Eastside Neighborhood

Eastside Voices and Buddy Hannah: Lifting up community through storytelling and art in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

Buddy Hannah is a recognized Eastside Voice and has been for a long time. 

As a radio personality, poet, DJ, playwright, actor, director and teacher, Hannah uses his voice to express himself and to help lift up other voices.

He believes that everyone has something important to say, whether they realize it or not.

So when Hannah was approached by Kelly Clarke, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and Pat Taylor, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, to help coordinate Eastside Voices, an urban arts and cultural engagement project, he readily agreed.

“Over the years, I was able to meet so many people because I had so many guests,” says Hannah of his 20 years facilitating public discussion on The Touch WNWN-AM 1560 and through the hosting of Talk It Up Live, a current affairs program on 96.5 FM. “Educated, uneducated, you name it, I had them on the air. That experience gave people the opportunity to share with the community because everyone has something they can share.”

Eastside Voices, a project sponsored by the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, the Eastside Neighborhood Association, and Public Media Network in cooperation with the Greater Kalamazoo Arts Council and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, will give both young and old Eastside residents the opportunity to share their stories.

The project is aimed at enlivening urban spaces through art and engagement by bringing young and old neighbors together in a program that will teach youth to interview, write, and film while documenting oral histories of current and former residents.  

Co-directed by Hannah and his longtime friend Sid Ellis, Director of the Douglass Community Association and former Eastside resident, the multi-media project is launching March 11 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Eastside Neighborhood Association. 

In September, Eastside Voices will culminate in a video, written pieces, and a mural inspired by the oral histories and designed by Eastside artist Gerald King (see LINK). In addition, artistic representations of the histories, including perhaps memorable sayings gathered in the interviews, will be permanently incorporated into the Eastside Gateway Pocket Park on East Main.

PMN staff will help train the youth in journalism and video production skills with the support of a PMN Community Partnership Grant.

“It’s important for Kalamazoo and surrounding areas to know every neighborhood has a story,” says Ellis. “And it’s important to share our stories with the youth to understand our commonalities.”

Ellis says he always tells youth: “When you’re looking for heroes and histories, look in your own backyard because you’ll find a lot of heroes and a lot of rich history there.” 

Hannah and Ellis agree about the importance of bringing young and old together, especially in today’s culture where the emphasis on technology can limit the level of meaningful engagement youth and elders have with each other.

“It’s important for our youth to get history from the elders and have an understanding of what happened in the past,” says Ellis. “That doesn’t happen enough. Youth assume that everything that they’re doing is new, but unless it’s technology, it’s not. They need to recognize and have an understanding that the things they went through is the same things their elders went through.”

Hannah adds, “Often our youth don’t realize there were people before them who made things possible to enjoy that they are now enjoying, They hear about the civil rights movement and all that. But there were people right here in their neighborhoods that were addressing issues.

“We have to let the young people know, things were not always as you see them now. There were problems in Kalamazoo. There were issues in Kalamazoo and still are. And there were people who met these challenges to make things better.

“We talk about young people are our future, but we are their present,” says Hannah. “We have to do the things that need to be done to prepare them for the future. They can’t do it on their own.”

Behind one voice, many voices

When considering the many opportunities he’s been given to use his voice over the years, Hannah lists off a long list of mentors who helped him on his way. 

His first love, he says, was poetry. With six published books of poetry, Hannah has performed poetry readings and conducted creative writing workshops at colleges, schools and universities across Southwest Michigan. His 1989 book of poetry, Conversations from Elsa’s On the Park, was used in a Black Studies class at Western Michigan University.

But without the encouragement of local poet Elizabeth Kerlikowske and Gail Sydnor, founder of the Black Arts & Cultural Center, he may not have had the push he needed to take his interest seriously, he says.

For over 19 years, Buddy Hannah was a voice of Kalamazoo as a host of radio show Talk It Up Live on The Touch.Both women provided him opportunities to express himself, he says, such as inviting him to run workshops at Kerlikowske’s college poetry class, and encouraging him to pursue writing, acting and directing. “They opened up a whole new world for me,” he says.  

Actress Linda Louise Tanksley was one of the first people to encourage Hannah to try out for a play. His first time on stage was in “The Meeting,” a play about an imagined meeting between Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Hannah) and Malcolm X (played by Ellis). There he was introduced to his stage mentor, Von Washington, Sr. 

“I never took a class from (Von)” says Hannah. “All of my classes with him were on stage working with him, being mentored by him, directed by him. He provided opportunities, guidance and friendship.”

And his lifelong friendship with Ellis has provided creative opportunity, says Hannah, who looks forward to working with Ellis on Eastside Voices. “We inspire each other.”

