Cover Story: 'I'm Hungry"

For Colored Folks Who've Considered Leaving When the 'Nati Wasn't Enuf

Aug 10, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

'I'm Hungry"

I decided to move back to Cincinnati after the April 2001 riots. It seemed unjustifiable that I should be working on criminal justice reform in New York City when my hometown was under siege because of issues of race and class.

On the television I watched phalanxes of Cincinnati police move across the streets in riot gear, rigid with fear. I saw young black men puffed up with pride, unsure what to do with the sudden sense that they had power.

The day I arrived in town, I picked up a copy of CityBeat. I was curious to see what was going on in this city that I had left at 18 years old, a city that most of my New York friends couldn't locate on a map let alone differentiate from Minneapolis or St. Louis. The cover of the Oct. 31, 2002, issue read, "Why We Left Cincinnati: Losing Our Young Professionals to the Good Life in Portland."

Apparently I had moved home in the midst of an exodus of "creative, young professionals," a group attracting a lot of attention after the publication of Richard Florida's book on urban development, The Rise of the Creative Class.

I was 24 years old with experience in public relations and event planning for a national nonprofit organization. As a freelance reporter, I had covered the UN World Conference of Racism in South Africa and the proliferation of prisons in upstate New York.

I had progressive politics, I considered myself creative and I saw no one in the pages of the story who looked like me.

I was left to wonder: Are "bright" and "creative" synonymous with "white" in Cincinnati? Is this the group considered worth fighting to keep, while other creative young people's concerns stay at the bottom of our civic priorities? Does membership in the "creative class" have an income requirement?

Almost three years later, as I prepare to return to Brooklyn to live, I'm still grappling with these questions.

To be fair, the CityBeat cover story took as its focus a group of six DAAP graduates who moved to Portland and acknowledged that this was just one "small universe."

Well, this is the story of another "small universe": three creative, young Cincinnatians of color who have decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere (four if you count me). They will all be leaving before the new year, and their stories echo those of the many young black and brown people who leave this area in their twenties, unsure if or when they'll return.

In some ways our decisions to leave mirror those of the DAAP grads. We want decent public transportation and access to better nightlife, certainly, but we have different concerns about the availability of jobs, our dysfunctional local government and the impact of the city's self-fulfilling inferiority complex on our communities.

'I Gotta Go Get It'
Sedara Burson, 29, is a New Agey Pan-Africanist. She talks a lot about energy, her "village" and the importance of "whole healing." But Midwestern practicality is her birthright, and nothing about her rings flighty or false.

Burson has used this ability to balance the down-to-earth with the visionary as executive director of the Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program of Cincinnati (UMADAOP). Under her leadership, the organization has tried to expand employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people and has lobbied city government to increase funding for HIV/AIDS services.

But after four years with the group, Burson is going to graduate school in the San Francisco Bay area. She'll study at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto.

Burson's work in social services and her previous life as a computer programmer at Fifth Third Bank place her firmly within the ranks of the young, creative professionals described in Florida's book. She has long wanted to leave Cincinnati and broaden her horizons, but she's leaving now because she's found a graduate program that will help her address her community's needs.

"As long as we have educational institutions that don't teach you how to be whole and churches that don't really tap into who you are," she says, "you're gonna need agencies like UMADAOP."

Burson's search for root solutions got her interested in human development models that are nearly nonexistent in this region.

The city's lag in replacing old models with innovative approaches is also a driving force behind Idrissa Ekundayo's decision to leave. Ekundayo, who like Burson is a graduate of Hughes High School, will also move to California for graduate school. Next month he begins an MFA program in creative writing and writing for the performing arts at the University of California-Riverside.

For Ekundayo, 29, opportunities as a performance artist and writer are limited here. He got his start in 1996 as a student on UC's campus, where he appeared in plays like Ntozake Shange's Spell #7 and Rickerby Hinds' Straight from the Underground. Today he performs at smaller venues like The Greenwich and Contem-porary Dance Theater, but he hasn't built relationships with the city's larger theaters.

"It's not like you're gonna see me at the Playhouse in the Park or the Aronoff Center or Ensemble Theatre," he says. "They have auditions, but I'm just not interested in doing that type of Eurocentric material. Commission me to do my own shit, then I'll come in and make it amazing."

