It felt like my chair was pulled out from under me yesterday when I found out that Kyle Shenandoah, a friend and local community advocate, died last week. Kyle was a lifelong resident of a small section of southeastern Philadelphia called the Forgotten Bottom. Over the last several years, he continually sought new avenues to support his community. As his obituary reads, his goal was to “make his neighborhood...seen.” His legacy has much to teach those of us who are working to make disabled communities, and other marginalized communities, seen and included.
It is imperative to know your community’s history.
In his Ted talk, Kyle recounts his desire to change the name “Forgotten Bottom” to something else, and how he set out to survey neighborhood residents about their opinions. He assumed that other people also disliked the name, but he quickly learned that folks actually appreciated it for a variety of reasons. He also found out that the name had an important, decades-long history.
Listening closely to the history of those who have come before us, and have been part of the community for longer than us, is essential. In order to understand where our communities are going and how to lead them, we must understand how we arrived here today. We cannot make assumptions based on our own needs or preferences.
Consider community involvement every step of the way.
Kyle’s loss hurts deeply because he was so community-centered. He knew that change required understanding community needs, close listening and consensus-building. He carefully used his power as a young, educated Black man with social capital in a historically underserved and, well, forgotten, neighborhood. The questions that Kyle pushed urban planners and developers to ask about new initiatives are ones that we as stewards of disability community should consider:
Does it really benefit the community?
Does the community know about it?
Is there a conversation with the community afterwards?
As we work to create a world that is radically accessible to disabled people, these questions will keep us accountable. As Kyle said, “listening is always before leadership.”
Change requires long-term investment.
One of the most exciting projects that Kyle executed was the creation of a new bus route, SEPTA Route 49, that connected his community to other parts of the city, including major transit hubs. With this project, Kyle helped to ensure meaningful access for his neighbors. Yet this project took two years to plan, and two additional years to partner with community members to consult and refine. Kyle’s long commitment brought the project to completion.
In the same way, many of the changes we seek to make require persistence, even though access for disabled communities feels (and is) urgent. When dealing with matters of inclusion and equity, transformation is slow. Kyle was an example of patient endurance.
We can make change by acting as a conduit between community and big institutions.
Kyle provided many direct services to his neighbors, such as a Thanksgiving meal drive and yearly job fairs. But I most admire the way that he translated community needs to policymakers, developers and others who held power over his neighborhood. Kyle was able to seamlessly navigate between the Forgotten Bottom and the institutions of Center City.
Kyle’s example illustrates to me the great impact of advocating with, not for, community. Serving as a leader with the time, ability and social capital to articulate community needs to policymakers is vital work. It may not always be the most visible or exciting, but it brings lasting change.
As I look at Kyle’s image and hear his voice online, it is unfathomable that I won’t see him at another community hearing or run into him in the park. I don’t know how to process the fact that the very things we are fighting to improve in our movements--in Kyle’s case, safer streets and better traffic patterns in the Forgotten Bottom--are often the things that kill us. It is profoundly unfair.
If you’re interested in contributing to Kyle’s funeral costs, you can do so here.