Photograph: Aubrey Gemignani

Photograph: Aubrey Gemignani

Artist Statement

I am half Italian Catholic, half Indian Hindu, and a first generation American, raised in the deeply segregated suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. My parents modeled love and open-minded listening in surmounting cultural and religious barriers, instilling in me the unwavering belief that the walls of fear and prejudice are artificial and learned. As I explored the world beyond my hometown, I began to see that the same segregation – and the mindsets and systems that sustain it – are present not only in the American South, but also in the Northeast (where I’ve lived for the last 6 years) as well as in Italy, India, and every other country that I’ve experienced. The story is the same: fear and misunderstanding obscure our shared humanity and interconnectedness.

As a writer and musician, I challenge the barriers that separate our stories by unifying them under one, overarching narrative. My journalistic writing weaves together diverse perspectives to emphasize our interconnectedness and elucidate emerging solutions to problems of poverty, violence, human rights, education, and environment. My poetry and music dive beyond people’s minds into their hearts to call forth their intuitive empathy, ignite their sense of self-empowerment, and mobilize them in collaborative action towards a unified vision.


What do I hold Sacred?

Spoken Word Poem

"What do I hold Sacred?" is a poem written in reflection on the title question. The piece was first recorded orally and is meant to be listened to rather than read. The opening and closing music was collaboratively created with Okezie Nwoka.


52nd Street's Face-Lift

 

“52nd Street’s Face-Lift” is a long-form journalistic piece (3373 words in full length) about the swinging history of West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street, commonly known as “the Strip.” What used to be “West Philly’s Main Street” for entertainment in the 1950s fell into deep poverty after Race Riots in the 60s. Now, the city has invested over $2 million dollars to return the street to its former splendor, and residents are asking: is the Strip on the path to gentrification or revitalization?

 

… The City made its first move in the late 80s.

“There was a canopy that was built over Arch to Walnut Street,” said Richard Redding, Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s (PCPC) Planning Division. At the time he was just a young city planner, he told me over the phone, assigned specifically to West Philadelphia. To bring shoppers back to the Strip, the City wrapped the corridor in a modern metal canopy, to make it “more like a mall, more unified.”

The vendors thought it was built for them. “It was shelter and protection,” said 63- year-old vendor Issa Horn, his black nose dripping onto his beard as we shivered by his stand at the corner of 52nd and Chestnut. He was wearing the same brown sweater, saggy beanie, and tinted glasses I had met him in on my first trip to the Strip a month earlier. Instead of his brown corduroys he wore tougher peach-colored pants, scuffed as if charcoal had rubbed against it. A pair of mismatched gloves warmed his hands: navy on the left, black on the right. “We loved the canopies,” he said. I could see why. A steady chill wind kept him rocking on his feet.

But in 2011, the City removed them. “They just weren’t maintained,” said Senior Manager of the City’s Commerce Department, Aiisha Herring-Miller. They were unsafe, deteriorated, an eyesore pushing away new customers. But the vendors were riled. “They thought the City wanted to remove the vendors.” In fear and anger they organized into the Philadelphia Vendors Association (PVA), mustering 4,000 petition signatures from the neighborhood to fight the removal.

The vendors lost the canopies, but gained something more: collaboration. “That’s when the meetings started,” said Horn, who is current Treasurer of the PVA. Since the protests the City has opened up its redevelopment plans to the vendors, meeting with them regularly along with other parties vital to the Strip’s development, like the 52nd Street Business Association. Even Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell attends sometimes, Horn told me excitedly, tilting his head down to peer over his glasses as if to say, “Can you believe it?” The meetings are a cross-section of everyone in the community. And evidence of the City’s respect for vendors.

“They add to the ambiance of the corridor,” said Senior Manager Herring of vendors. “Not everyone can do that job. They fill a certain niche.” ...


Dance Dance Revolution

 

“Dance Dance Revolution: V-Day Edition" is a short journalistic piece on a global movement of women dancing in solidarity on Valentine’s Day, 2013.

 

Women and men in 203 countries rose on Valentine’s Day to end gender-based violence, but Melanie Colon lay beneath roses in the grave.

“I don’t know why someone would take her life. All she did was work. She was just into working and taking care of her kid,” said Louis Colon of his late daughter, whose 22-year- old body was found pierced with 6 gunshot wounds in Philadelphia’s Juniata Park last May.

Nine months later, Melanie’s family and friends are still circulating flyers in hopes of finding her killer. Facing Philly’s LOVE statue, they stood behind a fold-out table draped with a banner: Melanie’s tan face and bleach blond hair floating among painted clouds “In Loving Memory.” On the table lay another picture: a framed photo of her now motherless 5-year- old son, Joshua.

Team Melanie, as the family calls itself on Twitter and Facebook, was not the only force fighting for justice in Love Park this past Thursday. At 2:14 pm on V-Day, a troop of women, men, and children stood at attention in Love Park as part of the global movement to end the violence against women and girls. Their chosen weapon of demonstration: dancing. The number enlisted to dance: 206. The number of women dancing worldwide: one billion.

According to statistics reported by the United Nations, 1 in 3 women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. That means one billion women in the world are victims of violence.