Ekundayo talks about leaving with a determination that shows how badly he wants success on his terms.

"I gotta go get it," he says. "I'ma eat it up."

For him, leaving Cincinnati means avoiding the pitfalls he's watched other young black men fall into — chronic run-ins with the criminal justice system or settling for a job that offers no challenge or room for growth.

"It would be very easy for me to dress a certain way and talk a certain way," he says. "I could be a bank teller or a manager at Boston Market. But my spirit is way bigger than just working a second-rate job."

'They Herd You Like Cattle'
Daniela Castro, 22, was born in La Paz, Bolivia, and has lived in the U.S. since she was 13. She's been in Cincinnati for almost three years and has spent that time working at Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center, translating at the city's health clinics and doing house cleaning and construction to help pay the bills. She's also a well respected performance poet and visual artist.

Castro is preparing to move to Brazil in December. She feels ready for a change of environment but has a certain affinity for Cincinnati, seeing similarities between this city and Bolivia's capital.

"It's very much like La Paz," she says. "The hills, the shape of the city, the ghettoes look the same. Corruption is ridiculous, just like it is here. Police brutality is off the chain over here, too."

Castro touches on a factor that pushes many young Cincinnatians away — the police department's record with communities of color.

Ekundayo recounts conflicts he's had with the police, particularly around young people's right to gather in public spaces like Short Vine and Eden Park.

"It wasn't nobody down there turning over cars or shooting, it was just people hanging out, playing music," he says. "But when they say it's time to go home, they talk to you all types of ways, herd you like cattle and spray mace. That shit is inhumane."

Ekundayo goes a step beyond vague talk of "diversity" and sees an immediate need to root out the city's institutionalized racism.

"If you can tase a child, you don't have no respect for that child or their parents," he says. "These police don't have respect for our lives."

When asked what the city can do to retain or attract young people of color, Ekundayo's response is concise: "Stop killing them."

Through her work with UMADAOP, Burson often has the attention of local elected officials. She worked with the Black United Front in an effort to reach solutions with the city following the 2001 riots. In both capacities, she feels an unresponsive city government has kept her from being effective.

"Just after the riots, I think they were willing to listen to anyone," Burson says. "But I don't know if they were really ready to create the change that needed to happen. Everything fell on deaf ears."

She notes that at this time city council was still granting the Ku Klux Klan a permit to place a cross on Fountain Square during the winter holidays.

In her experience, city officials are unwilling to make decisions with community input. Burson mentions her agency's unsuccessful attempt to get city council to move $33,000 from the city's demolition line item to fund HIV services. She says this would mean that approximately three buildings wouldn't be torn down in the course of one year.

"So HIV services or three buildings?" she asks rhetorically. "It's just clear that they either don't have their hearts in the right place or they're just very ill-informed."

Castro is also concerned by the disconnect between what marginalized communities demand and what city council delivers.

"Cincinnati's known to be so conservative, but it's not," she says. "The population that inhabits the city is hungry for more liberal management. But the money is conservative."

'I Just Don't Feel Love'
Our inability to support ourselves as full-time activists or artists is a major reason why young people of color, as well as young white progressives, leave. We want the opportunity to make a living wage doing work we believe in at a social justice or arts organization.

When we see friends in other cities with careers that reflect their values, we realize it's possible. Why stay in a city like Cincinnati where there's so little money from progressive funders to start or maintain organizations that will give us the opportunity to do visionary work?

Ekundayo thinks artists and activists are unable to enjoy the things the city creates in the name of development.

"If you got jobs, you got expendable money," he says, "and you can invest in a loft, you can have an artist's space, you can keep paying your bills, your creativity can flourish 'cause you have that type of money to spend. But are there real jobs in this city?"

Castro has supported herself as an artist in Cincinnati, but she says, "I'm hungry."

She's not using figurative language to mean "ambitious." In the performance poetry community, people compete in slams for money. Gaining appreciation for your work is the primary goal, but for some poets that pot of money means a week's worth of groceries or the ability to pay rent.

This points to a weak link in the "creative class" theory. How do artists and activists fit alongside yuppies with lucrative careers in the corporate sector? Can a vibrant city develop when its leadership focuses on one half of the equation but not the other?

