Shelley is on a mission to make Caribbean culture in Flatbush, Brooklyn, an official affair—which, in everything but name, it has been for a long time. Starting in the 60s and 70s, immigrants from all 28 Caribbean countries began to move in large numbers to Flatbush and Crown Heights; to celebrate and showcase these diverse cultures into a single idea, Worrell coined the name and non-profit, CaribBEING. Through film series, arts and culture programming, and a new solar-powered CaribBEING tiny-home on the grounds of the Flatbush Caton Market, Shelley is ensuring that the rich cultures of this region are preserved in Brooklyn through the work of her non-profit. To seal the deal, she is also in the process of advocating for the establishment of the world’s very first “Little Caribbean” in the heart of Flatbush.
You are a first generation Caribbean American and Flatbush resident. From what countries do your parents come and, growing up, how strongly did you feel tied to those heritages and cultures? How strong is their presence today?
My parents are both immigrants from Trinidad. They migrated here in the 1960s and 70s respectively and settled in Flatbush. The first time I visited the Caribbean I was six months old (I also spent every summer there until high school) and just the other day my mother reminded me that the first word I learned how to spell was ROTI, a nod to my Indo-Caribbean heritage and one of my favorite dishes. The most important thing about Caribbean culture in Brooklyn and Greater New York City is its diversity. The entire region represented which is very unique and presents an amazing opportunity for cross-cultural exchange both amongst people of Caribbean descent, as well as people of other nationalities.
In Flatbush one can find Caribbean influences in food, culture, and style. One of my favorite things to do during the summer is to stroll down Flatbush Avenue from Parkside Avenue to the Junction, where you’ll have a complete Caribbean sensory experience.
You founded your arts non-profit, CaribBEING, in 1999—eight years ago! How did the germ of the idea take shape for you, and what was the first project that you undertook? How did you get it to grow, and by how much has it grown since?
I conceptualized the term as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. I was a dual major studying Anthropology & Caribbean Studies when the term came to me. It was at that time that I started traveling a lot in the region, which really expanded my scholarship, understanding, and appreciation of its rich cultural heritage and diversity. Our first project was mounting a film program at the Flatbush Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. We were bold and called it the Flatbush Film Festival as we had a big vision for the community to see themselves reflected in the arts, in this case film. To be honest, it was a huge flop mainly due to a lack of experience in audience development and limited resources, so I went back to my day job as a media executive.
In 2010, a few months after the earthquake in Haiti, a friend who is now very involved in Caribbeing showed me a rough cut for his film, On lanmen ka lavé lòt (United We stand), inspiring us to resurrect the Flatbush Film Festival. That program was a huge success prompting us to add visual art and mount an exhibition featuring emerging Caribbean artists including Brianna McCarthy (Trinidad), Alain Caprice (Martinique) and Daniel Goudrouffe (Guadeloupe) at MoCADA and La Maison d’Art in Harlem. That year we also expanded our film programming with screenings taking place at Maysles Documentary Center. The pivotal moment was when we were tapped to produce Carnival Panorama (a daylong pop-up Carnival), the largest public program coinciding with Caribbean Crossroads of the World at Queens Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, and El Museo del Barrio in 2012. Over 1,000 people attended that program inspiring us to reach out to more museums to showcase our rich cultural heritage.
Since then we’ve produced roughly two hundred programs, and the scale and reach of our events have mushroomed exponentially. Our last experience at Brooklyn Museum titled “Caribbeing in Brooklyn” featured Blacka di Danca, Majah Hype, MeloX and Machel Montano, and 13,000 people attended. [. . .]
For full interview, go to http://www.bkmag.com/2017/03/13/brooklyn-100-influencer-shelley-worrell-founder-caribbeing/
[Photo above by Nicole Fara Silver.]