On the wall of Rasheedah Phillips’s office, a quote from Malcolm X asserts the necessity for black people “to be given the rights of a human being.”
The criminal justice and Beasley School of Law alumna said she embraces this message in her professional and creative work.
Phillips, an Afrofuturist, started the collaborative art and ethnographic research project “Community Futurisms: Time & Memory in North Philly.” “Community Futurisms” aims to document the memories of residents of the Philadelphia neighborhoods Sharswood and Blumberg as they are transformed by a Philadelphia Housing Authority redevelopment project.
The term Afrofuturism was first coined by cultural critic Mark Dery. According to his essay “Black to the Future,” the word describes fiction that “addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture.”
Since 2008, Phillips has worked for Community Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal representation for low-income Philadelphians.
But in 2011, Phillips began to extend her advocacy beyond her role as an attorney. She formed The Afrofuturist Affair, an art collective dedicated, according to its website, to using “Afrofuturism and Sci-Fi as vehicles for expression, creativity, education, agency and liberation in communities of color.”
Phillips said her work with The Afrofuturist Affair focuses on implementing Afrofuturism as a practical tool to help ordinary people. The organization hosts workshops and events that showcase Afrofuturist art and black science fiction.
Black representation in science fiction influences people’s perspectives on “their ability to change or create what their future is,” Phillips said.
Phillips and Philly-based artist Camae Ayewa are collecting oral histories for the “Community Futurisms” project in a rented space called the Community Futures Lab on Ridge Avenue near 22nd Street. The storefront resides just blocks away from the demolished Norman Blumberg Apartments.
Phillips considers recounting memories to be a practical form of time-travel often featured in Afrofuturist literature.
“I relate [time-travel] very closely to trauma and PTSD, like it brings you back to those feelings, those memories,” Phillips said. “It’s not this thing that you need a degree to do or you need to build a machine that’s never going to be built to do.”
Ayewa sees the project as a concrete way to connect with people experiencing the effects of gentrification.
“It’s important for us to document. I feel like there’s so many different buzzwords in academia, but we really need to hear from the actual people living in these communities,” Ayewa said.
Phillips and Ayewa have already interviewed a dozen Sharswood and Blumberg residents at Community Futures Lab. The lab is also home to a library and various workshops. Some events held there include a community clean-up day and an avant-garde film screening.
Over the summer, several people, including University of Pennsylvania students, interned with Phillips.
“One of the reasons I jumped at it was because Rasheedah and Camae are very amazing artists,” said Joyce Hatton, an intern originally from North Dakota.
Phillips said she wants Temple students to become involved in her project especially “because of how close the space is to Temple and because of, quite frankly, Temple’s participation in what is going on in North Philadelphia.”
Phillips said Temple’s changing culture is detrimental to the integrity of the university. She believes the university should focus more on students from Philadelphia.
“There was a sense like [Temple] was a people’s school, that you as a Philadelphian who went to a poor, stupid high school could go to and actually get a good education,” said Phillips.
While Phillips loved her time at Temple, she faced many challenges as a teen parent living with her child on Main Campus.
“I had a lot of professors who were understanding and caring,” Phillips said. “But also, I had a lot of challenges and a lot of fights to be able to do things like live on campus with my child.”
Phillips said she thinks the Community Futures Lab could benefit from a collaboration with Temple.
“Temple has archives with all types of things in it that would be useful to the project,” said Phillips.
Ian Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.