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Posted under: Opinion

'Ne Cede Malis': Why The Idea Of Failing Forward Is Key To Changing The Public's Perception Of The Bronx

"The most critical thing is demanding that our failures teach us something."

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What will the Bronx look like five years from now? What will people be saying about this place in 10 years? You can approach these questions from many angles. If education is your thing, you might look at public school funding issues or talk about whether Common Core is working as it should. If you have a scientific mind, maybe you'd explore how using more solar panels could lessen energy drain. If you’re into community development, grassroots strategies might be your salvation. And if you take the creative route, you might gauge change by whether Bronx artists are shaping popular culture. Business people would see things from another perspective, no doubt. Imagining the future of the Bronx takes awareness, care and understanding of what you bring to the table — mentally, spiritually, culturally, economically. All of our currencies matter.

More Hurt Than Help?

I want to bring something impactful to the Bronx, and my dream is to do it through learning and community collaboration. During 2018, I researched, talked with others and thought about how I could showcase the best of my borough. Finally, I settled on doing it through TED's framework of sharing ideas in the form of short, diverse, perspective-shifting talks.

I applied the day after Valentine's Day 2019, and in April I got the “yes” to plan and execute a TEDx event, an independently organized event under a license from TED. I set out to bring the TEDxWakefield blueprint outlined in my application to life with the theme “failing FORWARD” as the banner.

Kayla Smith
Kayla Smith

After sharing the theme with a community leader I hoped would be a speaker at the event, her gracious declination somehow 180'ed into an invitation for me to reevaluate my approach. Her perspective challenged me to consider whether the event should even mention the failure narrative and the Bronx in the same thought. It’s old. So old that it’s dead. It made me question if I was part of the problem, if I was retelling what many view as my borough’s zombie story, even if that was my farthest intention.

Would my decision continue to shine a light on the peeling flesh of poorly performing schools? Accentuate the stench of pissy staircases in police patrolled buildings and expose the bare, bloody bones of health disparity? Her concern was that a theme that holds failure so prominently could paint the picture that ordinary Bronxites carry all the blame for the conditions the Bronx is known for and the effects orchestrated by political decision-makers would be overlooked. 

My thinking is that you can’t ignore the mountain in front of you if you’re goal is to get to the other side. You have to confront it and then move forward. Unexpectedly, her concerns inspired me to put all of my weight on the FORWARD part of the theme.

I don’t know if I had ever given serious thought to the questions at the start of this piece. Have you? I’ve mostly been concerned with the now because it’s easy to do. Now is very in your face. But now and then are opposite sides of the same coin. You can’t have a then without a now, and our current now is the result of a past then. Now is the future.

Hate You Give

A friend who lives in one of the “royal boroughs,” Brooklyn, also known as Kings County, recently called the Bronx “a hell hole.” He cited the brutal gang-related murder of Lesandro "Junior" Guzman Feliz last year as the third strike against his opinion of my borough. 15-year-old Feliz was stabbed to death because his killers mistook him for a member of a rival gang. 

My friend hurled his fiery descriptor of my borough around the time a CNN news reporter’s response to President Trump’s "No human being would want to live there" comment about Baltimore was heating up in the media. I get it. I really do. But I felt that reporter’s vitriol on a personal level. It’s not that districts in the Bronx and Baltimore don’t actually face crippling problems. There’s no delusion at work. My fight is against the condemnation that comes from outside and its internalization that many inside must unlearn.

Too many talk about the Bronx and its residents with disdain and only in general terms. Of course generalization as an evaluative method of the borough is not new and can be seen in other areas of society. For instance, the process of jury selection in New York City's court system is, in part,  based on profiling communities: understanding the general political leanings, social climate and economic status of residents of each borough. Building on that, strategic attorneys craft their courtroom rhetoric in hopes of eliciting certain emotional responses from the jury.

Marketplace strategies are another example. Businesses of all sizes create advertising for customers and potential customers based on demographics, in essence by grouping people with similar characteristics. The downside to generalization is that it creates blind spots. Unfortunately for outliers, the stakes are often high; they are usually the last to be acknowledged, pursued, funded or praised, if at all. A sad consequence is that many are blind to the gems in the Bronx and similar places. Can anything good come from the Bronx? You should know that this is a rhetorical question and that the answer is “Yes!”

Ask Noelle Santos, a Bronx entrepreneur who this year opened The Lit. Bar, the only independent bookstore in the Bronx, partly inspired by the flight of Barnes & Noble — the only general-interest bookstore there was in the borough — in 2017. Or talk to Odane Whilby, who for the past five years has built The Ology, a monthly showcase of musicianship and artistry in the Bronx and beyond.

It’s time the Bronx starts getting the benefit of the doubt; that’s why sharing fresh ideas born in the Bronx is necessary. What I imagine 10 years from now starts with ideas, then action.

Forward

The borough’s motto, “Ne Cede Malis,” means “Do not give way to evil.” Another interpretation is “Yield not to misfortunes.” This advice is applicable today. But contrary to popular belief, the Bronx is full of ideas that push against all the unfavorable reports. The world needs to hear ideas birthed in our arc of the globe because they challenge what people view as “urban,” “bankrupt” and “insignificant.” My hope is that TEDxWakefield event on March 7, 2020, will widen the space for learning and collaboration in one of the most diverse areas in New York City. 

Considering all of that, I kept the theme. Failing is not simply a Bronx thing. It’s a human thing. Failure is common ground. The most critical thing is demanding that our failures teach us something. There’s only one right way to fail — FORWARD.

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Tessa Smith is an Antiguan-born, NYC-based narrative designer, writer and lead organizer of TEDxWakefield. Learn more about her work at TessaCSmith.com.

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