#NCArtsEquity

Snapshot: The Beautiful Project

Sandra Davidson

Monday, April 5, 2021

 

In 1982 poet, writer, and activist Audre Lorde gave a speech at a Harvard University event honoring Malcom X. In the speech, titled “Learning from the 60s,” Lorde reflected on how the revolutionary spirit of the decade shaped her embodiment and expression of her full self: 

“The 60s for me was a time of promise and excitement, but the 60s was also a time of isolation and frustration from within. . . As a Black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage, there was usually some part of me guaranteed to offend everybody’s comfortable prejudices of who I should be. That is how I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Thirty-nine years later, Audre Lorde’s work sits at the heart of intersectional feminist literature, and her message and methods inspire social justice leaders, artists, and cultural workers around the world, including Jamaica Gilmer, the founder and director of The Beautiful Project.

Based in Durham, The Beautiful Project is an arts collective on a mission to empower Black women and girls to use the tools of photography, writing, and community to tell authentic stories that will revolutionize the way the world sees Black women and girls.

Gilmer, a photographer and artist herself, founded The Beautiful Project after the death of her mother, a Black woman whose identity and worldview (like Lorde’s) was definitively shaped by the 1960s. 

“My mother was a child of the 60s. She was a woman who believed in justice. She was a great leader. She was a dark-skinned Black woman who went through too much,” says Gilmer. 

“She taught me and my sister to understand the layers of who we come from, what’s been done to our family, and who Black women say they are. She taught us about colorism. She taught us about love. She taught us about forgiveness. She taught us about grace.” 

After her mother’s death, Gilmer felt called to build an arts collective for Black women and girls anchored in care and fueled by the pursuit of unapologetic self-definition and self-determination because she knew firsthand the impact such a community had on her own life. 

“My mother and sister were my first experience of the kind of sisterhood I have grown to adore. As Black women and as Black girls, we would face things that were unkind and unjust, and we would do it together. As I got older, I realized that I had an edge because of what they taught me. For all the ways I could be afraid in the world, all I had to do was think about them. I wanted other Black girls to have that, too,” said Gilmer. 

In 2004, she created The Beautiful Project.

Over the past 17 years, The Beautiful Project has created programs, produced exhibits, and fostered a creative community of Black women and girls who use the arts to build individual and collective power.

 

 

Gilmer and her collaborators built The Beautiful Project from the ground up and did so without the support of external funding for nearly the first decade of the project’s existence. Gradually, though, the institutional art world took notice. 

In 2016, they produced “Self-Care: A Word & Image Act of Self-Preservation & Political Warfare”: an exhibit of “photographic portraits, quotes, and interactive reflections” for the Center for Documentary Studies, at Duke University. The team was guided by a famous quote from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” 

In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art premiered “Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project,” an exhibition of work created by The Beautiful Project that was lauded by the New York Times and Essence magazine.

“Through that exhibition at the Met, we let the world see us in our barest form,” said Gilmer. “Everyone in those images were and are living very layered lives. It was a very intimate offer. The love and affirmation and affection. . . the way it brought folks to tears. . . it was just really dope.”

In 2020, The Beautiful Project strove to meet the moment of the pandemic with their programming. 

They shifted “Maya’s Room,” a writers’ circle for Black women, to a virtual offering. They also launched a virtual youth apprenticeship centered on producing “Her Testimony”: a campaign documenting the experiences of North Carolina Black women and girls during the pandemic.  

Looking to the future, Gilmer said this: “My dream is for The Beautiful Project to be a sustainable dream house for Black women and girls. A place where we cultivate voice and power through writing, photography, and care. A place that we can learn together and thrive together and be repositioned as authorities over our own narrative in a global context.”  


The Beautiful Project is one of 17 organizations that received our 2020 Organizations of Color grant, made possible with funding support from South Arts. Learn more about The Beautiful Project here.


