We had the good fortune of connecting with Ronald Jones and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ronald, what makes you happy? Why?
I like this question because I get to talk about why I do anything at all. I’ve never been motivated to do anything that did not bring either myself, my family, friends or community joy. Growing up, there were always outside elements that would attempt to steal the happiness I felt I possess and would oftentimes latch onto as if for dear life. I didn’t enjoy school very much because it always seemed that I would either have to pretend to be someone else or become a hyperextension of myself to make friends or become likeable. In those moments I was often taken advantage of, taken for granted, or made to feel small or foolish. I would find myself, from a very young age, very stressed out. I would get nosebleeds throughout my childhood and adolescence due to the level of stress I seemed to always exist within. When I was very young I would draw the cars I saw at the repair shops my dad owned. When I got older I drew cartoons with my sister Kathy. When I found skateboarding, it was like I found a friend within whom I could really openly invest myself in without fear of ridicule or oppression. I wrote short stories, poetry, made collages as well. I did not know at the time that these other forms of entertainment of expression were outlets to funnel so of the emotions I could not speak out. I was given a camera in 2004 by my then roommate Matthew Phillips. It was then that I felt that I had found a form, a medium that allowed me to express myself without ever having to write or speak. It felt as if I could show through imagery, the layers of my personality and the depth of my emotional responses to the world around me. In 2005, I was arrested and later sent to prison. While incarcerated I once again revisited the things that kept me at least partially stable as a teen. I drew comics, wrote short stories and poetry. I tapped into those things to transport me to a distant place within myself that would allow me to exist in a place I felt so isolated and hopeless within. When I was released in 2010, I immediately started taking photos and skateboarding again. I used to send letters to my friend Brian with all the tricks I dreamt up while I was incarcerated. I was not at a level to attempt them then or when I got out, but it used to help remind me that I was once free, and would be again some day. Within a few months, I was enrolled in Wharton County Junior College studying for a computer science degree. However, after a year and a half I realized my true passion, photography was what I really wanted to invest my time and energy into. I applied and sat with student advisor at the Art Institute in Houston, but they wouldn’t allow me to go to school there as I had only recently been released from prison. The dean at the time said that he would not be able to justify to the parents of other students why he allowed someone of my background into the facility with their children. I was told to try another school first to prove that I was not a threat. I took that disappointment and instead of festering in the refusal, I applied and was accepted into Houston Community College where I studied filmmaking for two years. This feels like a life story, because it kind of is. But, I feel I have to share all of it because what makes me happy is that regardless of the situation or circumstances I have been able to cope utilizing the many self-care mechanisms I’ve discovered and invested in over the span of my entire life. I have persevered through so many obstacles because folks like my mom, sisters, nephews and nieces, friends and community have encouraged and provided so many resources to make sure I can pursue the things that keep me alive. My creative process, the civil engagement, social work and community oriented projects are what bring me joy. Through these acts I can show the world around me that happiness is possible, even if it seems improbable if given the resources to invest in whatever it is that shines light within the darkness that, at times surrounds our existence.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I do not like to think about myself as separate from others. I believe we are all here learning from each other. I am always excited to learn from others, whether through direct communication and interactions or vicariously through some form of disparate connection or social context. I take a lot of pride in my ability to absorb information and channel it into an ongoing dialogue, whether internal or within a conversation had with one person or an entire community of individuals. I owe so much to those that have been so freely accepting of me. I have been able to experience so much and engage with so many different things due to the openness of the community around me. However, at a very young age, I was made to understand that there would be obstacles or invisible ceilings which would attempt to stifle my joy or hinder my growth or path. Having been abused by a teacher, who also refused to teach me because I was Black. I was made to understand that I was different. Not because I was actually different, but because they were taught that I was to be treated differently. The lessons learned from those experiences have truly shaped how I have navigated the world. I believe it is due to these realizations that I have been able to, over time, develop mechanisms to help cope with the oppressive nature of discrimination. Nevertheless, however hard I try to make sense of these circumstances and situations, I have been able to persist in my journey. I have had been able to, with quite a bit of assistance, to overcome a great many obstacles that were placed before me to ensnare me. It is due to these types of allies and the assistance that they provide that I have forwarded those same efforts and initiatives unto my community indiscriminately. I am motivated, in spite and despite these obstacles. It is because of the great