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Ownership through archiving: Nakia Hill’s anthology of Boston stories

Grace Ramsdell

| 10 min read

On October 15 and 29 in Roxbury’s Horatio Harris Park, Nakia Hill conducted workshops to invite BIPOC women to contribute to a book about relationships to public space. Before the October workshops, Olmsted Now sat down with Nakia to discuss her project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Olmsted Now: How would you describe your project? 

Nakia Hill: My program is truly rooted in community. I will be producing a book collectively with community members, primarily targeting Black and women of color. It’ll be an intergenerational anthology that will feature stories written by the women and girls in the community about their memories in public spaces in our city—memories in public parks. Folks can write poems, they can write long- or short-form narratives. I also am going to open it up so they could submit pieces of photography or portraits of themselves in the actual spaces that they’re writing about. It’s really just a celebration, and it’s for individuals who were born and raised in our city, or lived in our city for many years, and [it’s about] just really capturing their different experiences. In regards to memories of joy, or when they felt like they weren’t wanted in those particular public spaces or felt unsafe. 

I will be leading writing workshops. These workshops won’t feel only like a standard writing workshop where you come to write—that will happen, but it’ll also be about connectivity. Connection to the different women and the girls, their children, maybe their moms, or they’ll bring their daughters or their neighbor to come and just write about their experience in the different public spaces. I believe that writing is a tool for healing, resistance, and advocacy. I’m going to have a mental health expert in the space. This is my second anthology that I’ve produced. The last anthology was on resilience, and it really got emotional. Some women wrote about experiences that they never shared with their family members for the first time, and really, there’s a lot of trauma attached to public spaces. Not only in our city, but around the world. They’ll be writing about those things, and I want to make sure that there’s particular supports there. 

Those who participate, they’re going to get additional support fleshing out their pieces one-on-one from me. I’ll probably also hire some other writers that can help them create a polished piece so that it’s ready to be published in a book. I’m selecting up to 25 women and girls who will be published in the book. The goal was for it to be hardcover and for there to be a celebration. The book will release in the spring, but it’ll be a really intense four to five weeks of writing— the sessions in the public parks, and then there’ll be a continuation that will happen, maybe at a community center or maybe virtually, just so that they get those supports to finalize their pieces. 

We’re going to publish a book about spatial justice and uplifting women and girls’ stories in our cities. My goal is to get the book in different archives, because that’s also a really huge part of my work. Publishing books: Yes, they’re pretty. Yes, you can put them on your coffee table or add them to your bookshelf. But it’s really about preserving stories of Black women and girls of color in our city, and this is just an extension of the work. I’m looking at my skill, my gift as a writer and just depositing it back into a community that I love so much. I was born and raised from Boston. So, this is just a way to give back. 

You mentioned that you’ve done another book. Could you tell me a little more about yourself and what you do? 

NH: I am a Black woman first, a writer, an educator, and also a journalist. So, I have the privilege and the joy of, in my work—whether it’s in my journalism, or in my work at my nine to five—to really merge my love and passion for writing. So, I’m all of those things, and it’s a perfect marriage of my passions and what I have a degree in—which is multimedia journalism and broadcast journalism. So, I can always bring those things back into the different spaces that I work in. 

I also love art. You know, writing is an art. And I really didn’t connect it. My passion for writing—I didn’t connect it to art, because when I think of art, we always think of, like, visual, and dance, and music. But once I became an artist in residence for the City of Boston through Boston Air, that really opened my mind. I’m like, «Oh, writers—we’re artists too!» I started to get really plugged in to the artistic community in Boston. So, I also am a lover, a believer [in art]. I own the word «artist» and that title, and I’m really immersed in the art scene as much as possible in Boston, too, and that carries out in my community service and work. I’m also a board member of the Boston Art Review and love that publication and really believe in the work that they’re doing. Jameson [Johnson, founder and editor-in-chief,] is amazing, and I’ve had an opportunity, I think it was two issues ago, where I edited a section that was celebrating Black artists in Boston. 

On the subject of this program: Have you chosen the locations where you’re going to do the workshops yet? If you have, how have you chosen? If you haven’t, how are you thinking about choosing them? 

I have three generations of family members who are from Boston. My grandmother was born here, my mom, my aunt, and myself. So, I’m actually working with them. I’m going to scout the parks with my family members and see what speaks to me. I also am really particular about it being a park that is in the middle of residences. I want people from the community—that’s the point—to feel welcome. I want them to be able to come across the street and say, «What’s going on?» and have a seat and be a part of these experiences of producing this project. 

That sounds great, and so meaningful. The next question is on the theme of the grant. From your perspective, why do parks need more equity and spatial justice programming, and how does your project speak to that need in Boston? 

The first word that comes to mind for me is ownership. People should feel ownership, belonging. They need to feel welcome. I really hope that Boston can be a leader in that. Because of gentrification, our neighborhoods are changing. The people—and it’s primarily Black and people of color that have lived there—they don’t feel a stake and a right to places where they have generations of family members who have lived. It’s extremely important for residents, Boston residents, to take back their parks, and to take up space, and to feel like they belong, and to be able to be their most authentic selves. And we can do that collectively. It’s not like one person belongs and the other [doesn’t]. But like, Boston neighborhoods are places where we see the faces of the people changing, and the reason why [new people] want to live there is because of the culture. You can’t move the culture out and take advantage of the beautiful parks and how it’s, you know, accessible for you to travel to your Downtown Crossing job, you know? So, I really just want to preserve those things for people to take back—take back their parks, take back their space, so we can truly be a community. It’s not pushing other people out to be exclusive on the other end and to villainize people who we would consider gentrifiers. It’s not about that, it’s about: «This is our space. These are our parks. We lived here. You now live here. We’re one community, and it’s important one person’s not welcome more than the other.» That’s a huge task, now that I’m thinking about it and saying it out loud. Although I am targeting Black and people of color [with this program], I hope that all people feel like they can come and will come so that they can learn about the people’s stories who are there and their neighbors who they may have never connected with. 

Like you said, that’s a very big task. On a simpler level, what about parks and public spaces makes you feel the most grateful or the most at peace? 

From being a city person, I have a real great appreciation for our public spaces in nature. I think that living in a city, everything’s so fast-paced. Especially since we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic, to really take appreciation of what our parks look like—the trees, the land, really uplifting the history of Indigenous peoples—is really important, and knowing who was here before even my generation of people. I think that’s really important, to uplift those stories, too. 

I was on the Olmsted committee learning more about Olmsted’s history. It was really just impressive and eye-opening to know that a place where I grew up is a part of this whole Emerald Necklace. Connecting my home, connecting our home, to this bigger legacy of Olmsted in our public places I think is really important, and I think it’s important to share that history with residents who may not be aware—or maybe they have their own stories about how their family has connections to nature and public spaces in the city. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I just want to note that anytime I’ve published books and I get the opportunity, I love to work with women of color. So, the designer [of this book] is a woman of color. Her name is Joelle Riffle; she lives in Jamaica Plain, so she’s a Boston resident and also has an appreciation for public parks and spaces. Anything that you’ll see as far as flyers, the book cover design—she’ll be the lead designer for that. Also, a photographer by the name of Stephanie, a mental health practitioner that will also be supporting me with that, is going to take footage of the entire experience. It’s going to be photo-driven and also have the beautiful pieces of writing. The authors are going to have photos of them in these spaces, just looking gorgeous in their natural state in our public spaces, too. We want to make sure that we continue to uplift Olmsted’s legacy and also ask, “How are we using the spaces today?” You’ll see a lot of that in the book, too. 

What three to five words capture the essence of your project? 

Community, women, and belonging. 

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