’s important for us to be humans that are well. What I saw were four individuals trying to be well, attempting to be well, working at being well, and having these moments where you discovered wellness and trying to keep that… and that is bliss.” 

Each cast member has evolved our understanding and relationship to “Bliss.” It’s no longer something we chase, it’s something we thank. Every time she shows herself, we inhale her, and then in one big exhale, we send her back to the universe from which she came.