Portraits by Var, the artist
I believe Dr. King’s legacy is very relevant today. We have a white supremacist in the office who was elected so there needs to be a shift in the mindset of America. Even with his disrespect of women, his fear of immigrants and people of color he was still elected. This means that there are still people who are bigoted and racially insensitive in our society.
Racism has changed - they can no longer put a chain around someone’s neck and drag them through the streets - it has changed but it’s still there.
When I started getting politically aware, I was part of the Nation of Gods and Earths - they were called Five Percenters back then. I’ve been around for a while - I went from gangbanging here in New York to the Black Panther Party. The difference between the Panther Party in Los Angeles and the Party here in New York was that the LA panthers were college educated, most of us weren’t. We had just experienced racism personally and were looking for a way to do something about it.
I saw a lot of outwardly racist things in my youth. In 1966 I went from Harlem to East Elmhurst Queens, when my parents bought a house. I had to go to a predominantly white school where there was only a sprinkling of Latinos and African Americans. We would get jumped - there would be fifteen of us and fifty or sixty of them. I have a scar from one of those incidents. There was a time when I had a paper route and had saved up to get a custom made sweater, and the first time I wore the sweater they ripped it to shreds on me and cut me in the process.
Even before that, when I was 5 years old I took a train to the South with my mother. When we crossed through Washington DC, we changed trains and there was a line between the Black section and the White section. I didn’t know any better so I kept crossing the line to play with a White lady I saw in the other section. The driver told my mother that if she didn’t keep me in that section they would arrest her.
I say all that to say that the things that Dr. King dreamed of still haven’t come to pass. We still have a long way to go. The media and education both have a role to play in bettering race relations. TV, books, the internet, music and film can make a difference. They shape how people think.
-Roy, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and motivational speaker
I volunteered to work with Momo because I like animals and I grew up on a farm in the Dominican Republic. We had cows and goats and ducks. They would follow me like a pet. They were very playful.
When you interact with animals it's good therapy—it's showing love and being empathic. It's very rare to find someone who doesn't like animals.
Cupcakes at Momo's collar ceremony, January 10th 2020
Momo is special because she was supposed to work with hunters to retrieve the dead birds/animals but she didn't want to retrieve them. She was so well trained that the trainers decided to make her a therapy dog.
Momo and her team at Coler hospital
Dani, our previous project coordinator, connected with Nathan from a company called Healing Pause that places dogs with organizations, and thought that it would be a good idea to have a therapy dog at Coler, especially for the people who cannot leave their beds. They need that love and connection. The Angelica Patient Assistance Program pitched the idea to the administration at Coler and it was a perfect match.
We're looking forward to taking her to events with us to connect with the young people.
-Jay, OPEN DOORS Reality Poet and Filmmaker
November 22nd was the culmination of months' worth of teamwork, beginning last spring with a critical race theory workshop funded by Humanities NY and led by Khadijah Abdurahman. Content generated by the Reality Poets in the workshop became the basis for the I Can Breathe map that was used to introduce Milstein Fellows to Roosevelt Island on the 22nd. To make the map, every Friday from early October to late November OPEN DOORS members would go down to the MakerLAB to work with CT students and local artists. The map of Roosevelt Island is created almost entirely out of cardboard and features Elias William's portraits of the Reality Poets. Below the map are buttons that can be pressed to play audio recordings of each members stories, poetry, or music.
The almost finished map resting in the MakerLAB
The I Can Breathe map required mad hours of work from the Reality Poets and friends. Khadijah was the creative lead for the project; Niti worked on organizing everyone; Hufsa and Andrés used the laser cutter to do most of the cardboard cutting and etching; Thom led the gluing and painting; Bil, Hufsa, and Andrés programmed the buttons; and Lauren did the collages behind the portraits. It took a village to complete this map.
Jay leading a Q&A about his film
The Milstein event on the 22nd kicked off with the debut of Jay's short film about Var and Goldwater. Afterwards, Jay talked and answered questions. You could feel the positive vibes in the room. Then El and Micah shared their poetry and everyone was vibing even harder. After the screening and talkback we went downstairs for tacos and to debut the I Can Breathe map. The tacos were free and the map was captivating. It was dope getting to see people react to something we worked with so many talented folks to create.
