By Jeremiah Sataraka, '09
Jeremiah Sataraka, '09, with Deborah Bial, president and founder of The Posse Foundation
City Psalm by Denise Levertov
The killings continue, each second
pain and misfortune extend themselves
in the genetic chain, injustice is done knowingly, and the air
bears the dust of decayed hopes,
yet breathing those fumes,
walking the thronged
pavements among crippled lives, jackhammers
raging, a parking lot painfully agleam
in the May sun, I have seen
not behind but within, within the
dull grief, blown grit, hideous
concrete facades, another grief, a gleam
as of dew, an abode of mercy,
have heard not behind but within noise a humming that drifted into a quiet smile.
Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise;
not that horror was not, not that the killings did
not continue, not that I thought there was to be no more despair,
but that as if transparent all disclosed
an otherness that was blessed, that was bliss.
I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.
What words would you use to describe the city or urban neighborhoods? I would imagine that for many people, the word paradise would not be included on this list. If there is any lesson that I have learned since earning my bachelor's degree in sociology from Whitworth, it is this: The way we see our cities needs to change. My definition of "seeing" includes more than just what our eyes can see, but involves a fundamental shift in the way we think about urban communities. For too long, people have defined success for those living in urban communities in terms of "getting the heck out of here!" Tim Herron, director and founder of Act Six, once told a story of an important conversation he had with a young person in his Tacoma neighborhood. He realized that this young person's idea of success was defined by how soon he could leave the city.
I have come to recognize that many people define and see cities as, frankly, ugly places. As a teenager from the south end of Tacoma, I also bought into the idea that urban communities were only places where people "do service." They were places people went to for work, and not places to seek, create and sustain community. I had seen my fair share of drive-by shootings and people selling drugs. It was not hard to imagine that success meant leaving a place like that. But I began to recognize that the way I view the city greatly impacts the way I engage it. What the world needs is not another success story of somebody who made it out of the hood and into the suburbs, but a success story of how somebody came back to the hood and changed things for the better.
Act Six was created, in part, to address this definition of success. It is a nonprofit organization that partners with colleges and universities to provide full-tuition, full-need leadership scholarships for urban and community leaders who want to use their education to make a difference on the college campus and in their home communities. Their first college partner was Whitworth, which took a chance on an idea that investing in a diverse group of student leaders, representative of the cities they come from, would serve as a catalyst for change in cities all over the United States, but also as a catalyst for change on college campuses. Since the first cadre of scholars at Whitworth, Act Six has produced the school's first gospel choir, two student body presidents, resident assistants, cultural diversity advocates, small-group coordinators, international club presidents, Black Student Union presidents, Sociology Club presidents, the Whitworth Choir and the Whitworth Women's Choir, winning debate team members, and Whitworthian journalists and have filled numerous other formal leadership positions. We have seen the creation of the Intercultural Student Center and have welcomed Dr. Lawrence Burnley, assistant vice president for diversity and intercultural relations, to the Whitworth community. We have also seen an Act Six alumnus turned Whitworth staff member -- me!
Because I'm an alumnus of both Act Six and Whitworth, Tacoma and Whitworth have a very special place in my heart. In City Psalm, Levertov talks about seeing not behind the chaos, but within it. She describes all of the pain and ugliness that surrounds her, but is still able to see "Paradise in the dust of the street." This poem continues to challenge and inspire the way I see communities. Imagine how much different the world would be if we were able to see our cities, our urban communities, or for that matter any community, with the "Levertov lens." Imagine if we were to see communities normally thought to be unfortunate and pronounced them blessed, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. I think it is time to take our imaginations to another level and see them come to life. Will you join me?
Jeremiah Sataraka is the resident director of Baldwin-Jenkins Hall at Whitworth.