By: Lauren Whiteman
Taylor Toynes is often the first person to pull into the Glendale Shopping Center parking lot in the mornings. He sits in his car, looking up at the sign over the For Oak Cliff community center there.
“It feels like a dream every time.”
Taylor is the Founder and Executive Director of the For Oak Cliff community center, headquartered in the same shopping center where Taylor’s grandfather once owned a grocery store years ago.
There’s a GED class happening in the Center when I arrive. Adults are working through math problems on white boards spread throughout the space while their children are reading and doing arts and crafts in the back room. The youngest children, a group of toddlers, are excitedly sharing their knowledge of how important it is to cough into their elbows—and not their hands—to avoid spreading germs.
“We believe in a dual-gen approach . . . so while the adults are getting their enrichment, the kids can get theirs too.” says Taylor. This is important. Lack of childcare is often a barrier to access when it comes to services like these.
What began as a school supply drive in Taylor’s fourth grade classroom at W. W. Bushman Elementary School in 2014, has since grown into a full-service community center focused on the needs of the community in the “Superblock”, an area encompassing Oak Cliff’s southern sector. For Oak Cliff currently provides programming space for various groups in the community, and hosts an arsenal of programs such as their Liberators Policy and Advocacy Fellowship, Back-to-School Festival, and community garden. On Friday’s and Saturday’s, if there isn’t an event happening, they open the doors so that people can come by and learn more about the community center or use the Wi-Fi. The Center houses one of the few public computer labs in the area.
“We want to provide a space for all these things to happen and for people to be their authentic selves.” Taylor says as he rattles off his vision for the center. “I don’t feel like anyone that comes through these doors should feel judgement. . . If people come in here, they’re here to better themselves.”
The Superblock is evidence of what Taylor calls the upcoming Oak Cliff Renaissance Period. He describes how economic development in the Glendale Shopping Center is on the rise, and mentions the renovation plans for South Oak Cliff High School and what will be Glendale Park’s first redevelopment plan in 50 years. Taylor oversees the park through his position on the Dallas Board for Parks and Recreation. Altogether Taylor believes these things will help revolutionize the mindsets and the experiences of the community, helping them to better understand and appreciate what Oak Cliff can offer.
“A lot of people told me not to come here.” He says. “Don’t tell me that. I grew up here.”
If you want to see what Black life is like in Oak Cliff, without the smoke and mirrors that come from years of over-generalizations and misconceptions, For Oak Cliff’s Back to School Festival should be your major stop. In the past few years the festival has provided 5,000 backpacks full of school supplies to students in the area, and is a representation of the very best of the Superblock as they are, being their most authentic selves. Black-owned businesses serving food. Groups like the Urban League Young Professionals helping people get registered to vote. Performances from the South Oak Cliff High School band and dance team. Being there just feels good.
Even during the years J. Cole doesn’t attend.
Coincidence led to the Festival being scheduled for the same day as J. Cole’s Dallas tour stop last year, but it was the intentional and concentrated efforts of the city that motivated his attendance. Shortly before he was scheduled to arrive in Dallas, J. Cole released his “Album of the Year” Freestyle, where he referenced a very specific section of the city:
“Shout out Oak Cliff, I’m ‘bout to fly to Dallas”.
A storm of tweets and Instagram comments followed, telling the rapper and his team that they should attend the festival, followed by video requests from Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa.
It worked. And when J. Cole arrived, he wasn’t empty-handed. As he arrived at Glendale Park for the festival, he also arranged for a U-Haul truck full of school supplies to arrive at For Oak Cliff headquarters to support the cause. As a result, schools in the area were also able to have the extra school supplies they needed throughout the year.
J. Cole’s attendance was a full-circle moment for Taylor, who kept J. Cole’s mixtape ‘The Warm Up’ in rotation while an undergraduate at the University of North Texas. His first year as a teacher at Bushman coincided with the release of J. Cole’s album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He describes that first year of teaching as one of the most difficult things he has done, due to all the things he knew his students had to deal with. He would sit in his car before the first bell and listen as the album asked, “Do you wanna be happy? Do you . . . wanna be free?”
He found himself listening on one particular morning, working through tears as he tried to prepare himself to teach. A knock on his car door made him look up as a student tried to get his attention.
“Come on Mr. Toynes, we gotta go to class.” The boy said.
It gave him what he needed.
J. Cole isn’t the only notable name to interact with For Oak Cliff. In 2017 Mark Zuckerberg spent the Dr. King holiday working with the Center to clear the lot that now houses the For Oak Cliff Community Garden. Just this February, K104 DJ Bay Bay visited For Oak Cliff headquarters with Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle. Nipsey and Taylor shared plans for the projects underway at both Crenshaw and Slauson and in Glendale, their hopes for their communities, and possible next steps. On his way out Nipsey said he’d be sure to stop by For Oak Cliff each time he was in town. No one could have predicted that he would be gunned down a month later.
