HOW DO you create dynamic change in a community?
For Baba John (Skief), it was a lifelong question that he answered through the arts initially, and then through education. It is a powerful and deep wound to the black community and to the city to have lost such a large and charismatic figure who was overflowing in that sense of consciousness and community empowerment as well.
The work that John Skief spent his lifetime on laid the foundation on which the black arts, and, yes, education reform, are resting on in Philadelphia today.
The black arts movement in Philly followed the black arts movement of the '60s.
John and his peers were bearers of the torch, a torch ignited by that first black arts movement - and then the civil-rights movement, and carried into the 1970s by young lions like John.
In an often uncredited way, John's life's work made a great difference in the arts, cultural and even educational scenes of Philadelphia. Once upon a time, celebrating Kwanzaa was as foreign to black people as it would be for them to celebrate Hanukkah. But with John leading the way, the city held its first Kwanzaa celebration in the 1970s.
Following this landmark achievement, John went on to build one of the first charter schools in the city, an Afro-centric model no less modeled on the Kwanzaa principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
Having first met John as a child 30 years ago, and having worked closely with him as an adult, just to be in his presence inspired you to want to go out and change the world.
Everything he envisioned 30 years ago, he made come true. Citywide Kwanzaa celebrations - he did that. Paving the way for mandatory teacher and student learning of African-American history and culture - he did that. Getting an old schoolhouse and turning it into a charter school - he did that. Building a charter school up from the ground up in a black community - he did that. Living long enough to make his vision a reality . . . yes, he did that, too.
His death is a terrible loss for the city at a time when the community needs leadership like his in education.
But don't grieve for him. Celebrate, to a conga drumbeat and a resounding trumpet; celebrate, for his was an inspiring life that rejoiced in celebration every chance he could get.
In closing, let me say this: Death comes like a thief in the night, and it will steal your energy, it will steal your passion, it will steal your motivation to do much of anything.
But what will challenge death is celebration, celebration of life. There is too much work to be done to allow grief to steal our motivation to move forward. And so I ask, how will you celebrate his legacy? Focus on that, and each of us will find the energy and inspiration to do what we need to do.