 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the content director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

North Carolina Arts Council seeks a consultant or firm to conduct diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion audits for arts organizations

North Carolina Arts Council

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The North Carolina Arts Council is developing a pilot program that will advance diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) in nonprofit arts organizations across the state. The Arts Council asks independent organizational consultants or firms with specific expertise in mitigating unconscious bias and advancing DEAI in organizations to submit their qualifications to support this pilot program.

The agency will award technical assistance grants to one or two nonprofit arts organizations that have expressed an interest in acknowledging and removing barriers to equitable access to grant funding, employment, leadership, and professional development opportunities. These nonprofits will use the technical assistance grants to conduct a DEAI audit facilitated by the consultant(s) that the Arts Council will select through this Request for Qualifications. 

Access the formal Request for Qualifications here: http://bit.ly/NCDEAIAudit.

Consultants are invited to submit their qualifications for this project by email to Tamara.Brothers@ncdcr.gov by 5 p.m. EDT on March 29, 2021. 

Snapshot: CineOdyssey Film Festival

Sandra Davidson

Friday, March 12, 2021

 

“Representation matters” has long been a mantra in the arts, and it’s a catchphrase often heard in discussions about film, which is arguably the most influential visual artistic medium in the world. One has only to revisit the critical, commercial, and cultural success of the 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther” to understand. 

“Black Panther” was the first Marvel Studios superhero film starring a Black hero and featuring a predominately Black cast. Grossing more than $1 billion internationally, the film was celebrated by critics and fans alike for its depiction of Black culture. The ongoing public discourse surrounding the film is a testament its enduring legacy. (Search #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe on Twitter to see for yourself.) “Black Panther” proved to a generation of Black actors, writers, and filmmakers that the sky is the limit. 

The concept of “representation matters” boils down to the idea that the stories we tell and are told are models for the lives we believe we are able to lead. It is a theme that has long captured the attention and defined the work of Tre’ McGriff, director of CineOdyssey Film Festival, in Charlotte. 

Born and raised in New York City and the suburbs of Long Island, McGriff doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t love film. 

“When I was a kid, I used to act in plays all the time,” reflected McGriff. “As a kid I watched a lot of films with subtitles. Italian films. Latin American films. I was different than my friends.”

His interest and natural talents didn’t go unnoticed. One year his elementary schoolteacher wrote “See you in Hollywood” in his yearbook, which McGriff says added fuel to the fire. 

Thirty some years ago, McGriff attended the premiere of Spike Lee’s debut film “She’s Gotta Have It ”in Manhattan. While standing in a line that wrapped around the block outside of the theater, McGriff noticed Spike Lee himself making his way down the line, selling merchandise for the film. 

“He’s got a film in the theater, but he’s out on the street, greeting everyone and hawking his merch,” recalled McGriff. “To see an African American man doing what he did, spending his own money, living off potato chips, and sleeping on the couch—doing whatever he had to do to get his film done. . . . I was blown away by that. It told me that it was possible for African Americans to do this. Sometimes you have to see one person do it before it becomes a reality.”

McGriff moved to Charlotte in 1999 and quickly got plugged into the city’s film community. He cofounded a multicultural film collective called Motion Concepts that for a few years produced independent film projects, and he started working with Dennis Darrell, a pioneering film advocate who worked to bring Black independent films to Charlotte in the early 2000s. 

“I remember he gave an event which drew, like, 800 people. I was blown away. All these people came out on a Wednesday to see short films by African American filmmakers,” said McGriff. “He took me under his wing, taught me how to put a program together, how to curate films, and how to read audiences.”  

McGriff eventually took those lessons and put them to work as the program director for the Charlotte Black Film Festival. After a couple of years in that role, McGriff stepped out on his own with the dream of creating a film festival that showcased movies made by filmmakers of color from around the world. 

 

 

In 2017, McGriff launched CineOdyssey Film Festival, which presents contemporary international films made by filmmakers of color from the African, Caribbean, Latinx, Asian, and Native American diasporas. In addition to curating a diverse selection of films each year, McGriff is intentional about presenting compelling panel discussions around screenings. 

