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BE-IMAGINATIVE is a collective of artists and activists dedicated to healing black and brown communities through multidimensional storytelling. Based in Oakland, California, the group was cofounded by Ayesha Walker and Benjamin “BJ” McBride. With a mission to #disrupthopelessness, BE-IMAGINATIVE builds strong and vibrant communities among survivors of gun violence by hosting healing retreats, re-creating traditional ceremonies, and memorializing through visual and performing arts.

BE-IMAGINATIVE was founded in early 2017, when Walker miscarried her twin babies and fell into a deep depression. Through her community, she found a healing circle of other people who had lost children through physical complications or gun violence—issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. They sat together, joined hands, and told stories to commemorate the children they had lost. “It was very African,” Walker remembered, “connecting with our ancestors. It was cathartic. We all cried and afterward we felt so much weight lifted off of us. It was truly healing and it helped me move on.”

Walker’s initial idea for BE-IMAGINATIVE was to formalize and build on this experience, bringing it to more people, especially those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. She reached out to her friend, fellow activist, and UCLA classmate BJ McBride, who was in the process of planning a commemoration for Mario Woods, who was shot and killed by San Francisco police in 2015. McBride described the commemoration:

“While marching and other actions that we participate in after tragic events like Mario’s death happen are important, I was intentional about creating an alternative. We brought together local artists in the Bay Area, uplifting music, and inspiring activists that focused on a narrative of healing through this trauma we all faced. We raised $3,000 for Mario’s mom, Mama Gwen Woods—but even more importantly, we realized that we could better respond to all of this terrible violence and directly impact the families and people closest to the pain. With art, we could build a healing space and develop community understanding to shift culture around gun violence.”

“Our mission is to disrupt hopelessness through multidimensional storytelling”

Combining two powerful approaches to healing—creative storytelling and celebratory commemoration through art—BE-IMAGINATIVE was born. “Our mission is to disrupt hopelessness through multidimensional storytelling,” Walker says. “So often the story that gets into the news doesn’t portray us in the right way, so we create a positive, healing counternarrative.”

BE-IMAGINATIVE’s first project took place in August 2017 in Sacramento, a city with disproportionately high gun-related homicide rates. They organized a healing retreat, inviting mothers who had lost children to gun violence, along with their families, to participate in a healing circle. Walker described the experience:

When we sat there with our eyes closed, it was just like the first time I’d done it with my own family. Everyone let their guards down, was vulnerable, and rose up and leaned against one another. We all went to the deepest, darkest parts of our souls and uprooted our trauma. And our communities have experienced a lot of trauma.

Myra Jones, founding mother of BE-IMAGINATIVE, described her experience right after the retreat:

“This is what I needed. This is affirmation. I am blessed, honored, grateful and thankful to be part of it. It is going to help me get a grip and a handle on dealing with my emotions and my feelings. It doesn’t bring my son back, but it gives me something to keep striving for. That group and you guys and what you bring to the table—I’ve never been in an environment like that. It was warm, so comfortable, and it made everybody relax and open up and release without any shame, without any holding back. I needed it really bad.”

After the circle, volunteers met with the mothers and recorded their stories. They went with mothers to the neighborhoods where they raised their children and photographed them there, in Walker’s words: “taking them down memory lane.” Using the photos of the mothers and other photos from the event, they created a collage that captured the BE-IMAGINATIVE experience. These components would form the basis of the next step: a gallery exhibition and ceremony to commemorate the mothers’ children and build hope and community among the survivors.

“When you go through trauma yourself, you start to be able to identify it in others.”

The exhibition opening began with screening of Rashad Pridgen’s film The Global Street Dance Masquerade, a film honoring African American ancestors who have been murdered throughout US history. Newly commissioned videos of the healing circle were screened, featuring participant mothers speaking about life after losing their child and how they find the strength to keep going each day. Next there was a panel discussion with the mothers and activists about gun violence, and a musical performance by SOL Development. About 125 community members attended, including activists and other artists. Attendees described the night as cathartic and inspiring, a way to turn their anger and isolation toward community and healing. Walker remembers her feelings:

“We highlighted three mothers, but we brought together so many more. It wasn’t just about healing for the moms—it was about connecting those in the community with other organizations that they didn’t yet know about, making connections between elements that were previously invisible to one another.”

Collective member Karega Bailey describes how BE-IMAGINATIVE works to locate communities undergoing trauma due to violence:

“I lost my brother to gun violence. And when you go through trauma yourself, you start to be able to identify it in others. When Ayesha, BJ, and I go into a community, we see things—murals depicting teddy bears and liquor bottles, gatherings of young people, “RIP” tattooed in pen on kids’ wrists, printed-out images of gun violence victims safety-pinned to the backs of jackets. We see and we hear that these communities are suffering. And instead of turning a blind eye, we say: ‘Bring that here. We can help you.'”

Once BE-IMAGINATIVE determines that they are going to work with a community, they begin identifying local collaborators and influencers to join their efforts and deepen their connections. BE-IMAGINATIVE creates impact through two core elements: individual healing and social cohesion. Bailey elaborates:

“When you sit in one of these circles and get to tell your own story, or you hear someone else tell theirs, you’re sharing a commonality. You think you’re the only one who feels that sad, that lonely, that angry—but when you share with others, you realize you’re not alone, and then you start to heal. BE-IMAGINATIVE creates connective fibers and models how to build those bridges for the people in the community so that when we leave, they have the strength and resilience to keep their sons, daughters, neighbors, and friends alive, working to end violence and unnecessary deaths.”

BE-IMAGINATIVE and CultureBank

Since the Sacramento events, BE-IMAGINATIVE is compiling a list of further cities—Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Washington, DC, Ferguson, and New York—that could be stops on the #disrupthopelessness tour. They now need time and money to make it happen. Both founders have full-time jobs. If they could leave or reduce their hours, they could put more time into organizing BE-IMAGINATIVE events, as well as compensate artists and collaborators, fund travel and venue rentals, and so on. BE-IMAGINATIVE was awarded a $50,000 Pico California grant that will fund healing circles and art shows in four cities total, including the Sacramento experience. They are currently organizing these, and improving on their model as they go.

In each city they will partner with an organization, an artist, and an activist. Their longer-term vision includes diversifying their revenue streams by asking event attendees for donations, seeking corporate sponsors, and selling the artworks that they incorporate into the art shows. As BE-IMAGINATIVE grows and formalizes its process, anecdotal stories can be combined with quantitative and qualitative evaluation and other statistical data to prove its impact.

Lead image: Ayesha Walker and Benjamin “BJ” McBride, cofounders of BE-IMAGINATIVE. Courtesy of BE-IMAGINATIVE.