This article features a short video from City on a Hill Press’s video team, CHP Now.

A DJ blasts “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayers. The walls of Barrios Unidos’ new community center are covered with acrylic paintings of historical Black figures. Over their masks, folks squint from their excited smiles, sitting in reserved seats spaced six feet apart.

Barrios Unidos is an organization focused on preventing youth violence and recidivism, the rate at which previously convicted people reoffend. The Black History Month Celebration gathered friends, activists, and artists together on Feb. 8 to revitalize the push for a more equitable society.

Founder of Barrios Unidos Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez brought in guest speakers Rev. Deborah Johnson and Danny Glover for the event. Johnson is a spiritual director at Inner Light Ministries, and Glover is an actor and activist. The two spoke on the importance of knowing the history of oppression in order to fight against it.

“[I hope that] people come together and feel good about themselves despite what’s going on right now,” Alejandrez said prior to the event. “Families are suffering, our economic situations are bad, our relatives are in prison and young people are tired of Zoom and they want to be outside. We have to be careful and protect ourselves, but we also have to keep that spirit going.”

The celebration opened with audience members singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in unison, followed by Rev. Johnson leading the room in a prayer for those who are imprisoned. Johnson told the attendees not to take their privileges for granted, even though stay-at-home orders can feel isolating. It is important to acknowledge that those who are in prison are already in a constant state of isolation, Johnson said.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” is referred to as the Black National Anthem and is a poem written in 1900 by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson. The NAACP adopted the song as the Black National Anthem in 1919 as its call for freedom and justice for the Black community.

After the prayer, Rev. Johnson and Glover emphasized the importance of envisioning a new system. One completely different from the current neoliberal structure of society that prioritizes free-market capitalism and profit over human beings. 

“Some of the people here are part of the choir. Maybe if we work harder, we can find new ways through our imagination to create a world that only we can work to build in the service of love and justice,” Glover said in an interview prior to the event, reflecting on a famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. “Sometimes we need to preach to the choir, because if you don’t they may stop singing.”

Glover said that people coming together and imagining a better world is part of the journey to create a more equitable society.

“We celebrate what ordinary people and ordinary citizens sitting right here do every day, and everything in pushing that forward,” Glover stated. “We’re celebrating the opportunities we’re giving them and talking about the unity and the connection between us and brown people and People of Color.”

Another part of the journey is acknowledging history like Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow racial segregation in public spaces. The Wilmington massacre followed shortly afterward, when white supremacists destroyed Black property and businesses as a means to overthrow the biracial government. 

Rev. Johnson spoke more on the contradictions in the foundation of the U.S., including the irony in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that every person is created equal. She also mentioned how the country still combats the same issues that existed when northern and southern states agreed to have “free states” and “slave states.” 

“The [Missouri] Compromise that they made is a compromise we keep making now in the name of trying to keep the ‘United States,’” Rev. Johnson said. “We’re turning our eye on stuff that we know isn’t just. We are giving people a free pass to set up systems and institutions that we know are contradictory to liberty and justice for all.”

Rev. Johnson brought attention to the undercurrent of racism across issues in the justice, education, and health care systems.

Both Rev. Johnson and Glover acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done in fighting for a world where everyone has equal access to the care and resources they need. 

“We have to keep making the connection between all those issues,” Glover said. “And we have until we realize we have power, ourselves, and the possibilities of human imagination to change.”