Looking for her shot, young, scrappy, hungry

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 19, 2017

Alijah Dorsey is young. She’s scrappy. She’s hungry. Two hundred years after the face, she’s Alexander Hamilton in drag. She has his grit, his perseverance, his desire. Lin-Manuel Miranda thought he was writing about an American founding father in his blockbuster Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” No, sir. He was writing about Alijah Dorsey. She knew it the minute she heard the lyrics from a classmate at St. Vincent’s Academy. This was her homeboy, her alter ego. Different time period. Different gender. Different race. Didn’t matter. This was her story.

Right about that time she was on a plane to California. As chair of the Chatham County Youth Commission she was headed to a National League of Cities meeting.  That’s when she decided to memorize the 1,0000-word song, “My Shot.” She was smitten with the energy, the story. It was her story.

When she got back to Savannah she acted on that energy. As the co-editor-in-chief of Pleiades, SVA’s literary magazine, she and her staff were tasked with presenting an assembly to the rest of the school. It was their job to make poetry cool and accessible. With four days to go she recruited three members of her staff and convinced them to memorize five songs from “Hamilton.” Alijah wanted the poetry to “wow” the audience. They did it.  Alijah was Hamilton. She sang “My Shot,” as in, “I’m not throwing away my shot.”

And she’s not. She’s taking her shot. But it hasn’t been easy. It’s not a slam-dunk.  As a high school senior she made the usual round of colleges. At Georgia Southern, she felt as if she were drowning. UGA? Too big. But when she visited Mercer University in Macon, “the light went off.” That’s how her mother, Amelia, saw it. “This was her niche.”

Her mother promised to help. So did her sister, Alexis, another SVA alumni. Alexis, 27, a substance abuse counselor, is a force. She has a masters from Savannah State University and is going for a doctorate.

“She’s the one who got me to go for the Youth Commission,” Alijah said, her blue SVA graduation ring catching the light.  “I wasn’t going to do it. I was too nervous. But Alexis insisted. She changed all my passwords to my phone, my computer, all my social media until I said yes. She knew I would like it.”

These three women are tight. They got through Alexis’ diagnosis with lupus when she was a high school freshman. They got through Alijah’s bout with ovarian cancer when she was 10 “when all the doctors told me it was because she was overweight,” her mother said. “But I didn’t buy it. I kept changing doctors. it turned out she had a tumor the size of a softball.”

They knew college was expensive, especially Mercer. Her mother, a teacher who has worked at a family day care center for decades, promised to help. “We gonna do this,” she said. “You set the goal. I’ll help you get there.”

Alijah, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA average, applied for early acceptance to Mercer. When she got deferred she tried again. And again. Three times. She got in. She got a partial scholarship from the Center for Collaborative Journalism. She and her future roommates met on line. They picked the colors for their dorm room. They decided who would bring what. All was set. Then her mother ran into a glitch. A bureaucratic glitch. The money she thought was there was not. Time was – and is – running out. They needed $4,000. Classes start Aug. 22.

Alijah, calm, determined, rational sat her mother down and said she was going to ask for money through an online GoFundMe campaign. Her mother, who doesn’t like telling house business, protested. Alijah said, “Mom. We’re broke. You’re going to have to put your pride aside.”

In six days the fund raised nearly $2,000 from 39 people, much of it in $25 and $50 increments (“She will persist,” wrote one), much of from SVA alumni, faculty and classmates of Alijah, “girls that know of you but don’t really know you,” said Alijah. “That touched my heart. They gave me hope. Money, yes, but hope too. I can’t repay that.”

“When St. Vincent’s speaks of a sisterhood they mean it,” said Alijah’s mother. “It’s a family and it starts the minute you walk through the door.”

Alijah, optimistic and focused, wants to be a journalist. She already had a front page story on the Savannah Tribune. She wants to “make people feel stuff. I feel I have a responsibility to tell people what’s happening. I want to make a difference.” She’s convincing without being heavy-handed.

She even got her mother to come around to “Hamilton.” They were driving to a poetry competition in McRae, Ga., where Alijah was performing “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou and Tony Hoagland’s “Personal” when all they could find on the radio was static. That’s when Alijah, who listens to classical music when she studies, popped in “Hamilton.” By the time they got there her mother was singing along.

