It’s ironic that Connell Crooms, one of the city’s best-known activists, is less known for the activism with which he most identifies. While he’s known for taking on police violence, labor injustice and the larger community’s willful ignorance of the struggles of minority neighborhoods, it’s his deafness that he calls his “natural environment.”
Crooms sits across from me at Chamblin’s Uptown, looking sharp in a suit, chest tat peeking through the unbuttoned top of a white dress shirt. He speaks like a revolutionary, but has the kindest smile.
“There’s a new economy coming,” he says, “and young leaders in this city need to take responsibility and be part of this new direction.”
Crooms sees that new direction as based on increasing diversity and heightened citizen awareness. For his part, he’s working against what he calls “the invisibility of deaf people.” Our society, he says, still doesn’t take deaf people seriously.
For example, according to the National Deaf Center’s report “Deaf People and Employment in the United States: 2016,” 47 percent of deaf people are outside the labor force, versus 23 percent of hearing individuals.
That understanding led Crooms to form COOK, Community Organized Outreach Kitchen, in October. COOK presently puts about 20 volunteers to work, preparing weekly neighborhood meals and calling attention to communities in need. The goal is to open a deaf-staffed restaurant in Springfield.
One of COOK’s biggest endeavors thus far has been at Ken Knight Drive, where residents, mostly black and impoverished, felt abandoned long after much of the rest of Jacksonville was well on the way to recuperating from Hurricane Irma. The Ribault River had flooded the circular and winding Northside road and residents suffered inadequate sewage service for weeks.
Now Crooms and COOK are traveling to Tampa in the wake of the strange case of the police department’s fake sign-language interpreter.
Olga Lavandiera is deaf, so she relied on the American Sign Language interpreter when police announced the arrest of a serial killer suspect in the Seminole Heights neighborhood. Lavandiera’s daughter, Monica Hoffa, was one of the victims.
Instead of any coherent communication, what Hoffa’s mother received was a batch of signing gibberish delivered by Derlyn Roberts, a fake interpreter who’d been arrested five times for fraud.
“How could this happen?” Crooms asked. “Can you imagine a completely fake interpreter of any other language standing there with the police department on the news?”
In Tampa, COOK will serve food in Seminole Heights, hear the grievances of deaf citizens, and subsequently continue to network throughout Florida.
Crooms says one of the obstacles prohibiting deaf empowerment is a sense of unity. The deaf don’t usually live segregated in separate communities as many minorities do, though Crooms’ own experiences at The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind and Gallaudet University gave him a feeling of camaraderie and showed him social divisions in the deaf community often mirror those of the hearing.
Crooms says the goal of COOK is to give deaf people the strength of unity and to bring the deaf community one of its greatest needs—employment.
There’s irony in the fact that the deaf lack a unified voice. “We’re unseen because we’re unheard,” Crooms says.
Regarding deaf un- and under-employment, Crooms says, “Deaf people can do anything other people can do except hear.” He recently asked a deaf friend with a sharp mathematical mind, “Why the hell are you mowing lawns?”
So while COOK focuses on building a volunteer database, producing a neighborhood meal/action a week, networking across Jacksonville and around the state, Crooms hopes the “kitchen” in the organization’s acronym will put roots down in Springfield, maybe as soon as this summer. The restaurant, which would employ an all-deaf staff, would double as COOK’s headquarters.
Funding thus far has come from other deaf organizations like the Florida Association of the Deaf. COOK uses crops grown in gardens belonging to Veterans for Peace, UNF’s Food Fighters, and Communications Workers Association, Local 3106.
Crooms is perhaps best known for his and Palestinian-American activist Sara Mahmoud’s depictions by muralist Guido Van Helten on the Lafarge Cement Silos downtown and for being beaten unconscious by the police at a Hemming Park anti-Trump rally last April.
Crooms is also a co-founder, with Matt Maxey, of DEAFinitely Dope, which brings ASL to hip hop, and has toured with Chance the Rapper.
Crooms says he knows it’s much easier to talk about what needs to happen than it is to build the infrastructure for change, but says he’s in a “unique position.”
He smiles wide and nods his head. “I didn’t know it, but I’ve been waiting for COOK for a long time.”
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