Islander Organizes Community Events that Celebrate Life and Explore Death

October 7, 2018

Reimagine End of Life, billed as a week that explores big questions about life and death through creativity and conversation, is coming to New York – and Roosevelt Island – for the first time in its two-year history.

Brought to the Island by Westview resident J. Khadijah Abdurahman, the October 28 event includes three art workshops, which will let participants explore the theme through clay, theater, and music. The day will culminate in a panel discussion and community art showcase at Coler Hospital that evening. Pulitzer prize-winning videographer, Andre Lambertson, will be recording the event.


Two of the events being held on the Island on October 28. RSVP for Removing the Shroud, the clay workshop at RIVAA Gallery, or They Live in the Songs, held at Cornell Tech


Community Connection


For Abdurahman, bringing Reimagine to the Island was an organic outgrowth of WordtoRI, an oral history library she describes as a “growing digital humanities project.” WordtoRI was born from feedback she received after organizing a public screening and panel discussion of Jordan Peele’s Get Out!


She said there was a level of “disgruntlement in the audience” at the end of that event because there wasn’t enough time for people to get their thoughts and feelings out. Abdurahman moderated the panel of Island residents, chosen because their personal and professional lives intersect with racial justice.


“So we started interviewing people,” she said, giving people the opportunity to respond to the Get Out! movie as well as share experiences on the Island around racial and other injustices. Part of her goal is to find ways to make the Island more inclusive going forward by inviting more people to participate in larger conversations, something she believes was missing when Goldwater Hospital closed its doors in December 2013 to make way for the Cornell Tech campus.


(Above) WordtoRI, the oral history library. “I chose the format of an oral history to get an account of people’s complex life experiences and opinions,” she said. “There is so much I learned about people,” says Abdurahman.


Now, with Reimagine, she is translating the digital experience back into real life.


“When we interviewed people, I was worried they wouldn’t say what they really thought. What stops people from saying what they think is fear about how they’ll be perceived,” she said, explaining that she observed a “profound sense of fear and despair” in the oral histories she took, feelings that she believes keep up barriers.” To break down the barriers that cause divisions in the community, she believes Reimagine has the power to unite residents around a common theme: “Death touches all of our lives, but similar to race or sex, we are afraid to talk about it.”


“We all live here together in this neighborhood,” she says, “But coexist doesn’t mean connectedness.”


A Unique Population


Abdurahman also sees Reimagine as an opportunity for Roosevelt Island to showcase its unique, large physician and scientist population. The conversation in the evening event, held at the Coler Canteen, at 900 Main Street, will center around the opportunities and challenges of end-of-life care. The panelists, all of whom, Abdurahman proudly shares, are of people of color, will discuss how race, religion, and ability shape that discourse. Only a handful of the 322 events taking place in New York during that week will address racial disparities in end-of-life care, says Abdurahman, and none but this one center around residents of a long-term-care facility.


Residents of Coler Hospital, the long-term chronic care facility located north of the Octagon building, are at the center of all four of the Island’s Reimagine events. Abdurahman has worked closely with Coler Hospital’s Therapeutic Recreation Department, and Coler-based Open Doors, a non-profit that supports the creativity and leadership of people who have been harmed by street violence. Additionally, Dr. Ravindra Amin, the Chief of Psychiatry at Coler Hospital, will be a panelist in the evening event, “Living on Roosevelt Island: What Matters in the End?


The Events


All four events are free, due to the many collaborations with Island organizations Abdurahman has secured. The three art events held during the day include a clay sculpture, theatre, and digital music workshop.


Participants in the clay sculpture workshop, held at Gallery RIVAA 12:00-3:00 pm, will be asked to destroy their piece at the end to explore the fear of loss.


The music workshop, held at cornell Tech 12:00-3:00 pm, relies on popular music from the Black diaspora that both mourns those lost and demands celebration; it will guide participants through basic technical aspects of digital music and beat production, lyric writing or song production asking how music can connect us to those lost.


The theatre workshop, held at Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance 1:00-3:00 pm, will rely on theatre-based methodology, to creatively explore all of the things about death we aren’t supposed to discuss.


The evening event, “Living on Roosevelt Island: What Matters in the End,” is a panel discussion and community arts showcase, featuring experienced clinicians examining the challenges and opportunities in providing end-of-life care in a racially and religiously diverse city. The art made during the day will be exhibited.


Abdurahman, a lifelong Islander, lives with her mother and five children. “We are loud, we have dance parties in the living room, and we commute off-Island for school.” An impetus for her activism, however, is her feeling of loneliness here; “I live here, and often I feel alone and alienated. Much more, I wish we could come together as a community.”


She also believes that, as a resident, she is answering a call from the people who have occupied this land before us to elevate and honor their history. A future project scheduled for the spring will focus on the indigenous people of Roosevelt Island.


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