words by John Dayo-Aliya, photos by Shane Wynn
The W.O.M.B (way of mind and body) is not your average, everyday community center. The burnt sienna walls are lined with artwork that depicts Kemetic symbolism and imagery of black struggle and triumph. Warm textured tufts of Neo-Soul music are juxtaposed with the cacophonous clattler of the 40+ employees coming and going. Midday, the atmosphere is somewhere between an Brooklyn upscale Jazz lounge and grand central station. It’s feels like a warm and “lived-in” place, a sacred place — perhaps, a beloved community church or somebody’s grandmother’s house.
A few children’s toys sit neatly beside the large storefront windows beneath a fulgent green indoor garden of Peace Lily, Mother-in-Law Tongue and Spider Plant. Shane, who is this project’s photographer, and I wanted to include the toys in the photos to demonstrate the cozy nature of building. Darrita Davis, a lead organizer at The W.O.M.B., very politely at first — and then more directly, the more we insisted — declined our suggestion.
“Get those dirty-ass toys out this picture,” Darrita says, smiling brightly, but only half-jokingly.
The toys were promptly 86’d.
This seemingly palpable conviction and all-encompassing familial love — extended to everyone who walks through the building’s glass doors — is the secret ingredient to The W.O.M.B.’s appeal. It opened in 2009 and has grown from artsy hangout for black bohemians into a full-throttle hotbed for progressive community initiatives, a cultural arts center that’s also home to social justice-oriented non-profits.
Darrita has worked at The W.O.M.B. since 2012, alongside Jennifer Toles, another lead organizer and “den mother.” They both embody the spirit of the place, carrying a quiet urban regality that’s equal parts Nefertiti and East Akron B-girl.
However, they appear hesitant to be the focus of a the pomp and circumstance of a photoshoot. I can’t help but to wonder, if they, like many black women I know, are much more comfortable being the backbone of a community as opposed to its face.
What do you think of when you hear Blakron?
DD: Black people in the summertime — dressed fly at backstreet block parties. I think of neighborhoods. I think of icicles. People dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight and Maze and Frankie Beverly. I think of rib burn-offs.
JT: The Urban League. Martial Arts. Something to do all the time, whether is was playing ball or swimming. Just community activity.
It sounds like a lot of what you associate with Blakron is in the past. How would you characterize Black Akron today?
JT: People’s doors are closed most of the time. They’re unengaged. You mostly only see the old Akron on the 4th of July.
DD: They have up surveillance cameras and no trespassing signs.
Why do you think these changes has occurred?
JT: A lot things have occured. Jobs leaving the community means folks have lower disposable incomes. People are stressed out and broke. It’s also the perception that our communities are more dangerous than they are. But violence is actually going down from 25 years age. Media gives people a sense that the opposite is true. That also plays into the disengagement.
DD: Also, a lot of the events that people would come out for are in central locations now. So what might have been in East Akron back in the day is now downtown. Transportation is an issue for many in our community. So that isolates people.
JT: Our neighborhoods are oversaturated with police who are there oftentimes to penalize us and act as prison guards on our streets.
How does the work you do address the issues of Black Akron?
JT: Our work is based in restorative justice. It acknowledges the ways in which people are have been harmed. But, instead of punishing people, the work that we do promotes restorating people and our communities to their natural healthy condition.
In what ways is The W.O.M.B. unique?
JT: The W.O.M.B. has survived many years just on the donations of the people in the community. It has only been recently that The W.O.M.B. has gotten any investment from outside funders. It’s the community investment that gives the space a qualitatively different feel. The investment from the community is what creates the sense of interconnectedness in the space. The issues that impact folk in our community are often being addressed by folks who are not living in our community. Our work is how to get people to build who are most impacted by the work. And that’s what we do here.
In one sentence, if you could say one thing about The W.O.M.B. what would it be?
JT: It may sound corny but, at the root of it all: we lead with love.
DD: We are grounded in respect and restoring the dignity of the people of our communities.