The Valley of Ashes

Commonweal is affectionately known as the Catholic New Yorker.  It is appropriate that my final blog include a literary reference in the title. Those of you who know me, know that the Great Gatsby is one of the last books I’ve read—and that was in my sophomore year American Lit class from Highschool. AKA I’m not a reader. But Commonweal has left me with an appreciation for literature, or at least an appreciation for the “idea of literature.”

The Valley of Ashes, the industrial wasteland between the bougie area that Gatsby and Nick live in (East/West Egg) and roaring 1920s New York City. This land, this valley is what we from the Ignatian perspective call the margins. The areas left out and ignored. At the end of my internship at Commonweal Magazine I had the opportunity to visit my own version of the Valley of Ashes. I was given the chance to lead a Summer immersion to Newark, New Jersey for incoming Juniors at St. Peter’s Prep, my alma mater. Everyday commuting into New York City I took the train through Newark. I looked out my window and saw a broken city. One set back in an era from long ago, riddled with complications from white flight, the crack epidemic and years of neglect. Newark isn’t far from my home, just a few miles. It’s actually closer to where I grew up than St. Peter’s Prep. Yet it’s an area I had never really explored, spent time in or taken a moment to care about. This immersion experience, although just a week, enabled me to go to the marginalized. The experience I had been yearning for—the one I had worried I was lacking with my placement at Commonweal was now there for me to grasp, to struggle with and to learn from.

We spent the week similarly to how many immersions are run. We were guided by New Community Corporation, an organization in Newark founded to aid the poor in the aftermath of the Long Hot Summer of 1967. In 1967 Newark burned. The racial tensions political oppression and police brutality boiled over into what many remember as riots, but some long term Newark residents will tell you was an uprising. The semantics of this debate is not one I am particularly interested in tackling in this blogpost. What I want to engage with is how this experience of being with those on the margins changed the way I viewed my Jean Donovan Fellowship.

I spent the Summer looking at, writing about, and thinking critically about the intersection of art and social justice. I looked at art that was about the black experience. I saw amazing shows at the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, and galleries all across lower Manhattan. One of my earlier blog posts was about my first week at Commonweal; the week that I saw the Kehinde Wiley show at the Sean Kelly Gallery accompanied by students from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts. In that blog I wrote that “kids were able to look up at these faces, faces of powerful black artists, and see reflections of themselves. I could see that representation as an empowering force, before my very eyes.” I was excited by the the power that art was having in the public sphere. Yet I wasn’t talking to the kids. I was just sitting back and observing, passively thinking about the intersection of art and social justice. In Newark I got to talk to people. I met babies, preschoolers, little kids, big kids and adults. One 8th grader told me about his love for Marvel superhero movies. Another little girl and I played chess with each other. Neither of us knew how to play chess, nor did we care. Over the mutual absurd experience of making rules as we went we began to form a bond of kinship. Kinship that leads towards true solidarity.

My real Jean Donovan Fellowship moment, the one where it all clicked, happened as I attended a preschool science fair in a mixed affordable housing neighbourhood.  I watched little boys and girls, no more than five years old, passionately explain the physics behind simple machines and the chemistry of homemade slime. The looks on their faces, the joy and optimism, gave me hope. I looked up and over my shoulder hung a series of prints. Not posters, but real, limited edition museum quality prints made by none-other than the foremost black American artist Jacob Lawrence. Wondering what the hell those prints were doing in the projects, I asked Fr. Linder, the Prep alumnus who  founded NCC and now lives in one of its facilities for senior citizens. He told me the prints were his, he collects art, and hung them in the school knowing they would do more good there than in his apartment. The power of art is real. Whether those kids understand how cool it is to have original work hanging on the wall or not, there is value in it being there. For me it was a moment of divine intervention that I can’t fully explain with words. And with that lack of words I end my post.

Ciaran Freeman

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