As a production coordinator at Upjohn and then Pfizer before retirement 12 years ago, most of Hannah’s artistic pursuits took place in his free time. In the mid-'90s, Hannah was approached by Gene Bowen, radio station manager, who asked him to provide “a little social commentary” during three minutes of unscheduled air time, something Hannah was at first reluctant to try because he didn’t want to come off sounding like Paul Harvey. But he relented, and the show lasted 19 years. He also credits Troy Robertson, Jr., and Peter Tanz at the station for offering him a live show on Saturdays that had few restrictions.

“The show was social commentary and its purpose was to be informative, educational, and entertaining,” Hannah says, “to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Later, Hannah was approached by Earlene McMichael, currently a WMUK host of the local Morning Edition who then worked at the Kalamazoo Gazette, and asked Hannah to write a social commentary column for the paper.

“I don’t know,” he recalls telling her. “I hit pretty hard.” 
But McMichaels assured him that was just what the community needed.

Hannah’s accolades and awards are too numerous to mention, but include the Irving S. Gilmore Community Medal of Arts Award, the Civic Leader Award from the City of Kalamazoo, and the NAACP Humanitarian Award.

“A lot of us have multiple talents that we can use to do good things. We have those talents for a reason,” says Hannah, who runs the Drama Ministry at his church, the Allen Chapel AME. “You never know who is helped by what you’re doing. Sometimes you don’t see the result until years later,” he says. “People will come up and say, ‘Hey, I heard your program and it inspired me.’ I would have never known that.

“I’ve been so fortunate to do so many things,” says Hannah. “Man, it was just wonderful. All of these things had an impact on the community in a positive way.”

His best advice to youth: “Try to get an idea of what you want to do as early as possible. That way you can work toward it. Also be prepared for opportunities when they come your way. I wasn’t expecting them, but I was prepared.”

Then, he advises to stay committed to whatever your interest. “Make that commitment to be the best you can be. Stay focused. Know what you stand for and what your values are. Feel good about yourself, and then you can deal with all the rest.”

Full Circle: From mentored to mentee

In a life as rich and varied as Hannah’s, he says he feels grateful for the opportunities he’s been given, and now, in his “twilight years”, the opportunity not to only give back, but to see the ways in which his activities have had positive influences on others.

Sonya Bernard-Hollins, Community Engagement Specialist at Public Media Network and director of Merze Tate Explorers, for instance, has been working with Hannah since she was an eager young journalist in high school who edited both her Kalamazoo Central High School student newspaper and yearbook. She and other of her writing friends gravitated to Hannah’s house because he published The Other Side, a newspaper about black arts, and had a computer in his basement, a rarity at the time.

“I had a typewriter,” Bernard-Hollins recalls. “He was the only person I knew who had a computer. And we could write stories on it. Pretty cool! He really opened his door to youth and allowed us to take it to another level.

“Buddy’s always been able to show me the various ways you can use media to tell stories—writing, poetry, plays, television, radio. I’m always excited to work with him on any project to see how he inspires others to tell their stories.”

Bernard-Hollins says she identifies with the youth who will get to work with Hannah in the Eastside Voices project. “As I was a young writer myself at the age these kids are going to work with him, I know they just don’t understand the impact that having someone like that will have on them. It will speak to them for a while. It will come full circle.”

Hannah says involved youth will interview as many Eastside residents as are interested, then narrow the video’s focus down to around nine. All information gathered, he says, will be used in some form in the final product. 

Hannah, who with his wife, Freda, raised a son and daughter at their Eastside home where they have lived for the past 35 years, has seen considerable changes in his neighborhood over the years. Most notable are the now blighted and abandoned businesses along East Main, once a thriving business corridor that some have even said rivaled Washington Square in its heyday.

Buddy Hannah and Sid Ellis, longtime friends and both former directors of Black Arts & Cultural Center, will co-direct Eastside Voices.
"If the young people get to know that if you walked down East Main thirty years ago they would have seen pharmacies, grocery shops, community centers, maybe it will inspire them to say, if it happened before, it can happen again,” says Hannah.

“But it takes people to make these things happen. My thing has always been change in the community happens with change in the people. Each generation can bring some type of change. Hopefully (Eastside Voices) will inspire these youth to work for change.”

On Monday, March 11, all interested youth ages 12 to 17 are encouraged to attend the kick-off meeting at the Eastside Neighborhood Association, 1301 East Main St. Pizza will be provided. Meetings will continue through the summer, with the mural scheduled to be completed in August, and a public celebration of the project in early September.

For more information about the Eastside Voices project regarding youth involvement or suggestions for possible oral history candidates, please contact Pat Taylor at 269-381-6700. 

Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography (unless otherwise indicated)
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.