Let it be known that I do not consider myself an expert in community (insert any number of local projects here) anything. This is may be because of the ways I’ve moved through communities in the past, but more than likely, it is because of my wonder around how we define being an expert — especially what it means to be an expert in something, as specific, and as nuanced, as community

As I walked up to, laid eyes on, and began to hear the whispers from the Randolph Street Community Garden, I sensed there was another reason why I hesitate to self-identify as an expert in community. That is, while I have reflected on what these words mean in the privacy of my home and within my thoughts, there is something about feeling those words in the ease of the air which you breathe around them, seeing them in the beauty of the things which come from their labor, and hearing them in the subtle intonations of the voice of someone who has lived, witnessed, and experienced a community with all the stories specific to their being. As I walked to the garden, I could feel what I imagine must be present, felt, enacted, and embodied by anyone before you may begin to either describe or define them in relation to a community: time and love. For the Randolph Street Community Garden, Dawn Blackman tells the story of one and lives the other. 

On a hot Tuesday morning, I joined Urbana Public Arts Coordinator, Rachel Storm in interviewing Blackman for the latest episode of Art Now!, the mini documentary series airing on Urbana Public Television. Blackman is a local storyteller and steward of the Randolph St. Community Garden which according to its website "is a volunteer run project committed to providing an opportunity for the residents of the North-end of Champaign to grow their own fresh organic produce."

We met to discuss her love of storytelling and how she came to be involved locally in gathering, nurturing, and sharing stories. She tells us about her own lineage, coming from a family of storytellers, and how she uses them educationally today. “Stories are a good way to pass on not only tradition, but behaviors that you want to see and to allow children to experience behaviors vicariously that you don’t want to see. You can tell a story about a fairy who makes bad choices […] and children can learn what the result of those bad choices were, without having to make bad choices,” she explained. “Nowadays there are storytellers who keep their family’s history and in some cultures they’re called master storytellers because they have the stories about the family (where different ones were buried, who was taken away, who passed and how they passed) and then there are storytellers who tell stories just for entertainment. I’m kind of doing both.”

From a family of storytellers and continuing the practice strong, Dawn Blackman is engaged in living with words and others. Her energy and enthusiasm kept my eyes wide, my tush on the edge of the seat, and my unrealized jaw extended — she has mastered spoken word’s trance on the mind and body. As I sat on the peripheries of a conversation between Blackman and Storm, I found myself nodding, laughing, smiling, and nearly interrupting the interview they were filming for the new Art Now! episode. We heard stories intertwined with personal history, the history of the garden, and the bonding branches of remembrance. The garden lives with and by the community. Blackman tells her story about telling stories as she sits in the garden in this month’s episode of Art Now! Make sure you have a comfortable seat, although you may not notice once you press play, because this story is sure to suck you into the warm embrace of labor and love. And while Blackman’s art may be her storytelling, her making is evident in the magic of her words and hands and that which they inspire. 

Art Now is an award-winning mini-documentary series featuring local artists, boasting over 90 episodes created over the past 8 years. A joint production by the Urbana Public Arts Program and Urbana Public Television, Art Now airs at 6:15 p.m. every Monday on UPTV6,  re-runs at 11 p.m. on Tuesdays, and online on the UPTV6 Youtube Channel. To learn more about Dawn Blackman and the Randolph St. Community Garden work, go here.  

Photos by Sejake Matsela.