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Interview with Lemuel LaRoche, January 12, 2015

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:29 - Early life and family in Brooklyn, New York

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Partial Transcript: To start with, could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche describes the tight-knit, Muslim community he grew up in in Brooklyn. He discusses his father's poetry and the influence of his parents.

Keywords: 1970s; 1980s; Hidden Ripples: Life's Unspoken Language; Islam; William Taylor; hip hop; home birth; poetry; social change

00:07:46 - Thoughts on poetry, hip hop, prisons, and social change

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Partial Transcript: It sounds like, even though you say that--the points your dad was trying to make didn't necessarily stick right then. They were sort of seeds that were planted, but, um, you started writing pretty young, right?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche discusses his artistic influences and his writing process. He talks about the commercialization of hip hop and the ways popular media has affected perceptions of African Americans and their experiences in the United States. He explains his motivations for working as a community activist.

Keywords: Brand Nubian; Jehru the Damaja; KRS-One; Kahlil Gibran; Langston Hughes; New York City; Nikki Giovanni; Poor Righteous Teachers; Public Enemy; Saul Williams; The Last Poets; hip hop; mass incarceration; poetry; prison-industrial complex; social change; violence

00:18:45 - Learning and teaching through chess

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Partial Transcript: I want to talk more about structures, uh, at some point in our conversation. But, um, for now--as we talk about your early life, in addition to poetry, uh, your father and, I think, some of the other elders in your community mentored you in chess.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche talks about learning how to play chess from elders in his community growing up in New York, and how these elders, such as Mr. Abraham, mentored him and other youth. LaRoche also talks about how chess informs his life philosophy, and how he uses it in his community work.

Keywords: Chess and Community Conference; poetry; social work

00:23:00 - Moving to Georgia and race consciousness

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I want to talk about that, as well, um, in a little bit. You, uh, you came down South, though, right? After living in Brooklyn for your whole life, you came South.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche discusses his move from Brooklyn to Georgia and how it shaped his racial consciousness and sense of self. He talks about the differences between racism in the South vs. in the North. He talks about his ancestry in the U.S. South and the Caribbean and the importance of the extended community of people who helped raise and mentor him.

Keywords: 1990s; Atlanta; Caribbean; Domenica; Geechee; Gordon College; James Island; Johns Island; Macon, Georgia; Native American; South Carolina; Southwest High School; University of Georgia; racism

00:30:53 - Race and racism at Gordon College and UGA

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Partial Transcript: So after--after a time at Gordon College you ended up at UGA.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche talks about being racially profiled by police and store clerks in Barnesville and Macon. He discusses recent unrest over events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. He relates encounters with white students at UGA and opportunities for teaching and learning about constructs of race and difference.

Keywords: Gordon College; University of Georgia; education; policing; racial profiling; racism

00:43:12 - UGA and black communities in Athens

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Partial Transcript: Athens and UGA have a reputation in the state for being perhaps--I don't even know what the best word would be, people sometimes use the word "liberal" or "progressive"--compared to the rest of the state.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche talks about the divide between the University of Georgia and the Athens community, and how some members of the black community feel disconnected from UGA. He discusses his education in the School of Social Work, the creation of the Dreaded Mindz Collective and efforts to repair the relationship between African American communities and UGA.

Keywords: 2000s; Ray MacNair; Whit Davis Elementary School; activism; community organizing; diversity; economy; gentrification; poetry; poverty; race; social work; town and gown relations

00:52:46 - Dreaded Mindz, hip hop, and building community in Athens

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Partial Transcript: Could you talk a little more about Dreaded Mindz and what that was about? What your goals were?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche discusses the formation of the Dreaded Mindz Collective at UGA with the goal of building relationships among African American students and Athenians. He talks about the hip hop scene in Athens. He explains the misconception in Athens that Dreaded Mindz was a gang and how it affected the organization.