“And I’m not throwing away my shot/I am not throwing away my shot/Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry…”

 

 

 

 

Can we recover our humanity in the city?

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 13, 2017

 

It’s exhausting to have a dog in every fight. Can I get an amen? And who knows? When it comes to approving a new apartment building (a hotel by any other name), taller than the trees on Forsyth Park (which this latest building will face), maybe our mayor and city aldermen have their finger on the pulse when last week they gave the 906 Drayton Street project the red light. That is their job, part-time as it is, looking out for us, the citizens. I don’t know: maybe we really do need more shops.

Maybe Vogue magazine, which just came out with a story about Savannah entitled “Is this Southern town the next Brooklyn?”, knows something we don’t know. Maybe this NYC-based magazine has the longer view although the last I checked friends who live in Brooklyn are thinking of moving to Queens or parts of Manhattan because rents in the once-affordable borough of Brooklyn are leaving them in the dust.

The rest of us? We just live here. We go about our lives. We pay our mortgages (or rents), shop for the best melon, try to beat the traffic to Tybee, read our book for the next book club meeting, try to keep our old dogs smelling nice, look out for potholes when we ride our bikes, try to remember which streets to avoid when there’s a flashflood. We visit the sick, remember to call the roofer after the last big rain, pick up trash in the streets (lottery tickets, plastic water bottles, smashed soda cans), mow the grass in the lane (a former city job), cull our bookshelves for books we never read and never will so we can take them to the free libraries in town.

We work to square the two worlds we live in – the haves, the have-nots. Every day I see someone wearing a polyester uniform of red and black or yellow and blue or something like that and one of those matching visors standing at a bus station, hoping their bus gets there in time so they can get to their fast-food job. Ten minutes later I’m buying a cup of coffee and staring at a tip jar with some snarky comment about not forgetting to tip. That’s when I think, “Tip? Tip for what? Was there a service I missed? Handing me a cup so I can get my own coffee? Really?”  Try putting a tip jar in a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s where employees really do need a tip, a leg up, some kind of shot in the arm. These are the working poor. But isn’t that a contradiction? Should someone who is working – sometimes two jobs – be poor?

We try to stay afloat in the challenges of life, of health, of growing old.  We applaud when we get a group text that reports, “The margins are clean.” We laugh when we overhear an exchange that goes like this:

“It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks. I’d rather be seen than viewed.”

And then we try to explain the meaning of being viewed – as in “viewing,” as in “viewing a body” – to someone born in China, who is learning our language, who wants to know our language.

And then we watch on television the arguments about the new big apartment building on Drayton and Bolton streets. Like I say, I really don’t have a dog in the fight. Yet. So I keep watching. I dish out a small bowl of ice cream and watch the City Council meeting. Neighbors in the affected area each get two minutes to present their views (“please don’t repeat what an earlier person said,” asked the mayor), followed by some explanations (longer than two minutes) from the developer who expressed his heartfelt concern for the neighbors. Then, before I had a chance to open the fridge for a second bowl of ice cream they are taking a vote. They couldn’t have waited a little while longer? They couldn’t have considered what was being said? Did it even matter? This is when people start to feel discouraged, dissed and unappreciated.

Finally, Tony Thomas asked the question of the proposed five-story, 114 unit building which is marketed for the “young professional” (not to be confused with the “working poor”):  What will the rents be? Market –rate, we’re told. Somewhere between $1,400 for a studio and $1,875 for a one- or two- bedroom, although that sounds fluid.

That got Van Johnson’s attention.

. “I keep hearing young professional. I guess I’m an old professional,” said the alderman. “I couldn’t afford that.”

Who are these young professionals who can’t find housing? Maybe the puff piece in Vogue magazine can answer that. By the way, when I watch the City Council meeting I keep hoping something substantial will come up, maybe something about the poverty numbers or even this year’s version of employ-a-teenager-over-the-summer. Something other than hotels, developers, downtown and tourism. Can we talk about that?

A few weeks ago I listened to Christian Sottile speak to a standing-room-only crowd at the Massie School on, “A New Humanism: Where does architecture in Savannah go from here?”

The wonderfully articulate and thoughtful architect and SCAD professor likened buildings to people. He quoted Shakespeare: “What is a city but the people?” Then he paused to ask, “Can we recover the humanity in our city?” I don’t know. Can we?