In 2008-2009, I had the pleasure of working with InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit to co-create a program called Living the Arts. Along with Nandi Comer and Dr. Lori Brooks, I worked to facilitate synergistic performance spaces where we explored the interconnections between music, poetry and performance in African American history and culture with Detroit high school students.
With the students, we explored the political, civil rights, and racial uplift imperatives informing these genres, and how artists both past and present worked to express their human condition through these forms. We examined how, in many cases, these forms moved people, often youth, to a powerful space in which they realized that change could and would happen.
As Barack Obama was our newly-elected President, the message of hope and the promise of change held particular sway for the Detroit high school students (many of them seniors) in the room. What did their generation have to do with change? As they move forward to college and continue honing their crafts as musicians, poets, and performers, what role did or would art have to play in solidifying and articulating that change?
Of course, we held discussions and explored examples from the Harlem Renaissance era, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, from Langston Hughes, Erykah Badu, and Sonia Sanchez, to Sterling Brown, Amiri Baraka, and Kanye West. As we explored these artists, their connections and parallels, we held larger questions about how this kind of work, when done well and with measurable outcomes and replicable models, could transform education as we know it.
This is the subject of my chapter in my forthcoming book, co-edited with Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Reading African American Experiences in the Obama Era: Theory, Advocacy, Activism (Peter Lang Press, Fall 2011). In my chapter “Transformative Educational Spaces: Black Youth and Education in the 21st Century,” I sought to take stock of the lessons learned, to explore the historical imperative to educate youth and young adults despite the condition of “the system,” and to create a model for dialogue and cross-conversations at the implementation stage of arts-based and youth-centered programs.
Although the Living the Arts Program is no longer in operation, I am grateful to Arts of Citizenship for their generous funding, and to InsideOut Literary Arts Project for partnering with us. As our country continues to see eruptions in educational funding cuts and policy changes, we must work to create a system of impactful, strong programs with secure funding to transform the lives of our youth in powerful and sustainable ways.