People going through homelessness in Greensboro map experience

by Jordan Green

| | @JordanGreenYES

The idea of radical mapping came to Gwen Frisbie-Fulton from a class. She thought about Glenwood, the neighborhood where she lives in Greensboro, and how there was a crime map, a Google map “and a map of what UNCG wants the neighborhood too look like” — reflecting the university’s expansion plans.

She wondered what the neighborhood would look like if it were mapped from her young son’s perspective, with familiar streets taking on more prominence and landmarks such as a beloved mulberry tree representated.

With a small grant in hand from a public dinner sponsored by Elsewhere and Greensboro Participatory Budgeting, Frisbie-Fulton brought her Storyscapes project to a group of guests at the Interactive Resource Center, the homeless day center where she works. They laid out butcher paper and began mapping Greensboro from the vantage of the guests’ experiences. One of the guests, who gets around the city on foot, put it in perspective for Frisbie-Fulton: “I would draw my route by empty lots, alleys and train tracks.”

On Sept. 20, roughly a dozen poets and artists who contributed pieces for the project installed their poems in downtown locations connected to the experiences captured in their work. A map available at the Interactive Resource Center and participating downtown businesses was released to facilitate self-guided tours of the installation.

Donna Harrelson’s poem “I Was There,” printed in gold and black on laminated, heavy-stock paper, chronicles the 1979 Klan-Nazi shooting, which she witnessed as a 16-year-old resident of the Morningside Homes public housing community. Two days before the unveiling of the project, she said her poem would not be posted at the site of the shooting; even better, Harrelson said she had secured permission to display it at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

Inspired by her sister, an NAACP member who informed her about civil rights causes, Harrelson attended the march called by the Workers Viewpoint Organization to champion workers and protest racism. The last thing she expected was for Ku Klux Klan members to come in to her community and shoot people.

Her poem vividly captures the day:

“A playground that once held laughter of children stories you can feel…/ Was instantly turned into a bloody battlefield…/ It was a crucifixion that the whole world would soon ask WHY/ SANDI/ MICHAEL/ JAMES/ CEASAR/ AND BILL HAD TO DIE.”

The sense of safety felt by Harrelson and others in her community was shattered forever. No trauma counseling was offered to the residents of Morningside Homes, and many like Harrelson suppressed the memory and then dealt with the pain many years later.

“The thing was, I was thinking about going into the service — joining the Army,” she recalled. “The fear that I had was about getting involved in a war when there was a war going on in my backyard. It made the decision to not join because I was terrified.”

Harrelson lost her home in 2010, and her job and car around the same time.

“I had been sleeping from pillar to post,” she said, when a friend told her about the Interactive Resource Center. She visited and decided to join the creative writing class after looking into the services at the center.

Harrelson has been writing poetry since she was in the seventh grade. She runs an organization called Transforming Souls that produces skits about domestic violence prevention, gangs and homelessness, and has published a book of the same title.

She has struggled to find secure employment since 2010, but drives to Mocksville several days a week to work for a family member. In the meantime, she has been writing plays. One of them caught the attention of someone who knows Tyler Perry, and she has an invitation to meet with the playwright, producer and actor. Her fingers are crossed.

Malea Lail, who uses a walker to ambulate, was inspired by watching guests of the Interactive Resource Center go back and forth on mopeds. The underpass at the railroad grade separation marks a low spot on Washington Street down the hill from the center. The mopeds strain to ascend the crest; they zoom downhill.

Lail found herself composing a song:

“Moped Man, Moped Man/ Does whatever a moped can/ Goes real fast down a hill/ Going up he’s real slow/ Watch out!!!/ Here comes the moped man.”

Frisbie-Fulton created a wooden box frame topped with miniature motorcycles that belonged to her son, and painted the assembly orange.

“How did you know to paint it orange?” Lail asked.

“Orange is you,” Frisbie-Fulton answered.

Another poem takes inspiration from the soaring architecture of the CenterPoint building: “Look up!/ Get ready for the show/ Sixteen floors are a reflection as my screen and background/ A monolith of glass, marble and steel reaches for the sky….”

Lail, who freely discusses her condition as someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, came to the Interactive Resource Center in December. She had found that she could not get along with family members, and has stayed in two different shelters since then. In January, she took up writing again.

“It kind of brought my mind back to me,” she said. “I had given up on things. I care now. I’m now trying to help other people with the little that I have.”