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May 2016

Upcoming Film Captures Life, Music in Brazil

PHOTO: Through all the hurdles, Elisete de Jesus Silva, a Brazilian percussionist better known as Elem, remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing. An upcoming film, “Maestrina de Favela,” chronicles her journey. / Photo courtesy of Dee Dwyer

While few ever get the chance to visit Brazil, many will soon come to know Elisete de Jesus Silva, one of its rising stars and the subject of an upcoming documentary about her life, music, and community work in one of its roughest neighborhoods.

The film, titled “Maestrina de Favela” (Portuguese for “Master of the Slum”), follows the percussionist better known as Elem in the years after her mother’s death as she navigates life in the Pelourinho, a historic district located in the heart of Salvador de Bahia. Despite her band’s rise in prominence, the young musician struggles to stave off misogynists bent on sabotaging her career and engage youth when a community center shutters.  Lack of funds and a recurring brain aneurysm have also stalled her long-term goals.

Through it all, Elem remains committed to her music and band members, many of whom are children she took under her wing, speaking to what Falani Spivey, a close friend and producer of the film, calls the significance of samba reggae in Afro-Brazilian culture.

“Samba reggae is similar to go-go. Heavily driven with rhythms of Africa,” Spivey, a native Washingtonian, told AllEyesOnDC as she drew parallels between art forms created by people of African descent.  “It’s music with a message for the person that instills Black pride. It’s a form of resistance that started when Blacks couldn’t be a part of Carnival.”

During a fundraiser in Adams Morgan earlier this month, dozens of people from around the D.C. metropolitan area caught a glimpse of what to expect from  “Maestrina de Favela” while walking through a photo exhibit and auction that showcased a vast selection of colorful still shots Spivey’s friend Dee Dwyer took of Brazil’s people, foliage, and architecture. That evening, Spivey spoke at length about her affinity for Afro-Brazilian culture and the friendship that’s strengthened her connection to the country.

In the spring of 2007, Spivey and Elem, then 13, crossed paths shortly before the former wrapped up a semester-long study abroad program in Brazil. For nearly a decade, the two talked on the phone; wrote letters, and chatted on social media. Videos and photos from those correspondences along with footage taken during a trip earlier this year will be in “Maestrina de Favela.”  Later this year, Spivey will launch a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign to ensure plans come to fruition.

“We’re about 80 percent done with the film; now I need funding to edit the project. I’ve been collecting footage for nine years,” Spivey said. “The band still exists and it’s a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture. [The music] showed me that we’re one of the same.”

Despite its reputation as a quickly developing tourist attraction, the Pelourinho has become synonymous with extreme poverty, drug abuse, and hunger.  Such is the case amid rising unemployment and the makings of what economists have called the worst recession in 25 years.

Nationally, the youngest fare the worst in these dismal conditions. Anywhere between 800,000 and 2 million homeless children live on streets throughout Brazil, the Borgen Project estimates.

Since starting her band Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho, at the age of 8, Elem has been able to hold her own in her neighborhood. As her skills on milk cartons-turned-drums improved and her profile rose in the community, she brought along more local children who wanted to perform in well-populated public spaces.  Unlike leaders of other bands, Elem adequately paid members and made sure they didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs.

Sometimes, efforts to protect the young ones from the perils of life in the slums fell short, especially after the passing of her mother. Three bandmates died in separate incidences of violence. Increasing responsibilities at an old house she shares with her aunt demanded the young musician’s attention, bringing her life to a standstill.

“This environment is kind of cut throat. Elem’s doing the real work,” Spivey said as she talked about Elem’s dilapidated, mildew-drenched abode that doubles as a rec center and classroom. For years, she maintained contact with Elem, sending money, educational materials, and a refrigerator in the hopes of keeping up her friend’s spirits during those trying times.

“Elem goes above and beyond to make sure the kids don’t drink or do drugs, like a social worker,” Spivey added. “She leads by example, gaining respect as a Maestrina, but she doesn’t exploit them. She pays the kids what they deserve and puts the rest of the money back into the instruments. Personally, she doesn’t ask for much; just drums and materials.”

