Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Revival of Me & Jessie Reed, Rome PERCs Up & Turns Its Back on Hate

Jessie Reed and I grew up in Rome, Georgia. We shared a handful of friends but did not meet until our early twenties. This time we shared a pool of friends again, mostly men, for whom each of us felt a spectrum of emotion.

Kelli @ PERC, Original photo by TYBOH's Jeremy Harrison
At the surface level, Jessie was the soccer playing guy's gal with a golden heart who volunteered up north at a camp for autistic children, traveled abroad to Israel and gave everyone at the local bar chills when she took the stage and began singing in her throaty, yet unassuming way, red hair hanging down.

Meanwhile, I was dark and slight, an enthusiastic but awkward dancer who wrote reviews of the local bands and startled people with my sobriety. I talked about serious things but laughed loudly and often, gained a reputation as a fortune teller and struggled to make sense of my conflicting experiences as a student teacher. I had already graduated from UGA with honors in journalism, but my professors unleashed me into society with the advice that I needed to get a different job and wait until more time passed. They were convinced my work would be best informed by the next ten or so years of living and that it would take that long for the world to provide a suitable platform for me anyway.

Soon after I married at 24, Jessie disappeared from my life, and the scene we'd both inhabited shifted too.  However, it turned out Jessie and I were on rather parallel paths, each experiencing similar challenges in our relationships, giving birth a handful of times and ultimately developing a deeper sense of our independent voices and creative selves. I began following her latest work last year when she organized a counter protest to a Neo-Nazi/White Rights rally in Rome.

While organizing the counter protest, Jessie found solidarity in a number of citizens who collaborated with her to form the organization Turn Your Back on Hate, which began organizing awareness raising events in direct response to specific happenings, such as the Neo-Nazi rally and later the Orlando shootings. Following the 2016 election, Jessie and fellow members of her Turn Your Back on Hate team envisioned a series of programs called The PERC (Peacefully Engaging the Rome Community). According to its FaceBook page, The PERC is "an effort to merge art and activism in Rome GA." Until a permanent location can be secured, The PERC consists of "pop up" style events at Rome's artist space Makervillage.

The first PERC event featured local poets and performers presenting work focused on the theme "tension and release." It took place after the election, and the community responded with an outpouring of positive support. I crowded into the event space filled with sofas, floor pillows and colorful lights at the midway point and stayed for almost 3 more hours, during which I was stunned by the beauty, insight and humor of my fellow presenters. I also had the privilege to share 3 of my poems there, and it was tremendously empowering to me that these were so well received.

The second PERC also drew in a full house. It featured a live action performance of the classic A Christmas Carol, which aired on the local radio airwaves in real time. Each of my children accompanied me to this event, and my daughter took very clear delight in the fact that people take time out to entertain each other in this way. Funds raised from ticket sales benefited a joint project from Turn Your Back on Hate and the PERC called Keys to Rome, which will place 5 painted pianos in key public locations during summer 2017. Inspired by similar programs launched in other cities, the idea behind Keys to Rome is that it will both beautify the community and motivate its members to engage in spontaneous acts of creativity.

Reflecting on the way Rome has rallied behind Jessie's efforts, I feel the community itself may be following a path parallel to our individual ones.I'm delighted to share the news here. I also offer any of you 20-something-seekers some hope: People, places, feelings and causes do come around again. For me, it's been well worth the wait.

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