Getting Personal: Dawn M. Blackman Sr.

Getting Personal: Dawn M. Blackman Sr.

Getting Personal is a Q&A with a local personality. Here, 63-year-old Champaign resident Dawn M. Blackman Sr., an associate minister at the Champaign Church of the Brethren, chats with The News-Gazette's Melissa Merli. Blackman also is the steward of the Randolph Street Community Garden and a part-time package handler at FedEx Ground. Most people don't know she's an epileptic who has been seizure and medication free for 40 years.

Congratulations on your recent award. Do you know how it came about? ( is a movement to tap and reward the skills and experience of people in midlife and beyond who improve communities and the world.)

I was nominated by community members.

Tell us about how you started getting involved in community gardening.

I started out gardening with 10 children when the Master Gardeners were stewards for the then Stratton Garden Plots. The children and I had been growing sprouts in our classroom above The Great Impasta, then in downtown Champaign, when a move to classrooms at the Church of the Brethren put us within walking distance of the Stratton Garden Plots.

After the Master Gardeners withdrew and because we had already ordered our seeds, I stepped in to keep the garden open and became volunteer steward. I partnered with Charles Doty, now deceased, the then liaison from Washington Square Senior Living Center, to involve seniors in the garden. We started out with eight beds and grew to 42 the first two years. We now have more than 60.

Did you and your family have gardens when you were a child? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Chicago. No, we did not have gardens when I was a child. I would sometimes plant potato eyes in the gangway. I did know where the potatoes were going to appear. When I uncovered a jawbreaker-size potato, I was so excited that I screamed.

My parents both ran home-based businesses. Mother was a licensed beautician and caterer, and Dad ran a home-interior business.

Are you still sewing and selling clothes?

No, not for a while. I am recovering from a couple of injuries which have kept me from taking on new work. My sewing has been limited to finishing work already in progress and teaching after-school club members.

Are you still a storyteller? What kind of stories do you tell or have you told and when is your next storytelling concert?

Yes, I am still a storyteller. I tell cultural tales, scary stories and stories involving wedding traditions from around the world. My clients can pick their topic, and I will do research and find appropriate stories.

I also write, so I tell my own stories.

I tell stories the last Sunday of each month as part of the worship service at Champaign Church of the Brethren, 1210 N. Neil St. I tell twice this month of December — the next time will be today and again on Dec. 27. The worship service starts at 10:30 a.m.

I have performed 11 of the 12 years for Read Across America. I also have a story time each week in the Randolph Street Community Garden.

Tell us about your time as a military wife in Europe and the Middle East. Particularly about apprenticing with native crafts people.

My ex-husband was a Russian linguist. One of our assignments took us to Turkey. Jobs for enlisted wives were few and far between.

A neighbor took my daughter and me to his home village where relatives were carpet weavers. Even though I was considered too old to begin study, I was allowed to participate. My daughter at 4 was just about a year younger than the children who began their apprenticeships at that time. It was a family business with a designated nap time for the young apprentices.

I studied floor loom and large-frame weaving with an English woman. I also learned to spin and take care of sheep from her.

A Navaho woman taught me to "work with the wool" in that tradition. A chance encounter in the Denny's restaurant where I was manager led to that opportunity.

A kind and patient gentleman from Guatemala taught me to weave on a back-strap loom. I had purchased from him a loom, with a work in-progress, and thought with my weaving experience I would be able to figure it out. When I could not, I returned to his shop only to find that he had mounted another hook in the wall next to where he worked, ready to teach me.

Even though we had no language in common, while working on the same project side-by-side, he patiently showed me step-by-step how to use my loom.

Do you still operate the Motherlands Multicultural Resource Center and Motherlands Culture Club? Tell us about it and the programs that have grown out of it.

The Champaign Church of the Brethren adopted the Motherlands Culture Club as a ministry while it was meeting in the back of my shop. When Church Street Square (former Robeson's) converted to an all office-park format and my subsequent space above The Great Impasta was converted to a banquet hall, the church made space available in its school classrooms.