In February, Spivey, along Dwyer and D.C. filmmaker Briana Monet, visited Elem’s house during a two-week excursion to Brazil. On that trip, Elem, sporting neon pink boots and a smile, parlayed with her Black American friends into the wee hours of the morning during Carnival. The trio’s guided trek around the Pelourinho birthed new footage and the photos of churches, houses, drug addicts, police officers, food, people dancing and other elements of Brazilian life.

Conversations with natives also provided ample opportunity to learn more about the Afro-Brazilian history of resistance and visit an island inhabited by descendants of Africans who escaped slavery. There, natives and their foreign visitors united under the trance of Yoruba-influenced sounds and beats, as to say they realized their common link to the Motherland.

“Everyone was so sure of themselves. They knew their history,” Dwyer, told AllEyesOnDC. For nearly two years, she assisted in the production of “Maestrina de Favela.”  Though she heard Spivey’s stories about Elem for years, Dwyer said things came full circle upon meeting the star percussionist in person and capturing her life with her Canon t2i.

“We struggle, but Elem’s struggle is much deeper and harsher,” Dwyer said while reflecting on how culture could help one overcome hurdles. “[But] she’s always in high spirits, even with all that’s going on. Newborn babies had on costumes and had their culture instilled in them. I wish we had more of that African culture built into the Black community in America.”

The mission to build that connection continues on the evening of June 25 during another fundraiser and exhibition at the Brookland Artspace Lofts Apartments in Northeast.

Soon, audiences may be exposed to the Afro-Brazilian sounds through more than one means. In thinking beyond the movie, Spivey expressed plans of eventually flying the members of Children of the Rocinha in the Pelourinho to the District to take part in a samba reggae-go-go mash up. For her, the cultural exchange must continue between children of the Diaspora.

Briana Monet, Spivey’s other partner on the film project, echoed those sentiments, noticing a positive change in her colleague’s disposition as she got more support and resources to take this passion project by the horns.

“You just have to give it to the world. That’s the reward,” Monet told AllEyesOnDC. “Art isn’t always about money or fame. It’s about being free and true. The reward isn’t a pay day. It’s more about honesty, being human and becoming immortal through the eyes of those you helped those along the way. Everything is true and raw. Any human can connect to that, more so than fabricated stories.”

For more information about “Maestrina de Favala” or to contribute, like the Facebook page or email mdfdocumentary@gmail.com.

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Ward 8 Council Candidates Engage Youth

PHOTO: (L-R) Ward 8 D.C. Council candidates Aaron Holmes, Trayon White, Maurice Dickens, and Council member LaRuby May answered questions from Samantha Davis of the Black Swan Academy during the City Council Candidates Forum at FBR Boys & Girls Club in Southeast on Wednesday, May 25th./ Photo courtesy of LeVar Jones 

Not even the cries of teenagers and young adults eager to have their voices heard could compel Ward 8 D.C. Council member LaRuby May (D) to stay through an entire public campaign event.

Less than halfway into last week’s City Council Candidates Forum, May, the incumbent in June 14th Democratic primary, slowly crept out just as Samantha Davis, founder of the Black Swan Academy and moderator of the discussion, read a question for the candidates.

Davis’ warning of May’s prior engagement moments earlier didn’t sway those perturbed by what they described as the Council member’s disregard for residents and her opponents.

“The most important part of the job is showing up. Either Council member May doesn’t show up or she always has to leave,” Ike Foster, Southeast resident and head of local nonprofit Out of the Mouth of Babes, told AllEyesOnDC.

Foster, along with nearly 60 young people, parents, residents and community organizers, converged on a neatly organized meeting space located in the main lobby of the FBR Branch Boys & Girls Club at the ARC to hear the candidates’ takes on issues of great concern to Ward 8 youth.

The Wednesday, May 25th function took place more than a week after the Ward 8 straw poll at Anacostia High School, an event May missed to Foster’s dismay. For him, both episodes, along with conversations he’s had with neighbors, speak to May’s inability to connect with regular people.