Micah performing his poetry
We started a computer tech class last week in which OPEN DOORS members and other Coler residents participated. The classes will teach tech literacy and how to be responsible online citizens. We have a great teacher, Tanuj Ahuja, aka TJ, a Cornell Tech graduate. In our first class we learned about a healthy and unhealthy internet environment. TJ described a healthy environment as a place where everyone has access to each other's ideas and one that should be openly innovative in contrast to being limited to certain people posting inappropriate material. We also discussed what else we want to learn. Most of us were concerned with privacy and security because of the possibility of personal information being hacked. It was a fun class with Jay cracking jokes about all the things you can do on the dark web.
ZING! is a new project led by OPEN DOORS member Vincent "V" Pierce. V grew up in Newburgh, New York. As a teen, V moved down south to North Carolina where he studied music and played on multiple basketball teams. In his early twenties he moved back to New York. Today, V’s focus lies in music production and his 11-year-old daughter, Nuatej.
For the past few weeks Tito and I have been leading workshops at the Roosevelt Island youth center to teach children about music production, sound engineering, and song writing. We're also partnering with Island Kids Moving Forward Initiative which teaches teens trade skills. Our collaboration involves us giving a stipend to teenagers who come to the Coler studio. The end goal is to have the teenagers well trained enough to help teach the younger kids about music.
We're trying to partner with other organizations to bring kids from off the island to the studio. Our biggest goal is to build the ZING! brand and give back to the community by keeping kids off the street and in the studio. We at OPEN DOORS believe in the healing power of art. Providing this outlet to the youth is a gift. Seeing their eyes light up when they hear their work coming together is a priceless sight.
When we first heard about the Fall for the Arts Festival we knew that it was something we wanted to be a part of. Fall for the Arts is a festival held every year on Roosevelt Island. Artists submit artwork to be considered for a mural spot. Once the artists have been chosen, they paint murals on various parts of the island. We thought this would be an incredible opportunity for OPEN DOORS member Var AKA the Vartist. However, Var doesn't have much control of his arms or hands. He holds a stylus in mouth to create his art on his phone. So, we did the best thing you can do in times of need, turned to our community. We reached out and with the help of many hands we were able to bring Var's artwork to a bigger scale and audience.
the "Martha Stewarts"
Thankfully, the weather at the Fall for the Arts Festival was beautiful. The area we were painting in was filled with a whole bunch of artists with their own boards. One of those other artists was Paolo Tolentino, a graffiti artist who we collaborated with in the past for Figment Arts Festival. Our board was positioned in the sunlight. We wouldn't have been able to paint it without the help of a group of Girl Scouts (the "mini Martha Stewarts") and a "Martha Stewart" group. They were very crafty and artistic and were led by OPEN DOORS Advisor Lauren Blankstein. Everyone was working together; and that was very enjoyable. To create the mural they used a little bit of paint and different colors of tissue paper. They did an excellent job. We were there for two to three hours; all of them enjoyable.
Paolo's mural for Fall for the Arts
"They were able to make the painting look exactly like the picture I made."- Var
For Photoville's opening day we took the bus. It was misty and rainy, but there was still a great turnout. Not every member was able to attend, but everyone's presence was felt because of the power of the exhibit. Initially, we were pretty skeptical. We weren't expecting a lot of people to come check out our container. But once we got in there we'd see a few people come in. Then another, then more came, coming in and out. People would come up to us and tell us how seeing our work had impacted them and made them feel. There were even people snapping photos of us from the top of the stairs. The whole experience had us feeling like superstars. The folks at Photoville made our experience even better. They provided us with shelter from the rain and food. The food was marvelous, especially the cheeseburger and french fries. We've had many cheeseburgers, but nothing like that. That shit hit different.
"I liked being able to impress people with the art I made. They saw that I don't have a lot of control of my arms and they'd question me about how I made the art. I enjoyed telling my story." - Var
The second time we went to Photoville we used Access-A-Ride to get there. It was a lot sunnier and there was an even greater turnout than opening day. The first day had us feeling like superstars, but this day was even bigger. Our exhibit was filled to the brim with people. In fact so many people were checking it out that we didn't even have room for our chairs to be inside of the shipping container! We even got to see some of the people that we saw on the first day come back and ask to take pictures with us. An exciting experience all around.
We took the ferry the rest of the days we went to Photoville. Each day was as fun and as inspiring as the last. BIG shout out to photographer Elias Williams for doing such an excellent job. The way Elias presented and designed the exhibit, it was more than we could have ever dreamed of! On each side of the walls were the portraits he took of us, Var's artwork right next to them, our written stories and poems, and audio recordings of us and our music. In the back was our banner and a TV showing some of Jay's video work. Because of Elias, the Photoville team, and everyone that came out, everyday was a success. Thank you all for showing the love!
Left to Right, Vince, Tito, Elias, Jay