Photo by Fana Babadayo
How do I infuse happiness – wreak happiness? – into my community engagement work? How do I execute rigorous planning? When do I push? When do I let the music move me around?
“Guided by the question, What will I live for…?, and energized by the mantra, change for the better faster, I propose a framework of programs (workshops, community service, and internships) that will teach urban male youth (middle school to high school) to tap their creativity, imagination and inspiration as indispensable tools for constructive problem-solving, personal and social change.”
That was how I started a proposal to seek support for Inspiration House, my platform for honing ‘tools for change artists.’ IHouse is also my conceptual prism for service to young folks and for my collaborations with other social justice creatives.
This is not fantasy curriculum. In my early 20s, I personally experienced it, helped craft it, and serviced it as part of a cohort of dedicated teachers and counselors who worked at the Park Heights Street Academy in Baltimore.
Our educational team worked in the spirit of something I read in poet Cecilia Woloch’s April Newsletter 2022: “Now more than ever, we all need to do whatever we can do to resist every kind of tyranny, and to stay grounded in those practices that keep the light and the creative energy moving within us and between us –that seems to me also a kind of resistance.”
Darryl Kennon was one of those dedicated counselors, back in 1978-79. We were all idealists, but Darryl revved up his service beyond rigorous counseling. If a student was tripping or absent, Darryl not only picked up the phone, he also walked neighborhood sidewalks as part of a dynamic and sincere willingness to step beyond the classroom and into the community.
Darryl also wrote a school song – adapted from GOIN UP YONDER! – that had us lifting our voices and drinking the sweet Kool Ade of mutual affirmation and immersion into the lives of our smart students, who nonetheless stayed wary of even a whiff of the missionary.
If anybody asks me / where I’m going / where I’m going … to school
I’m going to the Park Heights! I’m going to the Park Heights!
I’m going to the Park Heights … Street Academy …
I still love singing that song! Brother Kennon died on January 25, 2009. I never met his mother, Hazel Rodriguez, nor his sister, Karen Clifford (Gregory), but I did attend his standing room only public Memorial Service in Baltimore with my brother from another mother Melvin E. Brown.
So how exhilarating and surprising it was for me to receive a voicemail in 2020 from one of our former students that affirmed Darryl’s influence. Check out this edited transcript of Kevin G’s August 2020 voicemail:
“Greetings Mr. Harris. …I was your student back in the late 70s…. You were a teacher at the Park Heights Street Academy. Darryl Kennon and yourself used to play me … and the rest of the youth in the neighborhood in basketball …! You taught us how write…. I got your number from brother Mark McDaniels. We spoke to each other at the Home Depot. I always want you to know that you was really good for morale. When you left, morale went down, but Darryl Kennon and rest of the crew was able to rekindle the motivation, the spirit, and we made it! I wanted to reach out to you sir and say thank you for your mentorship. Thank you for your contribution that you gave us at the Street Academy. God bless and all the best Mr. Harris. Peace.”
Ironically, I reconnected in 2014 with Brother Mark, who wrote a blurb for my book of happiness essays: “You helped to shape my life. Brothers like you give meaning to ‘Man up!’ Because of brothers like you, I can give back what a young brother from D.C. gave me: Inspiration!”
I share these humbling quotes as resonating affirmations, not to show off how cool Darryl and I used to be. To me, Mark and Kevin were sharing genuine praise songs that affirm humanity, common ground, and a pledge to pass it on – in an Each One, Teach One educational framework that positioned us all as virtuosos who each could teach one another. Yes, no question, Darryl and I had more academic expertise and life experience, but we saw Mark, Kevin, and our other students as younger colleagues; we didn’t position ourselves as unassailable masters and the students as blank apprentices with nothing to bring to the table.
I’ll end with this CODA, an echo from my days as Associate Dean of The Claremont Colleges’ Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA).
Black History Month 2022 was uplifted by an unsolicited email from Dr. Thompkins, who graduated from Scripps College:
“Hello Peter, Hope this message finds you well! … You may not remember me, but I was a student at Scripps College in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You were one of the Deans of OBSA at the time. I used a motorized wheelchair for mobility. I have been looking for a way to contact you for a few years. I wanted to thank you for all of the time you spent teaching me how to write effectively and clearly.
During my first few years at Scripps, you helped me edit my papers for school. You patiently and skillfully taught me the art and science of writing. Over time, I learned and internalized everything that you taught me and became a clear writer.
Since graduating from Scripps, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, worked for an international company where I published academic papers on a host of topics in economics, started a blog and currently write for various magazines and newspapers. At each stage in my life, whether submitting a chapter of my dissertation to my advisor for approval or posting a new entry on my blog, I have heard a common sentence:
“Allison, you write so WELL!”
While thanking the person for the compliment, I always think of you and send you a mental message of gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your willingness to help me become a wonderful writer! I so appreciate all of the time and energy you poured into me!
…Have a wonderful day!”
Oh yes, I will continue wreaking happiness – for the rest of my residency on Earth!
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… From now on, I’m making happiness the key enzyme, the untapped catalyst, the missing ingredient, to all of my individual, organizational and community social justice work targeted at (choose one): THE BLACK MAN, MEN AND BOYS OF COLOR, AT-RISK YOUTH. With all due respect to religion, to the greatness of the STRUGGLE, with much respect to valuable social service of every kind, getting beyond our pursuit of happiness to actually claiming happiness is thenecessary 21st Century mission to refuel ourselves, to tap the cultural creativity bequeathed to us by the African American Odyssey, and to tap our own unique personal endowments. Then we can work this wave of digital media, evolving family configurations, and demographic shifts. We can multi-task to get past survival into thriving. We can bundle effective strategies into a supple suite of approaches to living that gets into our emotional crevices and sweeps away the residue of the gross oppression that once served to fire our notions of resistance and mutual salvation .…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/