“It seems kind of crazy that when I’m with people and I talk about her, they don’t know who she is,” Foster,a vocal supporter of Trayon White, a community organizer and one of May’s opponents, said. “If you’re popular, you can walk through any one of these neighborhoods because the people got love for you. She goes places but only in certain areas of Ward 8 that believe they’re not part of that ‘East of the River’ stuff.”

The stigma following Ward 8 derives, in part, from a barrage of socioeconomic barriers plaguing youth. In an interview with the Washington Times, Brenda Donald, D.C. deputy mayor for health and human services, said a vast amount of social services to children goes to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Young people have also counted among the victims in a recent string of killings plaguing Wards 7 and 8.

For nearly two hours, May, along with fellow candidates Aaron Holmes, Maurice Dickens and White, weighed in on a bevy of issues including youth homicide, unemployment, gentrification, the school-to-prison pipeline, cutbacks in sports and arts programs, and the lack of Black instructors in the classroom. After Davis read questions submitted by the youth, each candidate had up to 90 seconds to give an answer.

In response to questions about violence and lack of youth jobs, May cited her legislative achievements and commitment to helping young people succeed, saying that she hired D.C. summer youth employees in her office once their term ended.

“It’s important that young people get in the process,” May told audience members. “This year, I challenged all of my colleagues to not just say that we want more programs. It’s about putting money into services. We have to get the community involved. Crime is a holistic issue. We’re providing opportunities to make sure we’re giving you something to do other than commit crimes.”

White, a former employee of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, touted his nearly 20 years of community work and criticized IMPACT teacher evaluations and standardized testing, saying it bores students and keeps them disengaged. Throughout much of the night, supporters wearing highlighter green Trayon White campaign shirt clapped as he talked about his youth and highlighted his experience.

Holmes, who had his parents in the audience that evening, expressed a desire to change others’ perception of Southeast and improve youth-law enforcement relationships.

“We’re fighting for you and your future. We need someone to combat the stereotypes,” Holmes told the youth as he walked around the room. “Ward 8 is more than that. I want to make sure its true essence is shown. We need to make sure police are engaging you instead of arresting you. There are far too many who don’t know the difference.”

Though Dickens, a coach at Johnson Middle School in Southeast, connected discipline issues to mental health problems, his seemingly shallow responses failed to move audience members.

Other candidates found better luck in making their case to the youth.

Ward 8 youth Rasheda Twitty said she went into the event supporting May but switched over to Team White after hearing his diatribe about the lack of engagement in schools.

“I’ve seen posters of Trayon but this is my first time seeing him in person. He seems like he’s more focused on the youth and education,” Twitty, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, told AllEyesOnDC. Next fall, Twitty will attend Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. “School’s boring and there’s nothing that interests us. I hope that they can bring back more interesting clubs and sports, which the city took out because of funding,” said Twitty, 18.

Regardless of who wins on June 14th, a good number of the young people said they would like to see changes to the status quo, especially when it comes to education.

“These candidates should help bring more Black teachers who want to teach in Ward 8 schools,” Isaac Winslow, a student at Ballou Senior High School, told AllEyesOnDC. During the forum, Isaac, a football player, decried the dearth of Black male teachers in his school.

“I always ask this question in class about why we don’t have someone who’s Black,” Isaac added. “This affects me because I can relate more to someone who shares my skin color. [The] teachers [I have now] try too hard to fit in and want to be cool more than try to give us what we need.”

MBYLI Wraps Up Another Year

PHOTO: Students lead a presentation during the closing ceremony for the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute on the evening of May 19th./ Photo courtesy of Jasmine Wilson/MYBLI 

A group of middle and high school students recently wowed an audience of their peers and family members with their problem-solving skills and reflections about their personal and professional journey during a gathering hosted by a District government agency.

During this event, the nearly 20 youngsters, a number of whom will attend the college of their choice this fall, celebrated the completion of another year in the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute (MBYLI), a youth development program housed within the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES). 

