By Ayanna Gregory | IG: @imayannagregory
“Can you believe, your heart can open the way. Can you conceive, we can change the world in a day.”
–Ayanna Gregory, “Chosen One”
My Shashamane Sunrise journey began in January 2017 when I happened to come across some footage of my friend and Grammy-nominated singer Wayna performing for a benefit concert in Kingston, Jamaica. I had never heard of Shashamane, but I was drawn to Wayna’s narrative on Instagram of her experience with this wonderful group of folks making a difference in the world. I reached out to her and asked her to put me in touch with the organization. She quickly connected me with Dr. Rene Zazou Williamson, founder of Shashamane Sunrise. After a long conversation with “Dr. Z”, I learned that his organization did a whole lot more than hold fabulous benefit concerts to raise money for schools. I learned that Dr. Z and his team have developed relationships with students, schools and communities in six countries and that they provide financial support, school supplies, meals, teacher training, mentorship, motivational workshops, and the access to a myriad of resources for success. Through their commitment to providing excellent education to children who wouldn’t otherwise have this access, Shashamane has changed the trajectory of countless students and families around the globe.
I knew immediately that I wanted to connect with Dr. Z and his mission. I am a performing artist, educator, activist, and motivational speaker. I was delighted to discover that I would have an opportunity to not only sing at future benefit concerts but would also be able to engage directly with the children for whom the funds were being raised. On March 22nd, Shashamane Sunrise flew me from my hometown in Washington, D.C. to Kingston, Jamaica so that I could be a part of a three-day journey for Shash Ambassadors. This journey included a visit to National Baptist Basic School (NBBS) and Maxfield Park Children’s Home. Upon my arrival in Kingston, Dr. Z gave me a warm Jamaican welcome. He introduced me to friends, colleagues, and various members of the Shashamane family. Everyone was delightfully warm, fun, and highly intelligent, bringing a variety of personalities, ideas and skill sets. And while he wore about six hats and was constantly multitasking, Dr. Z was never too busy to extend his hospitality. He made time to take me to several vegetarian restaurants in Kingston, all in an effort to make me feel at home and comfortable. One night, he even brought me (and the group) out to experience some live entertainment where he managed to get me an impromptu spot on the mic.
On March 24th, the Shash team made our way to NBBS. It was wonderful to see the entire Shash team hit the ground running when we reached the school grounds. What I loved was that we all brought something different. Once all the school supplies were brought in, each of us volunteers had an opportunity to have sessions with each class, so various sessions were happening simultaneously. While I was doing storytelling, meditation and affirmations, other volunteers were playing football, teaching dance, modeling, and playing a variety of games inside and outside. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more excited children. There was so much for them to do and they were filled with joy and the determination to get every bit they could out of the experience. While I pride myself in being a pretty powerful motivational speaker, I must say that the infectiously energetic children at NBBS gave me more motivation than I could have ever hoped to have brought to them.
The next day, we visited Maxfield Park Children’s Home, where we spent several hours with children ages 2-18. I spent most of my time with the teenagers while other volunteers spent time with the little ones. With the help of a few other volunteers, I conducted a motivational workshop for a group of about 25 teenagers. We sang, danced, and shouted affirmations at the top of our lungs. We talked about having the courage and the audacity to be all that we were born to be. As the daughter of Human Rights Activist Dick Gregory, I always make it my business to motivate our young people with important nuggets in our history. I told some powerful stories about the children of the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s. I shared about children as young as eight and nine years old who were beaten and jailed as they fought fearlessly for justice and equality. I pointed out that it was those courageous children that made it possible for Black people in America to do things today that we now take for granted, like vote, live wherever we choose, and become president of the United States. I watched their eyes open wide when I told personal stories about my own two sisters, who at four and six years old, were put in jail for a day after marching with my parents for equal rights. Upon learning that it was the youth that were always at the forefront of powerful movements for change, it was evident by their questions and comments, that these teenagers were moved.
With their participation, I sang several inspirational songs and even performed a Black History rap that including some of their national heroes like Nannie and Kojo, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, and Samuel Sharp. I wanted them to know that it is struggle that makes us great. I wanted them to know that, like our ancestors, they could to take their pain and transform it into power. These teens were amazing.
After the formal session ended, I spent one-on-one time with several of them and got the chance to hear about their dreams and aspirations. These young souls made it clear to me that, while they had been given some pretty challenging circumstances, they were not to be felt sorry for our counted out. They were fighting for their place in the world, and they were determined to make it.
Dr. Z and the entire Shash team are truly amazing. It was beautiful watching those informal moments of meaningful mentoring between Dr. Z and some of the younger volunteers. It is evident that their experiences as young Shash ambassadors are helping to develop them as holistically successful and caring human beings. I am blessed to be a part of Shashamane Sunrise. It is an amazing organization that is changing lives in real time every day. At a time when self-centeredness, fear, and conflict seem to dominate the media and global conversation, it’s refreshing to bear witness to an organization that makes giving cool and making a difference the norm.
Ayanna Gregory is a musician, dramatist, educator, activist, and Shashamane Sunrise Ambassador.