“I brought Yolonda Ross, who plays in the Showtime series, The Chi, one year. It was fantastic listening to her journey and her story,” said McGriff. 

“It was very inspiring to the aspiring actors who had the chance to be in the same room with her. That’s very important, too. People need to be up and close with success. They have to be looking success in the eye and be able to shake success’s hand.” 

Last November, CineOdyssey hosted its fourth festival—a hybrid event that took place online and at a drive-in screening. Attendees had the chance to be transported all over the world: Brazil, Vietnam, Suriname, China, Venezuela, Cuba, and more. McGriff’s enduring passion for presenting global films stems from his belief that representation matters not only for aspiring filmmakers but also for audiences. 

“I think the world needs to be more tolerant. We need to be more understanding of each other’s backgrounds and cultures,” said McGriff. “The things that we worry about are so similar. I think if we had a better understanding of each other, and a curiosity about learning about each other, the world would be a better place.” 


Learn more about the CineOdyssey Film Festival here.


 

2020 was an unforgettable year, one defined by a pandemic and a racial justice movement in America. Charting a course through this historic time has been the sole focus of the North Carolina Arts Council for the last year. Marshalling emergency pandemic-response resources to the arts sector and addressing how disparities of race, class, and access stand in the way of our vision of arts for all people have been and will remain our top priorities. One measure we’ve taken this year intersects with both. 

In November, we announced our plan to distribute grants to 17 nonprofit arts organizations of color. These resources, made possible with support from South Arts,  will help recipients remain operational during the pandemic. From art galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a drumline in rural eastern North Carolina, these nonprofits are varied and diverse in scope, focus, and the communities they serve, but they are united in their efforts to use the arts to make a lasting, positive impact on their communities. They are among many organizations and arts leaders of color who are informing the direction of our racial and cultural equity work.

It is our pleasure to introduce you to several of them in our new series Snapshot. 

Over the course of several weeks, we will share profiles of the Leela Foundation (Cary), The GiftedArts (Garner), The Beautiful Project (Durham), A Drummers World (Goldsboro), Cine Odyssey (Charlotte), and Diamante (Cary).

On their own, each profile provides a glimpse of the dreams and values fueling the work of these nonprofits. As a whole, these stories offer a window into the way people of color in our state are using the arts to advocate justice, equity, and healing. We are grateful for the insights these leaders shared with us, and we are eager to share them with you, too. 


 

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the content director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

Snapshot: A Drummer's World

Samuel Gerweck

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

A Drummer’s World was conceived in a dream. One night in 2006 founder Alando Mitchell fell asleep thinking about ways he could support and empower youth in Goldsboro. He woke up the next morning with the vision of starting a drumline. 

That same morning, he went over to the Goldsboro YMCA and pitched his idea. The dream soon became reality.

“All kids love playing drums,” Mitchell told me recently. “You can play drums and still be cool.” 

Mitchell would know a thing or two about how cool playing drums can be. Born into a musical family, he said his love for percussion was cemented in third grade, when a group of older boys invited him to drum in their band for a talent show. “I hit my first note on the snare, and as soon as I hit the cymbal and the bass drum, the audience erupted. Right there, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” 

That’s exactly what Mitchell has done, and it’s been his goal to help as many kids feel the way he felt during that talent show as he can. 

The 15-year journey of A Drummer’s World hasn’t been without challenges. One of the biggest hardships the drumline has faced was losing its facility several months before the group was slated to be the first North Carolina drumline to appear in the esteemed Tuskegee Morehouse Football Classic Parade.  

“We ended up practicing outside for four months with no building. In the cold. Preparing to go to Georgia and Alabama,” said Mitchell. “Do you know that the kids didn't care that sometimes it was 32 degrees, and the wind was blowing? The kids just wanted to practice, so we practiced in an empty parking lot.”

 

"A Drummer's World Drumline: Keeping the Beat | Get Hype or Go Home!" highlights how Alando Mitchell leads a typical rehearsal.

