[Please note that this interview had been published in the January 2011 issue of the Triangle Free Press with some misprints. The correct, original version is published here.]
Interview by Lamont Lilly
Could you start by telling me a little about El Kilombo? What does Kilombo mean? And what exactly is the center’s purpose?
El Kilombo Intergalactico is an organization in North Central Durham that brings together communities of color, migrants, students, and workers of various backgrounds to identify and cultivate alternatives to the core sources of marginalization in Durham. Through community programming, we work to meet the immediate needs of our neighborhood, while simultaneously providing tools to strengthen a self-determining, self-sustaining community—developing a living model for resident-controlled non-gentrified urban life.
Kilombo is a Bantu word borrowed by the Portuguese to describe escaped slave communities in what is today Brazil. These communities included runaway slaves, native or indigenous Americans, Jews and others. They proliferated throughout the Americas, and have many different names. But Kilombos weren’t simply communities of escaped slaves fighting against slavery; they were groups of people who were struggling to build another life. We chose this name for our organization, because we thought it emphasized the community-creating aim of our work.
I see. Well, what activities and services does El Kilombo provide?
Our organization is run through a community assembly where our members indicate their needs and plan the future of our collective work. Through this process, Kilombo has established ESL classes, a child enrichment program, computer literacy classes, after school tutoring, community dinners, a speaker series, health screenings, as well as an annual neighborhood festival. In addition, our members have deemed it necessary for us to establish a small worker’s cooperative, an affordable housing commission, and a now vibrant community garden. To answer your question then, El Kilombo is a place where our community comes together to provide itself with thousands of hours of free instruction and services without any paid staff.
I’ve recently caught a brief street-buzz on El Kilombo’s park controversy? Where is Old North Durham and why such fuss over a local park?
Old North Durham Park actually sits in north-central Durham, off Foster and Geer St, housing one of the city’s few full-sized athletic fields and the only full-sized field in downtown Durham. This park in particular has been a vibrant recreation site for the surrounding primarily low-income African-American and Latino community for years. Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) had created a plan and raised funds through the sale of city bonds to upgrade the athletic field there. However, when Central Park School for Children (CPSC), a charter school whose board is composed of some of Durham’s biggest developers, purchased a building bordering the park and opened the school there, they initiated a plan to privatize the park for the school’s use. The city basically put its plans to improve the park on hold. In 2007, CPSC tried to lease the park from the city, but the city halted this plan when neighborhood residents turned out at a city council meeting to protest such privatization. The terms of CPSC’s proposed lease are truly telling of their desires. It would have granted the park to the school at a rate of $10/year and would have given the school complete control over who stepped onto park grounds. In other words, it would have completely eliminated this park as a neighborhood resource.
Having failed in their effort to privatize the park through a lease, CPSC developed a new plan. They created an organization called the “Friends of Old North Durham Park” (FONDP) who privately developed park renovation plans and offered to pay for the renovations using private funds. Their new plan hinges on the reduction of the soccer field to a small “practice field” explicitly unable to accommodate league play or multiple simultaneous youth games. It seems apparent to us and others in the community that CPSC’s proposed project fits into a downtown development plan that will ultimately displace Black and Latino communities from the neighborhood.
Their plan also puts their desires ahead of the Durham community at-large. According to national averages, Durham lacks nearly 40 full-sized athletic fields. Many of the city’s thousands of soccer players have to travel great distances for league play. Eliminating one of the only athletic fields in the city center only exacerbates this problem.
We at El Kilombo, believe the City should use a portion of the $700,000 that it earmarked for park improvement, to upgrade Old North Durham Park—serving the needs of the neighborhood and city, rather than those of real estate speculators.
You spoke lightly on the fact that Central Park School for Children and its Friends of Old North Durham look to privatize the park. What exactly do you mean by that? How does one privatize a public park?
