Shelley is on a mission to make Caribbean culture in Flatbush, Brooklyn, an official affair—which, in everything but name, it has been for a long time. Starting in the 60s and 70s, immigrants from all 28 Caribbean countries began to move in large numbers to Flatbush and Crown Heights; to celebrate and showcase these diverse cultures into a single idea, Worrell coined the name (and cultural venture) CaribBEING. Through film series, arts and culture programming, and a new solar-powered CaribBEING tiny-home on the grounds of the Flatbush Caton Market, Shelley is ensuring that the rich heritages of this region are preserved in Brooklyn. To seal the deal, she is also in the process of advocating for the establishment of the world’s very first “Little Caribbean” in the heart of Flatbush.
You are a first generation Caribbean American and Flatbush resident. From what countries do your parents come and, growing up, how strongly did you feel tied to those heritages and cultures?
My parents are both immigrants from Trinidad. They migrated here in the 1960s and 70s respectively and settled in Flatbush. The first time I visited the Caribbean I was six months old (I also spent every summer there until high school) and just the other day my mother reminded me that the first word I learned how to spell was ROTI, a nod to my Indo-Caribbean heritage and one of my favorite dishes. The most important thing about Caribbean culture in Brooklyn and greater New York City is its diversity. The entire region is represented, which is very unique and presents an amazing opportunity for cross-cultural exchange both amongst people of Caribbean descent, as well as people of other nationalities.
In Flatbush, one can find Caribbean influences in food, culture, and style. One of my favorite things to do during the summer is to stroll down Flatbush Avenue from Parkside Avenue to the Junction, where you’ll have a complete Caribbean sensory experience.
You founded CaribBEING in 1999—eight years ago! How did the germ of the idea take shape for you, and by how much has it grown since?
I conceptualized the term as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. I was a dual major studying Anthropology and Caribbean Studies when the term came to me. It was at that time that I started traveling a lot in the region, which really expanded my scholarship, understanding, and appreciation of its rich cultural heritage and diversity.
Our first project was mounting a film program at the Flatbush Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. We were bold and called it the Flatbush Film Festival as we had a big vision for the community to see themselves reflected in the arts, and in this case in film. To be honest, it was a huge flop mainly due to a lack of experience in audience development and limited resources, so I went back to my day job as a media executive.
In 2010, a few months after the earthquake in Haiti, a friend who is now very involved in Caribbeing showed me a rough cut for his film, On lanmen ka lavé lòt (United We stand), inspiring us to resurrect the Flatbush Film Festival. That program was a huge success prompting us to add visual art and mount an exhibition featuring emerging Caribbean artists including Brianna McCarthy (Trinidad), Alain Caprice (Martinique) and Daniel Goudrouffe (Guadeloupe) at MoCADA and La Maison d’Art in Harlem. That year we also expanded our film programming with screenings at Maysles Documentary Center. The pivotal moment was when we were tapped to produce Carnival Panorama (a day-long pop-up Carnival), the largest public program coinciding with Caribbean Crossroads of the World at Queens Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, and El Museo del Barrio in 2012. Over 1,000 people attended that program inspiring us to reach out to more museums to showcase our rich cultural heritage.
Since then we’ve produced roughly two hundred programs, and the scale and reach of our events have mushroomed exponentially. Our last experience at Brooklyn Museum titled “Caribbeing in Brooklyn” featured Blacka di Danca, Majah Hype, MeloX and Machel Montano, and 13,000 people attended. One of the videos went viral, garnering more than 10 million views, and our social feeds were LIT for weeks.
What are some of your favorite reactions and feedback that you’ve seen and received from people leaving your events?
Film, art, and culture have the ability to not only transform but heal, which is such a huge focus for me and for the communities we serve. One of our greatest satisfactions is when people come to our space or programs and leave feeling inspired, engaged, and connected. The best outcome is for people to understand the beauty and complexity of the Caribbean, of its people, and of course of our culture—we are not singular and have much to offer the world beyond sun, sand, and sea.
From the beginning to the present, our immediate goal has been and is to curate authentic experiences, facilitate cross-cultural exchanges, and to provide pedagogic context to the best of our abilities. Some of the best reactions we receive are at the Caribbeing House because of its scale (it’s a tiny house) and location, situated at the crossroads of three communities that are extremely diverse while being very Caribbean. Not only do we get to meet people one on one, but we also are able to listen to what the community is thinking, and that allows us to respond programmatically.
One of my favorite reactions was an Instagram post by Nariya Hope, who wrote, “when I first heard the word CaribBeing, I wasn’t sure what it meant but it absolutely made sense to me.” She ended her post with, “I look forward to all the CaribBeing programming and events in 2017,” and since then, she has attended a few of our programs. At the Caribbeing House, we have a studio roller where people can share their thoughts in writing. I absolutely love reading those entries. We save every single one of them and plan to incorporate them into our designs in the near future. Lastly, seeing people use our branded hashtags and statement I AM CARIBBEING bags while they are out in the world, being Caribbeing, really brings me a great sense of pride.
