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News and updates from around the Ujima Ecosystem.

Disrupting the Narrative with Catherine Nakato




Have you ever had your narrative disrupted? Catherine Nakato would like to know.


Possessor of many names (from KitKat to O Snap, It’s Cat, to Cartoon Network (but never Cathy) among her friends, family, and community, Nakato is a multidisciplinary creative working within the intersections between the arts, technology, culture and community.

Nakato is an experience-builder as well, curating events (like the yearly Legacy Ball) to ignite conversation and building an app (called mYouSeeEm) to explore digital knowledge-sharing amongst the African diaspora. With a drive for knowledge and an expansive taste for understanding how to facilitate fun, digestible educational spaces, Cat leaves great impact–and she brought her curiosity to the Boston Ujima Project for our latest Arts Micro-Learning Pod Series, entitled “Disrupting the Narrative." We caught up with her at the top of the year to learn more of her own story and to debrief on her time with us, in a mode of reflection.


 

Alula: Hi Cat! It’s wonderful to see you; whenever we run into each other, we’re always around loved ones and community members in Cambridge and Boston. I would love to know how you approach being so engaged with the people around you, and if there’s a story that describes some of the warmth and empathy you bring to those interactions?


Catherine: Alula! Thank you for having me! And absolutely… I’ll take it back to the beginning. When I was in the third grade, I took part in the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program (or CYEP, designed to close the summer learning loss gap for low-income students), and I was in that program until the eighth grade–then I became a volunteer, and I ended up working for the program as a junior counselor, a senior counselor, and eventually a director of the program by my freshman year of college. The educational focus is on exposing these students to the world beyond, to expand the scope of students’ experience beyond the city they live in–there were a lot of field trips, to the Museum of Science, to the Basketball Hall of Fame, to George’s Island. I think that outlook is really powerful–the greatest education I’d personally received, up to that point, was exposure.

And I was teaching young people really early on, so I in-turn learned so much about what it meant to be a support system for youth. When I was a counselor with CYEP, every morning I would read and work through writing prompts with my students.


We would pick a chapter a day from the Freedom Writers Diary to read and respond to. My only ask for my students was that they write daily; I told them I’d never read their work unless they gave me permission. I had all girls at this time, so I had like seven, eight adolescent girls in the classroom. By week three, they told me that they wanted me to have full access to read their journals.


Wow.


They were like, “yeah, like you can read it if you want, you just can’t ask us about it,” and I thought that was fair. So either that night or that weekend, I remember taking their journals home–I read every page of every one of those girls’ journals and I was in my room bawling my eyes out, fully becoming aware of everything going on in their lives. As a counselor, I saw these kids every day and I was just not thinking about what life is like for them when they leave, that’s not really part of the job description. But because they opened up to me in this way, I showed up in the classroom more empathetic. I showed up in the classroom more authentically and more raw and more vulnerable with them because I realized, they understand more than we give them credit for. And that was my first real engagement in my community, fostering those relationships with young people at a really early age, learning their stories, and asking myself, “how can I help?” Really early on for me, I remember someone telling me, “the best way to find yourself is in the service of others.”


How do you build trust in your relationships with people?
I trust God. I may not always trust people <laughs>. But I trust God and I lean on my faith in Him, and that allows me to walk securely in myself. That’s what helps me build relationships, because those ties are built upon mutual connection, truth, and intentionality–as opposed to an approach of “let me try to build this trust with you so we can move forward,” because we’re all humans. We’re going to mess up at a point in time and that’s okay. But what is the essence of the relationship that’s been developed here? What is your character, and how does that show up?

That reminds me of this episode on the last season of Atlanta, with Earn and his therapist. His therapist asks him, “do you trust people?” And Earn responds that he trusts people to do what is best for them given their incentive structures and reference points. The therapist then says, “ — so you don’t trust anybody” <laughs>. But thinking about alignment and holding space for one another as the basis of a relationship is vital.


I’m curious how your experience in community education carries forward into a platform like mYouSeeEm, digging into inclusive digital platforms and educational formats?


I’ll start with the motivation for mYouSeeEm. There was a situation that happened at the MFA years ago; seventh and eighth grade Black and brown honor roll students went on a school field trip as their reward for making honors, and ended up being racially profiled by museum staff and patrons–to add insult to injury, the students are looking around at the art and they’re not feeling seen. When I heard about this, the first thing that I thought about was my own students. I was sending them to the MFA, I was sending them to these institutions, putting them on to free museum passes, even paying to bring them to these places; and I wasn’t taking inventory and recognizing the harm emanating from these spaces, recognizing that my students may not even be enjoying this as much as I thought. So the question became, “where are these children supposed to go to see themselves in the arts?” What does it mean for them to not just be exposed to anything and everything, but for them to be intentionally exposed to things that are to their benefit. And that’s where mYouSeeEm was developed, right? m-You-See-Em. We see you in this space. We want you to feel seen when you come into this digital platform that is really centered on connecting art history and culture, helping you see things that you may not have seen before, and engaging in conversations across the African diaspora.