Burson, the former computer programmer, says she understands the logic behind catering to those who fit more traditional understandings of a productive workforce.

"The city is going to focus on us because we're providing economic stability," she says. "We are the workers. We're the consumers. We're the ones who are buying all the newly developed stuff downtown."

But will a progressive, local funding base develop so that those of us who aren't interested in corporate jobs can stop moving to the cities with access to foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and the Open Society Institute?

Young, creative people of color want things that city government can help provide, like decent, safe housing and efficient public transportation. But what seems even farther out of reach in Cincinnati is the possibility of an environment where we can be ourselves out loud and unapologetically, a place where there's more flexibility around acceptable cultural expression.

As an immigrant from Latin America, Castro feels this particularly strongly.

"There's hella assumptions going on here," she says. "Don't nobody expect me to speak English. People look at you like you're an alien, and you gotta take out your papers like, 'I'm here.' On the street I just don't feel love."

Ekundayo agrees that Cincinnati won't be a place he'll want to live until there's a widespread cultural renaissance.

"I would have to cater to a certain level of ignorance and a certain mentality in order to have people support my art," he says. "I would have to be on some Gansta Rap bullshit. Black people in Cincinnati can identify with a lot of topics in Rap — it's a lot of drugs, violence and everyday life that goes on in the ghetto when you live at the bottom."

But he feels that people have to set higher standards for art than just allowing it to act as a mirror for their current realities. Burson also points to docility and hopelessness within the community as part of the problem.

"If you have a whole bunch of people who feel a certain way about a city and they're all depressed and oppressed and have this energy about them," she says, "then we create this existence for ourselves. It creates this overcast that takes over your day, your life, your community."

'Come Back With The Money'
Talk of Cincinnati being among the country's most livable cities and an ideal place to raise kids doesn't ring true with many young people of color. The thought of having children only magnifies our concerns about a hostile police force and narrow cultural opportunities.

"If you've got public schools and police that aren't going to nurture my children, I'm not gonna want to stay here," Burson says. "I had (a nurturing upbringing) because my parents created it, but the effort on their part was greater than it has to be in a place like San Francisco or Chicago."

To Burson, hanging hopes for successful urban development on people in their twenties and thirties is shortsighted.

"If you really want to serve the community," she says, "you need a holistic, comprehensive plan that nurtures the young to become the creative class."

She feels many young people of color aren't given the opportunity to fully develop their talents due in part to deficient youth programming at recreation centers and an absence of forums where they can express their views.

"You can't blame the police for everything," Ekundayo says. "You got young, brilliant minds that have nowhere to go, and they're fucking upset."

For some people in their twenties, having children means moving to a suburb with a well-funded school district. But moving to suburbia often isn't a desired option for us — many young people of color are committed to living in urban areas, both now and in the future.

Ekundayo will be returning often to visit his 3-year-old daughter Sala, but he's unsure if he'll settle permanently in Cincinnati. If he were to come back, he says he wants to be able to live in a safe and energized Bond Hill, his native neighborhood, as opposed to moving outside city limits or even to a gentrified "City West" or Over-the-Rhine.

Burson acknowledges that her upcoming move most likely will build a wall between her and her hometown. She would like to bring her training in transpersonal psychology back to Cincinnati but isn't confident it'll happen.

"I've felt guilty because I may not be able to come back," she says. "When you live in a place like California where they have schools that teach people to have different mindsets, you also have the people there creating jobs and communities that welcome that thought process. That doesn't exist here."

Having lived in a range of places — from Bolivia to the Poconos to the Bronx — Castro can place her Cincinnati experience in a larger context.

"If you stay here, all you know is it sucks," she says. "You don't know why does it suck and how can it suck less."

She thinks it's important for people to leave but urges them not to forget where they came from.

"To make money, you gotta go elsewhere," she says. "But come back with the money."

We're not headed to Seattle, Portland, Austin or most of the other cities Richard Florida deems "hot," but a wave of young Cincinnatians of color is leaving town. We're headed to places like L.A., the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Atlanta or out of the country — places where it feels possible for a young black or brown person to seek and achieve her fortune without assimilating into narrowly understood cultural and economic norms.

It remains to be seen whether Cincinnati will ever give us the chance to do that here. Or whether we'll ever demand that chance. ©