Keywords: Bringing Education Above Regular Standards (BEARS); Dreaded Mindz SEEDS; Montu Miller; cypher; hip hop; music; poetry

01:03:10 - Studying social work, working with incarcerated adults, and focusing on youth

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Partial Transcript: What made you decide to study social work?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche explains his interest in social work and his decision to get a master's degree at UGA. He discusses his internship at a detention center in Jackson County and his choice to focus on working with young people.

Keywords: I.W. Davis Probation Detention Center; Jackson County, Georgia; School of Social Work

01:09:15 - Differences between New York and Georgia / Using chess in therapy and teaching

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Partial Transcript: What were you noticing about young people who ended up in the juvenile system here, um, and how did it compare to what you were seeing growing up in Brooklyn?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche describes the similarities and differences between the experiences of young people in Georgia and New York. He discusses his approach to working with youth and his decision to use chess as a way of connecting with and teaching them. He explains how playing chess can alter perceptions of young people.

Keywords: Bertis Downs; Nellie B. Homes; Washington, D.C.; chess; fundraising; pedagogy; social work; therapy

01:20:08 - Founding the Chess and Community Conference

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Partial Transcript: How did you and, I guess, a couple other folks start the Chess and Community Conference, the organization?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche describes his vision for the creation of the Chess and Community Conference in 2012, its academic scholarships, and how the Athens community came together to support the organization. He discusses the appeal of chess to young people and the growth of the Conference.

Keywords: 2010s; Athens-Clarke County Library; Big Dogs On the River; Grady Thrasher; Little Italy; Terry Stephens; community organizing; fundraising; social change; youth development

01:28:38 - Addressing structural inequality through grassroots community development

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Partial Transcript: So, when you--you've talked about structures and you've talked about sort of on-the-ground work, just relationship-based sort of work, and, um, I'm wondering what you see as being the relationship between the two. Or how does, you know, building this community ultimately change some of the structures that you're talking about?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche talks about how the Chess and Community Conference can be a vehicle for social change. He discusses the importance of raising awareness about community concerns and giving young people opportunities to weigh in on possible solutions. He explains his organization's funding model.

Keywords: Athens-Clarke County Jail; Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST); entrepreneurship; grassroots fundraising; non-profit organizations; poverty; prison system; youth development

01:37:35 - Perceptions and experiences of African American youth in Athens

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Partial Transcript: You talked about looking at things sort of as they really are and awareness, and I--I'm wondering if people understand the reality of from around here are getting put in prison or put in, or--or getting arrested and put in jail for a time.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche discusses the conditions that may influence young people's decisions to commit crimes and talks about the biased and flawed perceptions that unfairly criminalize black youth. He mentions the recent expansion of the Athens-Clarke County Jail.

Keywords: Athens-Clarke County gang initiative; Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice; crime; foster care; legalized marijuana; police; poverty

01:43:26 - Athens community organizations / Tensions between UGA and black communities

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Partial Transcript: What are some of the organizations that you see? I mean, you mentioned Grady Thrasher. You mentioned--you've obviously talked about Chess and Community.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche talks about various community organizations that work with youth. He discusses the lack of trust between the university and Athens communities that have often felt exploited by UGA. He explains the importance of consistent, relationship-based community work.

Keywords: University of Georgia; community organizations; fundraising; town and gown relations

01:50:55 - Training his son to deal with prejudice / Envisioning a more just community

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Partial Transcript: So you're--you're a relatively new father. How old--how old is your son?

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche discusses his fears and hopes for the world his son will live in one day. He talks about the necessity of teaching his son how to deal with racial prejudice, particularly when facing police and other authorities. He describes his approach to combating racism through youth development.

Keywords: police violence; social change

02:02:06 - Performance of poem, "Georgia" / Concluding thoughts

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Partial Transcript: One of the ways that you deal with some of these very difficult questions that often don't have, um, clear answers is--is through poetry.

Segment Synopsis: LaRoche performs his spoken word poem, "Georgia," and offers concluding thoughts on possibilities for social change.

Keywords: Ku Klux Klan; love; racism; spoken word poetry