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raceAhead: Saving Langston Hughes

August 22, 2016, 1:45 PM UTC

A little bit of poetry is unfolding in Harlem, NY these days, a complicated verse that speaks to where we live, how things change and what we choose to remember.

Langston Hughes, the poet, playwright and leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance, lived the last two decades of his life in a beautiful, ivy-covered brownstone on 20 East 127th street. His most remembered line – What happens to a dream deferred?was likely written on the typewriter that still sits inside. The current (anonymous) owner listed it for sale years ago for $1 million, but took it off the market when it didn’t sell. Now, it lies empty, in a neighborhood that’s filled with similar homes, many in need of a makeover to help them reach their full, multi-million-dollar potential.

There aren’t many blocks like this left in NYC. When Hughes lived there, it was a neighborhood still bedeviled by discrimination, police brutality, poverty, underemployment and civil rights issues. Today, it’s prime real estate. And there’s a Whole Foods coming.

Author and educator Renee Watson has launched an ambitious Indiegogo campaign to raise money to rent and renovate the home, and turn it into a cultural center that offers programming partly shaped by the community, where she lives. “We want to support artists who are up and coming and who need to see themselves reflected in the arts.”

Watson is uniquely qualified to pull this off. “I’ve only ever worked for non-profits,” she said. And, she’s been thinking about gentrification for a long time. She’s the author of a popular young adult novel called This Side of Home, which is about race and class, centered on a pair of twin black girls who are on opposite sides of the debate when change comes to their neighborhood. (Don’t worry, there’s a romance, too.) “I’ve been all around the country touring with the book and talking about this,” she said. “This book is all about what is home and how you hold on to your legacy.”

She’d also been noodling on a business plan for her own non-profit for about a year and a half. Then, “in June, Maya Angelou’s brownstone sold,” she said, to an anonymous buyer for $4.08 million.

Suddenly, Hughes’s empty home became a beacon. She describes her organization, I, Too, Arts Collective as a small but mighty team of three, with a working board and an advisory board of literary luminaries. And lots of friends. The building’s owner supports her plan. The campaign has raised $50,000 so far.

But her quest is just one stanza of many. “The issue with gentrification is the erasure of a people and their history,” she says. “I want my neighborhood to be clean and safe and have fresh produce. I want that for every neighborhood in America,” she says. “But when they come to communities of people of color we lose our culture, so much rich history.” Preserving it isn’t nostalgia, she says. “It’s how we learn and it belongs to all of us.”

On Point

Why rich black families often live in poor neighborhoodsThe New York Times has mixed shoe leather reporting with analysis of 2014 census figures to discover why so many affluent black families end up living in poor and segregated communities anyway. “The choices that black families make today are inevitably constrained by a legacy of racism that prevented their ancestors from buying quality housing.” The story focuses on Milwaukee, and helps explain  their segregated neighborhoods.New York Times

Richard Parsons on leadership, race and living with myeloma
Dick Parsons, former chairman of Citigroup, and former CEO of AOL/Time Warner reflects on his career as a ‘turnaround guy’ - taking on banking after the S&L meltdown, Time Warner after the disastrous merger, and the LA Clippers after Donald Sterling's ouster. Says Parsons, “You need to be alert, alive and in the moment.” He talks  about what it was like to be one of the first African Americans to lead a Fortune 500 company. His current turnaround situation: battling multiple myeloma.
Fortune Unfiltered

A new app aims to identify harassment on Twitter
A summer intern working on Intel’s "Hack Harassment" initiative has developed a promising web application that tells people how harassing they are on Twitter, and shows them example of tweets they’ve sent that are problematic. Twitter has come under harsh criticism for not doing enough to curb ugly speech, which is often directed at women and people of color.

Black women’s wage gains are reversing
The Economic Policy Institute has released new data in advance of a September report which looks at the adjusted average hourly wage gaps of white women and black women relative to white men over the last 35 years. Black and white women were near parity in 1979, though well behind white men. By 2015, white women’s wages had grown to 77% of white men’s, compared to 66% for black women. “Progress is slowing for black women.”

A new judgment muddies the water on discrimination in the workplace
A recent summary judgment in a Michigan district court found that it was legal for a Christian business owner to fire their longtime employee who had begun her transition from male to female. The decision is based on the Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, which says “undue burden” is placed on employers who must keep employees who violate their religious beliefs. It is the first of many decisions that could have far-reaching consequences on discrimination law.
The Atlantic

Protests halt construction on North Dakota pipeline
A tense stand-off on the safety and legality of a proposed pipeline that would cross parts of the Missouri River in North Dakota is attracting hundreds of protestors, who say the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile-long pipeline would disturb burial grounds and sacred sites on Treaty lands, and threatens the water supply of the residents. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe officials are calling for peaceful protests. Construction is currently halted.

No suspensions at a Baltimore school using mindfulness techniques
Robert W. Coleman in West Baltimore has all the problems that a low-income neighborhood has, and those were exacerbated by the riots after Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the police. But after adding mindfulness exercises, yoga and a room to “chill,” school suspensions dropped to zero.
Inhabit Tots

The Woke Leader

Here's an hour of Langston Hughes being awesome
Langston Hughes spoke at UCLA, as it turns out, just three months before he died. In a charming, funny and utterly candid chat – he spoke to the audience as if he were speaking to a friend – he talked about his life, poetry, and how the country was improving, or not, on the topic of race. He also took time to shout-out a promising young up-and-comer named Alice Walker. At about the 40-minute mark, he begins talking riots and policing, and being targeted by police around the country.  

For Univision, diversity is their new business
Univision is an incredibly popular television presence in the lives of Spanish speaking viewers. But, says the company, “the future is young, digital and diverse.” Their recent purchase of Gawker Media, which includes sports, gaming and tech sites, is just part of a grand plan to capture an audience that is under 35, digitally savvy and decidedly mixed.
Washington Post

Racial battle fatigue and work
“Racial battle fatigue,” a term coined by a University of Utah researcher, describes how microaggressions – relatively innocuous but degrading actions – affect black students at predominantly white universities. A new study examines racial exhaustion in a broader context, and determines that it can cause a type of generalized anxiety disorder which can seriously affect job performance.
Psych Central


What a crowd! All classes and colors met face to face, ultra aristocrats, bourgeois, Communists, Park Avenuers galore, bookers, publishers, Broadway celebs, and Harlemites giving each other the once over.
—Geraldyn Dismond