In 2005, we had the great luck to begin listening to the life histories of Northsiders—people who work, live, worship, play and serve in the many neighborhoods that make up Chapel Hill’s historic “Northside.” Listening drew us into relationships that challenged our sense of who we are and what we are obliged to do. Collective awe and commitment soon became working in close collaboration with members of St. Joseph C.M.E. Church, local leaders and coalitions, and the many neighbors and friends who so generously offered their stories, concerns, and wisdom. Their views knit us into a team dedicated to building a vibrant organization from “the ground up,” one as responsive to the untold abundance we found here as to the needs expressed and visions shared.
It is in the midst of struggle that dreams become a reality. It’s in the midst of struggle that dreams take on new meaning and provide new hope for those who are oppressed and struggling.
Our roots are as deep as the past that brought the first freed men and former sharecroppers to live and work in the Northside and as wide as the families that grew here, the businesses that made up a local economy, the schools and churches that nurtured faith in freedom and accomplishment. Listening, we have also learned that the history we are privileged to share is not the past only but the struggle to create a present and future built on its wealth. The Jackson Center takes its motto from Mrs. Marian Cheek Jackson—“without the past, you have no future”—and its inspiration from stories about making history, everyday, in small and large ways, including telling stories that look back in order to look forward. Hence we became The Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History. History, as we understand it, is a dynamic process of change led by values as hard and proud as the stone with which forefathers built the walls that surround the university campus.
What has sustained this community is the cohesiveness of brothers and sisters working together. What has sustained this community has not been brick and mortar. What has sustained this community has been faith.
We are a BIG community. Too often community is defined by who pays property taxes or who is an official member of a group or organization. We are a community without walls, a community of investment in the sustenance and vitality of this corner of our shared world.
Thus some of our work goes towards renewing pathways that cut both ways between the university and the historical home of many of its essential staff. We support service exchange, particularly with “Heavenly Groceries/ Comida Celestial,” St. Joseph’s food ministry that offers open selection of perishable food items to hundreds of area families. We also work with other organizations, including Self-Help and Habitat for Humanity, to strengthen the neighborhood and preserve the community by preserving homes.
But not just in our nation do we still experience injustice, but even in our own community.
We are so glad not to be in this alone. In times when resources are scarce, collectivity can suffer. We see ourselves nonetheless as one among many groups—formal and informal—working to redress regional, national and international injustice right here at home. We welcome and serve in partnership with any number of other organizations that aim to enhance the Northside and affiliated neighborhoods. St. Joseph CME Church, EmPOWERment, Inc., the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Branch of the NC NAACP, UNC NOW, the UNC Campus Y, Justice United, Piedmont Health—these are just some of our colleagues in work and spirit.
I suggest that dreams happen outside of sleeping. Dreams happen as people see a better situation.
Witnessing to history is a creative act. It requires taking in and carrying on the past in ways that respect not only the way things were but the way things are, the way things could be, and the way they should be. We are all about nourishing and cultivating the great legacies of the Northside passed on to us in word, image and example. And so we started “MCJ Productions”—our “label” for in-house production of the foodways collection, Soul in a Bowl, and the all-youth recording of a selection of St. Joseph gospel choirs, This Morning When I Rose. We expand and amplify intergenerational dialogue through oral history-based performances, multi-media installations, audio documentary, spoken word events, and festival celebration. We try, as best we can, to participate with our colleagues and friends in making history daily—in word, image, service, and leadership.
The dream is embodied in every young person in this audience, in every young person who walks one of these halls of ivory, either at the University of North Carolina or at one of these other institutions in the state.
Several local organizations make serving area youth a priority. In an environment in which jobs are few, the achievement gap is wide, and rents are high (often keeping families on the move), supporting local youth is necessary. We try to do our part by involving young men and women in the work of public history through the Jackson Scholars Internship program. As important perhaps is involving UNC students in the often transformative work of listening long and hard to neighbors, and taking active responsibility for what they hear. Opportunities for study and service abroad are growing exponentially. Students are proving leaders in response to global crises. Through the work of the Jackson Center, they are also learning that they don’t need to go far to confront global issues of poverty and displacement, and to engage humbly in a world often very different from their own.
And decisions and policies that we make ought to embrace dreams. Dreams of a better place -and a better time -and a better situation for all of Chapel Hill.
We see strong relationships among a broad range of community stakeholders through listening, listening again, extending that listening through digital public access, and acting on and with histories heard.
We see an increasingly invested sense of belonging in the Northside, in Chapel Hill, and in the state and region, that includes younger and older people living in various forms of shelter and in and amongst raced, classed, ethnic, educational, and religious differences.
We see vital inclusion of Northsiders in town decision-making processes, particularly with regard to neighborhood enhancement and local development.
We see less hunger and more dignity for the increasing number of people experiencing food insecurity.
We see a living dream of reconciliation and equity being acted out everyday in struggle, story, song, and relationships built on the power and possibilities of deep and careful listening.
There’s a struggle going on yet dreams never die.
WITH LOVE AND CARE
We are grateful to be able to include here selections in italics from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Address given at First Baptist Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 19, 2009, by Reverend Troy F. Harrison, Pastor, Israel Metropolitan CME Church and Advisory Board Chair for the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History.