Before pandemic closures hit, Wa Na Wari was hosting community events nearly every day, from yoga to birthday parties to food pop-ups to book readings. The Central District organization was quickly becoming a go-to neighborhood arts spot before the pandemic forced it to shift. With new programming ideas taking shape over the last two years, Wa Na Wari is starting to get booked up again, further entrenching itself as a Seattle cultural hub.

“Even though we had really amazing programming [during the pandemic], I feel like we’re just now getting back to that place of understanding what we all do when we’re a fully open space,” said co-founder Elisheba Johnson.

Jill Freidberg (fellow co-founder alongside Johnson, Inye Wokoma and Rachel Kessler) said they’d surprised themselves by just how much they were still able to do during the pandemic and how responsive the community has been. Programming over the last two years ranged from Zoom offerings to outdoor, in-person events like Walk the Block, an October 2021 stroll through the neighborhood to experience art installations and performances viewable from the street. Community members, Freidberg said, were hungry to gather again and see live performances.

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“Honestly, it was a little overwhelming,” said Freidberg, who said the event came together quickly over six weeks. “I don’t think we were really prepared for the number of people who showed up. But it felt really good in a way that things had not felt good for months.”

Though faced with pandemic gathering limitations, Wa Na Wari was still able to launch multiple programs in the community. Together with Yes Farm, the Black Farmers Collective, EarthCorps and the Seattle Public Library, Wa Na Wari piloted BLOOM (Building Leadership, Organizing and Orchard Management) in 2020 to teach 18- to 25-year-old civic leaders of color food justice and food sovereignty.

Last year saw Wa Na Wari roll out the Seattle Black Spatial Histories Institute, an oral history and community story training program, and an artist-in-residency program, which provides individual local and national artists with a monthlong residency in the Wa Na Wari house. Both, Johnson noted, had been part of Wa Na Wari’s future plans. Johnson thought they’d start the residency program a couple of years in the future, but with things mostly shut down the pandemic offered an opportunity to provide artists residency space. A current exhibition at Wa Na Wari features work from San Francisco-based artist Simone Bailey, the organization’s first out of town artist in residence, alongside artists Lauren Williams, Berlynn Beam and Chase Keetly through July 9.

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This year, Wa Na Wari’s free community meal program, Love Offering, a partnership with cross-cultural community organization Wasat, offers food to the community from Black and Indigenous chefs every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday through June.

All of this work is a glimpse at the expansiveness of Wa Na Wari’s work. It’s part art curation and part history keeping, but a significant portion of this “experiment,” as its leaders call it, is seeing if arts and culture can stop displacement. Wokoma, in whose family home Wa Na Wari resides, leads the work of Central Area Cultural Ecosystem 21st Century, the company’s community organizing initiative focused on anchoring Black homeownership and fighting Black displacement in the city. 

“Black folks who come from other cities where displacement is taking place in Black communities, they intrinsically understand what we’re doing based on the context of where they’re from,” said Wokoma, pointing to Wa Na Wari’s efforts as a continuation of a lineage of anti-displacement work.

CACE 21 is an expansion of the idea on which Wa Na Wari was founded — keeping Black families in their homes. Wa Na Wari was originally founded when artists began paying rent on a historically Black-owned home so that the Black family who owned it could keep it in their family. As Johnson notes during her tours of Wa Na Wari, this financial work is the most important work they’re doing and it is invisible .

“We’ve had a couple of funders be like, ‘Do not talk to us about the arts, we don’t fund that. Just talk about anti-displacement work,’” Johnson said. “But it’s funny, we wouldn’t be able to do the anti-displacement work without the art.”

The idea centers on thinking differently about property, which can help keep that property in the community’s hands. Perhaps an empty bedroom can be turned into a studio space, or part of a yard can be rented out for an event.

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“The outcome of that is not just that a bunch of Black homeowners don’t get displaced,” Freidberg said, “but that the Central District becomes this Black arts and culture district through the work of saving these homes.”

Something that’s become even more clear for Johnson since the organization started back in 2019 is its ability to offer the neighborhood a chance to participate directly in Black culture. One community member told Johnson that one of the reasons she moved to the neighborhood was so her Black daughter could be in proximity to Wa Na Wari. During a jazz event hosted by the organization, nearby neighbors strolled over, bringing their own beers, simply because they heard the music.

“The people in this neighborhood don’t have to leave to hear a really great concert or watch dance or experience visual art,” said Johnson. “I don’t want to feel like I have to go to New York and Chicago and LA every time I want to see good Black art. I want it here.”