News: More Than Six Acres

One rehab project leads to another

Aug 16, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jared M. Holder

Kristin Kitchen saw opportunity where others saw blight, restoring an old house into a bed and breakfast. Now she sees untapped talent in Africa

Kristin Kitchen runs a picturesque bed and breakfast in College Hill called "Six Acres." A month after she purchased the property and about two years before its renovations were complete, the large house was named a CityBeat "Blight of the Week."

Now the place sits quietly off Hamilton Avenue, painted a happy yellow, surrounded by lush grasses and flower beds. That is exactly what Kitchen loves to do and how she has made her living — restoring old buildings.

But there's something special about Six Acres: At approximately 160 years old, it was a historic stop on the Underground Railroad, a history no one has paid attention to in decades. One day, as she was passing by the blight, Kitchen stopped and climbed in through a broken window. The center staircase had collapsed. The ceilings and floors were rotting away. She found herself in tears, feeling "so much magic in the broken house" and as if someone were telling her she must bring it back to life. So she did.

A Hip Hop journey
Word of Six Acres has spread. People across the country stop in for its charm, the bedrooms named after employees' grandmothers, and the pristine historical condition of the attic, where escaped slaves hunkered on their way to freedom.

Three years ago one of the visitors was M1, the New York-based Hip Hop artist who makes up half of the group Dead Prez. M1 was in town for a cultural conference, a "sexy, cutting edge" way to deal with cultural inequalities, he tells me from his home in Brooklyn. He did some research before he came to Cincinnati. He knew he wanted to stay at Six Acres, he knew why and he wasn't disappointed.

"There is a lot of initiative in such a site, to have so carefully nurtured it, while keeping it historically intact," M1 says.

After he arrived, he and Kitchen talked, they went to the grocery store, ran errands, still talking. Kitchen laughs as she recalls it.

"I had M1 carrying my groceries, just chitchatting," she says.

But the chitchat wasn't just that. Both M1 and Kitchen took the conversation seriously. He told her about his trips to Africa, telling her, "Make sure you touch down here and here." Kitchen went to the continent for the first time that year and called M1 when she returned.

"I could tell she really listened to me," he says. "She went to all the places I told her about."

She also came back with a plan — to employ Africa.

In Tanzania, she met two incredibly influential people — Bill Mushi, a native Tanzanian who owns a very successful company in New York City; and Momma Mbise, an elder, a teacher and artist.

Mushi has a teenage son, Michael, who is "one of the most tech-savvy kids" Kitchen has ever seen. Watching Michael on his computer made her realize that "children are as educated (in Tanzania) if not more than they are in the United States.

"Parents take the responsibility of educating their children seriously," Kitchen says. "I realized the idea that most countries in Africa are Third World is absurd."

Mushi drove Kitchen out of the city of Arusha and into the countryside, where she met Momma Mbise. They went to Mbise's home.

"A tiny little house, but I could tell that she was proud of it, and she wanted me to see it," Kitchen says. "It felt like going to my grandma's house somewhere deep in the southern parts of the United States."

Kitchen and the teacher spoke of growing up in Tanzania versus the United States. Mbise said Kitchen was lucky to be an American and that she should use that luck to make a difference. Kitchen felt then the "reconnect" with Africa she had been praying for since she landed. She understood what brought her there.

Mbise renamed her Aimbora, which translates as, "Here's a blessing." Then Mbise told her, "Now do your work."

Employing Africa
Her work, Kitchen realized, was to help those tech-savvy African teens, the college-educated men and women who don't have and can't get jobs in Africa. The solution is not bringing them to America, where they would likely get jobs unassociated with their education and degrees, but to change the employment situation in their own countries.

Thus was born Employ Africa, a non-profit organization that seeks to level the playing fields.

"The goal is to partner businesses in America with the mass resource of human knowledge and ability in the people of Africa," Kitchen says.

Outsourcing and off-shoring jobs are core concepts in Employ Africa, which is sure to raise some eyebrows. How many times have we seen Americans protesting the "loss of American jobs"? A lot of us wave the flag as though the United States is a sports team, and we forget, avoid or spit on the rest of the world.

What we fail to remember is that, as M1 says, "American capitalism is based on outsourcing. ... America took Africa and incorporated it. ... That's out of our hands. What Kristin is doing is changing the relationships, giving money to the people and families who already did the work."

Kitchen is doing that and more. She knows it will be hard to create economic balance without first giving Africa the right kind of infrastructure. Kitchen is returning to Tanzania in October to meet with the president of that country. Nothing can get moving until she has safe Web portals and more money.

Kitchen is also paying close attention to home. She recognizes the value of real Hip Hop artists, like Dead Prez and Self-Scientific, both of whose CDs will be on sale at Six Acres by late August. She says Hip Hop culture is a dialogue between people of all cultures and ethnicities.

M1 says he'll return to Cincinnati to help Kitchen promote her project. He's working with other Hip Hop artists in New York to create an album whose proceeds will go to Employ Africa. They'll have concerts and lectures and meetings. And everyone is invited. ©