Above: Left to right, Sharon Hutchinson, Muhjah Hassan and Susan Firestone perform a Kwanza dance in 2016 with Afridancercise. Photo courtesy of Susan Firestone.

Susan Firestone joined in heartily when members of a newer community group struck up an old spiritual as an icebreaker at a recent meeting. “Ain’t going to study war no more,” she and the others sang.

She’s a member of the steering committee and the record keeper for the group, called Create Community 4 Decatur (CC4D). Recent focuses have included Black Lives Matter, school safety and finding an end to gun violence, issues important to Firestone, who believes it is crucial to “find some way to give back” to the community and who has dedicated her life to helping her neighbors.

Through the years, the 68-year-old has found many ways to give back.

Susan Firestone has dedicated her life to
advocacy and personal accountability. Photo by Julie E. Bloemeke.

She served in the Peace Corps in the 1970s, taught English in Thailand and at ELS Language Centers in Atlanta, lectured at Georgia State University, and now in retirement works with refugees and other immigrants in metro Atlanta. She recently found translations of hymns for refugees from the east African nation of Burundi who were struggling with a different style of worship after they were relocated to the United States.

Besides working with immigrant families, she’s active in her DeKalb County community with Policing Education and Active Civic Engagement (PE+ACE), which seeks to improve communications between local communities and police. She is the founding Secretary of the organization.

“We need to balance energy as we age,” she said. “We all have health issues, but don’t dwell on that. Think about what you can do versus what you can’t do.”

Recently, she has volunteered to help a family from Burundi navigate disability claims, medical bills, and legal documents. Firestone acts as a facilitator during appointments involving legal counsel, Social Security and medical officials and helps to fill out paperwork.

For the last three years she has volunteered two days a week to ensure the family also has been able to receive disability and medical services. “I have always loved learning about other cultures and ethnic language groups,” she said.

She’s involved in her community in other ways, too. For 35 years, Firestone and her friend Karen Morris, a fellow member of Quakers for Racial Equality, have been participating in weekly phone calls to improve their awareness of themselves. “We share our lives. We are supportive of each other’s work,” Morris said. “I enjoy her friendship.”

However, the phone calls have an additional mission. “We were conditioned [by our upbringing] to not to talk about race,” said Morris. “In our work with (the book) “Waking Up White,” we learn that things that seem natural and normal we have to unlearn.”

The phone calls, she said, are a way to “hold ourselves accountable for our own racist thoughts and actions. We talk about how we heard something and didn’t speak up, or how we can keep going forward in lifting up Black Lives Matter and African-American voices,” said Morris.

Firestone said the point of the continuing conversation is for participants to improve themselves.

“The emphasis is not on guilt, but about on how we move forward,” she said. “[It is] teaching people awareness. [We need to] get out of defensive or the guilt mode and [examine] what is happening in society. How can I look at places I’m involved in and how can I look at what is happening on a systemic level, raise awareness, and do more about that?”

So, whom does Firestone herself admire? Without missing a beat, she launches into a joyful description of her African dance instructor, Najiyyah Nashid, who teaches Afridancercise at the Decatur Recreation Center. “Ms. Nashid inspires me,” Firestone said, “She says, ‘You always want to be a student.’”

Plus, she said, “she is one of the most generous, giving people I know. She makes everyone feel welcome in that class.”

She also draws inspiration from Frances Pauley, a civil rights activist who, like Firestone, was born in Ohio and moved to Georgia. Pauley remained active into her 90s, Firestone said, and once gave Firestone a piece of advice she still tries to follow: “Look for someone you can help and focus on them.”

Find out more about the mission of Policing Education and Active Civic Engagement (PE +ACE) at policecommunitysafety.org. Volunteers are encouraged to get involved.

Afridancercise Is for Everyone

2014 Kwanza dance performance, in back, left to right, Ginger Jackson, Sharon Hutchinson, Najiyyah Nashid, Susan Firestone and Muhjah Hasson. Seated, left to right, Sherri Carr and Kody Allen. Photo courtesy of Susan Firestone.

Susan Firestone performed contra dancing from 1980 until 2015, and she studied modern dance in college. While she was drawn to trying African Dance, she says she was “a bit too scared” to give it a whirl.

After meeting Najiyyah Nashid, her worries vanished. “She was so welcoming, the group was so welcoming, and she adapts to whatever abilities the students have,” Firestone said.
There’s a strong sense of community among the dancers, who range in age from 50 to 78. They’re known for helping each other when sick, and for modifying dance routines to include people with mobility issues or physical ailments.

Firestone says she also admires the costume making that happens before performances. The dancers often pick the fabric together, and some members even sew their own costumes. Most of the fabrics either come from or reflect the heritage of West Africa or the Ivory Coast.

For more information on Afridancercise, visit decaturga.com, click on City Government and scroll to City Department, then click on Active Living, and finally Active Adults & Seniors. Info is also available by contacting Sara Holmes, Adult Programs Supervisor, at sara.holmes@decaturga.com or 678-553-6559.

Julie E. Bloemeke

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.