It’s a death that neighborhoods all over the country are still trying to make sense of, and Dallas has been no exception. A series of vigils and demonstrations were hosted in the city in Nipsey Hussle’s honor, and on one rainy evening, members of the Oak Cliff community found themselves inside For Oak Cliff, paying respects and sharing words of encouragement and hope as Nipsey’s music played in the background. Flags flying, and spirits too.
Taylor guides me through the For Oak Cliff Community Center pointing out renovations and plans for the space, including his plans to serve even more people with his friend Eric, who he mentions several times throughout the interview.
He’s holding a letter from Eric as we talk.
Eric Hurt is currently serving year 14 of a 35-year sentence that he received at the age of 16. Though Eric was incarcerated before For Oak Cliff began, Taylor doesn’t hesitate to say that Eric’s had a strong impact on the organization.
“I run everything by him. For Oak Cliff exists for that not to happen to another young person.”
The growth from a classroom-based school supply drive, to large-scale festival, to full-service community center with multiple on-going programs and projects in just four years seems like a dream. The kind that seems real and can happen to you if you just believe in yourself. In some ways, it is. But dreams don’t always portray setbacks and hurdles with the same intensity that life produces them, and Taylor and For Oak Cliff have had them. He mentions several such as funding issues and people pulling out of the Festival, but also, in a moment of authenticity those who know him well have come to expect, Taylor mentions another, more surprising, aspect: keeping his ego in check.
He recognizes the difference in when he’s operating from his spirit and when he is operating from ego. “When you let ego get in the way, that’s when you start to offend people and when people see your work in a different light.” The admission is a testament to his dedication to the Superblock, and the means, intentions, and reasoning behind the organization’s programs and services.
“Some of the things that happen are so emotionally draining.” Toynes says, referencing shootings and evictions, young people facing incarceration, and the kidnapping and murder of Shavonne Randall, whose family he still works with. He feels that if people knew more of what happened outside of the glitz and glamour of the Festival, they’d be more engaged and tuned in to what happens in the city, and better able to serve it.
Though Taylor Toynes is a hero and an advocate to many in his community, he’s also a husband and father to people he describes as both his peace and his strength. He’s noticeably emotional and introspective when speaking of them.
“Ariel’s been by my side since I was 16 or 17 years old, supporting me through anything and everything.” he says of his wife. “I credit part of my degree to her. She helped me through math at UNT.” he laughs.
Taylor can’t help but smile when it comes to young Wednesday Toynes, who he and Ariel named for the fourth day of Creation, where God created the universe, galaxies and seasons, all things he sees in her. She’s one of his largest inspirations and motivations.
“I might not ever be able to see or do some of the things that I’ve always wanted to do. But hopefully we’ve been laying a foundation so that our daughter and her children will be able to do things that we were never able to.”
He envisions her sitting at the table Jay-Z and Beyoncé created for their daughter Blue Ivy at the end of their “Family Feud” music video, where Blue and the other women leaders of the world come together to lead us into a better future. “Wednesday will be at that table too. They just don’t know it yet.”
Since the 2018 Back-to-School Festival, Taylor and For Oak Cliff have hosted community programs such as toy drives to help families during the holidays, and pushed conversations about the importance of mental health in the community by helping coordinate the Dallas-stop of author and radio host Charlamagne Tha God’s tour for his book ‘Shook One’. The center has also launched a free monthly health clinic, and is one of the driving forces behind the development of plans for a nonprofit grocery store in Glendale.
Considering that south Oak Cliff is a well-known food desert, this is exciting and reflects Taylor’s belief that by focusing on solving various issues in the community, we can one day see the problems that cause them to be eradicated as well. And we don’t need to wait for people to come in and do it for us.
We’re exactly the ones that we’ve been waiting for.
Be on the lookout for more information on this year’s Back-to-School Festival, scheduled for August 17. For more information on For Oak Cliff, visit ForOakCliff.org.
Lauren Whiteman is from Dallas, she eats Rudy’s, it’s been a while since she’s been to Big T though. She has a couple of degrees from the University of Oklahoma and is now an educator in the Dallas area. Lauren’s work focuses on advocacy, student development, and the miseducation of Black and African American students in higher education. She’s a TEDx presenter, the editor for the blog at www.GoodCulture.Life, and hopes future generations never forget what to do for the 99 and the 2000. For her twitter shenanigans, visit @itsmewhiteman.