Festival Listens To Dixwell

Not far from the asphalt running track outside Wexler-Grant School in Dixwell, the New Haven Museum’s Amy Durbin and Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky were helping build sound sandwiches from jumbo Popsicle sticks and rubber bands, directing those who had finished to an oral history project just yards away on the lawn, where Baobab Tree Studios had set up shop for the day.

A path outlined in blue and white sidewalk chalk directed attendees onward. Past a line of eclectic vendors and up three stone steps, New Haveners found themselves in the lot that straddles the school and the Dixwell Congregational Church of Christ, packed with throngs of families, teenagers, and gaggles of friends out to enjoy an afternoon together. At one end of the lot, a small crowd had already gathered in front of a stage, where a lineup of local talent was promised in the latter half of the afternoon.

Lucy Gellman Photo Across the sun-soaked floor of Wexler Grant’s gymnasium, Mayor Toni Harp was trying her hand at some mid-afternoon basketball, cheered on by a small group of high schoolers who had noticed her moving toward the center of the court. New Haven Academy student Kenny Villot handed her a red-and-black swirled ball. She accepted it like an offering, took a deep breath, and threw with both hands. Villot clapped, throwing his head back as the ball bounced off the rim of the basket.

Welcome to the third annual Celebrate Our Dixwell festival, the third and final Arts & Ideas neighborhood pop-up after festivals in Fair Haven and The Hill. Held Saturday afternoon around the Dixwell Q House and Stetson Branch Library, the one-day festival was a collaboration between the Celebrate Dixwell Steering Committee, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and several citywide partners that privileged Dixwell’s myriad voices, paying special attention to those who were worried no one was listening.

The Future Project’s “Teen Takeover” and “Vision Day: 2020” were in full swing, with several New Haven Public School students sharing their passions and short- and long-term visions with Mayor Harp, School Superintendent Garth Harries, NHPS parents, and other teens.

What they had to say was pretty powerful, too. Jonaya Moné-Muse’s confidence-building and anti-bullying platform “Be Your Own Beautiful” combats bullying and anxiety around self-image. It has found a place at two Boys & Girls Clubs of New Haven.

Tenisha Harper, Colasia Claxton, Gina Otto-Moody, and a few others wanted to uncover the “True Beauty of New Haven” — and of themselves — by asking people to share stereotypes about the city, body image, and teenage insecurities, and then discuss them proactively with props like posters and mirrors.

There was a stress on the importance of play and physical activity, present in Casey Torres’  #kidagain station, Ahmed Hardy’s suggestion of anger management through movement, and Kenny Villot’s “Got Game?,” which seeks to build New Haven youths’ confidence through sports.

Valencia Harris, Isiaiah Willson, Kyshai Najae, and Earl Neely discussed police violence, sexual assault, and colorism with fellow students and the occasional parent passing through.

“It felt really great to see so many students working on projects that will not just help themselves, but help others,” said Harp. “I see these students as trying to find ways to get others to understand that the negative stereotypes of New Haven are inaccurate.”

The emphasis on young voices continued outside, where local organizations like the New Haven Free Public Library, Baobab Tree Studios, the New Haven Museum, and New Haven Parks and Recreation had gathered to promote New Haven stories through music-making, jewelry crafting, and New Haven’s new oral history project, which will be collecting stories on the New Haven Green throughout the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

“We’re asking people to talk about the neighborhood, about the city, about their lives here, the people here, and how things have changed,” said Kevin Ewing, founder of The Grove, Pastor at Amistad United Church of Christ, and a board member for the A&I Festival. “The idea is to collect a bunch of stories and have them accessible to the community so they can be used for research, they can be used for art projects, for whatever…. It’s a great time to start collecting stories and see what people want to talk about.” 

Urged on by a series of chalky arrows on Wexler-Grant’s running track, attendees trickled from the school’s lawn to the main entertainment of the event, where several students and community members were performing spoken word poetry, freestyle raps, a cappella singing, and dance from the main stage. Some dueted ... 

… others grooved in the audience after performing …

... jumped with joy …

... shared the love …

... and danced the afternoon away as a community. 

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