Can you talk a little bit about how you, personally, have seen Flatbush change since you were young, the specific ways for better or worse that it has happened?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the past couple of years, as I’ve been both witnessing and experiencing the changes firsthand. I walk a lot and have had many public and private debates about the “boundaries” of Flatbush, especially in the last year, with neighbors from Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Ditmas Park, both subsections of the neighborhood. This year Flatbush was designated as one of the hottest areas in Brooklyn, and almost every day I see a new development, restaurant, or shop. For example, Greenlight just opened up and Crunch is coming this Spring, which I see as positive additions to the neighborhood, but I am also seeing Caribbean residents, businesses, and culture displaced due to rising rents and the “g” word which troubles me on so many fronts.
I’ve been thinking about the West Indian American Day Parade as it celebrates its 50th Anniversary this September, and how much that has changed since I was a young adult. I have vivid memories of jumping up on mas camps on Empire Boulevard and Church Avenue well into the night on Labor Day, and now, as soon as you hit Flatbush from Eastern Parkway, the music is literally shut down. Unfortunately, there have been incidents associated with the parade and J’ouvert, which I see as an opportunity for education and cross-cultural exchange, especially with so many misperceptions about these events that are tied to Caribbean culture. The fact is that Carnival and J’ouvert, along with most of the people who attend them, are not bad. We are simply celebrating our culture through performance art, dance, rhythm music, and mas.
You are working to establish a Little Caribbean in Flatbush—which is so cool! How are those efforts going?
When we started developing the Caribbeing House in late 2015 and spending a lot more time on the ground in Flatbush, it occurred to us that there wasn’t an official Little Caribbean in New York nor, to our knowledge, anywhere in the US. The more I thought about this great city that we live in and that we represent at least 20 percent of the population, I made it my personal mission to see this become a reality. The efforts have been picking up momentum since the beginning of the year. So far, we have support from quite a few stakeholders including Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is of Grenadian descent, the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office, as well as the local BIDs. If things go as planned, we are hoping to officially launch this June during Caribbean American Heritage Month.
We see Caribbean immigrants and Caribbean Americans as an integral part of the United States’s and Brooklyn’s social, cultural, and political landscape, and this is merely an extension of our contributions to this country, city, and Brooklyn. Many other immigrant groups have one or sometimes two neighborhoods in this city, so why not the Caribbean? People keep saying to me that everyone knows Central Brooklyn is the Caribbean Capital of New York City, and my response to them is, let’s make it official!
As the Flatbush Caton Market undergoes a dramatic change—first being torn down, relocated, and then ultimately rebuilt—what role will the CaribBEING House play in that transformation, and after it is completed?
Our intent is to remain a part of the Flatbush Caton Market present and future, which we see as an integral part of Flatbush for many years to come. Having a presence and direct connections to the communities we serve are priceless. During construction, we proposed a public art project that showcases the vendors and their stories to the community.
Once the new market is completed we are planning to have a space where we can be a Caribbean Culture Space—I hesitate to say museum, though that’s how some people see us.
In the interim, the Caribbeing House will most likely have to find a new permanent home, hopefully in Flatbush. We also intend to continue to pop-up like we did last year around the city to showcase Caribbean art, culture, and makers. We’d love to make an appearance in every borough or bring the experience to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
What does the future hold for CaribBEING? What are your larger goals for the future?
In the immediate future we have an amazing lineup of programs planned for 2017-18. You can continue to expect film programs, cultural experiences, and pop-up shops, a new area for us following the success of our Caribbean-themed holiday market last December.
For most businesses, the goal is to be sustainable and for your product or service to resonate with their audience, which are both priorities for us. We’d also like to build out our team so we can have an even greater impact and do more. That said, the ultimate goal is to be a platform where art and culture meet Caribbean heritage, and to be a global brand.
I’m sure all of Brooklyn wants to know: What are some of your favorite places to eat delicious Caribbean food in Brooklyn?
Some of the best Caribbean food in New York City is right here in Brooklyn, with a huge concentration in Flatbush and Crown Heights. First, I would say Allan’s Bakery. It’s kind of an institution, the bakery that everyone stops at when they’re in Brooklyn. My personal favorites are the currant and coconut rolls. There’s usually a line but it’s so worth it! Peppa’s is another favorite for jerk chicken and pepper shrimp. For doubles, I really love Jen’s Roti Shop. Scoops is another institution, great for ital (vegan) fixes and ice cream. Lately, I’ve been really into Suzy’s Roti Parlour on the border of Kensington, their curry goat buss up shut, with pumpkin, is mouth-watering. I also love to cook so I pick up fresh Caribbean ingredients from Labay on Nostrand Avenue, a couple doors down from Allan’s Bakery. And the outlier is a recently-discovered and really adorable Kafe L’ouverture in Bed-Stuy.
Who would you nominate for this list?
If she were still alive, my top pick would be Shirley Chisholm. What a lot of people don’t know is that, in addition to being the first woman to run for President, she is also of Caribbean (Bajan) descent. When I think of her journey, it brings me enormous pride in my cultural heritage and beloved borough.
Next, I would definitely say Lauren Zelaya, who is the Associate Curator at Brooklyn Museum. She is one of our top collaborators, and I’m always in awe of her amazing hair and nails. Then there’s Majah Hype. A lot of people outside the Caribbean community may not know him, but he is literally a one-man show who unites the Caribbean experience through comedy. Lastly, I would say Ruddy Roye, the photojournalist who was recently nominated Time Inc’s Instagram Photographer of the year. What people may not know is that he has an amazing body of work on dancehall and J’ouvert in Brooklyn, though his recent focus has been on documenting black America and issues pertaining to social justice.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.