A day in the life at one of Indianapolis’ most dynamic (and expansive) grassroots organizations.
Nearly a couple dozen faces fill the Zoom screen as the staff of the Kheprw Institute (https://kheprw.org/) login for their weekly staff meeting. The Kheprw Institute (KI) takes its name and logo from the Kemetic word for the scarab beetle, kh(pr), an ancient Egyptian symbol representing rebirth and transformation.
No longer able to meet together in the same space, people begin the ritual of check-in time—a chance to share where people are mentally, spiritually, and emotionally—telling about their week from their various locales. Spread out among the homes in the neighborhood (several owned by KI and used for community housing), the new interns, from universities looking for real-world experience working in the community, introduce themselves.
One recent member confesses her struggles adjusting to the way the group operates in that “the ‘we’ paradigm is hard when my entire life has been subconsciously built around pride in rugged individualism. Some days I feel inspired, other days I feel like a misfit, and today I viscerally feel scared that the work it will take to make real change is nearly insurmountable. Tomorrow I will feel better.”
I began working with the Kheprw Institute when I was invited in to speak about the history of African American writers in science fiction. It turned out there were a lot of science fiction nerds in the space. One evening over a meal, a group of us were geeking out over books and media and the ensuing conversation led to the birth of the Afrofuture Friday community conversation series. That was over three years ago.
The Kheprw Institute comes across as some sort of fractal octopus with so many tentacles reaching into so many pies that it’s difficult to keep track of everything going on. With their mantra being “Community Empowerment Through Self-Mastery,” KI is a “let’s get something done” group that typically attracts those type of individuals, organized into intergenerational teams of elders and young people, with young people taking the lead. The KI staff meeting represents a chance for the various cohorts to report out on what they’re up to.
Scarabys Consulting (https://kheprw.org/scarabys-consulting/), KINuMedia (https://kinumedia.org/), Afri-Charts (https://kheprw.org/africharts-products/), and the various other social enterprises. Focusing on the four E’s of empowerment, economics, environment, and education, KI’s work has spilled over into the areas of politics, arts, and food. Though as one person cautions in the staff meeting, “we need to vet our opportunities more so that they don’t move us from pillar to post.”
There has been a heaviness to the Kheprw Institute space of late. An organization used to being in the streets, working alongside neighbors, holding meetings, and building with people in order to improve the lives of black people in the community now has to contend with many of the systems America was built on revealing their fundamental cracks due to two forces: a pandemic and a global uprising against those inherently oppressive racist systems.
“First, we enter the pandemic era and then we re-enter the rebellion era during it,” someone reminds the group in the staff meeting. This week Leah Humphrey facilitates the meeting, a young leader involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The heaviness becomes embraced as the weight of responsibility in the moment because such times are what KI has been preparing for since its inception.
Some of us don’t mind living in the unknown and chaos. — Imhotep Adisa
The Kheprw Institute was founded in 2004 in the wake of Pambana Uishi and Imhotep Adisa’s son, Diop Adisa, struggling with his high school math class. As a way to support him and provide a safe and enriching space during the summer—since Diop conveniently forgot to bring home the forms required for him to attend summer school—Pambana and Imhotep had Diop accompany his dad to the non-profit he and Paulette Fair were consulting for at the time.
Diop did his homework around the boardroom table in the morning and then worked at the non-profit in the afternoon. He was soon joined by Tano Fair, Paulette Fair’s grandson, and other neighborhood teens in need of tutoring and economic opportunities. The jobs and opportunities were tied to their academic performance.
Pambana, Paulette, and Imhotep soon launched the Kheprw Institute with its different business ventures to help develop leadership and entrepreneurial training. KI reached out to local schools to gather other African-American males into the program to provide mentoring, work readiness, and develop entrepreneurial and critical thinking skills. In the intervening years, it has grown into an organization serving hundreds of diverse people, using a variety of social enterprises to both train youth and fund the organization.
We’re here to be supportive of you and your family, to be okay in this crazy time and place. — Imhotep Adisa
Once the staff meeting ends, the calls between members begin. One-on-one mentoring, the conversations model the kind of non-outcome driven work at the core of KI’s method: the work of relationship building. Circumstances have moved from hanging out on someone’s porch to a more intentional using Zoom or phones or other tools of social media to remain connected.
The Kheprw Institute has a cultural focus centering the black experience, it’s open to including others who embrace its philosophical underpinnings of inclusive community voice for everyone, building relationships with others. That’s the nature of interdependence, another core tenet of how the organization operates. Take Mimi and Aghilah.
Mimi Zakem, who has been at KI for less than five years since she graduated college, now oversees the Community Controlled Food Initiatives (CCFI), a program that networks neighborhood gardeners and delivers food out to the community. An area whose work has tripled since the onset of Covid-19.