 

What keeps Mitchell going through rough patches like that? He wants to make sure the kids know there are opportunities that he didn’t know existed when he was their age. Part of that is educating them on the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and drumlines. 

“I think one thing that keeps me coming back is when I was growing up, although I had great mentors in my life, nobody ever told me about HBCUs. I never knew about HBCUs until I was 21 years old and married,” said Mitchell. “You got kids that go to HBCUs that say the band is the only thing they’re there for.” 

The historical ties between HBCUs and drumlines is strong, and Mitchell hopes that by getting his students hooked on the drums, they’ll wind up on the college path.

A Drummer’s World is no longer practicing in that empty parking lot. Its current base is the Goldsboro Boys and Girls Club, and Mitchell is on the hunt for a permanent home of its own. The pandemic halted marching for a few months, but the drummers started up again in September 2020 following the state’s new COVID-19 safety regulations. Mitchell’s long-term goal is to “get A Drummer’s World at a plateau where it's self-run,” freeing him up to start drumlines in other communities that need them. That would be a true drummer’s world.


Learn more about A Drummer's World here.


 

2020 was an unforgettable year, one defined by a pandemic and a racial justice movement in America. Charting a course through this historic time has been the sole focus of the North Carolina Arts Council for the last year. Marshalling emergency pandemic-response resources to the arts sector and addressing how disparities of race, class, and access stand in the way of our vision of arts for all people have been and will remain our top priorities. One measure we’ve taken this year intersects with both. 

In November, we announced our plan to distribute grants to 17 nonprofit arts organizations of color. These resources, made possible with support from South Arts,  will help recipients remain operational during the pandemic. From art galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a drumline in rural eastern North Carolina, these nonprofits are varied and diverse in scope, focus, and the communities they serve, but they are united in their efforts to use the arts to make a lasting, positive impact on their communities. They are among many organizations and arts leaders of color who are informing the direction of our racial and cultural equity work.

It is our pleasure to introduce you to several of them in our new series Snapshot. 

Over the course of several weeks, we will share profiles of the Leela Foundation (Cary), The GiftedArts (Garner), The Beautiful Project (Durham), A Drummers World (Goldsboro), Cine Odyssey (Charlotte), and Diamante (Cary).

On their own, each profile provides a glimpse of the dreams and values fueling the work of these nonprofits. As a whole, these stories offer a window into the way people of color in our state are using the arts to advocate justice, equity, and healing. We are grateful for the insights these leaders shared with us, and we are eager to share them with you, too. 


 

Sam Gerwek

Samuel Gerweck is the special programs coordinator and content strategist for the North Carolina Arts Council. Before joining the North Carolina Arts Council in this role, he was a key team member on the Come Hear North Carolina initiative and the 2019 Year of Music, serving as a content contributor, contract supervisor, and program facilitator. Trained in vocal performance and music theory, he focuses not only on highlighting the great variety of art in this state but also in understanding the people, places, and circumstances that influence its creation.

Snapshot: TheGifted Arts

Samuel Gerweck

Thursday, March 4, 2021

What does “access” mean in the context of the arts? It’s more than just making resources available. People need to know that those resources exist. They need to know that there is a bigger world than what they have been exposed to so far. That goal drives CJ Morgan’s work with TheGifted Arts.

Morgan is the cofounder and chief operating officer of this nonprofit, which serves Raleigh and Garner. When I interviewed him recently, he said, “When you look at certain arts programs, like the symphonies and the orchestras, you don't see a lot of minority participation, and I think that's just because there's a disconnect in getting people there.” 

“We look to serve communities that are underrepresented in other areas—majority black and brown children who come either from low-income school districts or low-income neighborhoods. We like to be that entry point for kids to experience arts that they're familiar with and then expose them to arts that they might not be familiar with, for them to understand, ‘Oh, this is art. All art is art.”

Students at TheGifted Arts are intentionally exposed to multiple mediums, not just the ones that initially interest them. “You might come in and say you want to dance ,” said Morgan. “That's fine, you can want to dance, but you're also going to learn about fashion, you're going learn about the theater.” The goal here is to unlock skill sets that are applicable within and beyond the art world.

