Vanessa German: Making a Space for Love Against the Polar Vortex

By Helen Gerhardt

Two weeks ago, on January 6th, artist Vanessa German stepped onto the stage and charged all the men and women and children who had crowded out of the bitter cold into Heinz Hall for the Inauguration of our new Mayor Bill Peduto. She charged out a poem that still speaks loud and clear here on the day that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., the man that spoke out for peace and died by violence.

Vanessa on Inauguration Day

The City is ours today….We rise and claim the reins of change with both hands. We aim ourselves to the stars…
For we are champions. And the City is ours today
We claim it singing it against the steel mill foothills that still call our grandfathers’ names.
We rise with the horizon of numinous high rises and river shine.
For the future is bright and it is getting brighter. We know this, for the City is ours today.
Let us say so and sing its praises, out loud.
From Homewood and Brushton down the street to Penn Avenue
To the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Busway to Point Breeze,
Across the Birmingham Bridge, up Sarah Street, up the Southside Slopes to crest upon the rooftops of Carrick…
These avenues, alleyways and old staircases are our places.
These elementary schools, these rising church spires, these river banks,
these store fronts are the places that we have to make our mark.
Each and every day there are countless opportunities to make of our old world a new world.
Dr. King said that we hold within us the healing and transformative power of love
and with this power we will be able to make of our world a new world…

The warmth of Vanessa’s words somehow burned brighter because the polar vortex gripped our city. The power of her vision of our City’s future glowed more bravely because spoken against a backdrop of too many of our own cold memories of inequity, poverty, racism, corrupt power, and the violence of Pittsburgher against Pittsburgher.

As she spoke, Vanessa’s own memories of violence in her neighborhood in Homewood were very fresh. She had woken to gunfire right in front of her house, had to work to make herself move, to make herself get dressed, to make her face move as she spoke with the sign language interpreter who would be translating her poem. She recognized the symptoms of trauma and later wrote that she sometimes she wished she had the training of a soldier

Vanessa knew I had been a soldier and during the conversation recorded below asked me about that training – but I never experienced the level of violence in Iraq that Vanessa has survived here in the States, that she must live with all around her, in her own neighborhood. I spoke about the Novocaine numbness and emotional detachment that all too often passes for courage. Vanessa spoke of coming back from the trauma of the shooting that morning of the Inauguration when she saw young people she knew in the Westinghouse Marching Band on the stage, children she’d seen grown into teens, vulnerable young adults that she knew could act as drum majors of justice if we could work for their hope, their safety, their spirit. Her concern and emotional connection to them charged her own spirit to speak her poem with power.

…We will be able to make one another better.
So let us move forth, from Lawrenceville to Larimer, carrying our legacy close.
Let us rise to become change agents of a six-block radius.
Let us become drum majors of justice on our own front porches
Bearing forth hope in the form of simply saying, “hello.”
Let it begin with Bryant St. over to the New Bohemian,
Cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge, up the Hill into August Wilson’s stomping ground.
This is our challenge, our moment, our charge to stand together, to band together, hand and hand
To rise with the human commitment and the political will
to fill the fields and hills and valleys and alleyways of our Pittsburgh
with the healing and transformative power of love
of human beings rising for each other, moving from apathy to action,
and it may not always be easy, it may not come to be simple, or fun,—–
or come as quick as we would want it to
But this is our call to courage…

Bus to the Art House in HomewoodI traveled by bus to the Art House in Homewood, the space where Vanessa hosts her neighbors, both adults and children, just a few doors down from her own home. She doesn’t teach – her fellow change agents make art together, share food, juice boxes, art materials, stories. That space is charged with their very visible will to create, to speak out for healing, to make a space for love.

Looking down stairs

Vanessa painting at the Art House







You’re invited to listen to the audio conversation (and the sound of Vanessa’s paint brush) as Vanessa spoke about the backdrop of that creativity: her experiences of violence in Homewood, the divisions between community members and the police who are sworn to protect and serve all Pittsburghers, who have too often turned on her and others she cares for when they reached out for help. She also talked about ways of moving forward during this new transition time, her hopes that we will voice our concerns, our challenges, our ideas and our own desired plans for change, to our new Mayor, to his Administration, and to each other.

Vanessa German made it very clear that she does not want to be either heroized or dehumanized, but spoke about the need for her fellow Pittsburghers to work with each other to better know each other, to communicate with greater respect, and to work to build a safer and more livable City together. You’re invited to listen to her concerns and respond with your own- she’s a woman who knows how to speak her mind, and to listen.

Posted by Helen Gerhardt, excerpts from conversation with Vanessa German:

Hands up

About helengerhardt1

Helen Gerhardt: Pittsburgher, writer, member of the Commission on Human Relations: nothing written at this blog reflects the views or positions of the Commission.

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