The following is an excerpt from an interview between Saskia Kercy and Cherrelle Swain, director of Community Engagement and Strategic Growth at CityBridge Education and chairwoman of the Board of Directors for GOODProjects.
Saskia: How did you get involved with GOODProjects?
Cherrelle: I’ve been involved with GoodProjects for a couple years now. I’m on their Board of Directors. I was introduced to them through Katherine Bradley, who’s the founder of CityBridge and my mentor. And so she’s a supporter of them, and I was introduced through her. I guess I met them at their first gala, and that was like a couple years ago. And so since then, I’ve become friends with Darius, who’s one of the founders, and he asked me to join their board and I’ve been on for a couple years. Now, I’m actually the chairperson of the board. So I’ve been pretty heavily involved with them. So maybe like a week before the tour, Darius had asked me to do an interview with him about racism. So we went to the MLK monument and we had the conversation and pretty much, he had asked me what my experiences with racism had been. And it was really interesting because as I was exploring that question, the list just kept getting longer and longer, and I just kept thinking of examples. And for me, I guess I first started having those types of examples at like six and seven years old being from Minnesota and being from a predominantly white area. After the interview, Darius started telling me about the tour! I told him I was interested in going, I would love to go. I was just waiting for all of the details to come together and to get approved by the board. And because of the climate, I wanted to get all of the details in general. Literally less than 24 hours before we were supposed to leave, I still hadn’t received information so I assumed it wasn’t happening.
Saskia: Right! Plus there’s a pandemic so I can only imagine your frustration.
Cherrelle: Exactly! And so, then I received an email for a group call for everyone going on the tour and pretty much there was a really detailed schedule that was developed, two buses that had been secured — and they were full on rock star tour buses — and then flights for everyone to go to Ferguson, which is the first city that we started in. So that’s sort of how going on the trip developed. And that was the beginning of the 21-day tour starting on Juneteenth and ending on the Fourth of July.
Saskia: What I really love about this tour is how intentional y’all were with these dates and the places you chose to visit. You started on Juneteenth which, first of all, is like a pivotal first day to start a tour in this capacity. And then you also started in Ferguson which I don’t want to say is the heart of BLM, but it was definitely one of the pivotal moments that brought attention to Black lives mattering. And so, what was that like for you being part of this? Did you, yourself, go through a lot of reflection? Was it heavy? Was it easier than you thought? How did you perceive it?
Cherrelle: Yea, so in every city we went to, we were honoring a life lost to systemic racism or police brutality and also met with leaders on the ground — some Black Lives Matter leaders and some leaders leading other racial equity causes on the ground in their respective cities. And so honoring the lives lost was really emotional for me. The experiences, the people, the names that we say and are writing down and unpacking often feels really distant, you know, and that’s why people say “Say their name.” So going to the jail where Sandra Bland was found hung was the first really overwhelming experience for me, personally. And just the energy there was eerie, and it felt like a place where someone could get away with anything. It was off of a beaten road like 45 minutes outside of Dallas. And it was just really emotional. I remember going there and I could not stop crying. I was weeping! Because Sandra Bland gets pulled over by a police officer for not signaling, not expecting to have to have to go to jail. I was just thinking of her family and how afraid they must have been pulling up to that jail. We all just had to take a moment because we really could not gather ourselves in this place. It just had this really, really strange energy there, and you just know that they killed her. You just know. You could feel it. And everyone could feel it. And so, I’m leading us in a prayer, whatever’s coming to me in the moment, and I’m closing my eyes just sitting there in prayer knowing that police officers are watching us in this place. And right after we finished that prayer, we got the heck out of there. Just being in Texas was terrifying, in general.
Cherrelle: Another moment that just sticks out was when we were in Cleveland honoring the life of Tamir Rice. And we were on the playground where the police officer killed him for having a toy gun. And the memorial there was just inadequate, which was really ironic because in that same playground, two officers that were killed have really beautiful memorials in the same park where Tamir Rice was killed. And he doesn’t even have an appropriate memorial. When we were there, we were talking to his grandpa and were watching a little five-year-old boy playing on the same playground, and it was heart-wrenching. And so in every city, we were having a lot of moments like that, and it was really emotional and personal. And I think that we should do this more often. Of course we went to the George Floyd memorial and being from Minneapolis and knowing that this was a main street and now it’s not… Now it’s literally a memorial site. [Pause] Sorry, I didn’t realize I would get so emotional.
