"We believe in the revolutionary things that happen on a southern front porch."
It was mid-December, but that affirmation hung in the air like humidity in July. Three and a half-years prior, on May 29, 2012, Women With A Vision (WWAV) had been made home-less, after still-unknown arsonists firebombed and destroyed their New Orleans offices. On October 19, 2015, this quarter-century-old black feminist collective walked into their first home since the fire, complete with a sprawling front porch that emptied into Broad Street's foot traffic. We christened that front porch with a conversation about the word "resilience," that dubious slogan of the city's official Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary celebrations. What exactly did resilience mean when 99,650 black New Orleanians were still displaced, and thousands more were living in prison cells as a result of intensified policing? "Oh, right..."
As the rush hour traffic crawled by, we reflected on the vital work that WWAV was doing to hold the experiences black women--especially those born and raised in New Orleans--as relevant and important. We imagined how bring these stories to the forefront could help to expose the battle for space and history actively underway in the new New Orleans. When we took this picture, WWAV's Executive Director, Deon Haywood, had just claimed the front porch as a site where this organizing could take place and have a place--where revolutionary things happen. That affirmation prompted the recollection of another in WWAV's history. Twenty-five years ago, WWAV was just an idea, thought up by eight black women on a front porch in Central City.
|Sitting on WWAV's new front porch in New Orleans, Louisiana. (L to R: Shaquita Borden, Mwende Katwiwa, Deon Haywood, Nakita Shavers, Laura McTighe, Nia Weeks; Photo by: Desiree Evans)|
I have been a partner to the WWAV family for nearly a decade now. As a doctoral student at Columbia University, I've spent the last four years designing, researching and (now) writing a collaborative ethnography of activist persistence alongside my WWAV colleagues. Together, through an amalgamation of oral history, collective storytelling, and archival tracing, we've been working to document the ethics of survival, struggle, and renewal that guided WWAV's work from their founding in the early years of the AIDS epidemic through to their present in the post-Katrina new New Orleans. What's mattered most? Space. Specifically, front porch space.
As a scholar of religion in America, space has long been a critical analytical category for understanding how something we might call "religion" is produced through and productive of embodied and emplaced encounters, contests, and practices.