Just as the clock on the old Filene’s building in Downtown Crossing clanged 12 noon on Saturday, February 8, a small group of people dressed in black lined up on Winter St. and crouched on the ground or on crates saying, “Spare change please . . . spare prayers please . . .” in unison.
All 12 of them stood up at once and broke into a spoken word flash mob, reciting the poem “Spare Change” by Jha D. Williams in unison. Williams, 28, is an architectural designer at Sasaki Associates in Watertown and an active participant in Boston’s spoken-word scene.
Her group of performers—all fellow spoken word artists—started the afternoon with a flash mob in Downtown Crossing then walked to Faneuil Hall for a second performance, drawing pedestrians into the space often occupied by people doing magic shows and stunts. Many stopped and gathered around the flash mob, brandishing cell phones to take pictures and record videos. The performers walked around each other in no particular pattern, making eye contact with those who watched as if speaking directly to them.
Jha D. Williams wrote “Spare Change” in 2008 but put her flash-mob plan in motion around Christmas. The actual piece took Williams about a month to write and revise before she first performed it. Performing “Spare Change” in a group or a train station was always in the back of her mind, so she just posted an event in the “If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It” Facebook group to see who was interested. Williams created the organization “If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It” in 2009 to give performers an outlet. It hosts open mic nights in Jamaica Plain for anyone to get up on stage and do their thing.
According to Williams, she drew her inspiration for “Spare Change” from a collection of experiences where she spoke to homeless people and asked to hear their stories. She took the poem’s list of reasons people live on the street from conversations with the displaced people she met.
Williams says she did not organize the flash mob on February 8 to provoke a measureable change in society. Rather, she says was motivated by the need to make the public more mindful of the reality of homelessness.
“You see us here, looking like shoppers or what have you, whereas you don’t necessarily see any of the panhandlers you passed getting here,” Williams explains, “So we want to bring some visibility and awareness to that.”
Performer Wazir Gray, 26, of Dorchester, joined the flash mob after reaching out to Williams via her Facebook post. He is a spoken-word artist, poet and rapper with an expanding selection of recorded tracks on his website. As an artist who frequents the open mic nights and often writes about life’s hardships, he had a similar goal for the flash mob.
“I hope that it would touch somebody. As long as one person took it in a positive way, they might pass somebody and look at it in a way that’s more complex than that person is a bum and doesn’t deserve to be treated in a humane way,” he said while waiting to be seated for a celebratory group lunch at Hard Rock Café.
Williams believes the root of society’s problem with homeless people is ignorance and that one solution is education. She said people can begin to change their negative mentality by learning about the resources Boston has to help the homeless.
“I think our society at large has shunned those who cannot help themselves. It’s about being aware of the fact that at any point in time it could be you. People need to understand it’s not necessarily that person’s fault,” Williams said.
Her theory is that a change in the common thought processes can bring about a much-needed collective attitude adjustment. As she wrote at the beginning of her poem,
I’m not asking for/ Your/ Ridicule, judgment or criticism/ Just for your nickels, dimes and quarters/ In place of your hate-filled orders/ To get off my ass and get a job/because I had one right before I lost my house.