Saskia: No, I mean this is a lot for me to even listen to. I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling right now. To go home and see that… This stuff happens in our own backyards. It’s personal. And so I thank you for coming into this space so candidly, so thoughtfully, and I really appreciate you sharing this. It’s definitely something more people should experience if they have the capacity, if they’re healthy enough, physically, emotionally. And we have to underscore that this is happening in the midst of a pandemic, and you’re doing all of this in the middle of a public health crisis which is even more profound. So take the time you need.
Cherrelle: Thanks, Sas.
Saskia: I’m thinking of a few things right now, but the first question that comes to mind is: what were the intentions and goals of this tour?
Cherrelle: The intention was to transform pain to power and pain to purpose. We wanted to do that by learning from people on the ground — like what are the things they’re already doing in spite of the instances of the people we were honoring and even others who had other encounters with injustice that might not have been as high profile. Just learning about what people on the ground are doing. So we met amazing community leaders from so many backgrounds. And in almost every city, we threw a party every night, and the purpose of that was to really inspire people through connection and love. We understand that most people have been in their homes for the last several months and so we would get a local DJ in each place and have a party so people could feel good and dance. But it was more of a protest party.
Saskia: Taking up space is a protest — that’s something I’ve learned recently. Black joy is our resistance.
Cherrelle: And that was really the goal. And we did that in almost every city, and it was beautiful.
Saskia: I love that, and I think that something we really need right now is joy… I’m interested to know, what did you take away from participating in this tour and what do you want others to take away from your experience?
Cherrelle: I guess my takeaway is that everyone is an activist if you care about these issues. And even if you go to the memorial site of someone and you’re just recalling them, that there’s so much power in that. And it’s so necessary for us to be the living narrators and authors of our own history, although it’s really sad that we’re being murdered and killed. But despite all of these injustices we should remain hopeful. And by lifting our voices and sharing these conversations with one another, we’re able to push the narrative in honor of lives that deserve it. For anyone who feels like they’re not doing enough, just know the smallest action is enough.
Saskia: I love that so much. I am such a fan! I’m also interested to know what GOODProjects is doing moving forward and what y’all are planning for the rest of the year.
Cherrelle: Well, we’re continuing to stay committed to staying in touch and building with grassroots organizers from across the country so we can collectively work on ways to address these issues. I don’t think we’ll have another tour soon, but leading up to the election, we’re looking into how we can keep this momentum going, especially in battleground states. But the most important commitment that we have is to the Greenleaf community in Southwest Washington, DC. And our goal in that community is to help families to achieve generational wealth. It’s a public housing complex in Washington, D.C. that’s been there for decades, and we want to create programs and pathways that create agency among the residents so that they can have the lives they deserve. Oftentimes we need to — as a Black community in particular — make sure that we’re doing our part to help our community members, especially when conditions do not allow for that as easily.
Saskia. Definitely. And on a personal level, is there anything you’re doing or committed to during this time that you wanted to share?
Cherrelle: Well, I live in Trinidad, and there’s a ton of homelessness in my community. There’s a ton of drug addiction… So I just try to be the best neighbor that I can be constantly. And with this pandemic — I mean I know where I live, I’m very aware, but I haven’t been home as much. So now that I’ve been home since March, the things that I’ve seen, Saskia… I just was not as aware. So I’ve been trying to be a good neighbor and recognizing that that means being there for the whole neighborhood, not just homeowners and renters. That means sex workers. That means people who do not have stable housing. That means corner boys. Everyone. That’s my neighborhood. And so I’m trying to be aware and connected to the needs and reality of the people in my neighborhood.
Saskia: You know what I just thought of! I’m going to call this “Cherrelle Swain: The GOOD Neighbor.”
Cherrelle: Thanks, Saskia! You know, recently someone mentioned to someone else that I was a good neighbor, and it made me really happy because that’s my point! People don’t treat homeless people as their neighbors.
Saskia: Absolutely! And we need to deconstruct this stigma of who we choose to honor or who we choose to value. Even calling someone our neighbor is humanizing them a little more. Telling them that they matter.
Cherrelle: I 100% agree.
(Photographer: Forrest Givens | @forrestgievns)