How to Make a Whole City Your Home: Toluwanimi Obiwole at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

I originally wrote this piece, which is now revised, for this year’s inauguration ceremony for the Denver City Mayor, and they contacted me asking me to write a piece that involved community, civic engagement, and all of the good things that hold our home city together. Now, I am an immigrant from Nigeria and having close ties with that country, I never really thought about America as home, let alone Denver.

So I started thinking about, “OK, well, what could possibly make Denver my home, aside from an address or a driver’s license?” Which got me thinking about what makes Nigeria home even when I haven’t been there for years. And the first thing that popped into my head was my mother’s laugh. And my mother’s laugh is loud and raucous and can scare people in restaurants, but it creates just enough space for me to imagine myself crawling into that sound and resting; and that is home. And Denver then becomes home in the same way because I’m surrounded by a city full of people who make me feel loved and create space for me to flourish. So I sat down and started writing this piece about what it really means to make a whole city your home.

I have tried to live adventurously enough that home has become more of a nebulous concept. I’ve left pieces of myself scattered between continents and oceans, so “home” has become a general clustering of airplane rides, my father’s cooking, his careful hands, my mother’s voice over the phone, the I-love-yous, stay-safes, and see-you-soons tumbling from the mouths of the people I love. These people are my family, and my family is my community, and community is synonymous with home. I grew up calling every single Nigerian women aunty, and cousin was anyone whose mom exchanged recipes in broken English with my mom. This kind of love means knowing there will always be open hands and ears at our gatherings.

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They’re just extra bodies to share the weight of daily living. My family has taught me that you can stay breathing all on your own, but to live requires someone there to witness your smile, to remind you that your voice is necessary Denver, a community of pioneers and native survivors, of family, of red soil, and jagged-edged mountain. As our home gets bigger, do not take the noise for granted. The most beautiful part of having a large family is the collection of stories, of knowing that there will always be a place for you at the table.

This is how you know the world is not hollow. I know home has nothing to do with blood, but everything to do with love, to know that you are surrounded, to know that you are not alone I come from a long line of scientists, doctors, and engineers, so I know that dissecting a heart means understanding the beauty of it. If you want to remember the importance of the beat, remember how it works. If you take apart a movement, it becomes marching feet and praying hands.

It becomes picket signs and changed legislation. It becomes a mother with a dream and the people who listen. If you take apart a community, lay out all its bones bare, it becomes a choir full of desperate voices, a collection of strangers at the Capitol Building at a candle-lit vigil, saying prayers, and speaking love for Syrian refugees. It becomes a school full of children speaking all different languages, but never having to translate the smile or a shared meal. Now, my mother understands what it means to believe in the hope of a new home.

She believes that the small women with weathered hands and a suitcase full of dreams can leave a visible thumbprint on foreign soil. One of the most common human fears is leaving this world nameless. That should never happen. What is community but a collective stretching out of limbs just to feel the touch of another hand to know that someone else knew who you were? This is how we keep each other alive: by accepting the gift of someone else’s name, by looking after the voiceless before our own reputations. We all know that one note can’t make a whole symphony, so stop singing songs in the key of self.

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Sing it together. For the ones who were not born here but know that home can sometimes be a bleeding heart and the only way to stop it is with many hands. Sing it together for the ones, for the young ones, who dream of importance so they know they are already there; for the days of begin in struggle but end in breakthrough; for this Denver, this cow town that is giving my generation a reason to fight for our voices. This is how we make a home. Thank you.

 

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