By Skylar Mitchell, CNN
(CNN) — Damon and Yashira Willis have always supported social justice causes, but at this moment in time, they decided they wanted to do more.
And so, looking to their close-knit community to propel the conversation about racism and police violence against Black people, the Smyrna, Georgia, couple found inspiration in one of their neighborhood’s most beloved gathering spots, the Taylor Brawner Park.
“It’s a huge 10-acre park and it’s really kind of the hub of the community,” Damon Willis says. “Families are always out there, kids playing and such.”
The city offers residents the opportunity to memorialize loved ones by sponsoring personalized plaques for park benches. Damon and Yashira decided the benefit offered them an opportunity to honor Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
“We love Smyrna; it’s a very diverse, inclusive community. And we said, you know, what can we do here, locally to really memorialize these lives that have been lost.”
The Smyrna city government maintains Taylor Brawner Park through a partnership between its environmental department and a local organization called Keep Smyrna Beautiful that has the support of local government, businesses and residents. Along with efforts to end littering and promote recycling, the Keep Smyrna Beautiful team encourages Smyrna residents to add personal touches to public community space. And that’s where the park bench program comes in.
Damon and Yashira’s idea to dedicate the benches came to them this Spring amid simultaneous concerns about Coronavirus and racial justice. Adjusting to quarantine advisories and school closures while raising young sons, the couple was also paying close attention to the outrage surrounding the deaths of Taylor, who died in a botched raid at the hands of police, and Aubery, who was shot after an altercation with men who mistakenly thought he was a robber. They knew that a long overdue conversation was taking place about the stubborn remnants of racial violence. Aubery’s death hit particularly close to home, as he was slain while on a jog in Brunswick, Georgia — a coastal town just a few hours from Smyrna.
After George Floyd was killed by Milwaukee police officers in May, the couple planned to dedicate a plaque in his honor as well.
Damon Willis got in touch with Janet Liberman, the director of Keep Smyrna Beautiful, and the idea was met with support. “She was extremely warm to the idea. We went back and forth and emailed over a couple of months trying to get the manufacturer.”
What’s more, Damon and Yashira were pleasantly surprised to learn that an anonymous citizen had donated to their efforts, providing over $1,000 for the plaques.
The new benches were unveiled in early August and community feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People from outside of the Atlanta area and from other states are asking how they can do something similar in their own neighborhoods.
To Yashira Willis, the bench dedications are similar to street re-namings and statue removals that have taken place throughout the United States this year. She reflects, “I think we are hoping that this small gesture that we’ve made here in our little corner of the world, will engage the larger hope of this moment to keep these conversations going.”
The work merely starts with the benches. The couple’s intention is to spark an interest in continued education and accountability.
“I would challenge anyone that says that these symbols, these monuments, have little lasting impact,” Yashira continues. “It comes from a place of love. It’s the very same reason why we lead book circles and welcome people into our home.”
“We put up monuments, put up statues, have our museums in order to remember. When we remember, we don’t allow ourselves to repeat the same mistakes. We challenge ourselves to know better, to do better, to challenge those around us,” she says. “Little by little, I really do believe that people think that enough is enough. And we’ll continue to echo that Black Lives Matter.”
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