In 2003, Robert Griffin and his partner, Andrew Currie, were invited by friends to attend a festival in Oakhurst, a neighborhood in Decatur. Although they lived in Midtown, only 6 miles away, they had never visited this area of town. That day changed the trajectory of their lives. Andrew recalls, ”Honestly, I will never forget this. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon with great music. We looked around and there was this incredible feeling of welcomed diversity, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, and everything in between. It felt like we belonged.”
Not long after, Andrew and Robert drove by a house in Oakhurst that caught Andrew’s attention. Robert was resistant. “I was like, no! The property was overgrown, the windows broken, and the porch was terrible. It was just awful.” Andrew insisted it had good bones and structure. They bought the house, and that is where they have resided for the last 14 years.
Although Robert and Andrew have embraced living in Decatur, they have witnessed a shift in the diversity which leaves them concerned. Robert points out, “The changes since we have moved here have been dramatic. We left Midtown because it was becoming gentrified. It has followed us here to Decatur.” Andrew adds, “We are a victim of our own successes. Decatur was smart enough to invest in all the right things. The schools are a magnet, and that is a great thing. As a result, we are bringing a lot of people in, but the mix is getting off. I have grown to love the inclusiveness, the range of people and the attitudes. It can’t be beat. But, I fear that Decatur may lose a bit of its soul if we’re not careful.”
I am honored to have “Singers at Woodruff Park” selected for the exhibition “Where Are We?”. Please join me and my fellow photographers for the opening reception Thursday, May 11, at the APG Gallery, from 6-9 pm. See below for details.
Matthew Damico started working as a patrol officer in Decatur in 2009. He eventually transitioned to his current position as a School Resource Officer (SRO). His past experience working with troubled youth made him the ideal candidate to work with the students in the City Schools of Decatur. “Each one of those communities has a specific need. With the youngest students, I’m present to be a positive role model, create exposure, and help them form as little citizens. Middle school students rarely engage in criminal conduct, but they often have issues where they need support. In the high school, the overwhelming majority of students are fantastic young people, but everyone makes mistakes. One of our goals is to act as a liaison between the police department, the school and the community, to not treat every criminal act simply as the criminal act but to look at it from a holistic approach.”
Officer Damico‘s success and popularity amongst the students is a result of long-term relationship building that occurs over the years. “One needs to take the opportunity to plant the seeds for a positive relationship. You can’t rush it. I take every child’s safety and wellbeing to heart. I prefer my children to make mistakes when they’re young. Nothing can’t be fixed at this stage. I want them to leave our community at 18, ready to be healthy members of society.”
Officer Damico advises his charges to, “Be mindful. Don’t get hung up on long-term distant points. Just focus on being healthy, happy and successful today. If you take care of today, tomorrow’s going to be all right.”
One of the challenges that Officer Damico faces is that police officers are often pre-judged. “Before I get out of the car, people have already decided what my feelings are regarding race, gender, ethnics, politics, and that’s difficult. I really want people to see me as an individual.”
Faiza Haji immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2006. Faiza was born in Kenya of Somalian parents. Faiza has embraced the Somalian tradition of poetry which is embedded in the culture of the people. Both Faiza and her mother are poets. “I’m very passionate about spoken word poetry. I love being able to communicate with different groups of people and move them with my writing.” Faiza has found a supportive and accepting community in Decatur, where she is a student at Decatur High School. “Many teachers have inspired me to do things that I would have never done if I had not met them, like tennis. I actually played for a year. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had. It had been on my bucket list.”
“Since Decatur is a majority liberal community, it’s very accepting. Being a Muslim in these times in America is nerve racking. Everyone has a different view of Muslims, and there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes. I feel that we don’t fit under those stereotypes because Islam preaches peace. I don’t want people to label me based on how I look or my religion. I want people to look past that and see me for a spoken word poet and an artist. It’s very hard to be the community that is always being attacked. Not only am I Muslim but I am also a black woman. It is a lot to carry on my shoulders.”
Faiza’s experience living in America as a minority has inspired her career choice. ”I want to go into civil law because I want to stand up for people who don’t have a voice. That’s what I do with my poetry.”
Happy Easter to those who celebrate this holiday and Happy Spring to those who do not. Today a neighbor of mine hosted his traditional Easter egg hunt for the neighborhood children. While the youngsters searched for hidden eggs the adults sipped on Bloody Marys. Robert always makes a guest appearance as the Easter Bunny at the beginning of the festivities. I snapped this picture just as Robert had finished dressing for the occasion.
Corbin McKinnon’s roots have been firmly planted in Decatur all 28 years of his life. Although he attended the Georgia Academy for the Blind for much of his schooling, he spent his senior year at Decatur High School (DHS). Corbin enthusiastically recalls his time at DHS as being a “wonderful experience” and expressed fond memories of playing flute in the symphonic band.
Music has always been an integral part of Corbin’s life. “I was inspired to learn the bagpipes after I heard them when I was five-years-old. I liked the way they sounded and I fell in love with them. When I was fifteen-years-old, I started studying the bagpipes. They are definitely hard to play. I also play the drums and sing. I read books with Braille but I learn music by ear.”
When Corbin was born, the doctors would have never imagined that Corbin would excel at playing the bagpipes one day. Corbin was born prematurely at 28 weeks. At that time, the doctors were concerned that Corbin was at high risk for developing lung problems. Corbin beat the odds and over time was able to develop the breath control needed to successfully play the bagpipes, flute, and sing.
In the summer of 2016, Corbin moved out of his parent’s house and into L’Arche Atlanta, located in the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur. Corbin lives in community with three other adults with intellectual disabilities and three assistants. “Moving out of my parent’s house was a better fit for me. I like it and everyone is nice. My favorite part about living here is having jam sessions with the assistants. They play guitar, ukulele, and I sing harmony. Music makes me feel good. “
In downtown Decatur, an extraordinary school, called the Global Village Project (GVP), educates refugee girls ages 11-18. It is a private, tuition-free school. Many refugee girls arrive in the United States without a command of the English language and with gaps in their education. At GVP the students are taught in a loving and supportive environment and provided intensive instruction in English, academic subjects, and the arts.
Khaty and Farzana, who are 16 and 14 years old, have been students at GVP for one year. Both girls arrived in Atlanta on October, 2014 from Kabul, Afghanistan with their mother, Khadija. They came to the United States on a special immigrant visa because their lives were in danger.
The girls have thrived at GVP. Farzana likes it because, ”The teachers treat you with love and respect. They open their hearts to people and they care. They want you to experience life and the world. Everyone is like a family and we are like sisters.” Khaty has developed self-confidence and discovered the joy of reading. “Before I came to GVP I hated reading because I couldn’t speak and I could not read any words. Now I am really in love with reading books.”
Khaty describes being in the United States as being “in heaven.” “In my country (Afghanistan) some girls cannot go to school. They have to marry when they are 13 or older. Here, girls have freedom.”
When asked about her dreams for the future, Khadija has two wishes. First, that her daughters finish their secondary education and go to college. Second, “that we are at peace in the U.S., and as refugees, that we are accepted. We are Muslim so it is hard for us. We never hurt people. I want people to know that we are hard-working and try our best to prove ourselves. We can be successful and make America bright.”