ONE MI (Organizing Network for Equity) founders Danielle Damasius and Robin Li stand next to the “What Freedom Means to Me” public art installation on Juneteenth, which is presented by ONE MI and the city of Mercer Island. Also pictured is one of the signs expressing a viewpoint of freedom submitted by a Mercer Island resident. Andy Nystrom/ staff photos

ONE MI (Organizing Network for Equity) founders Danielle Damasius and Robin Li stand next to the “What Freedom Means to Me” public art installation on Juneteenth, which is presented by ONE MI and the city of Mercer Island. Also pictured is one of the signs expressing a viewpoint of freedom submitted by a Mercer Island resident. Andy Nystrom/ staff photos

Juneteenth on the Island: ‘What Freedom Means to Me’

ONE MI and the city of Mercer Island are inviting residents to engage in the conversation of “What Freedom Means to Me.”

In the week leading up to Juneteenth on June 19, they launched a public art installation alongside large eye-catching signs emblazoned with bold red and green lettering on the north border of Mercerdale Park. One sign reads, “Juneteenth is a time to celebrate, gather as a community, reflect on the past and look to the future.”

People are encouraged to speak out and share their thoughts on freedom by creating signs and placing their art at the Mercerdale location through June 30.

“This installation is for all islanders, so we’ll be maintaining an all-ages welcome atmosphere,” reads the ONE MI Facebook page.

To commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, Mercer Island Mayor Benson Wong recently signed a proclamation to observe June 19 as Juneteenth on the Island.

According to Juneteenth.com and a state of Washington proclamation, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery. “From its Galveston, Texas origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond,” the Juneteenth.com site reads.

During the Reporter’s visit to the Mercerdale site on June 15, one submitted sign read: “Freedom is Believing in Myself and trusting the People and systems around me.” Two others state, “Freedom is the luxury of self-determination” and “Freedom is born from nature without shape or form.”

The ONE MI Facebook page message elaborates on the meaning of freedom: “Standard definitions of freedom center around having the power or right to act, speak, or think without restraint, and a state of not being imprisoned or enslaved — but freedom can take on a more intimate meaning for each of us based on our lived experiences and individual values. This installation is meant to celebrate diverse perspectives on freedom.”

ONE MI founders Robin Li and Danielle Damasius launched the Organizing Network for Equity in 2017 and held their first Juneteenth celebration, a community picnic, at Mercerdale Park in 2018. All proceeds from the dessert auction at the 2018 event were directed to a human rights organization that works to end child sex trafficking.

Li encourages people to leave their imprint on Juneteenth by supporting Black-owned businesses or making donations to the NAACP, the Black Youth Project, or the National Black Justice Coalition.

“There would be no America as we know it without the contributions of Black Americans, and that labor was often uncompensated and is still not fully recognized,” Li said. “Juneteenth prompts us to learn and teach the full history of America, and to make sure that the present day contributions of Black people receive fair compensation and recognition.”

Damasius feels that Juneteenth is an emotion-filled day and she hopes that people will intimately connect with the concept of freedom by participating in the art installation.

“Juneteenth is a celebratory day, but also a somber reminder that even after the abolition of slavery, freedom was withheld for years from many enslaved Black Americans. We approach Juneteenth activities looking to strike a balance between reflection and celebration,” she said.

Kati McConn, Mercer Island High School’s Student Group on Race Relations (SGORR) adviser and English teacher, shared her thoughts on the proclamation and how her students became involved by distributing information about Juneteenth:

“The proclamation recognizes this important holiday for a large portion of our country’s population, and an important marker in our country’s history. By recognizing this holiday on our island, we can continue to break down barriers between ourselves and others. I hope that this proclamation allows us to explore the complex and tragic history of slavery in our country more in our classrooms.”

During finals week, group members stepped forth and assembled a brief history lesson on Juneteenth, which McConn said went well and they garnered positive feedback from school staff. The lesson included teachers showing videos from a slide deck during their classes.

Do the Work MI founder Linda Floyd discussed the city’s Juneteenth proclamation from a historical perspective and brought it into the present day:

“This proclamation recognizes the importance of Juneteenth in our nation’s history as the true Independence Day for African Americans. We hope Mercer Islanders reflect on our city’s racist history, from housing covenants to biased policing, and where we are today. We encourage everyone to consider what freedom means to them and how we can all work together to dismantle racist systems that prevent freedom of opportunity for all.”

Jolene Cook said that Juneteenth is a reconciliation of the deception of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. On June 16, Congress voted to mark Juneteenth as a federal holiday, but it’s not what Cook wanted.

“I still am driving for 1) an apology to the enslaved people, and 2) reparations for the compounded trauma of murder, violence, loss of property, and all of the wrongful acts that Black people have suffered at the hands of the systemic and systematic norms of oppression,” she said.

Continuing her statement, Cook asks Reporter readers their plans on becoming more than an ally, and moving toward becoming an accomplice for justice.

“This will require tremendous sacrifice of resources, of time, and legislation to reconcile the compensatory and punitive damages that have impacted the livelihood of Black people. This means white people have to share the benefits of their generational wealth, and stop normalizing or distancing themselves from accountability to correct the special category of damages people of color, citizens have suffered as a result,” she said.

Cook said there is still much to be addressed in copious areas of society.

She concluded her statement, “Where is the move to criminalize murder of people of color at the hands of police officers? This question is still outstanding. In light of the uptick in white supremacy, what side are you on? I believe we are better than what we are seeing. The domestic terror still needs to be addressed, unlearned and for all of those who think otherwise –- we aren’t going anywhere.”


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