July 18, 2019
True works of art can take many forms.
Take a mural, for instance. It attracts people to its beauty with its colors and meaning, revealing a unique story and reviving an area through every stroke of the artist’s brush, generating vibrancy and camaraderie for those fortunate enough to live nearby. Most importantly, murals often contain a powerful message – one that can leave us with more questions than answers – but meant to educate in ways that extend far beyond a conversation with its visitors.
Capacity building manager and advocate for diversity and inclusion Guy-Jo Gordon evoked us with feelings one might experience when interacting with a mural, only his message resonates audaciously as a reminder to see everything from the people we come across to the work we do in our six-county region and our world, for what it is.
The Upper West Side of Manhattan native’s hyphenated name is a story in itself, deriving from Afro-Cuban roots with cultural influence from both his Haitian father and Cuban mother. Guy (pronounced GEE) is his father’s name and Jo, short for Josefina, is his mother’s name. Guy-Jo has spent much of his adult life embracing all aspects of his dual identity, but he reminds us of the struggle many children of immigrants face growing up in the United States: a sense of belonging.
“I was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan right across from Columbia University and for four years, we lived on the same block as Tom’s Diner from Seinfeld, right on 112th street between Broadway and Amsterdam,” he playfully recalled. “But I actually spent my childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. As a result, I learned French at school and spoke Spanish and English at home.”
Later, he would spend his teenage years in Connecticut and then go on to attend Marywood University in Pennsylvania. “After having so many life experiences in different places, I was always able to connect to others, but I never felt like I was part of any particular group.”
It wasn’t until Guy-Jo traveled to Cuba, a trip that began as a vacation and transformed into an extension of impact, that has kept him coming back to a country that’s never made him feel more at home. Fortunately, through his years working as a community relations director for Indy Eleven and building powerful relationships in the Indianapolis community, he discovered that he enjoyed supporting youth of color in ways that made sense to him.
During his time in Cuba, he stumbled upon the Artecorte Community Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Gilberto “Papito” Valladares in 1999. Initially, the project was a way to reunite barbers and hairdressers to promote and dignify their profession. Over time, volunteers and artists in the region supported Papito’s vision, where it evolved to address social, cultural, environmental, and economic development. One activity they offer is a free futsal program for kids aged 10-13.
“When I arrived in Havana, I saw a group of kids playing futsal, a sport I have grown incredibly passionate about,” he said. “It was everywhere.”
Futsal comes from the Spanish, futbol de sala or futbol de salon. Eventually, the words blended together to create a sport identical to soccer with a couple caveats: players use a smaller, weighted ball on an indoor court with boundaries and are also more inclined to rely on their foot skills without using walls of the court to support them. Guy-Jo quickly plugged into the nonprofit by fundraising for the organization and going back to Cuba periodically to build futsal courts for children to play on in the Santo Angel neighborhood.
Later, when Guy-Jo decided to make a change in his career and join community partner Starfish Initiative as their director of scholars and events, the common thread of relationship building and supporting grassroot initiatives remained.
“The Starfish Initiative provides mentoring for 21st century scholars,” he told us. “With my experience developing partnerships and knowledge of the city, I could help bring value to organizations like these.” That spirit led to a meeting with United Way’s Community Impact team – where it wasn’t long before he found himself in a role that couldn’t fit his skillset any better.
“As a capacity builder, you’re assessing anything from applications to meetings and making sure partners are where they need to be,” he shared. “We’re interested in seeing how United Way adds value to what they’re doing in ways that help them serve more clients and help them reach their mission.”
United Way’s goal of ending poverty in central Indiana is no easy feat, but for Guy-Jo, he leans on the skillsets of his coworkers to help us better understand an issue that makes people a bit uncomfortable. For him, the United Way team acquiesces the value of authenticity and the why behind their work, a lesson he learned from fellow teammate and Great Families 2020 Director Amandula Anderson. And, as if Guy-Jo’s work both in the community and in his current role weren’t enough, he’s also spearheaded critical discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion efforts for United Way that have helped people understand certain groups, specifically the black community, in relevant and timely ways.
“For Black History Month, we invited the Community Impact team to a showing of Black Panther,” he explained. “That sparked some great discussions about the topics and themes – but through efforts like these, the message we’d hoped to send was that it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to make mistakes in good faith and it’s okay to mess up when these conversations happen. That’s how you learn. That’s how you grow.”
Even with his dynamic lifestyle and commitment to relationships and communities at home and abroad, he still finds time to be human. “It’s funny, I don’t go out all that much,” he humbly revealed. “I enjoy going on walks with my bloodhound, Oscar, playing soccer and spending time with my friends and my partner, Annie.”
When we stand back and absorb a mural, there’s something magical about what we take away from it. Guy-Jo depicts a masterpiece for people to interact with not just as a work of art, but as a reminder of what we can accomplish if we harness the power of honesty, compassion and connectivity.
“I try to leave every person with the feeling that I’ve seen them,” he reminds us. “People never forget how you make them feel.”