difficulties that I have endured and persevered through that I am able to perceive what once seemed imperceivably unobtainable. At times, it feels like I’m living in the Matrix combating alternate forms of Agent Smith. It sometimes feels like, since I have had to experience so much hardship that I am at times able to the pattern of an abuser, obstructionist or gatekeeper present itself like coding being written out in real time. It is with this new understanding or way of thinking that I have begun to do more to become civilly engaged and community-based. I do not feel like I have superpowers or anything like that or that I believe I’m the Neo in this or any equation. I simply mean to imply that we are all, collectively, Morpheus and it is our mutual responsibility to make Neos of our descendants so that they can all feel free to be who they are, wherever they may find themselves. And if anything I say or have said, produce or will go on to produce plays any part in making that a reality, I feel that I will have served my purpose in this life.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If I had to take someone around Houston for a week long trip, I would most likely show them Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is one of the oldest parks in the Houston, and in the state of Texas. Founded by once enslaved persons, this park was purchased to offer a space for the newly freed African Americans to gather, have picnics and otherwise find communion. It was also the site of the very first Juneteenth Festival. I would also take them to Freedman’s Town, also known as 4th Ward. I would show them where my ancestors lived and once thrived. I would take them to The African American Library at the Gregory School which is also located in Freedman’s Town. I would take them there because I would want them to see the ways in which we have made an impact and where we chose to, as a people, leave our imprint on the city. These locations are of great importance to myself and my community as they are areas within which we have thrived, not just survived, amidst continual persecution, discrimination and rapid gentrification. I would show them how we have continued to love the communities that our ancestors have carved out for us simply because they loved us enough to create spaces for us even before we existed. I would take them up and down Almeda Avenue to the various dining options that exist that to show the sheer volume and diversity of dining options that exist within the area. I would introduce them to Crumbville, Texas located across the street from Emancipation Park to experience the amazing desserts. I would also introduce them to Project Row Houses, an art organization founded African-American artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith in 1993. In short, they would get a tour of all that African Americans have contributed to the City of Houston. Not simply because these are spaces where we live, eat or create, but because it is a shared responsibility to make sure these spaces are maintained, explored and carried within the hearts and minds of those that visit Houston. These locales and their respective histories are not separate from the history of the city, they are in my opinion what makes the city as great as it projects itself to be.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My mom, Brenda Jones, has for all my life asked the same question: “Who’s the man?!” I cannot tell you how silly it felt sometimes. But as I grew up, I learned that this was her way to keep my self esteem up and to encourage the successes she would witness. I could not express how much it means to me to be able to follow the phrase all the way back to kindergarten and first grade when I first began to learn how people would go on to treat me as an Black adolescent, young Black adult and a Black man. Throughout my life, my mom has made sacrifice after sacrifice to make sure all of her children (Jackie, Rhonda, myself and Kathy) felt they were important, not just to our family unit but in the world. She has always been the most supportive person in my life. Whenever she saw me take interest in anything she would invest whatever income into it to maintain the joy she saw me experience. Whether it was video games, drawing, skateboarding or whatever else I took to as a form of entertainment. I was not always so positive or good and there were times where I knew that I had let her down due to my own actions. But she never left me or let me sit in those moments. When I was in high school, in Bay City, she saw how the school treated me and took out a 15k-20k loan to send me to live with my eldest sister, Jackie in California. It was honestly the best thing that could have happened for me. I had no will to do very much in school as I did not have the encouragement or reinforcement I required to set any goals for myself. At the time I was being suspended for just about anything and felt as if I had a target on my back. It was in California that I was able to gain some sense of perspective. I was able to see what a friend was, who I was, and what I was actually capable of if given the opportunity. It was there that I was able to discover that it was okay for me to be my whole self without restriction or the need to bend myself for others’ attention of friendship or companionship. My mom is my hero. She is my absolute best friend. She is my first friend. She is the foundation for all my achievements and aspirations. I have learned how to treat others, how to listen, how to be resilient and how to be kind and giving from her. She has done so much to make sure that I survived, that I thrived, that I continue to exist in this world. I would not be here if I had any other mother, sisters, nephews or nieces. My mom, my family; they deserve so much praise because they are why I am able to pursue so many of the avenues I have attempted and continue to traverse. They are everything to me and I thank God that I have been so fortunate to have known them all my and their lives.