Also not long out of college and in the work for less than five years, Aghila Nadaraj works with the Climate Justice Alliance to oversee the environmental justice work. Though we’re in a pandemic, climate change hasn’t paused and still impacts vulnerable communities the most. To hear them move from bickering like a married couple, to holding each other accountable, to making jokes with a careful attentiveness to one another. The push and pull of working in a team is necessary, allowing each other space to speak into one another’s lives as a reminder that we are responsible for and accountable to one another. But from that tension, the best work is produced.
One of the challenges during these times is to remember that at its core, the work remains people-centered.
Life is always about the person in front of you, listening to them, recognizing their hurts, attending to how they are holding up during this crisis.
Being human, realizing that each respective family drama impacts the entire space. The elders may end up talking to parents of some of their young leaders about how great their children are and the great work that they do.
Some members double down on staying busy to get through. Raised in a culture of excellence, they were built to be ready to jump into the fight. But for the sake of caring about them, it’s important for the community to make sure that it’s the right work and they are operating from a healthy place. Because no work is worth a single person being hurt. It’s the continuing work of being present, meeting people where they are. Listening and paying attention to people, finding places to walk alongside them until they’re okay. One neighbor, one person in the community, at a time. Supporting families, providing hope, and creating opportunity for agency.
By mid-afternoon, some of the community conversations KI has been hosting begin. Today’s Zoom conversation features Dr. Demirel-Pegg and Councilwoman Ali Brown on the topic of political conflict, political upheaval, and protest. Already KI plans a series of equity conversations to keep the topics brought up by the uprising at the forefront once the fervor of the moment has died down.
The Kheprw Institute had launched a major initiative earlier this year, Alkhemy (https://alkhemyki.org/), with Diop, now a world-renown hip hop artist, a key architect of it. Grounded in the Kheprw Institute’s philosophy of building community wealth, it has taken two forms.
The first is a business incubator/accelerator which seeks to cultivate an ecosystem that supports the successful launch and growth of social enterprises to build community wealth, agency, and a vibrant local economy. The second is Café Creative (https://cafecreative.org/) which networks some of the top artists across various art practices to learn from each other and mentor upcoming artists.
The goal is to create new models, not working out of yesterday’s paradigm, since old models learned from the status quo that never served us in the first place. Even the simple act of having artists over to hang out in a space to honor them and reflect back to them the gifts that they are and offer—because, like the rest of us, they don’t always see it—wrestles with how to use this moment to help build community and from that create the culture to build excellence. The initiatives continue to draw the attention of community leaders throughout the city and state since most of the work at KI has been done on the strength of its social capital and enterprises.
If you’re paying attention, you can see the future in the present. — Imhotep Adisa
At the end of most days, after the shared meals—another adjustment as members now pick up portioned out plates from the porch since we can’t physically eat together these days—I have a virtual nightcap with Imhotep Adisa (along with our ritual Saturday morning virtual coffee). An opportunity to reflect on the day and dream about what a future desired state could look like.
Even that becomes a kind of intergenerational mentoring. Imhotep (an elder in the space) to me (I refuse to be thought of as even remotely approaching “elder” status, earning me the nickname “baby elder”) to Rasul Palmer (my co-facilitator in the Afrofuture Friday conversations). I watched Rasul grow from one of the young science fiction nerds in the space to lead KI’s latest projects, Democratizing Our Data. In partnership with New America, his program trains grassroots community to use public data to inform community projects and shape public policy.
Often me and Imhotep end up discussing the challenges of the new dance of institutions reaching out to KI, navigating conversations across ideological differences. So often, KI’s reputation precedes them. Many a politician dreads when KI staff attends a public meeting as the young folks are ready to speak truth to power on behalf of the community. The engaging institutions think they know who they are dealing with, but are actually just now learning. Most recovery plans don’t serve us because the return to the status quo only leaves our community back where we were.
Black joy has always been a tool, bringing hope and light into the space to counter the real of what is.
Agency grounded in community, producing resilience. Our history is replete with stories of resilience, finding ways out of no way. Institution building in order to make the changes we want to see happen. Building through non-transactional practices, valuing the gifts and talents of neighbors, supporting them, and providing space for them to be the best they can be.
KI’s leadership training focuses on young people, carving space for them to step into leadership, encouraging them to push through the pressures of the moment. Everything’s a classroom, even now, creating spaces to have rage as well as remembering how to be strategic to keep harnessing action to move toward a goal. It’s possible to have community in dysfunctional culture.
That’s the work that’s always been done and continues to be done. It’s simply important to stay safe and stay connected. We’re not waiting for some “post-pandemic” return to the status quo but rather, we’re about creating the new normal in the present. All to strive to build the world we want to see. Together.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kheprw Community Impact Fund is launching the Community Now Fund to support Indianapolis families and individuals who need emergency relief in paying a utility bill, rent or mortgage due to the loss of or decrease in income during this crisis.
This fund is supported by a grant from the Central Indiana Covid-19 Community Economic Relief Fund and matched with money from the community. Donate at donate.kheprw.org. And keep up with what they are up at @kheprw (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).
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