Jun 21, 2016
How CaribBEING and the Heritage Film Series Are Building the First Little Caribbean
On the homepage of the non-profit caribBEING, a definition of the word follows: “1. Term constructed from ‘Caribbean’ and ‘being’ which means the nature or essence of a person. 2. A 21st century person born in and/or of descent from the Caribbean. 3. Adventure-seeker with a strong desire to travel and explore the Caribbean. 4. An authentic Caribbean brand.”
In 1999, first generation Caribbean American and Flatbush resident, Shelley Vidia Worrell, founded the arts non-profit in her native Flatbush—an epicenter of Caribbean culture and New York City’s most significant Caribbean diaspora since the 1960s. With CaribBEING, Worrell’s mission has been to strengthen the Caribbean community through Caribbean-based arts, culture, and film programming, staged within the community and at museums across New York City. Then, in 2010, Worrell also launched Flatbush Film Festival, making it the first of its kind to be dedicated exclusively to Caribbean cinema.
Over the last two years, Worrell has taken that concept and made it more flexible, turning it from a film festival into the CaribBEING Heritage Film Series. A series, she explained to me last Friday, talking by phone, allows a greater number and wider diversity of Caribbean-dedicated films to be screened in more locations throughout the year (a festival, on the other hand, is limited to a set location, and dates, year after year). This year, the second annual as a series, Caribbean-based films will screen from Thursday, June 23 through next Wednesday, June 29 at three New York City Museums: Studio Museum in Harlem, its biggest partner museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Historical Society.
“Now we can do [the series] any time we do film programming, and still put it under the same umbrella,” Worrell explained to me. “This series gives us a lot more flexibility, and is less-loaded in terms of an event; you don’t feel as much pressure.”
Highlights of the series include the New York City premiere of Cimarrón Spirit, a film about the descendants of Taíno Indians and escaped enslaved Africans who live outside the mainstream of Dominican society, which will be followed by a talkback by director Rubén Durán; and Unbought and Unbossed, from director Shola Lynch, covering the life of Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman in the United States who was also of Caribbean descent and ran for president in 1972.
To select the films, Worrell talked to museum programmers and curators about topical questions affecting broader Caribbean culture. When speaking to Brooklyn Historical society, LGBTQ issues came up. The Caribbean, Worrell says, is considered to be a very homophobic place; so it was not only in light of the horrific massacre in Orlando, but also as a broader Caribbean topic, that Brooklyn historical society selected Taboo Yardies, directed by Selena Blake, which captures the homophobia and violence against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in Jamaica and the West Indies. “It was a timely topic not only in the Caribbean, but also in the United States,” Worrell says of the film selection. “We’re not being opportunistic; those situations happen in the Caribbean all of the time.”
Worrell tells me that, due to CaribBEING’s partnership with city museums, and especially the influence wielded by their biggest partner, Brooklyn Museum, CaribBEING film events have drawn audiences far beyond the Caribbean community. Museums offer safe spaces to tackle topics that, on the street and in every day conversation, can be fraught. “People come and feel comfortable having conversations around politics and heritage and sexuality,” says Worrell. “We have educators on staff who come to really drive and deepen the conversation around these topics.”
Since CaribBEING’S inception, Worrell believes, their programming has reached 70 thousand people; that number of course grows with their presence online; and, she estimates, their film programming—the festival and series included—accounts for about ten percent of that number, or around seven thousand audience members. Suffice to say, for a relatively small non-profit, CaribBEING’s impact is outsized.
But for Worrell Personally, her mission with CaribBEING and as a Flatbush native is not limited to film programming and cultural education. Recently, as her own passion project, she began to seek projects that would have more lasting impacts in the community. In the spring, Worrell debuted a brick and mortar solar-powered shipping container, the CaribBEING House, which serves as the organization’s own cultural hub, located on the plaza outside the Flatbush Caton Market (the opening party, sponsored by Airbnb was a raging success), and, currently, she’s working to make a small piece of history.
“We’re working on creating a Little Caribbean—we don’t have one, believe it or not,” Worrell says of her mission to, in an official capacity, brand a corridor of Flatbush the very first one of its kind. “There’s a little Bangladesh, or a Little everything, but we don’t have a little Caribbean, and I’m really bothered by that, especially because the neighborhood is changing so quickly,” Worrell explains. In order to make that happen, Worrell says she is talking with “key stakeholders in the community,” advancing the process in order to turn it over, ultimately, “to the powers that be.” If she succeeds, Worrell believes the Little Caribbean in Flatbush would be the world’s very first.
While I understood on a primary and visceral level why this designation is meaningful, I still wondered: what would this mean for the community beyond a name and maybe a street sign or two? Worrell explained, very much more, and first and foremost, it is related to economic development, i.e., tourism. “In May we took the CaribBEING house to Greenpoint,”—for a design event—“and in that time I was asked to lead a walking tour of Flatbush,” Worrell recounts. “People came from as far as Westchester for the walk, and 60 people showed up.”
In short, the (likely) future Little Caribbean, in addition to all of CaribBEING’s regular cultural programming and film series, would give Flatbush a very much weightier, and culturally-strong pin on Brooklyn’s map. “So there are wider implications beyond a name, or a few flags,” Worrell summarized of a future Little Caribbean. “It can be a destination where people can come, and eat, and shop, and—maybe—even live.”
Lead image by Patrick Kolts