Supporting Black Lives Through the Arts

This summer, I began my work as a summer intern at the Center for Afrofuturist Studies (CAS), an artist residency program that reimagines the futures of marginalized people by creating dynamic workspaces for artists of color. This new experience coincided with a pandemic, along with protests for racial justice and calls for the dismantlement of institutionalized racism. My internship took place within the context of widespread societal changes and shifts. This context could not be ignored. It would shape not only my everyday experiences but also my internship. 

So I began to reflect. Yes, I knew what was expected of me, but what did I want from the CAS, especially in light of everything that occurred since I was awarded my internship? I wanted the opportunity to express my feelings — feelings of grief about the senseless murders of Black lives, feelings of optimism about the selfless actions of protesters who marched for change and accountability, feelings of appreciation for those whose creative and intellectual works clarified and supported my understanding of Blackness in America. I understood that my intern site would not be where I resolved all those feelings instantaneously. Still, I welcomed the opportunity to have my internship responsibilities converge with my views on racial justice.

I am grateful to the CAS because my responsibilities did not exist in a vacuum, but in the moment I am living in. As a summer intern at the CAS, I helped draft a statement advocating for radical and lasting racial changes in America. This statement, Moving Towards Black Joy, affirmed the importance of all Black lives and recognized the value of Black artists who use their collective imaginations to envision a future where Black people can construct lives centered around joy, autonomy, and innovation. Also, I represented the CAS at the BlackSpace’s Juneteenth Celebration. During this celebration, which included an interdisciplinary collective of Black urbanists, artists, policymakers, and afro-futurists, I spoke about the CAS and how our organization envisioned Black future through art.

Additionally, I took part in two social media takeovers, one with Residency Unlimited, a non-profit art organization, and another with The Stanley Museum of Art, a visual arts institution connected with the University of Iowa. In these takeovers, I highlighted the work of past and current artists-in-residence connected with the CAS — these artists uncover structures of power and celebrate the complexity and beauty of Black humanity. Moreover, I shared films and documentaries centered on Black love, history and creativity, and their relationship to our conversations around systemic racism. Through these activities, I communicated my thoughts, ideas, and understanding of Black history and creativity with new platforms, forums, and audiences. I succeeded in these and other responsibilities not only because they related to my interests, but also because the CAS trusted me to express myself and use my voice as I saw fit. 

Ultimately, my capacity to engage in responsibilities that underscored my commitment to racial justice over this summer led me to reflect on what constitutes meaningful support to Black lives in institutions or organizations. The CAS has, since its founding, championed Black artists in local and national artistic communities. Looking at the CAS, I see that they not only support Black artists’ expression through an art residency program, but they also promote the talent of these artists through extensive social networks, engage the work of these artists in on-going programming and community projects, and compensate the expression of these artists through commissioned and emergency funds.

When institutions and organizations publicly issue words of solidarity for Black lives in America, we should consider what they actually do behind the scenes to maintain the intellectual, professional, or creative work of Black people. We need organizations that know how to effectively improve Black people’s institutional support networks, compensation and pay, capacity to succeed and advance, and inclusion in executive decisions.

My internship has exposed me to an organization that considers all of the above, and with that, allows me to cement my expectations for organizations or institutions I will work with in the future. 

Photography credited to John Engelbrecht, Director of Public Space ONE (PS1).