In hopes of shaking the status quo, Women’s Way, an advocacy organization for women in the Greater Philadelphia region, hosted a free instructor-led dance session, calling on the City of Brotherly Love to “STRIKE, RISE, and DANCE” for the women they love.

“Enough is enough,” declared Executive Director Amanda Aronoff, who stood elevated on a concrete banister, armed with a microphone.

The rally’s cheers pierced the silence, posters shook the still February air, and arms waved to the lyrics, “I wanna know if you really love me…” The Philadelphia Rising had begun.

Aronoff joined the ranks of dancers in her Women’s Way officer uniform: sneakers, black spandex leggings, and a white hoodie with the V-Day movement’s logo. Around her neck swung several red heart-shaped bead necklaces.

“What is powerful for me at least is that this is happening all over the world,” Aronoff said in interview. “There’s something about dancing that is universal, that connects all women in this movement. That’s the power.”

But beyond the movement’s global mission, Aronoff is troubled by the violence against women occurring daily in her own city, specifically human trafficking. This particular violence is second only to drug dealing as the largest criminal industry in the world, and it is the fastest growing. Yet while Americans point their fingers at countries in Africa and Asia, Aronoff states,

“It is happening right here.”

The City of Brotherly Love, she reports, is a thoroughfare for human trafficking due to its central location in the northeast United States. This fact shocks everyone she talks to. Most Philadelphians “don’t realize it’s a problem right here.”

The loved ones of Franchesca “Cheka” Alvarado, however, know all too well about this problem. A man in an Eagles hat and woman carrying a small child navigated the waves of dancers with flyers, picturing a smiling face they had not seen since March 13, 2012. The flyer read, “MISSING PERSON REWARD $25,000.00.”

One flyer landed in the hands of Morgan Chambers, a 25-year- old female Drexel University student who continues to cope with the violence she experienced 10 years ago. For Chambers, being a part of the V-Day rising “really takes away some of the stigma and embarrassment” of being a victim of abuse. As she danced alongside fellow survivors and supporters of the movement, Chamber said,

“I know I can turn to the person next to me and don’t have to say anything. I know they are there for me.”

This “community of strength” is what Chambers hopes will continue to grow from the dancing of women around the world.

“I want it to grow so it doesn’t have to be an isolated movement, but a part of the culture.”

One billion rising is: a cultural revolution, a community of strength, a cry of compassion. 7 billion rising is: a changed a world.


A Rally of Power

 

“A Rally of POWER: Building a City of Opportunity That Works for All” was written after a public action meeting hosted by the 40 faith congregations of Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) in April of 2013 to call for better jobs, better schools, and pathways to citizenship. This journalistic piece (2033 words in its full length) is the culmination of a series of shorter pieces following POWER’s advocacy in the city.

…The crowd rattled in frustration. A slideshow of sobering statistics hung high above their leaders’ heads on the wall behind them, displaying familiar images of poverty, hunger, and pain.

In Philadelphia close to 30% of our citizens live in poverty.

Almost 40% of our children go to sleep hungry every night.

Over 200,000 Philadelphians live off of less than $5,700 per year.

Less than 50% of high school students graduate within four years.

Over 600,000 adults in Philadelphia are low literate.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants live in fear of being ripped away from their families.

“We are the poorest big city in America,” concluded Kerbel, after reading the statistics aloud.

The facts confirmed their own stories. Sitting in front of the church alter, five Philadelphia residents shared one-by- one their experiences with unemployment, homelessness, and deportation. They pretended to be sitting at Thanksgiving dinner, giving the highs and lows of their year.

“I applied for hundreds and hundreds of jobs, but I couldn’t get one,” recalled one widow, who lost her job and only paycheck to support her daughter. “Then the dreaded Fedex package arrived: notice of foreclosure… I have no savings, no job, and I no longer have a home that I can call my own.” Her voice quivered as she repeated her daughter’s question, “Mommy, what are we going to do?”

A young girl then stood up. She remembered being called into her school’s guidance office, and given notice that she could not continue her education. “Because of my legal status,” she explained. “The fact that I received 4 years of first honors didn’t matter.” The government was sending her back to Mexico. “My parents immigrated when I was 4. I followed when I was 11.” Her journey was difficult, she shared, crossing deserts and enduring “hot days, cold nights” and “sleeping in forests.” She was following the American Dream, yet her journey was cut short just like the 400,000 aspiring immigrants deported last year.

“It’s all of our concern,” said Reverend Ernie Flores of Germantown’s Second Baptist Church, who gave the Faith Reflection following the Thanksgiving Dinner scene. Standing before the congregations in his grey suit, the leader spoke away from the podium with microphone in hand.

“God wants us ALL wrapped up in this thing together,” he urged Philadelphians. “When we stand together, THAT is righteousness.” After quoting the Biblical book of James’ “Warning to Rich Oppressors,” Flores delivered a warning to the “rich people” in city leadership:

“When we are paid minimum wages that don’t meet our minimum needs…when the wealthy and the powerful make millions instead of helping the millions in poverty living in the shadows…when no one is listening to our cries – GOD is watching.” ...