Culture Club continues as an outreach after-school program, five days a week, and has expanded to include life-skills training for middle and high school students. It is home to the Young Bakers — men over the age of 12 — and the Fabulous Baker Girls, women in the same age range.

We also use this as a vehicle to provide after-school snacks for these and younger children. We are on the foot path from Stratton and the bus stop. We average 2,000 snacks a month, even more, when there are school holidays.

The Motherlands Multicultural Resource Center continues as The Community Craft Closet, a project of Motherlands Culture Club (like the garden), providing prepackaged craft projects to individuals in mentor relationships with youth, home day care centers and others.

You've received the McKinley YWCA award for community service and The Madam C.J. Walker award for women in business, via the Champaign chapter of the National Council of African American Men. What other awards have you received? What's the most meaningful one for you?

I received the STAR (Service Together Achieves Results) award from the city of Champaign and an award from eblack, a University of Illinois and community technology group.

The Encore Award is most meaningful because it represents the cooperative spirit that I think it takes to tackle the problems in our community. I was named an Encore Fellow for my ongoing work at the Randolph Street Community Garden; Church of the Brethren Food Pantry; Zero Waste Illinois, a UI student project; and the Senior Nutrition Program, a partnership between Church of the Brethren and New Covenant Church.

When and why did you move from Chicago to Champaign?

I relocated to Champaign in 1993 to open my boutique and sewing center.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

At the moment, I am off work due to an injury, but I usually get up at 1:30 a.m. to make a 2:30 a.m. clock-in as a package handler at FedEx Ground. Once I shut off the alarm, I read a daily Bible scripture from "Fresh from the Word," the Church of the Brethren 300-year anniversary celebration book. Then I eat, dress, head to work.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

As a parent I am proud of my daughter Dawn Jr. As for other achievements or accomplishments, I am waiting to see how God is going to use me.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

Good health.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

Yes, Sugar Frosted Flakes, with half and half

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

I am reading three books now: "Septimus Heap" Book Four: Queste" by Angie Sage because I saw one of the children with it; "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano," which is my research for a historical portrayal I will use in Black History Month programs; and "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus" by Jacob Neusner, one of the non-traditional books we are exploring in Wednesday night Bible study .

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

Heaven. Thy kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. I have traveled a lot, and while I enjoy travel, I am content now to stay in one place, working and waiting for the coming of the kingdom.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

I don't keep pets. As a child of 6, I had a turtle named Stinky. He has been my only personal pet. He didn't like the Kool-Aid I shared with him.

What's your favorite sports team?

The Central Maroons, in which some former and current Culture Club members play.

What would you order for your last meal?

A large lobster with lemon butter, one of my mother-in-law's biscuits, a large everything salad and one of my mom's fried apricot pies.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

Coming back would be a real disappointment. But if I had to come back, I would come back as a cloistered nun.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

The young jazz musicians from the Banks Bridgewater Lewis Fine Arts Academy. I like their spirit.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

The day my newborn daughter was placed in my arms.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

I'd invite Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson and Donald Trump. I would set a beautiful table and there would be all kinds of wonderful smells. They would see other people enjoying their meals, and I would serve them nothing.

This way they could see what it is like for too many people in this country and world: seeing and smelling and prepared to participate in all of the bounty and opportunities but unable to share in them.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

Sojourner Truth because she took what she had and went to work with it. She did what she could do.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

Procrastination. Procrastination.

What's your best piece of advice?

Set goals. Do something every day to move yourself toward your goals.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

Outside of my parents' businesses, I worked as a summer youth employee in the Neighborhood Youth Corps for $1.18 per hour.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

I decided to stop living for myself. I realized all of the things that I had learned could be used in Kingdom work.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

I used to dance disco. I regret all the time I spent dancing at discos. I wish I had that energy to bring to the work I am doing now.

How do you handle a stressful situation?



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