Jazmine LeBlanc, Co-Director of East Lake Language Arts, sees story everywhere, especially in her eclectic neighborhood.
This is a story about a neighborhood and a lady with a big imagination.
The neighborhood is in the heart of a city. All sorts of people live here…people from South America and India, people who drive fancy electric cars and people who ride bicycles, people who have dark brown skin, people with light brown skin, people with peachy-pink skin. In fact, in this neighborhood, there’s probably someone just like you.
But there’s no one exactly like Jazmine LeBlanc. She’s not quite like anybody, but she knows everybody. Yes, everybody! But it wasn’t always that way.
Grab a comfy spot and a glass of lemonade. And make a picture in your mind….
Welcome to East Lake
Jazmine LeBlanc moved to Chattanooga’s East Lake eight years ago. She and her husband were looking for a town to call home. Virginia Beach was too big. Western Kentucky was too small. But Chattanooga felt like the exact right place for them.
Their East Lake neighborhood is unique in its diversity. According to the American Community Survey, about 40 percent of the population is black, 45 percent is Latinx, and another 15 percent is white. It’s large and densely populated, with a significantly lower average income than the City as a whole, and it is also undergoing significant transitions. As with many neighborhoods in the urban core, East Lake is beginning to see the pressure – or opportunity depending how you look at it – of gentrifying development. It is a neighborhood full of challenges and possibilities.
Those possibilities are one of the things LeBlanc loves most about East Lake and Chattanooga. “This is a place where you can make opportunities,” she says.
When Melancholy Came to Stay
But the sun isn’t always shiny anywhere, even in this special neighborhood. When LeBlanc had her first baby, she felt blue. Her friend, artist and new mom Audrey Menard, felt the same way. “We were isolated and depressed,” LeBlanc shares. “We weren’t the selves we wanted to be. Yet we had husbands, cars, and friends. We realized that other mothers lacking our privilege must be feeling equally or more isolated. We made a plan to connect with other mothers and get out of the house.”
They opened their homes and invited neighborhood moms over to read with their children. Making new friends ended their postpartum isolation and breathed new life into LeBlanc and Menard. Little did they realize, they were just getting started.
Imagine It and Do It
After those first book groups, LeBlanc and Menard founded East Lake Language Arts (ELLA) to connect their neighbors and fellow East Lake residents with each other through arts and language. Their inaugural event was Book Fiesta, which brought the neighborhood together to celebrate reading, art, and culture.
ELLA also hosts pop-up arts events in local parks and under-used open spaces. Highlights include art classes, printmaking, a life size book-toting donkey (call him the Bibiloburro), a comic book set in East Lake, pallet benches to beautify a bus stop, and neighborhood cleanups set to the “Sound of Clean” – a musical collaboration featuring found “instruments.” Benwood supports many of LeBlanc’s projects because it believes integrating culture and creativity into places is essential to building inclusive communities that support residents’ long-term well-being.
Now LeBlanc knows her neighbors better than most. “I live, work, and play here,” she says. “I’m always trying to be a better connector, to talk with people and understand their needs as best I can. I also pay attention to what resources might be available and help people plug in. At ELLA, we’re all about small, intentional relationships.”
LeBlanc’s inherent drive to connect has helped East Lake weather the COVID-19 pandemic. “As testing began, we learned that our neighborhood has the highest rates of COVID-19 in Chattanooga. People live in multi-family homes and are essential workers. If they say home, the world stops,” she explains.
ELLA quickly got to work after public schools closed. LeBlanc wanted to be sure her most vulnerable neighbors’ basic needs were covered – food being most important. As she identified needs, ELLA also provided art supplies and books to support continued learning at home. What’s more, working in partnership with the school district, LeBlanc and her partners helped to register over 200 families for free internet so students could participate in remote learning.
TIme to Create
While ELLA cannot be out in the neighborhood as much because of COVID, LeBlanc sees a glimmer of silver lining: she has time to focus on the big ideas ELLA wants to explore. “We want people to be able to tell their own stories,” she says.
This work includes developing a book of poetry on the topic of generosity and thanks. “We’re inviting people within a 60-mile radius to submit their writing,” says LeBlanc. “Saying thank you and showing appreciation is a good starting point for conversations and sharing stories.”
LeBlanc is also dreaming up a fantastical pen-pal program unlike anything you’ve ever experienced…and she and Menerd are writing their first picture book. “We’ve been talking about this book for years and I’m so excited to have time to work on it. It begins with these words: ‘What if you’re tired of ‘maybe laters?’”
What if you are? LeBlanc was. She cast her “maybe laters” aside and turned them into “right nows.”
No telling what she’ll do next!