By Maggie Von Vogt
Darryl B’s voice is clear and confident. ‘Today I would like to say that I am an American proud Black Gay man, and those are how I identify myself.” The audio then leads us into Darryl telling how his mother’s activism formed him into the person that he is today. Next, he tells the story of being unwarrantedly banned from a club in Greensboro and subsequently harassed, physically attacked, and arrested by police officers. “I wonder if my skin color were different, how would that situation have gone?” he reflects .
Daryl’s story is marked with a pinpoint on a map of Greensboro that indicates where this happened to him. There are several other pinpoints close to it. Next to this map with the pinpoints lies another map of Greensboro that illustrates the racial distribution of unemployment in Greensboro.
This is the Maps of Healing website, a platform where you can locate and listen carefully to the voices of citizens who have experienced police brutality and systemic racism, as well as further resilience and social transformation.
How it all began
Maps of Healing was born out of the Police Accountability, Community Safety and Healing Initiative (PASCHI) facilitated in Greensboro's Beloved Community Center. It has united community members concerned about police brutality and abuse becoming regular police practices and seeking to develop independent police accountability processes.
The creators describe Maps of Healing as, "A long-term oral history and multimedia project documenting the stories of individuals who have experienced Police Brutalization, and aspects of the rippling effects police violence has on these individuals and their communities. The project also explores how these individuals and their communities are evolving stories of oppression into stories of resilience, transformation and healing. "
Paula Damasceno is the coordinator of the project. She participated in the police accountability process in Beloved since 2014, seeking to provide equal and just oversight to the Greensboro Police Department. "We are concerned about the stories being told by mainstream media and even media which is generally concerned about the problem of police brutality in the city. They were not providing a chance for people to tell stories in their own voices."
Another reason behind starting Maps of Healing was to provide evidence, given the fact that part of the community in Greensboro denies the existence of police brutality. The City Council, for example, is not concerned with police brutality and is not holding police accountable for their actions. "The police are just kind of policing themselves, and that obviously does not work," comments Paula.
"So we needed to organize a platform where people could see it all, and say 'Oh, look at that, and look at that.., and see where it happened.' I guess it's like counter story-telling and counter-mapping... in that sense, that's the basis of intention of the project."
Paula pitched the idea to organizers from the community center, who were receptive to the idea.
In June, Maps of Healing received a mini- grant to jumpstart the project, as part of a collaboration between Maps of Healing, the Forced Trajectory Project (Vanissa Chan), Freedom Summer 2015 (Katina Parker) and Groundswell to document police brutality and movements to end it, with funding from the Oral History Association’s 2015 Emerging Crises Research Fund.
Paula counts the collaborators on her fingers, murmuring their names. "We have about ten people involved, between people helping to write more grants, people training interns how to edit audio, interns are trained in audio editing and oral history, a lawyer who participates and advises the project, all acting under the umbrella of the Beloved Community Center and supported by Groundswell.”
“The collaborators are few but dedicated and passionate,” she adds, “Such as Alekcs Babic, who is a Social Work Professor at Elon University and is training interns in transcription skills and audio editing, interns like James Page and Alexis Lucas, both UNCG students. Graham Holt, a local lawyer, and Dr. Rosemarie Vardell, who teaches education at A&T and is a long-time activist.”
How it works
The process is closely linked to the community organizing done as a part of the Beloved Community Center. People who file complaints against the city or the police department are asked if they want to do an interview with Maps of Healing.
"We sit with them at the community center and interview them, focusing on three main things," says Paula, "First we provide a time for them to describe themselves as a whole human being- where they were raised, how are their lives nowadays, where to they find love and support in their lives nowadays. Then we ask what happened in terms of police brutality. Then, we ask how that person sees individual healing and how they see collective healing, in terms of police brutality, to forge a broader reflection on police brutality and racism."
The project works principally with audio. "Since the project is dealing with people who have been abused by people with power, we decided to work with audio, not image, as a way to try to protect identities," she explains.
Maps of Healing places a special emphasis on broader reflections beyond the experience of police brutality and also in placing the storyteller's humanity at the center of the story-telling process. It is not just a registry of incidents of police brutality in the greater Greensboro area.
"I would like for it to be clear that it's not that you can go to the website and expect to see hundreds of stories there...It's a project that does what we are talking about, but it is very slow because it comes with so many opinions and participations and it’s not a project that we want to be seen as or transformed into an institutionalized project, because it's not... we have to wait long periods to see great progress... The challenge is to accept what you have. To accept what you can do." The site is currently under construction and will be launched soon.
Framing Oral History and Media Tools as Tools for Healing
I asked Paula to talk about the connection Maps of Healing is making between story telling and individual/community healing.
"I think there is a general common sense knowledge about how oral history can provide healing spaces for communities. But I think maybe the story I can tell you about oral history is this: I was born in 1975 when the dictatorship was still running in Brazil and my father and mother were part of the Communist Party at that time. When I was six months old they were arrested and I was taken to my mother's cell to be fed by her, but also as a way to pressure her to give information. And so I was raised in that place that would always have constant reminders about police brutality and abuse. And I didn't know how it affected me until, of course, you grow up and you look back and say, it's nice to know that information, but it may have negatively affected me in terms of fear basically."
Later on as an adult she worked on a short documentary about a missing person in Brazil. In working with his family, she shared her story with them. "By telling my story, I had the process of being healed and talking with other people who were telling me their stories... and this allows us to no longer see this as an individual problem any more...it allows us to see beyond individual, beyond individual responsibility or duty or fear. When I started to share my story with others, that fear started to dissolve and it transformed into resilience."
This experience of transformation is what motivates and feeds the Maps of Healing Project. "We have had the experience of seeing a person transformed in their interview, where the person sits down and has the weight of that story to be told and as the process goes underway, that story that used to be a story of racism becomes a story of transformation in this same period because of the questions we are asking."
"In that sense it's the opposite of what mainstream media does, because media reinforces the abuse. We wanted to acknowledge the abuse but reinforce their own power, reinforce their own lives, reinforce a process in which they can take advantage of the story telling."
But this type of approach is so uncommon that sometimes it takes special efforts to help people unlearn the typical, extractive approach to media making. "Sometimes its challenging to explain to people, even in the community, that we don't want to work with the language of the main media, do not want to make documentaries, or show their faces with close ups of people crying."
Maps of Healing is built on a foundation of trust that human beings are capable of navigating towards truth and transformation when given an opportunity to heal collectively and individually. Humanizing the story-telling process, resisting traditional objectification and victimizing practices of the interviewee, and connecting to deeper- laid community organizing projects help to build a framework for exploration, story telling, and resistance are some of the ways the project does this valuable work. This is not just about healing the harm that has been done by repressive systems and individuals, but also about visioning new ways for story telling to contribute to liberating, more just, and more human relationships.
Paula Damasceno is a multimedia artist, project designer and manager born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and based in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her career transits from the documentary field (where she spent the last 13 years working as director, editor and producer) to photography, fine arts and experimental film. In her independent works and studies, she explores memories, objects and narratives embedded in cultural codes. By the manipulation and alteration of these three elements, she subverts narratives, its significations and creates new codes.
She is currently pursuing a BFA with concentration in Photography and a BA in Media Studies at the University of North Carolina of Greensboro.
Maggie Von Vogt is an independent media maker and educator from Maine and has been based in El Salvador for the past seven years. In El Salvador her work has been focused on participatory video and community media making on environmental issues, community organization, and historical memory.