Legacy & Social Justice Educator: Nevada Montgomery

“I ask you. What will your legacy be?

Will it be the fact that you helped somebody along the way, during the time while you were here on earth?

What will your legacy be?

Will it be similar to the legacies left to our generation by people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Ida B. Wells, Mary Bethune and so many others who made of their lives a bridge for us to cross over on and whose lives were an inspiration for us of today to make of our lives bridges for future generations to cross over on?

What will your legacy be?”

——-excerpt from “What Will Your Legacy Be?” by Dr. Margaret Burroughs

If you read my previous post,“True Names: Reflecting on Lost Lives,” you know some of the sorrows of my heart. The content of today’s post is intended as a bit of medicine in response. I hope you find it so, anyway!

In the Fall of 2015 I had the honor of working with teenagers on the poetry segment of the Legacy After School Program 2015 at the DuSable Museum in Chicago, Illinois. The Legacy After School Program 2015 combined lessons in history, visual art, and poetry, with dialogue; to look closely at violence in our communities, and the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement; while also celebrating the past and present work of those determined to build a more just and loving world.

Recently, I had coffee with Nevada Montgomery, who designed and facilitated the program. I wanted to feature Nevada, here, at folklore & literacy, because her passion and dedication to helping young people feel loved and valued is palpable. She cultivates their confidence and sense of empowerment while bringing them into the fold of creating positive legacy.

Actress, Educator, Poet Nevada Montgomery (photo by Leslie Reese)
Actress, Educator, Poet
Nevada Montgomery
(photo by Leslie Reese)

Nevada, why was it important for you to develop and facilitate a program for teenagers that examined closely the themes of social justice and law enforcement in the black community?
I really wanted to create a program to honor Dr. Margaret Burroughs (1915- 2010). She was a visual artist, a poet, an educator, an activist, and founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Thinking about her poem “What Will Your Legacy Be?” and who she was, I knew there was going to be a visual art piece, and an activism piece. Years ago I used to perform Dr. Burrough’s poem, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” Her poetry was my introduction to her legacy.

I believe it is essential that we explore the truth of our history, experience, and cultural contributions in order to move through the world with confidence. And I wanted the young people to know that they come not just from a history of enslavement and oppression – but a history of resistance and activism as well. I wanted them to see what strategies have been employed; what worked and what did not work.

I designed the program with the guidance of Pemon Rami. The Terra Foundation, one of the program’s funders, provided a tremendous amount of guidance as well. Jack & Jill of America Foundation was another of the program’s funders. We got educators, local activists, scholars, and artists to facilitate the learning and discussion; and helping students produce their own statements, poetry, and art work.

One of the most important pieces of the project was when the young people had a chance to work with modern day activist, Jedidiah Brown. He talked with them about their citizenship rights, and explained how to stay within one’s rights when encountering law enforcement. The young people really responded to being given practical knowledge and tools. There’s a lot of empowerment and confidence that comes from having that, and learning strategies for activism.

When students shared their own experiences, what surprised and concerned you the most about what they had to say?
What took me most off guard was learning that so many of the students had already had negative experiences with law enforcement: being in the car when a parent was pulled over for unspecified reasons; being punched in the chest or held to the ground….Some students talked about positive experiences they’d had with law enforcement….but the negative experiences were traumatic for them. If there is one thing I wish I’d been able to do differently, I would have had a professional counselor on hand when the students were sharing their experiences.

Kids should be able to be kids…..not running around in fear.

Students had an opportunity to create artist statements, poetry, and sculptural works. How important do you think it is for young people to be able to express themselves using the arts?
The arts are incredibly valuable.
One of the markers of a civilization is whether or not any art is produced.  Art says: we are critical thinkers. It says: we are dreaming. It says: we are envisioning. Art is a unifier. It requires and inspires empathy, and it says:  we are not alone.

While not all of the teens had previous experience with poetry and sculpture, they were all determined to give it a worthy effort. Ultimately, they found that poetry and art were powerful tools in expressing their experiences and opinions.

In your opinion, what outcomes were the most rewarding for the students?

I think the students gained a lot in terms of getting an historical perspective; and learning practical tools and strategies for activism from Jedidiah was real impactful.

I was also happy to see students beginning to look up to activists of the past, and following-up with their own research on people like W. E. B. Dubois.

Nevada, do you have a favorite book, author, or quote?
My favorite book is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Autobiogra_0Words I live by are “I am an artist, and everything I need is within me.” I don’t know who said it.

And finally, is there an idea that you dislike, or a paradigm you would like to see change?
I would like to see us change the belief that African Americans are more violent toward each other than other groups. That’s simply not the truth.

Thank you, Nevada! for your work, and for talking about it with me for my blog!

Formerly an Education and Outreach Coordinator with the DuSable Museum of African American History, Nevada Montgomery left the museum at the start of 2016 to pursue her artistic and entrepreneurial interests.

To look at the poetry and sculptures produced by students in the Legacy After School Program 2015 click here.

Read about Jedidiah Brown and the Young Leaders Alliance by clicking here.

Learn more about the philosophy of community policing by clicking here.
February 1, 2017 I am amending this post with an additional link to a review of the book Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis led to Black Lives Matter (edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton. Read the review by clicking here.

Learn more about Dr. Margaret Burroughs by clicking here, and here!

10 Comments

    1. Greetings, Anna! Yes, in these difficult times we need to know stories of people who work on the healing side of things. Thank you for visiting folklore & literacy, and sharing your thoughts😊.

  1. I’m sorry to hear about your sorrows, Leslie, I hope you’ll find many more amazing people and initiatives to help you heal. Thanks so much for posting your talk with Nevada Montgomery, what an amazing person and her work is so necessary.

    1. Thank you, Bina. Yes! I am keeping my ears and eyes open for the good news of “amazing people and initiatives” doing the important work of healing the places where our world is hurting.

  2. Leslie…you get around.
    And it shows!

    I am blessed to be part of the changes I would very much like to see in the world. Reaching out to those less fortunate, forgotten, challenged, depressed, shell shocked, and not yet met…is my mission, purpose, passion, and the best peace of my spirit.

  3. What an inspiring woman and program. Teaching our youth about systemic oppression and giving them a wider and historical perspective for it will make them better activists in the future. This is incredibly important work. There should be more programs like this all over the country!

    1. Thank you Naz – I hope to encounter more educators like Nevada, more programs like Legacy After School; and when I do I’ll be sure to pass the word along.

  4. Being from Chicago, I appreciate the write-up and connection about Margaret Burroughs. This is a refreshing post about how we can all advocate for social justice, given the current climate.

    1. Hi Katherin! It was powerful for me to see this young woman – Nevada Montgomery – carrying-on in honor of Margaret Burroughs’ legacy; and I think it gave the students a sense of their own place in the continuum. When you were in Chicago, how was your life impacted by the work of Margaret Burroughs?

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