How Wa Na Wari uses art to enliven the Central District and keep black residents at home
Before pandemic shutdowns hit, Wa Na Wari was hosting community events almost every day, from yoga and birthday parties to food pop-ups and book readings. The Central District organization was quickly becoming a go-to neighborhood arts venue before the pandemic forced it to change direction. With new programming ideas taking shape over the past two years, Wa Na Wari is starting to get booked up again, further entrenching itself as Seattle’s cultural hub.
“Even though we had a really amazing lineup [during the pandemic]I feel like we’ve only just come back to this place where we understand what we’re all doing when we’re a fully open space,” said co-founder Elisheba Johnson.
Jill Freidberg (co-founder alongside Johnson, Inye Wokoma and Rachel Kessler) said she was surprised at how much she was still able to do during the pandemic and the responsiveness of the community. Programming over the past two years has ranged from Zoom offerings to outdoor in-person events like walk the block, a walk in October 2021 in the neighborhood to discover artistic installations and performances visible from the street. Community members, Freidberg said, were hungry to gather again and see live performances.
“Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming,” said Freidberg, who said the event went quickly in six weeks. “I don’t think we were really prepared for the number of people who showed up. But it was really good in a way things hadn’t been good in months.
Although facing pandemic gathering limitations, Wa Na Wari was still able to launch several programs in the community. With Yes Farm, the Black Farmers Collective, EarthCorps and the Seattle Public Library, Wa Na Wari piloted BLOOM (Building Leadership, Organizing and Orchard Management) in 2020 to teach civic leaders ages 18-25 about color food justice and food sovereignty.
Last year, Wa Na Wari launched the Seattle Institute of Black Space Historiesan oral history and community history training program, and an artist-in-residence program, which provides local and national artists a one-month residency in the Wa Na Wari house. Both, Johnson noted, were part of Wa Na Wari’s future plans. Johnson thought they would start the residency program a few years later, but with things mostly closed the pandemic has presented an opportunity to provide residency space for artists. An ongoing exhibition at Wa Na Wari features works by San Francisco-based artist Simone Bailey, the organization’s first artist-in-residence, alongside artists Lauren Williams, Berlynn Beam and Chase Keetly. until July 9.
This year, Wa Na WariLove Offer’s Free Community Meals Program, a partnership with cross-cultural community organization Wasat, provides food to the community of black and native leaders every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through June.
All of this work is an overview of the breadth of Wa Na Wari’s work. Part of it is the conservation of art and the preservation of history, but an important part of this “experiment”, as its leaders call it, is to see if arts and culture can stop displacement. Wokoma, in the family home in which Wa Na Wari resides, directs the work of 21st Century Central Zone Cultural Ecosystem, the company’s community organizing initiative focused on entrench black home ownership and fight against black displacement in the city.
“Black people who come from other cities where displacement is happening in black communities, they inherently understand what we’re doing based on the context they’re coming from,” Wokoma said, pointing to Wa Na Wari’s efforts as a continuation of an anti-displacement line of work.
CACE 21 is an extension of the idea on which Wa Na Wari was founded – keep black families in their homes. Wa Na Wari was founded when artists began paying rent on a historically black-owned house so that the black family that owned it could keep it in their family. As Johnson noted during his tours of Wa Na Wari, this financial work is the most important job they do and it is invisible .
“We’ve had a couple of funders say, ‘Don’t talk to us about the arts, we don’t fund that. Just talk about anti-displacement work,” Johnson said. “But it’s funny, we wouldn’t be able to do the anti-displacement work without the art.”
The idea centers around thinking differently about ownership, which can help keep that ownership in the hands of the community. Maybe an empty bedroom can be turned into a studio or part of a yard can be rented out for an event.
“The result is not just that a group of black homeowners are not displaced,” Freidberg said, “but that the Central District becomes this neighborhood of black arts and culture through the work of saving these homes. “
Something that has become even clearer to Johnson since the organization’s founding in 2019 is its ability to offer the neighborhood a chance to directly participate in black culture. A community member told Johnson that one of the reasons she moved to the neighborhood was so her black daughter could be near Wa Na Wari. At a jazz event hosted by the organization, nearby neighbors walked around, bringing their own beers, just because they heard the music.
“People in this neighborhood don’t need to leave to see a really good concert, watch dance, or experience the visual arts,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to feel like I have to go to New York and Chicago and Los Angeles every time I want to see good black art. I want it here.