Using private resources to impose the modification of a public space to suit particular interests is privatization because it modifies public land for private use. It orients the time and energy of our publicly paid officials toward private gain. Perhaps even more importantly, it sets the dangerous precedent, across the entire city, that only those who can mobilize vast sums of money have voice in the future of our city’s public spaces. In other words, if you can’t mobilize hundreds of thousands of dollars, you can’t enter a “Public-Private Partnership” with the city and therefore, can no longer expect that the city will work for you. These kinds of arrangements change the people that the city serves from all citizens to only “stakeholders” who are defined by their financial standings. This effectively disenfranchises lower income residents (most of our neighbors) and makes government the conduit of private wealth, rather than fair administrator.
It is exactly this distortion that has allowed the displacement of low-income Black and Latino residents from the city’s center its public resources. It is exactly this distortion that has allowed the replacement of residents who currently reside here with middle class businesses and leisure spaces—a stand-in for the common good of all. Gentrification in the guise of “revitalization” is not new in our neighborhood. This park is one of the few remaining downtown public spaces primarily used by Black, Latino and poor residents. Its conversion into a space designed by and for others will no doubt further marginalize this community.
What has been the position of the city regarding the park’s development? Have you received much assistance from the Mayor, City Manager, or Durham City Council? And what does the office of Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) have to say about this?
Durham Parks and Recreation’s flip-flopping position on the park has been quite disconcerting to us. It is indicative of the undue influence of CPSC and their financial interests. In multiple city documents over the past several years, including DPR’s own master plan, the need for more full-sized athletic fields is repeatedly emphasized. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to improve three city fields, including OND Park. The city council even passed an official resolution in 2005 to upgrade the field, with implementation set to begin in 2006. Additionally, in internal emails DPR directors indicated specifically that they found CPSC’s plan unacceptable and counter to the city’s needs. However, city documents reveal that between 2003 and 2007, CPCS consistently pressed the city to abandon its commitment to upgrading the field. This pressure eventually caused DPR to alter its position. Though neighborhood residents halted the school’s plan to lease the park in 2007, city documents have shown that the school’s board has worked with DPR through a series of private meetings to get the city to adopt its “Master Plan” for the park without any public participation.
A strong showing by concerned residents at the City Council’s work session in October induced the council to reject the plan until a more public process has been implemented. DPR’s response has been to mandate that FONDP include El Kilombo in its meetings. However, we understand quite clearly that including our organization in private meetings does not make the process public. This isn’t about El Kilombo. This is about assuring public process and participation. FONDP’s attempt to include us is simply an attempt to neutralize opposition, not to create a space for public deliberation.
While attempting to cover other stories and local personalities, your center’s perspectives haven’t always been placed in such high esteem. Why do you think there’s such misconception of El Kilombo’s work—of the effort El Kilombo exudes in trying to better the lives of the marginalized in Old North Durham?
Well, it seems to us that after the defeat of the social movements of the late 1960s and early 70s community organizations all across the U.S. were strongly encouraged to limit their work to “assistance” of the less well off. That is, these organizations have been channeled into providing services that will help mitigate the effects of marginalization. Yet, this emphasis on assistance has some rather dangerous effects for the communities these organizations claim to serve. Firstly, this focus on mitigating effects tends to naturalize inequality, such that today it has become a taboo—a bit of a scandal to speak about the causes of marginalization. However, there are no “marginal” communities per se, only processes of marginalization that must be ended in order for our communities to flourish. When one loses sight of this fact, the next logical step is to replace inequality as the problem with our communities as the problem. Take for example, the radically consistent way in which youth who live in the immediate vicinity of the park are characterized as “delinquents” and potential criminals. Well, we who live and work in this community have refused to accept this narrative about our kids—about our neighborhood. They are not “problems” even if they may have problems..This has meant taking a serious look at those problems and finding that at their center has been the persistent denial of certain resources to these communities—the persistent incapacity to see these children and these communities as potential. After years of research, it is clear to us that this process of marginalization centers around gentrification, in which our communities are deemed “dead” and in need of “revitalization.” Pointing this out places a lot of people in uncomfortable positions—certainly large real estate speculators who consciously live off of this process, but also many people who do not consciously mean others any harm. It is not easy to hear this; it is easier to ignore or lash out at us or others who have pointed this out and to continue playing the role of sleeping beauty,than to live up to the responsibility we all have of creating viable communities along with all of our neighbors. We still believe that this is in fact what most of our neighbors and Durham residents want. ■