COLUMBIA — Defining "the hood" was nowhere near as important as identifying ways to make it better at Saturday's "Occupy the Hood" event near Douglass Park.
Inspired by the national Occupy the Hood movement*, this was a casual gathering of six people plus its organizer, Tyree Byndom, a human resources manager, community activist and KOPN radio host. His goal was to generate specific action items that each attendee would walk away with.
For updates and more information about Tyree Byndom's local activism, visit his Facebook page. You can also visit the Facebook page for the national Occupy the Hood movement or its website.
Byndom underscored that there is an extensive network of community organizations in Columbia that offers avenues for involvement and invites new leaders. Byndom himself is involved with the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association, Minority Men's Network, PedNet's Unite for Healthy Neighborhoods and the Columbia Public Schools' World Cafe program.
Many who showed up at Byndom's house are also involved in community projects, including the Rev. Raymond Hayes of St. Luke United Methodist Church. His congregation runs an after-school program for kids with the help of tutors from the National Society of Black Engineers, and he is helping organize this holiday season's "Everyone Eats," a local tradition of serving meals to people who might have a hard time putting a special spread on their tables.
Other attendees spelled out their intentions on a white board that Byndom set up with the question, "How will you occupy the hood?"
The answers varied:
"I will help to feed souls."
"I will teach financial literacy."
"Sharing information — healthy community."
"Investigating complaints against police/video documentation."
Byndom had neatly laid throw pillows around the perimeter of his living room for people to make themselves comfortable, but conversation didn't move far from the dining room table, surrounded by shelves of spiritual books and Byndom's children's art supplies.
Over bowls of spaghetti, the group's conversation looped easily from each others' personal lives to memories of the city from earlier years and their own observations about what created some of the city's "hoods" today.
Hayes grew up near Byndom's current home on the edge of downtown. The Hayes residence was razed as part of the urban renewal movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. He said his family was moved from one condemned home to another until they were placed in the "projects," the modern public housing of the time.
He reflected that, as a boy, he imagined urban renewal was more akin to today's Habitat for Humanity model. What happened instead, he said, is that city planners reconfigured roads and land use without understanding the impact for people who lived there.
Hayes pointed to Providence Road (then called Third Street) as an example. The road was utilized as a convenient route from the highway to the stadium, but the new traffic pattern also separated the residential side of the neighborhood from the school and parks where most activity outside the home occurred. The result was compromised safety for people crossing the street and a general feeling among residents of being cut off from their community.
Bettering "the hood" today
The Douglass Park area of Hayes's childhood, where the public housing projects remain today, is one of Columbia's historically black neighborhoods. But, Byndom said "the hood has evolved to where it's no longer a black thing."
Artist and former special education and art teacher Rhonda Woolsey said that she thinks the hood is "a dark color," but that it's hard to reach because it's split into so many different subcultures.
Matt Akins, founder of Citizens for Justice, said the central city is "the first thing you think of" when you picture the hood in Columbia. " As the city grew out, this part died in some ways," opening it up to drugs, violence and tensions with police, Akins said. But he thinks parts of the hood exist across the city.
Akins said he relates more with Occupy the Hood than Occupy Wall Street because it is more about outreach and action than protest.
"They don't have a specific purpose," he said of the larger movement. "So it seems unreasonable for them to say they won't leave until their demands are met."
Occupy the Hood is not about demands, he said. "It's not what we're pissed off about, but what can we give back to help improve the community."
Byndom said he trusts the people who attended to implement their action plans and pointed out that those who showed up are active in the community even without an organized movement to align with.
Standing on his front porch overlooking Providence Road after most others had left, Byndom said, "The time is now."
He compared the Occupy movement to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "You read ... about all who participated and how it affected so many people's lives. This is the movement of our time."
"Arise," he said quietly. Then he placed both hands on the porch railing, looked out and, louder, repeated, "Arise!"