Native St. Thomian DaraMonifah Cooper is one of the bright stars of the Virgin Islands art world. An artist of many talents, she is also major community organizer and educator who dedicates herself to working with St. Thomas’ youth and teaches them about their culture through music, art, performance arts, and engaging in technology through her volunteer efforts. I sat down to talk to Dara about her work, the importance of passing on our cultural heritage, and the joys of mentoring.
You do so much. Break down your roles for us.
Well, I have three jobs. Here at the Cooperation Extension Service , I’m a communications agent. Through various forms of media, I help inform the community about what we can do for them because this is a community service office.
Everything we do involves researching what could help improve the lives of those in the community. Whether it’s new computer technology, agriculture and natural resources-related, family and consumer sciences, sewing, or batik, it all happens in this office.
We have students finish our classes and create businesses selling the clothes or batik they made. Same thing with the farmers – they might have the land but may not have all the knowledge. We have the research and information they need, then we teach them in our workshops.
In the 4H program, we go into schools and teach students the same things but in an experiential way, not just for rote textbook memorization. We teach hands-on.
When I first started, I was doing all of this but as we evolved, I took on more of a communications role because we are doing all of these things, but people didn’t know.
After getting my Master’s, which is in New Media Journalism, I started teaching communication classes for UVI.
My other job is managing WUVI, the student radio station at UVI. On many campuses, student radio stations don’t have an adult station manager. Here, we don’t have a whole lot of students to put responsibilities on that would be able to be consistent and last semester after semester, year after year.
The first couple years I was volunteering. The previous manager realized that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was into it and wanted to teach students how we can be our own media makers, preserve our own stuff, and be the ones telling people what’s going on before, during, and after it has happened.
We don’t have to wait for mainstream media to do that. And they’re not gonna tell it the way we’re gonna tell it. We have to tell our own story. Other people do and they can only tell it their way. How else do we take control of our own history?
When you say history, what are you referring to specifically?
What are you about? What do you want your story to be? What do you want everybody else to be able to gain from your story?
In terms of the Virgin Islands and Caribbean, there aren’t enough of us telling it. More of us need to be able to tell that story. Other people with the skills document the richness in our culture, our people, our history, land, music, and arts but we need to be the ones doing that. Not just doing the work but documenting why we are doing what we are doing.
In terms of our African diaspora – where do we find our authentic perspective? How we maintain who we are and how do we document who we are since in so many cases it was hidden. Learning all of that and recognizing we want to reconnect and we want others to reconnect with the beauty, truth, and naturalness of who we are. That’s not something taught in the classroom.
Why did we go away from it? After all, we’re natural born storytellers.
We are natural born storytellers but I think if you could put it simply, we were influenced in a way that made us think our story is not the most important one. It’s not significant. And being in media, I know that media has something to do with that. The only way we are going to change that is by using that same media to do the reverse.
Who are you hoping to pass this on to?
I enjoy sharing with children who don’t necessarily know their history but may be interested if they are exposed to it in a way where they see other people enjoying it and being proud of it. I don’t necessarily teach any one thing. I am more about being the way that I am and if people seem to like that and they ask questions then that would open the door for me to say “Well, this is why I do what I do.” It’s the same thing with the way that I eat. I am not fully vegan anymore but I don’t push anyone to be vegan. And I don’t push anyone to be vegetarians.
And what are Sankofa Saturdays?
Sankofa is a West African symbol found on gates around the island, especially in the historic district. Sankofa means “go back and finish it” or go back into your past and use of what you’ve learned, your experience, whatever it might be, to help you in your present to make your future better.
When we are talking about people it means, learn from the elders. Learn from the elders so that in the place you are in now, you can teach your children.
For Sankofa Saturdays, I put those two words together because I recognize that a lot of this was not being taught in the classroom Monday through Friday. If we have to use the Department of Education and their framework and we can’t tell them what to teach our children in a way that will be consistently effective and realistic, then we have to do the best we can at home.