“Being in this program has been overwhelming [at times] but it helped me grow as a leader. I met lifelong friends, learned how to lead, network, and dress professionally,” Ebony Johnson, a youth mayor and a four-year MBYLI participant, told AllEyesOnDC during the Thursday, May 19th program, which fell on what would’ve been martyred activist Malcolm X’s 91st birthday.

Johnson counted among those who received honors during a two-hour program, themed “Malcolm to Marion: The Global Xperience,” at DOES headquarters in Northeast. Organizers named the event for Malcolm and late D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry.

As one of two youth mayors, Johnson represented D.C.’s young people during public events, black-tie functions, and other gatherings, experiences she said pushed her into the spotlight. Hours before the start of the end-of-the-year program, Johnson finished her last day at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland.

This fall, she’ll attend Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. where she plans to take lessons she learned about Malcolm in her political science and Spanish studies.

“I enjoyed learning about Malcolm X because he [created] a legacy [about] being yourself and doing what you have to do even if people won’t like you for it.  Leaders go through so much but they succeed when they surround themselves around successful people,” Johnson eagerly mentioned.

Throughout the 2015-2016 school year, more than 125 youth involved with MBYLI engaged in personal development, civic engagement, and work readiness training. This summer, 300 high school students will sharpen their academic and professional skills on area college campuses including Catholic and Howard universities, located in Northeast and Northwest respectively. 

Some students have also become more globally aware in their involvement with MBYLI. Last year, the program sent 13 young people to South Africa as part of a partnership with Global Kids, a nonprofit that allows students in underserved communities to connect with their peers across the world.

“This program keeps the kids busy and involved in different activities. My son has become more comfortable with public speaking [since joining],” Yolanda Allen told AllEyesOnDC, referring to Anthony David, a freshman at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest. 

Allen, a Southeast resident, said that since enrolling in MBYLI, David has has taken on leadership roles and grown more confident in a society that often limits the career opportunities of young Black men to athletics and entertainment.     

“I want him to be a productive citizen and make our race proud as a Black man,” Allen  added.”I’m not losing my young one to the block. He has to do what he has to do. I highly encourage parents to do the same. It’s about the community. These students come from all walks of life and get along so well.”

Last week’s program served as testament to the sense of community MBYLI fosters. Throughout much of the evening, students answered to greetings of “Hello winners!” Phillip Walker, MBYLI manager, gave opening remarks, reflecting on his experience as a participant and alumnus of the program.

Later, the young winners gave presentations about Malcolm X, the college application process, and their growth in the program. One group outlined a 10-point program modeled after that of the Black Panther Party that would counter spatial mismatching. Plans included a charter bus service that transporting students from McKinley Technology High School in Northeast to their Southeast neighborhoods.

Special guests included D.C. Deputy Mayor of Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden who briefly spoke to students and parents. Veteran developer Ibrahim Mumin gave the keynote address in which he highlighted Barry’s civil rights work and evoked Malcolm X’s nationalistic spirit.

“We should be about institution building. We can train people for years but if they don’t bring their skills back to the village. It doesn’t help the city,” Mumin told the audience. “We have to change the culture in D.C. We can’t be chumps and go along with people who do the illegal stuff. Let’s internationalize our struggle.”

The late Barry, often referred to as “Mayor for Life” during his storied career, launched MBYLI, then called the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, in the late 1970s. The program employed an untold number of young D.C. residents, many of whom went on to work in public service. MBYLI’s alumni association recently became a 501(c)3, a plan put in motion after Barry’s 2014 death.

“This program was nothing short of extraordinary for me. I’m using what I learned there and in college to give back to the young ones,” David Williams, 2011 MBYLI alumnus and current employee, told AllEyesOnDC. After graduating from the University of Maryland College Park in 2015, he took on the responsibility of training MBYLI students as an Omega leader.

Williams said such an opportunity allowed him to impart wisdom on those whose shoes he sat in at one point.

“We have to inspire these kids and impact them in a way that helps them grow. Our biggest challenge this year was finding resources. I used my personal finances to fund activities and it was rewarding to see how that affected them.”

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