How do you approach knowing and building for the diaspora, for Blackness in multiple contexts?


I was born in Cambridge, and I recall it being a melting pot of Africans and Caribbeans. It felt important to me to understand the different regional aspects and cultures that my neighbors brought into our neighborhoods–shout out to the Ethiopians in Cambridge, y’all were holding it down! And it connects to the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program, too–one of the biggest events they would hold is a potluck, and I love to eat <laughs>. So now I’ve got a bevy of foods from a bevy of people on my plate, and I’m asking like, yo…what is tef? What is Shiro? How did you make this? Where does this come from? I was around a lot of Haitians–when they would speak kreyol around me, at first I’d be lost, but now I’m able to engage in conversation with them.


These experiences in my immediate surroundings showed me a Blackness that is not monolithic. People say it all the time, but when you’re sitting in the thick of it, you wrap your head around all the specificities. And at the same time, I’m seeing the connections that bridge us–there’s pockets of Africa all around the world. I lived in Brazil for four months, studying film and the environment. And when I got off the plane in Salvador, I felt like I just got off the plane back home in Uganda.

What I’m hearing in this as well is this concept that’s been coming up in a couple conversations: approaching generality through specificity. Whether we’re coming from different countries in Africa or from Haiti, from Brazil, from Louisiana, from Roxbury–we all have different ways and incarnations of showing up as Black and African people, and through those specificities we approach that generality of still holding love and care and liberatory aspirations… We still understand each other in some way when we visit all these different pockets of Blackness. While we’re still in the realm of arts and cultural institutions, I’m curious how you came to be involved with Circle Squared?


That’s funny. CJ Felix (founder of the creative collective and community wellness organization) is truly my brother. He’s my right hand when it comes to developing, processing, and sound boarding ideas and projects. And when Circle Squared first came up even as an idea, we just fell deeper and deeper into the concept and the work together. The beauty of Circle Squared is the intentionality, the care, and the support, alongside the ability to dream bigger.


Does that sense of dreaming bigger animate your Microlearning Pod series “Disrupting the Narrative?" Where did the ideation for that series start?


It actually started with me trying to figure out, “what is me?” And when I was sifting through the words that came to mind, the one that stuck was “narrative;” I appreciate learning people’s stories. I love what young people have to say and there’s just so much wisdom and history that our elders know that I feel like we can pull from. So it started off there, with “I have mYouSeeEm and we’re focused on these different things, but what’s the story? Okay now I’ve got the story for mYouSeeEm, but what’s the story of the people interfacing with it?” And I thought I had a great idea on my hands, and I could just work on a narrative series. But my own narrative kept facing disruption as I asked myself further questions, so then the central questions became, “what would it look like if we focus on disrupting the narrative? What does it mean for us to disrupt the narrative in arts and cultural and academic spaces? What does it mean for us to disrupt the narrative of a museum space?” I knew I wanted to talk to people to pull perspectives into this series, but I had to sort out some personal aversions to podcasts and to being on camera, to step outside of my comfort zone because I felt like that’s what this project required of me.


To borrow a question from you that you asked in your series: in your process of producing the series, what aspects of your vision did you have to let go of? Were there any disappointments or frustrations along the way?


I think one of the biggest frustrations was feeling like the value of the work, of the series, needed to be explained. It’s something that I expected would be known when I was selected to produce this series. But still I ran into moments where I didn’t feel like proving the merit of this project to people I was working with (even at Ujima) but I had to explain it so that the value was mutually understood. I also wish there was a bit more intention and care in this process, given that it’s immensely important when approaching a project that impacts people at an individual and community level.


Do you feel that “Disrupting the Narrative” was a success?


It was definitely a success! And largely because of the impact it had on myself and the people that came and participated. Mm-Hmm. For me, the series reminded me of our unique abilities to bring things from our minds into reality. And hosting this project with Ujima connects the people who came to the series to the broader networks and opportunities in our shared ecosystems. People have walked away from these conversations and found therapists, have tapped back into their own creative energies. People now will come to me talking about how after this series, they feel a renewed desire to explore different avenues that they’d imagined before and hadn’t been able to walk through until now. I think that’s where the success comes from. There’s Ujima, collective work and responsibility, and then there’s Kuumba: the creative ability to leave a space better than you found it. And I think that’s what “Disrupting the Narrative” was able to achieve.


What words would you like to leave our readers and membership with?

Be a good steward over the opportunities that come your way that you accept.

 

Learn more about “Disrupting the Narrative,” and Catherine Nakato’s further work, here; and register for the last session in the series (on March 13th) here!


Alula Hunsen is an essayist, researcher, editor, and Editorial Manager at Boston Ujima Project. His specific intrigues lie in Black cultural production, planning creative spaces, and alternative economies that support self-determination.

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