“I think that anyone who works in the arts or does any type of performing knows there's a lot of real-world skills that accompany that whole process. Even if you're not going to be a performer for the rest of your life, you can still utilize those skills in any job,” he said. 

Morgan learned this himself as a teenager, preparing as a piano accompanist for a pageant. “I always visualize the actual event. This young lady was preparing to do a pageant, and she was singing the song. It had to go off without a hitch, everything had to be, you know, close to perfect as possible. I just remember the process, the preparation, having to work hand in hand to put that together. I didn't want to be the reason why she didn't win, or the reason why she messed up.” 

 

Although COVID-19 put a damper on everyone’s plans for 2020, TheGifted Arts adapted and continued its work, putting on a virtual fashion show in August.

 

Working together, personal accountability, overcoming fears, and achieving success together are the qualities that TheGifted Arts staff hopes to show students how to achieve.

“It doesn't matter, the color of your skin; it doesn't matter where you've come from; it doesn't matter, your financial status: art is there for everyone. A majority of our students have never taken a dance class, because they can't afford a dance class. They've never played an instrument, because you have to rent instruments. There has been a barrier, but when you remove the barrier, they see the world in a whole different light. It has sparked some of our students to go to school to get a degree in dance or in visual arts, but that may never have been their path had they not had the opportunity to just touch base in all those things. That's what we do,” said Morgan.

So what is the dream for TheGifted Arts? 

“The ultimate dream is to work myself out of a job,” said Morgan. “But you know, that's the utopian-type dream.” In other words, in an ideal world, TheGifted Arts wouldn’t have to exist, because equality and access in the arts world wouldn’t need fighting for. It would just be.

In the meantime, while we’re all working toward that ultimate goal, Morgan’s hope for TheGifted Arts is to open a school and operate it at full capacity with a full-time staff. 


Learn more about TheGifted Arts here.


 

2020 was an unforgettable year, one defined by a pandemic and a racial justice movement in America. Charting a course through this historic time has been the sole focus of the North Carolina Arts Council for the last year. Marshalling emergency pandemic-response resources to the arts sector and addressing how disparities of race, class, and access stand in the way of our vision of arts for all people have been and will remain our top priorities. One measure we’ve taken this year intersects with both. 

In November, we announced our plan to distribute grants to 17 nonprofit arts organizations of color. These resources, made possible with support from South Arts,  will help recipients remain operational during the pandemic. From art galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a drumline in rural eastern North Carolina, these nonprofits are varied and diverse in scope, focus, and the communities they serve, but they are united in their efforts to use the arts to make a lasting, positive impact on their communities. They are among many organizations and arts leaders of color who are informing the direction of our racial and cultural equity work.

It is our pleasure to introduce you to several of them in our new series Snapshot. 

Over the course of several weeks, we will share profiles of the Leela Foundation (Cary), The GiftedArts (Garner), The Beautiful Project (Durham), A Drummers World (Goldsboro), Cine Odyssey (Charlotte), and Diamante (Cary).

On their own, each profile provides a glimpse of the dreams and values fueling the work of these nonprofits. As a whole, these stories offer a window into the way people of color in our state are using the arts to advocate justice, equity, and healing. We are grateful for the insights these leaders shared with us, and we are eager to share them with you, too. 


 

Sam Gerwek

Samuel Gerweck is the special programs coordinator and content strategist for the North Carolina Arts Council. Before joining the North Carolina Arts Council in this role, he was a key team member on the Come Hear North Carolina initiative and the 2019 Year of Music, serving as a content contributor, contract supervisor, and program facilitator. Trained in vocal performance and music theory, he focuses not only on highlighting the great variety of art in this state but also in understanding the people, places, and circumstances that influence its creation.

