This site has always been about broadcasting the dynamic individuals I meet here in the Valley Arts District. With this interview, that is exactly what I am doing. I met Dawan Alford years ago at Hat City Kitchen or one of the many events. He always had a camera in his hand and was starting his nonprofit organization, Citrus City. An Orange native, he has been all about doing what he can do to elevate the community of his hometown.
Get to know the HANDS board member, and Rutgers graduate student in our interview below:
Patricia Rogers: Thank you for your time, and this interview. I am going to start with this, Who is Dawan Alford?
Dawan Alford: Dawan Alford is a lifelong citizen of Orange who has committed himself to the uplifting of this community. Some call him a community activist, some know him as an artist, having hosted art exhibits and poetry events, some know him for his athletic prowess, and others for the volunteer work he does in supporting the city’s burgeoning arts district. My work within the school district, particularly with adolescent male youth is innovative and inspiring, accrediting his fervor to inspire young people, to those community members who nurtured as a youth. Regardless of what you know him for, his wide array of skill sets and passionate personality makes the work that he’s doing extremely pertinent.
What do you see in the city of Orange? What makes you want to stay and do the work you are doing?
I see Orange at a turning point. Growing up in underprivileged communities, young people subconsciously digest this narrative where they feel the need to escape. It is rooted innately as the most fundamental core value of all living creatures, which is self-preservation. I was always taught that my success would be determined by how far and fast I could escape the hood, but if everyone with the capacity to improve it runs away, how will things ever get better? I want to change that narrative. I want success to be predicated not by who can escape, but who can effectively stimulate change?
What have been some of your initiatives and endeavors in the Orange community?
Growing up with minimal parental involvement, I tend to gravitate towards helping children. Our youth are extremely malleable, and with a little guidance, I’ve watched young people be diverted away from negativity and towards successful lives. Knowing this, I volunteer as a youth baseball coach, organizing summer youth basketball tournaments, create venues for youth to explore self-expression, and host a male youth symposiums on Fathers Day, for male figures to bond with the younger boys.
Where do you see community leadership going in Orange?
There is a changing of the guards. The future of this community’s leadership will look exactly how we design it. Our generation must step up to the plate. There is a surging rise of community organizations that are invested in the city’s future, but they all are working independently. My hope and plans is to create some synergy between the leadership of all of these youth-centric entities and create a leadership council where we can be more intentional about holding administrative positions and cultivating the next generation of upcoming leaders.
What is your most current passion project? How did it come to be?
My most current passion project has been assisting urban students to attain access to higher education. The Citrus City in collaboration with a newly formed organization of men from the community called 124, (1Family 2gether 4ever) gave thousands of dollars in scholarships to graduating seniors from Orange High School. Encouraging students to do well is one thing but putting hard cash in their pockets for school tuition is another.
The Hassan C. Miller Scholarship Fund is an endeavor that came about as a response to us losing our dear friend to gun violence, an issue that is plaguing our community still to this day. A group of guys that grew up in this community who never finished college and were all affected by the loss of our friend wanted to help other young people avoid the pitfalls of urban adversity.
What is the Citrus City?
This close-knit community has yet to develop an online community forum where people can stay engaged. The Citrus City serves as a digital space for information dissemination. It’s a website that utilizes the power of our community’s connectivity and promotes civic engagement, keeping everyone informed about the happenings of our small town. The beautiful thing about the project is when photographing community members holding an Orange, it evokes a sense of pride that tends to boost community morale which eventually leads to the desire to be more engaged. Unfortunately, I am not a web developer, and as much as this idea is critical to our communal rising, I’ve yet to secure the funding to create the digital interface needed with the capacity to carry out the vision. I’m not giving up, though, I believe its a great idea with deep roots in the community and everyone agrees that there is a major need for it.
How did you get involved with HANDS? How does it feel to be a part of the non-profit organization?
Living in Orange my entire life, I tend to notice when things are changing. Since the inception of the Valley Arts District, I was curious about who was responsible for the culture shift in the Valley neighborhood. The passionate attempts at starting my own nonprofit, The Citrus City, caught the eye of executive director Pat Morrissey. I made it my business to absorb as much information from his wealth of knowledge as possible, scheduling meetings to talk and ask him questions about community building. Years later, I’m proud to sit on the executive board that continues to invest in the place I call home, as a not only a community representative but a more rounded nonprofit administrator with invaluable experience moving forward in my professional career. It feels good knowing I’m able to provide valuable insight to the board of directors while still being connected to the people in the neighborhood that raised me.
Talk about Masconsumption Media and how you think it is helping the future of Orange?
As the Valley Arts District continues to grow, we have to be clear about who shapes the narrative for our next generation. Someone has to tell the stories of the brilliant artist and community advancements being made, and we can’t leave it up to mainstream media. Masconsumption is the voice of the Valley and without it how will the world know what happening here. We’re in the midst of a cultural revolution, a paradigm shift that some great people are leaving in the hands of the next generation of leaders, and Masconsumption needs to remain at the heart of it.
How can art help youth in Orange?
Unfortunately, most youths view art through a very narrow lens. Most young people are exhibiting high artistic abilities without ever identifying as artists. Art gives our youth an opportunity to be expressive and to advocate for change. Young people are being faced with more pressing societal issues than ever before and through art are able to bring attention to important issues. Art also is important to our youth because it can assist in shaping more positive self-perceptions of a young person whom might otherwise be subject to the opinion of mainstream media. There is a need for us as future leaders to provide more venues for young people to express themselves for not only arts sake but as a means for self-healing.
Talk about your future plans for community leadership
I quit a career job with New Jersey Transit to complete my education and pursue my passion. I did that because I know that effective leadership skills have to be refined and not simply learned in the field. Many people have leadership abilities but not many people are able to apply critical theory to organizational management. I’m getting my Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management and Leadership & Diversity. I’m studying every day what it takes to be an effective leader because I feel that’s where this community has suffered the most, inadequate leadership. I’ve watched administration after administration make news headlines for the appearance of impropriety and it’s time for a change. My future plans are to create a leadership council to begin cultivating the next generation of trailblazers that will carry the torch when we move on and a community advocacy committee where the people who live here, and have the most invested, aren’t subjected to the dictation of revolving administrative regime change. I won’t give up on this city, I believe in the people too much but its time we start to take accountability for the way our future is shaped. HANDS has empowered me to want to be more than a social entrepreneur but also local change agent that has the power to envision a future, and work hard to bring it to fruition.
Stay tuned for more from Dawan and the City of Orange!
Written by Patricia Rogers