June 18, 2018  |  Civic Engagement Cultural Awareness Detroit Insights

Kourtney Neloms: CitizenFEST

CitizensFEST – Citizens University and FII: New Orleans, LA
by Kourtney Neloms, FII-Detroit Family Partner

My husband, Quan, and I are grateful parents of Mathias, age 9, and Nathan Maddox, age 7 and are deeply focused on their spiritual, character, and emotional development. Joining FII in April of 2017 meshed well with our goal of continuing to build community by focusing on youth development and connections to resources for Detroit families.

I was excited to attend CitizenFEST, a festive learning summit on how to exercise civic power, because it did not sound like a typical research-heavy conference. Instead, it seemed focused on the people who do the real work of building community where they live. I wanted to share my experiences and hear from others who were the boots on the ground.

I was not disappointed. I enjoyed learning from the residents of New Orleans about surviving Hurricane Katrina, their experiences with the educational system, removing Confederate statues, working with incarcerated men and women, and using art as a form of healing.

The festival celebrated the culture of New Orleans—both the good and the bad. I got to experience the city’s architecture, food, and music but I also learned about its deep racial history and the activism of its residents. The “#TakeEmDownNOLA” efforts, for example, revealed the grassroots work of citizens seeking to reclaim their narrative and culture by demanding the removal of monuments to white supremacy.

I do not typically think about the history behind the cultural aspects and practices of my city; CitizenFEST reminded me of the importance of doing so and surfaced many questions I felt I should be asking as my family navigates life in Detroit. Why is this happening? How is it connected to who we are as citizens? How can it be a tool to connect to other people?

During the summit, we explored the importance of owning or reclaiming your narrative and telling your own story in a way that uplifts and highlights individual and community assets, causing me to really think about the role our collective narratives play in creating long-lasting community change.

I strongly believe that true enduring change cannot occur without having a renewed heart and that being listened to, heard, and accepted brings about that renewal. Helping people to recognize how our community is changing and improving because of the actions we are taking is critically important.

A quote by Dr. King kept ringing in my head during CitizenFEST: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” At the heart of the CitizenFEST summit was a message of moving forward even when it feels something is missing–widespread support, money, expertise, etc. Instead, start with the gifts you already possess and do not be afraid to use them to organize, empower and effect change for the better.

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