People to Watch 2012: Decora Sandiford, Orange County, NY, Social Activist at ReadNex Poetry Squad
Meet Newburgh activist Decora Sandiford, one of our people to watch in 2012
Photographs by Michael Polito
Decora Sandiford started writing when he was 13. Born in Texas as Lloyd Sandiford (his nickname Decora was bestowed on him by his grandmother; it’s a variant on the Puerto Rican phrase de corazon, “of the heart”), his family moved frequently, mostly around violent neighborhoods in New York City; because of this, he made few friends, which left him isolated and angry. His mostly violent poems reflected his environment and he says the words just poured of out him — during class, on the train, anywhere. In school he would listen to the teachers and write rhymes about what they were saying. “I wouldn’t have any notes,” he remembers, “but I’d have a dope poem.”
Today, Decora uses his words to affect social change. As a member of a socially conscious hip hop group, he travels around the country trying to empower disadvantaged youth and other community members.
It was during his first year at Orange County Community College that Decora met fellow emcees Jarabe del Sol, Latin Translator, Free Flowin, and DJ H20. Nine years later, the five — now known as ReadNex Poetry Squad — consider themselves family. They’ve released two albums, Social Issue (2008) and The Day Before Sound (2010), have toured internationally, and championed social and political causes both collectively and as individuals. One of their most notable achievements, “Hip Hop and Poetry Saved My Life,” is a youth workshop aimed (says Decora) at teaching youth “how to used their multiple intelligences,” such as writing, painting, and dance. Introduced in community centers in 2008, the program was so well-received it was picked up by the departments of education in New York State and Washington D.C. It’s now been taught at 87 schools across the country, as well as abroad.
Also in 2008, Decora cofounded the Urban Farmer’s League, a youth-led organization that has several goals — one of which is growing organic produce in urban gardens for distribution to Newburgh’s low-income residents. When he was 14, Decora’s family moved to Puerto Rico to live with his grandmother. It was while helping her in the backyard garden that the seeds for his subsequent agricultural activism were planted. “If you’ve ever sat down to shell gandules for a family of five for dinner, you know you’re about to be sitting there for three, four hours,” he laughs. “You know you’re really going to appreciate that meal.”
He initiated the program in the classroom, introducing farming to the image-obsessed youth by highlighting parallels between the worlds of food production and hip hop (commercial versus organic). “There was this article about a producer who can make a beat in 10 seconds. I wonder what John Lennon would think about that, or Michael Jackson, or Stevie Wonder. Yeah, it’s a beat, but does it have soul?” By 2010, the kids had begun La Vida Garden, a totally organic, youth-directed project on Chambers Street. While he toured, Urban Farmer’s League cofounder Kim Bersin ran La Vida, helping the youth host events like movie nights and open mics.
The Urban Farmer’s League and other champions of community agriculture recently joined forces to form Newburgh Farm and Food (NFF), which so far includes La Vida, Downing Park, and the new Armory garden. They hope to see more gardens built this year, and to convince popular waterfront restaurants to source locally. “What better place to stay local than the Hudson Valley,” says Decora, himself a dedicated locavore. “Local is the true essence of the movements going on across the world. It’s about the people.”
Last year, the ReadNex Poetry Squad spent a total of eight months on the road. In 2012, Decora says they’re happy to just ride the wave they’re on, which is a good thing — he and longtime partner Jennifer Loeb welcomed a son, Samson, in October. He says he is ready to do a solo album — “something Fela Kuti meets hip hop meets Nina Simone” — and is embracing the new level of intensity his son has brought to his work. “I write out of love now. Sometimes the emotion can be angry, but it’s all out of love.”
Although many people ask if he’ll get a “real” job now that he has a family, Decora has no intention of changing paths. “You can bog yourself down trying to take on the whole world at once,” he says. Instead, he sees self-awareness as the real path to revolution. “It’s not self-righteousness. Working on yourself is the biggest form of activism.” He references the lyrics from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”