REBECCA KELLY G / RACIAL JUSTICE FACILITATOR & CREATOR OF BLACK ABUNDANCE BK / BROOKLYN, NY
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Rebecca: I’m a racial justice facilitator, artist, and creator of Black Abundance BK, a platform that uplifts and celebrates Black life and creativity in Brooklyn. All of my work stems from my desire to work at the intersections of creativity and community, particularly in a way that works towards the liberation of Black people.
For context, my mom integrated her high school in the 60s in Salisbury, North Carolina. Hearing her stories has always kept me thinking about what am I doing for my people and how am I liberating myself.
I started out my life as an actor focusing mostly on theatre and musical theatre. That was what I did all through childhood and college. I focused on it because I loved it…I loved performing, I loved singing, acting, dancing, and working in an ensemble toward something; that was beautiful and it got me excited. But as time went on, I started feeling like I wasn't doing enough to contribute to society. I didn't see yet how the arts and creativity could play a role in that.
I auditioned for a little while but pretty quickly started doing other things and trying to figure out how I could blend all the different parts of myself. I started out in extremes pushing my artistry aside because I kept thinking, “This is selfish, I’m just doing this for me.” Even though I loved the connectivity of it, it wasn't feeling like my art was going to shift things in Guantanamo Bay.
I started learning more about and engaging with organizing, then I started working with grassroots campaigns and to elect Barack Obama. Trying to get Obama elected was a huge shift for me—knocking on doors and talking to people about what they wanted for the country, their hopes, dreams, and fears. It was another way of connecting to people and learning about what they wanted and refining what I wanted. It really opened my mind and was inspiring. Ultimately, I thought if I want to take action, if I want to do something to create change, I need a clearer understanding about the systems we live in and how they work. With that information, I felt like I’d be able to change them. That realization, led me to law school where I focused on civil rights and education.
While I was in law school, I started to deeply miss my creative side. I spearheaded a Social Justice Film Series while I was there and curated an art show for the local artists around the power and importance of diversity. There definitely wasn’t a lot of racial diversity, but there also wasn’t a diversity of thought or being. That experience and many more following that started to shift my perspective on the arts.
What wAS YOUR experience after law school?
When I finished law school and started practicing, I was a civil rights attorney in D.C. for two years, which is essentially impact litigation for big cases about changing policies or uplifting a whole district. I had the opportunity to submit A testimony to Congress and it was all amazing. That was with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. While with that organization, I also got to shake President Obama's hand in the East Wing of the White House which was a phenomenal full circle.
What inspired your move into a new field and from being a lawyer?
Being an attorney was very fulfilling but also it showed me that real change happens the way I started: at the community level. Impact litigation is very much about research, writing, and long term strategies. I mean, we were still closing school integration orders. You can try and should try to force change to fight oppression, but without also changing hearts and minds, those same oppressive practices will just crop up in a new way, like the school-to-prison pipeline or white flight.
Now, I don’t choose between artistry and activism. I understand that they are intrinsically linked when done with a true intention for community uplift and change. There are just human beings with hearts and minds out there making, shaping, and internalizing policy. That’s what needs changing--hearts and minds, and that’s what art does. I don't say that to diminish the need for concrete policy changes/restructuring of power, but to expand the picture on tactics for making that happen, and making those changes last. I’m committed to making sure other people can understand that power too, which is why theatre and the arts are at the core of my facilitation practice and all of my work.
Take us to your present day where you’ve started this amazing platform. Tell us about Black Abundance BK.
R: The goal of Black Abundance BK is to celebrate black life and creativity in Brooklyn. I want to serve as a resource for people to support Black-owned businesses, and also to highlight the Black creatives and activists that keep it vibrant. You know I want to make sure the arts are a part of the conversation! It’s just essential that we are recognized and connected to one another.
So Black Abundance is really that, making sure that within Brooklyn, within the black community, we stay connected. I'm not from Brooklyn but I feel like I found myself in Brooklyn. I found my soul and my people in Brooklyn. There is such a bubbling Black creative life of people who are continuing on the path of BK greats, and creating new methods for themselves to move the world and I just love it, I want to uplift it and do what I can to be a part of preserving it!
You just said you found your SOUL in Brooklyn. Can you explain what about Brooklyn makes you feel that sense of community?
R: It’s the openness and willingness to talk about what's going on in the neighborhood. One of my favorite things to do on Saturdays is to go to Tompkins and Halsey in Bed-Stuy—I call it the black wellness row. There is wellness, co-working spaces, galleries, and when you stop in or have conversations on my block, people really want to talk, it’s not a quick, “How you doing?”, it’s a genuine conversation, you can really build community. These conversations are the ways I’ve learned about the borough and its deep Black history roots. It feels so precious and rare in a time where everyone is so go, go, go.
How will you bloom in the next year?
R: There are a few exciting things on the horizon! On the personal level, I’m excited to be co-creating an arts program with youth at Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets in Crown Heights and to continue growing my facilitation practice. I teach a college-level course, Race, the Arts, and Activism, and want that to bloom into a workshop series outside of the classroom as well. I’m also launching a podcast, that functions as a “Dear Abby” format for people of color confronting challenges in life and in work, so be on the lookout for that!
For Black Abundance BK, we are blooming into conversations on self-love by tackling difficult issues within our community like colorism, respectability politics, gender inequity, and things like that. You will also catch Black Abundance BK hosting workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs and celebrations of BK creativity.
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten? AND What advice do you like to give?
R: I don't have a go to, to be honest. But the most recent good advice was from my cousin, Celestine Maddy, who said, “You can’t wait for someone to come to you. You have to go out and make it happen.” I appreciate hearing that because there's this idea that if you work silently but diligently, someone will come along, acknowledge your work, and elevate you or reward you for that, but that definitely doesn’t always happen, actually I think it’s pretty rare. I think especially for black women, you need to create your own space and your own success. See it, grab it, and make it. There is a sometimes spoken and unspoken assumption that Black women should be last in line, so our success can be threatening to other people, if they don’t feel that they are as successful. If they don’t know what you know or aren’t in the same spaces that you’re in, they question the validity of your achievement, so success and hard work can have the opposite affect--people feel called to put you down so you know your place, not lift you up to celebrate your place. A friend mentioned to me once, a Black woman says 1+1=2 and everyone pulls out their calculator. I’ve certainly experienced that, and so have many of my girlfriends. But we sure know how to make a way out of no way, as history has shown, so I say forget all that! We are and will continue to be abundant!
What does feminism mean to you and do you feel the word ‘feminism’ is inclusive?
R: Having had this conversation with myself for a while, I'll just tell you where I'm at with it now. I think we're in a transitional moment where the word feminism has traditionally been used to describe “white feminism” but is now becoming more inclusive which is a beautiful and necessary process. At the same time, it’s hard for me to claim feminism as my own. I don't feel comfortable claiming something that for the bulk of its history fought against the liberation and success of people of color of all genders in the name of white women’s equality. I haven’t yet released that from my spirit.
I usually say “women’s libration” when I'm talking about women from all journeys in life coming together, being free and able to move around the world with our own agency and making our own choices about how our life is going to be.
What do you want to be remembered for?
R: I want to be remembered for my ability to love and celebrate myself while also loving, serving, and celebrating my community--friends, family, the planet and Diaspora.