“People driving past would just sort of say, ‘Oh, there’s the homeless,’ and keep driving … We were thinking, ‘What can we do to give ourselves something good to do and change that perception?’”
Justice Born found himself homeless in Salem a few years back. He saw firsthand what it was like to be marginalized, on the outskirts of society. He also saw great organizations doing good work to help bring people like him back into communities. And he wanted to do the same.
In 2011, he and a group of friends met with the city of Salem to propose a deal: In lieu of payment, they would clean up the city streets and parks in order to host a concert. An organizer, Born put together the event with local talent. He wanted to bring people from all different parts of the community together.
The festival, and the cleanup, was a success.
“Everyone felt really great about it,” Born says. “People couldn’t believe we were cleaning up a city to put on a concert. Wait, homeless people doing this for the community, not community service?”
A year later, no longer homeless, he wanted to try it again. Now, he’s been putting on the free festival annually for six years while founding and growing hip-hop collective Wreck Shop Movement. He’s added a co-founder, Michelle La Poetica, and changed the name, but kept the bottom line: helping marginalized people—homeless, immigrants, formerly incarcerated—be a part of the community.
This goal is reflected in the festival’s new name, Bridgin’ Gaps, and in the collision of art and activism that will be present in this year’s event on Aug 5 and 6 at the Salem Willow Park. Alongside performances that range from doo-wop to hip-hop, some 25 nonprofits are signed up to be at the festival so that music enjoyers can learn about the work these organizations are doing for the community.
It’s a “come for Smigzee Doowop, Big Ol’ Dirty Bucket, or Slam Kitchen, stay for Timmy’s Angels and One Community One Voice” type of thing. And there will also be voter registration tables at the event to get people signed up and engaged as the 2018 election season approaches.
“We want to create a magnetic attraction to the arts, and while [people] are there for that, they can be surrounded by helpful information and resources,” Born says.
A key element of the festival that is particularly important to him is their unique marketing model. Bridgin’ Gaps pays local homeless people to distribute flyers and assist with the setup for the festival, giving them a vital role in the event and opening doors to networking opportunities as they spread the word throughout the community. Born hopes it could allow people who might not have otherwise met to connect about a shared field of interest.
He also hopes that the festival itself will act as a pilot to introduce ideas for year-round programs that could facilitate similar community engagement.
“There’s a whole bunch of attention on everything that is wrong right now,” Born says, “We just want to bring the attention back to these organizations who are doing really good things here in the community.”