Snapshot: The Leela Foundation

Sandra Davidson

Monday, March 1, 2021

2020 was an unforgettable year, one defined by a pandemic and a racial justice movement in America. Charting a course through this historic time has been the sole focus of the North Carolina Arts Council for the last year. Marshalling emergency pandemic-response resources to the arts sector and addressing how disparities of race, class, and access stand in the way of our vision of arts for all people have been and will remain our top priorities. One measure we’ve taken this year intersects with both. 

In November, we announced our plan to distribute grants to 17 nonprofit arts organizations of color. These resources, made possible with support from South Arts,  will help recipients remain operational during the pandemic. From art galleries at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to a drumline in rural eastern North Carolina, these nonprofits are varied and diverse in scope, focus, and the communities they serve, but they are united in their efforts to use the arts to make a lasting, positive impact on their communities. They are among many organizations and arts leaders of color who are informing the direction of our racial and cultural equity work.

It is our pleasure to introduce you to several of them in our new series Snapshot. 

Over the course of several weeks, we will share profiles of the Leela Foundation (Cary), The GiftedArts (Garner), The Beautiful Project (Durham), A Drummers World (Goldsboro), Cine Odyssey (Charlotte), and Diamante (Cary).

On their own, each profile provides a glimpse of the dreams and values fueling the work of these nonprofits. As a whole, these stories offer a window into the way people of color in our state are using the arts to advocate justice, equity, and healing. We are grateful for the insights these leaders shared with us, and we are eager to share them with you, too. 


 

Asha Bala, Founder and Director of the Leela Foundation, speaks about her vision for the organization.

Understanding, respect, and tolerance are not just virtues: they are the building blocks of a healthy society. The belief in and pursuit of these values connects artists across space and time. 

Asha Bala understands this. 

Bala is a performer, scholar, and teacher of Bharata Natyam, an ancient South Indian classical dance celebrated for its technical beauty, history, and spirituality. Born and trained in India, Bala has lived and performed all over the world. Before moving to the United States in 2000 for graduate school, she lived in Switzerland and Kazakhstan. She’s shared her passion for dance and culture with North Carolinians since 2002, most notably through the Leela School of Dance, which she founded and directs. 

In an interview recorded late last year over Zoom, Bala described a new piece she’s teaching her students that tells the story of the Dashavatara, the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god tasked with protecting the universe. 

“The legend goes that every time there is injustice happening in the world, Vishnu will be born again and again to right this injustice,” said Bala. 

In one incarnation, Vishnu transforms into a fish to rescue several books of knowledge stolen by a demon and buried at the bottom of the ocean. 

“It’s this whole idea of keeping mankind in darkness, not giving them this knowledge,” said Bala. “Vishnu destroys the demon and retrieves the texts of knowledge for humanity.” 

Bala draws connections between the ancient legend and current sociopolitical realities: “We are going through an age of. . . what shall I say? There’s so much bigotry, so much prejudice. All of this comes from a place of ignorance, and people want to perpetuate that—to keep that ignorance going.”

Two students of the Leela Foundation perform an excerpt from a piece about the Dashavatara, the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god tasked with protecting the universe.

In 2018, Bala received the North Carolina Heritage Award in recognition of her work teaching Bharata Natyam to the Indian diaspora community in our state. A year later, she created the Leela Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to building a global artistic community united by the pursuit of the universal truths at the core of all artistic expression. 

To date, the foundation has offered programs that provide both training in and the historical context of classical Indian dance. Eventually, it will offer programming in other art forms. Bala sees the Leela Foundation as the third act of her career—an opportunity to grow the audience for Bharata Natyam and to foster multiculturalism and tolerance. 

 “It’s important that these art forms are not restricted or contained within our diaspora. I feel a responsibility not just to teach the art form in terms of movement and expression, but also to engage in conversations about its universal wisdom and what it has to teach us about the human condition in a contemporary sense,” said Bala. 

“These lessons have the ability to cut across geographical boundaries and cultures. When you get to know another culture, you understand. With understanding comes respect.” 


Learn more about the Leela Foundation here

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the content director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

Subscribe to #NCArtsEquity