By Joss Willsbrough, Outreach & Education Specialist with Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York
On Our City Blog—
The Syracuse Citywide Book Club is a collaborative and educational community reading program that uses literature to help us discuss, as a city, issues that affect our community. We are excited to hear from members of our community on local issues and to explore the ideas and engagement they generate. This year’s book club topic is quality of life which means different things to different people. The views in our contributors’ blog posts explore how they see quality of life in the City through the lens of the books we are reading in the book club. We appreciate the participation of our community partners.
The 2021 Syracuse Citywide Book Club includes selections that reflect quality of life themes of diversity and infrastructure for healthy urban cities. The City welcomes group involvement in this year’s book club by engaging with community partners who help make civic dialogue and program delivery possible. To learn about how to read along or become a partner, contact Emma Spector at email@example.com. Follow along on the Syracuse Citywide Book Club page at facebook.com/syrbookclub. We welcome commentary from residents, such as below, and can share posts here in our blog.
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is a striking and beautiful text, nuanced and empathetic, bringing the complexities of human life to the 2008 financial crisis. In this novel, we are not concerned with the free fall of market rates so much as we are the pressures and mundanities of surviving in a fluctuating economy.
Some are kept awake at night by real and serious dangers: where will our next meal come from, how will we carry on if we are separated from our families, how will we survive in a world that requires more than we can muster. But others are kept awake at night by loftier problems, problems that, while pressing, do not threaten personal economic stability. In either case, our dreams are kept afloat by our needs, our relationships, our spirit.
In one obvious sense, the Edwards and Jonga families inhabit entirely different worlds, preoccupied with anxieties and day to day routines the others couldn’t even fathom. Yet in another sense, their worlds are inextricably linked, entangled and bound up in one another. Though their relationships begin strictly financial and transactional, they are all forced to contend with how a “personal” shift in one family can become a rude awakening for the other. Though these families are from “different worlds,” they cannot help but become porous to one another, sharing clothes and cars, little pieces of themselves. Their dreams are wrapped up in one another.
There are no simple heroes or villains here, yet as readers we may be justified for the judgements we project onto the characters for their inability to see past themselves – for their affairs and many abuses. But this is not a story about judgment. The moment we attempt to assign blame, the curtain is peeled back further to reveal that those responsible for injustices that occur are themselves caught up in a system beyond any of their control.
The difference between their dreams then, is a difference of position, perception, and power. As a reader, we can see and understand the pressure that weighs on both families, but we can also see that nearly all of the most pressing concerns for the Jonga family are hardly on the Edwards’ radar. Everyone in this story seems to be doing what they believe is best and attempting to live out their dreams, but the book emphasizes that, by comparison, one man’s dreams are for the most basic of human needs while the other holds the world in his hands.
This is not so surprising, when we really stop to consider the facts. But we often prioritize the success of our own dreams over the dreams of those around us, even when their dreams are for simple things we take for granted. We share a world in more ways than we can see, yet we experience the world only through our own eyes.
The Jonga’s move to New York City in search of a better life, and by the end of the text, it seems they have found it. A combination of the material wealth they gained from their time in the United States as well as a richer understanding of all that make Limbe beautiful. They do not find exactly what they set out for, and their dreams do not come true in the ways they imagined. Yet every scrap of success and opportunity they find in New York City affords them a greater sense of dignity. Perhaps this is the best dream any of us can have; it is certainly my dream for the people in my life and in my city.
However, historically, we often fail, and have failed, to understand the ways in which our dreams are wrapped up in one another. As a result of The Great Migration, many Black people fled to Syracuse from the South in search of more freedom, more opportunity, and a better life. Instead, they were met with racism of a different kind. Redlining policies prevented Black residents from owning homes, even if they were financially solvent with good credit. This meant that 93% of the city’s Black residents were confined to one neighborhood: the Old 15th Ward. This entrenched segregation in the city, but it also created a vibrant, semi-thriving working class neighborhood with Black owned businesses and social clubs which offered an escape from racism which was more prevalent in the surrounding city. However, the camaraderie and security offered by the 15th Ward was short lived. 75% of the neighborhood was destroyed in the process of “urban renewal” which sought to rid U.S. cities of blighted and slum areas, but did so by demolishing the 15th Ward and displacing residents to make room for downtown Syracuse and other commercial interests. As if this wasn’t enough, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 sought to make travel through cities, suburbs, and states more convenient and efficient, but did so at the cost of people’s homes and livelihood.
These are ghosts we must contend with as a city. Our collective dreams depend on it, as does our collective quality of life. We cannot afford to imagine that our dreams only affect us, that our choices and power are inconsequential, that we can afford to continue to frame “infrastructure projects” as if they are solely about number crunching, traffic safety flow, and travel delays. These factors are relevant, of course, but they fail to tell a complete story, they fail to recognize that “infrastructure” decisions, which may for some of us remain solely about how quickly and easily we can arrive at our destinations, can result in the destruction of homes, of businesses, of dreams for people with whom our lives are deeply intertwined, even if we cannot see it.
But if this book moved you as it moved me, I would like to invite you into a moment of shared dreams: to participate in making a rich quality of life more accessible and possible for all people in our city. Now is the time to use your voice to fight for racial, economic, and environmental justice for Syracuse. The DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) was recently released and contains the NY State Dept. of Transportation’s (DOT) current plan for the I-81 rebuild. We are in the middle of a 45 day public comment period where the DOT wants to hear from the community: what we say (or fail to say) now will shape our city’s infrastructure for generations to come. Nearly $2 billion in federal tax dollars will be invested in our city. This is a pivotal moment, a rare opportunity to ensure that our future is one of reparative justice: righting the wrongs of redlining, urban renewal, land theft, pollution and displacement, but only if we use our voice to demand jobs for city residents, a community-owned land trust, and clean air.
What you can do to help:
- Attend the in-person hearing at the OnCenter on August 18 at 4PM or 6PM and stand with the Urban Jobs Task Force (UJTF) and New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). Show your support by wearing a t-shirt, holding a sign, and making a comment. You can sign up for text alerts for the hearing here.
- Attend the UJTF + NYCLU March and Press Conference on August 14 beginning at 10:30AM at Dr. King Elementary School to help raise awareness and mobilize community support.
- Educate yourself and spread the word. Follow @ujtfsyracuse on Instagram and Facebook to learn more about the history of Syracuse and how we can build a brighter future! Share anything you find interesting or meaningful with those in your circle.