Transplanted from Tennessee, artist Isha Echols knows how to sow community in Reno.
All art is ultimately social—that which agitates and that which prepares the mind for slumber.
— Lorraine Hansberry
The artist pulls open the blinds, and swaths of light stream into the classroom at the Boys & Girls Club of the Truckee Meadows. Strings of beads and long earrings sparkle in the sun.
“You’ve got to have some people who stick and stay,” Isha Echols tells me.
She’s describing the work of activists, reformers, teachers or, as she describes herself on her blog, an “agri-CULTURAL emancipation education artist.”
Her hair—narrow dreads, each wrapped at the bottom with gold wire—is held back by a blue scarf that falls to her waist.
“This is a hand-me-down,” she says, when I compliment the scarf. “I cut it out of a little mini-skirt dress.”
Echols, 53, helps with local clothing drives when she’s not being a dance troupe leader, storyteller, peace activist, blogger or community gardener. Now and again, she finds a cast-off that works for her, like the mini-skirt. One day, the girl who donated the outgrown dress saw Echols wearing the garment over her hair.
“When she saw me, she smiled and said, ‘You made something out of my dress.’ It made her happy. I said, ‘I don’t do the mini-dress thing. But I do recycle.'”
Echols, founder of UltraYouth AgriArt Co-op (see ultrayouth.blogspot.com), came to Reno from Memphis as a visiting artist two years ago. Reno stuck, and she stayed.
“It’s peaceful here,” she says. “I really like the energy.”
During the week, you might find Echols speaking to public schoolchildren about African-American history. Or she may be rehearsing with the young members of her multi-cultural performance group, the Kwanzaa Kydz, who perform “hip-hop mixed with praise dance” at community events and churches all year long.
For Black History Month celebrations in Nevada, Echols appeared at Bantu Spirit in downtown Reno. In late February, she plans to travel to Tennessee for a gig at the Civil Rights Museum, perhaps giving a Chautauqua-like performance as journalist and suffragette Ida B. Wells.
I first encountered Echols at a downtown peace vigil in front of the Thompson federal building. We sang “We Shall Overcome,” and she mentioned spending Saturday afternoons at the Boys & Girls Club on Ninth Street. That’s when dozens of kids led by a handful of adults get their hands dirty with an education program that goes by the name “REAL—Responsibility, Earth, Art, Learning.”
As part of the program, kids make art, study history and learn about composting and starting seeds to plant in the spring. Their goal: cultural awareness and a community garden that will feed families and possibly even generate money.
Last year, Echols participated in community gardening efforts at Paradise Park from which, at the season’s peak, volunteers delivered around 20 boxes of produce—zucchini, beets, collard greens, kale and turnips—to needy families, seniors, soup kitchens and rehabilitation centers.
Echols says she served the last of the produce at a New Year’s Day feast in her downtown Reno apartment building.
“It was wonderful,” Echols says. “We had pies, cakes, and the turnip greens went fast. We had a meal!”
The REAL project began when a group of educators, artists and activists from UNR, the NAACP and Boys & Girls Club got together to prepare educational opportunities for the children of Katrina victims coming from New Orleans.
The children never arrived.
“So we said, why should we stop?” Echols says. “There’s a need for the children here, isn’t there?”
The group doesn’t have funding, though its organizers are considering applying for grants.
“This is as grassroots as it gets,” says Steven Lafer, a REAL organizer and associate professor of education at UNR.
Lack of money hasn’t stopped the program from obtaining needed supplies, like seeds and compost material.
Promises local artist and activist Lee Dazey: “There will be worms.”
Community gardening can offer young people an alternative model for living, Echols says, the kind that can change lives. She talks of community gardening projects in Memphis that she helped start two decades ago. The experience of growing and selling something as simple as sunflowers led to lifelong interest in entrepreneurship.
“Now, 20 years later, one young woman opened her own business selling African fabrics and is called upon all over because of her expertise,” Echols says. “She has expanded and opened a floral shop, a gorgeous business in downtown Memphis, the arts district. She lives her dream.”
Echols came to Reno at the recommendation of Jill Wells, her “spirit sister” and college classmate from Memphis State University, where Echols earned an education degree. Wells is the principal of ICDA Charter High School in Reno.
“She takes her heritage seriously and lives it,” Wells says of her life-long friend. “She’s open to children and seniors and anybody who might be overlooked or ignored. That’s who she notices and listens to—and she listens deeply.”
When Echols volunteered at ICDA, kids loved her. “When people say ‘find your passion and follow it, and everything else will come'—she truly lives that,” Wells says. “She’s internally driven, intelligent and a lot of fun. … She’s had her hard times, too. That’s how she knows where people are coming from.”
After college, Echols spent seven years teaching in Memphis public schools and another eight years working with children in foster care before beginning work for non-profit groups. Working with inner-city children in the foster-care system was an eye-opening experience.
“I found a niche that made me be able to see the light,” she says. “What that taught me is important for now, when people are challenged by the breakdown of the traditional family and by economic breakdown. We have to learn to create families with who we have around us.”