Four years after its inception in a second-floor room overlooking the Southside Community Garden at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center, Word on the Street/La Voz de les Jovenes found itself in a familiar setting.
Though the arts-based after-school program, intended to center the leadership and creativity of Black and Brown youths ages 13-19, had always operated in the former African American Livingston Street School, its participants were forced to share space with other groups. That all changed in July when the most impactful initiative of local nonprofit Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community established a dedicated space in the very room where it started, plus a kitchen and new office areas for executive director Sekou Coleman and program coordinator Laura Padilla just down the hall.
Following the creation of the nonprofit in 2011, WOTS/VDLJ initially began as an online magazine. Coleman says that while program members — known as The Squad — honor and respect certain aspects of that original goal, the end product isn’t as meaningful for young people as it once was. Now, information is far more immediate, and rather than the magazine being the nonprofit’s primary outcome, results are geared to instilling hope and belonging in young people.
“We do a lot of work with the arts, but I don’t know that arts is the expected outcome for participants,” Coleman says. “It’s more the concept of developing a way into the world and seeing themselves connected to their community as well as the bigger picture and bigger struggle. We give them tools to follow a bigger path, which can look like a lot of things.”
The Squad develops these skills through various projects. Recent efforts include the creation of a mural in the Squad room with local artist Jenny Pickens, one of the three lead artists on the Black Lives Matter mural in Pack Square. The work is composed of individual reflective pieces based on five questions raised by 35-year-old queer, Black, Chicago-based activist Charlene Carruthers: Who am I? Who are my people? What do we want? What are we building? Are we ready to win?
Coleman’s favorite project of 2020 is Leyendas Mexicanas (Mexican Legends), a video collaboration with Asheville-based puppeteer Edwin Salas. For it, three Latinx Squad members researched El Charro Negro, representing the dark side of human nature; La Llorona, the weeping woman who threatens children’s lives; and kidnapping monster El Cucuy, whom the students — and Salas, who created puppets for the project — equated to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Work on Leyendas Mexicanas began before COVID-19 interrupted regular operations, but the determination shown by program youths on this and other undertakings greatly impressed Coleman and Padilla.
“Prior to the pandemic, Squad members would work on projects here. Then we stopped meeting, so they couldn’t do that and had to think how they had to change the project,” says Coleman, noting the influx of emergency and unsolicited funds in the spring that allowed the afterschool program to purchase Chromebooks for every student and ensure connectivity. “We saw all of them adapt to the new environment, they got their projects done, and then we had a showcase in early June to show off the projects. It was a remarkable display of resiliency.”
The Squad will look to sustain these efforts on Saturday, Nov. 21, when it launches El Arte de la Abundancia (The Art of Abundance), a reimagining of its annual fundraising campaign. The two-week digital event features a virtual tour of the new space; an exhibit of visual art by Squad members and local artists who are Black, Indigenous and people of color; special recorded performances by The Squad and Asheville-area BIPOC musicians; plus an online auction. The goal is to raise $20,000 for WOTS/VDLJ by Saturday, Dec. 5.
Among the youths who will benefit from these community gifts are Keitra Black-Warfield, 15, an Asheville native who spent her early years in the Southside neighborhood before moving to West Asheville and then the Emma/Leicester area, and Mexico native Temo Cruz, 16, who’s been in Asheville for nearly a decade and currently resides in Emma. Both joined the program when they were 13 — Black-Warfield to pursue her interest in painting and drawing, and Cruz to explore website and graphic design, as well as photography and videography — and believe that they’ve gained considerable skills in the past few years.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my patience,” Black-Warfield says. “I have to be so into [a project] for me to want to get it done.”
In addition to the opportunity to “get out of the house more,” Cruz has seen his comfort level increase with everyday interactions, largely through The Squad’s video journalism efforts like the neighborhood history project Southside Stories. “It’s helped me come out of my shell a little bit, in terms of conversation and also when it comes to getting stuff done. It’s taught me a lot about accountability and not being afraid to start something,” he says. “With interviewing, when I first started here, asking people questions made me really nervous. But over time, it became more routine.”
Squad projects have also helped each teen foster a stronger connection to the Southside community, allowing Black-Warfield to delve deeper into a history she’s heard about throughout her life and giving Cruz what he calls “an experience of mixing communities,” through which he’s made friendships across cultures.
And though neither student envisions a career in the arts — Black-Warfield wants to be a cosmetologist and Cruz is currently undecided — both are confident that their time on The Squad will have a lasting impact, just as it as for those who’ve graduated from the program. “Even if I don’t want to pursue something in photography or graphic design, I think this will be a good way for me to stand out from other people,” Cruz says. “It’s an experience that not a lot of people get.” artedelaabundancia.org