Molly Sprague, the 7-year-old fire chief, was in tears.
Already, her government and some real-estate developers had cut her neighborhood in half with a freeway and cloaked it in the shadows of their fancy skyscrapers.
Now, instead of accepting an affordable-housing grant from City Councilor Tony Nicholson so that she and two neighbors could move closer to the fire station inside the beltway, Sprague’s friends in the “Whatchamacallit” neighborhood made the decision they thought was best for everybody: Reject the grant, and instead ask the city for a 24-hour bus route that would help the seven households cut off from downtown to travel there and back safely.
“I really don’t like riding buses!” cried Sprague, her voice rising pitifully.
Sprague’s house, the fire station, the skyscrapers and the highway were all made of cardboard and splayed across the linoleum floor in a multi-purpose room at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church on a Thursday evening in June.
Nicholson isn’t really on the city council. A local estate-planning attorney and a member of the congregation, Nicholson belongs to Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), itself part of the national community-organizing network Industrial Areas Foundation.
This summer, Duke Memorial partnered with Durham CAN and seven other congregations – black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Unitarian, nondenominational – to put on a community-organizing camp in lieu of Vacation Bible School.
The cardboard gentrification was a simulation of Durham’s own history: In the urban renewal of the 1960s, the Durham Freeway disrupted Hayti, the city’s once-vibrant black-owned business district and the neighborhoods it served. Today, skyscrapers are rising downtown, changing the faces of downtown Durham. Even if those realities are far from her own experience as a rising second-grader, Sprague’s tears were very, very real.
“This is a good reminder,” said Melissa Florer-Bixler, the Duke Memorial associate pastor who created the camp curriculum. “Sometimes in negotiation and compromise, not everybody’s going to get what they want. … City council’s not the bad guys. No permanent enemies, no permanent allies. That’s a foundational principle for community organizing.”
From Monday through Wednesday of the camp week, the kids themselves had built their neighborhoods with the houses as close together as possible and amenities like a public pool located as centrally and equitably as possible. Overnight on Wednesday, the staff rearranged the city with wealthier residents’ homes and new skyscrapers in the center of town and poorer neighborhoods cut off by the beltway.
“Their orientation was towards one another, for whatever reason. That’s just kind of something that came out of them,” said Florer-Bixler. “To find out that there were other interests at play besides a communal ethic was really frustrating for them.
“Our children are going to expose some of the absurdity of the ways that we have formed the world,” she said. “It’s an invitation into upending what just seems natural to adults. Life is complicated, but look what happens when a couple of kids get together? The rules are very loose in this. We’re giving an opportunity for kids to form themselves around these questions. We want to say that our imaginations have been too small.”
By way of full and pertinent disclosure, the now-robust community I lead at Fullsteam Brewery, Durham County Beer & Hymns, probably wouldn’t exist if not for the fact that Florer-Bixler had lobbied for a barroom sing-along among the staff at Duke Memorial even before I asked her colleague Cullen McKenney to help me get it started a year and a half ago; alone, my imagination would have been too small.
Life is complicated, but look what happens when a couple of kids get together? ... We want to say that our imaginations have been too small.
Melissa Florer-Bixler, associate pastor
This summer, Florer-Bixler is leaving Durham and her temporary home among the United Methodists for Raleigh Mennonite Church, a congregation in her own denomination. One way or another, in Raleigh or Durham or both, she says, “We Have the Power” will continue next summer.
Back at Duke Memorial a few weeks ago, after dining together on chicken cutlets, peas, macaroni and watermelon, the kids gathered with musician-activist Clifton Wright to sing lyrics such as, “ain’t gonna let no freeway turn me around” and “I believe that we will win.”
Later that evening, in the “Chuck E. Cheese” neighborhood, the kids had to decide what they wanted from the city council, to mitigate the impact of the highway.
“We can sing the Freedom Songs!” said 6-year-old Chloe Powell.
“We can sing the Freedom Songs,” agreed Duke Memorial member Rick Larson, playing the role of community-organizer. “But what are we going to ask for?”
“How about a tunnel?” asked Chloe.
“A tunnel might be dark,” Larson said.
“The tunnel would have lights!” insisted Chloe.
“We want a tunnel that’s nice and clean,” said 6-year-old Kylie Mitchell.
“Can it be golden?” asked 5-year-old Myles Hill.
“Pink! Pink! Pink!” shouted Kylie and Chloe.
The kids eventually agreed to hold out for a clean, rainbow-colored tunnel, and they sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” to rally for their meeting with Councilman Nicholson. He supported their plan for a well-swept rainbow tunnel, without hesitation.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.