I dedicated my Saturdays to teaching young people in a number of things. And at the end of the day, what we’re doing is re-teaching our traditions and values – the underlining things that make us who we are.
We might use music, we might use art, we might use dance, we might use technology. The medium we use doesn’t matter but the underlining thing that everyone involved understands is that it’s about rebuilding the village. That whole village raises a child thing is real.
Can you give us an example of some of the things you are doing?
We went to Fort Christian Museum when it wasn’t open. They were working on it and we found a way to get in and ask questions and take pictures. And what they were able to do is ask questions and go inside the cells and they’d say like, “Wow, this is really small,” and just have that brief experience of this is where they kept human beings?
Students also volunteered at the Bordeaux Fair, participated in the St. Thomas Association of Road Runners, learned how to use jumbie beads. On Saturdays, we read a chapter from Clear de Road, a Virgin Islands history textbook. Sometimes we would take them over to the radio station and every November we take a group of college students to St. John to learn about the revolt of 1733, the first revolution that happened in the Western hemisphere. We partner with people who are creating literature, something that the students can learn from, about the Virgin Islands.
We also engage students with the Youth for Human Rights curriculum where students learn about their human rights alongside young people from all over the world.
How are you building a bridge between what you do here at the university and the community?
I always go back to where I grew up as a child, living literally between the projects and the university. It was a faculty apartment on the university campus, which is only a gate and basketball court away from Kirwan Terrace projects. I was in the projects a lot because it was like the backyard to where I lived. Being able to be in the middle of those two worlds for me, it helps set the foundation for the way that I am and the way I think. I could see the connection and I could also see the disconnection. I could see and create things that could help the two reconnect.
When you talk about this I think “why don’t we share this with the world and not just our beaches?”
Culture tourism is a serious product that is being overlooked. Things like Dolla for Dolla. The children are doing it because they actually believe in it. That makes so much more of a product to sell to people coming to visit.
And it’s not that they haven’t had conferences or meetings about it, but we’re still selling beaches. Instead of “let’s go learn how to make a coconut earring” or “let’s make a straw hat.” Understand the bamboula and where it came from and what the moves mean, the history, and why people used to do it. The things they used to say in the songs and why they sang coded instructions about where the next meeting would be. You know all of these things. There is a richness in that that you can’t put a dollar to.
Who are you first and foremost? Second? Third?
Well, free spirit always comes up (laughs). I am a student all the time and that’s abstract. I consider student and daughter to be the same thing, so student and daughter, mother, and definitely artist.
What are you doing in five years’ time?
Good question. I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. It depends. I love to travel and I haven’t been traveling because I have young kids. It’s possible I could end up in Ghana or Kemet [Egypt]. It’s possible that I could end up some place where I can come home to do certain things when I need to. But I am not only in the Virgin Islands.
How does Dara Monifah Cooper want to leave the world and what do you want the world to know?
I have always wanted to recreate a framework for rebuilding the village and whether that’s an educational curriculum or it’s a grassroots community organizational framework or something that can be cut and paste anywhere around the globe to help people of a particular culture. It would be an equation of the elders and the youth and somewhere in between in some form of media that helps them communicate with each other.
I don’t think I need people to remember me but rather the essence of the person that I am, and I know that there are many other people like this, where there are no boundaries. Where there is love and unity and rawness and realness, just being that is the glue that can help people to communicate and build.
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St. Thomas is finally receiving recognition for its delicious and unique cuisine and Sauer’s goal is to highlight the island’s gastronomy. “The idea behind St. Thomas Food Tours came from my travels. I noticed other places offered food tours, and St. Thomas didn’t have one. I said why not? We have the history and we surely have the food. It’s the perfect recipe for a fantastic food tour.” St. Thomas Food Tours
St. Thomas Food Tours
19 Crown Bay
St.Thomas, V.I. 00802