Categories: Family Faces Date: Jul 29, 2011 Title: Telling Tales
Performer Vanessa Johnson gets the words out any way she can
By Tammy DiDomenicoAnything you can do Vanessa Johnson can probably do better. Spend a little time with her and you quickly learn that her resume is as diverse as it is long, packed with projects that are inspired by her passions and offer inspiration to others.
Johnson’s current job description is director of community outreach for the Syracuse Northeast Community Center (SNCC), where she has worked since July 2010. Before that, Johnson worked at the city’s Southwest Community Center for a decade. But Johnson may be better known as coordinator of the Harambee Youth Tent, a cultural fixture at the New York State Fair. Johnson also brings the tent for educational and cultural programs at local schools, and gives historical talks at area libraries.
“I guess if I had to summarize what I do, I would say that I’m a storyteller,” says Johnson. “I just do the things I do in life and it all blends in.”
Animated and gregarious, Johnson has been working steadily as a storyteller since 2000. But she is also passionate about young people, and she enjoys helping them build their identities by learning about their own histories. She credits her parents for encouraging her strong sense of self-awareness. “My parents were raised in the segregated South, and they met at the Tuskegee Institute (now University). They had a strong sense of cultural identity. They taught us to respect where we came from.”
Johnson, 54, was born and raised in Syracuse. But when her parents moved the family to Camillus in the 1960s, Johnson saw the unfortunate remnants of the racism that her parents and grandparents had told her about. “The first time I heard the ‘N-word’ was when my brother and I went to school in Camillus,” Johnson says. “I didn’t even know what it meant. I had to ask my parents.”
Johnson, now a resident of Syracuse’s Eastwood neighborhood, says her parents taught her and her siblings to honor their pasts. “I remember sitting with my mother on Sunday afternoons, she told me stories,” Johnson says. She recalls a story of how her grandmother, a teacher with a master’s degree, once stood up to a store manager who attempted to segregate her from the main shopping area of his store. “We learned that there was a base to who we were; life lessons were taught every day. But I also learned to use my intellect at an early age.”
Years later, Johnson found herself combining her love of history and education as educational director at the Onondaga Historical Association. She began to notice that parents, often caught up in the hustle of daily life, shared little of what they knew about their extended families with their children. In her work with young people today, Johnson stresses the importance of learning these stories. She pushes teens at the Syracuse Northeast Community Center to ask hard questions. She tells them to find out where they came from.
“‘Be more,’ I tell my kids,” Johnson says. “Meet those expectations (your family members) want for you. Opening those doors of identity can change the status of who a person is. Kids need a foundation to build on.”
In her role at the SNCC, Johnson hosts a weekend evening program, Teen Night Beat, and offers local teens a place to go for tutoring after school during the week. While no one is ever kicked out of the program, Johnson admits that they must submit to a little tough love if they want to keep coming back—and they do.
“Respect is a key message here,” says Johnson, looking around the basement of the center, where the teens gather. “When they come in that door, they have to greet me and each other. They also know they had better ask me something. They are not doing it for me. It always goes back to, ‘Are you respecting yourself?’”
Even kids with behavior problems can change their course when asked to take a hard look at the consequences.
“I always connect behavior with something outside of themselves. But I ask them to think about what that behavior will mean. ‘What is the story your life will tell your children? What are they going to see? What’s the history you are leaving behind?’”
The goal, Johnson says, is to help kids set goals and establish a direction for their future.
She takes those notions even further with her non-profit, Syracuse Africa Bound. Founded in 2004, Johnson takes a group of local teens on a two-week African immersion experience every few years. The teens don’t just pay their airfare and go sightseeing in Africa. They prepare—financially, intellectually and spiritually—with each taking responsibility for his trip and what he plans to get out of the experience.
In the villages the teens visit, there is often little or nothing in the way of comforts Americans take for granted such as running water. The groups also visit a slave fort that was used in the trans-Atlantic slave trades.“I want to help them appreciate the gifts of a free nation, see the opportunities we have here that people don’t have anywhere else,” Johnson says.
The next group of Africa Bound plans to travel in 2012. In the meantime, they are working on a book, Connecting Words, Connecting People, that will be published in five languages selected by the students. The project is being funded by a grant from a local church. Johnson said the students are also planning a video project next fall on ethnic divides in Syracuse.
While teens of all backgrounds have traveled with Africa Bound, Johnson says that part of her motivation in starting the program was to help change some of the misconceptions that are associated with life in Africa. Johnson knows firsthand about those cultural differences: She is married to a Ghanaian citizen, and has lived for months at a time in that West African republic.
“To me, it is a sin to deliver to African American kids a vision of their history that starts with slavery,” she says. “There is so much more.”
Among her many projects, Johnson has a particular soft spot for her time in the Harambee Youth Tent at the Pan African Village at the New York State Fair—this year running from Thursday, Aug. 25, to Monday, Sept. 5. The Cultural Resource Center will donate materials for family-based crafts, and local artists will be on hand to assist. Children will also have the opportunity to participate in an African drum circle.
Johnson, who does not have children of her own, believes it is her calling to be doing the kind of work she has been doing. “I feel all of the kids are my kids because I am a part of this community,” she says. “I love these kids; I hope they feel that. I’d like to think that they know I have their best interests at heart.”
“Life is an adventure and I have been honored to have an amazing life,” Johnson adds. “Kids have been a large part of that. I think they keep me young.” ■
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her
husband and two sons.
Michael Davis Photo