Learning From Black Communities Through Art

Posted February 15, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two Black women stand, holdign hands, in front of a wall filled with handwritten submissions for the Black Thought Project.

A new report spot­lights a series of inter­ac­tive com­mu­ni­ty-based art instal­la­tions that pro­vide a space for Black peo­ple to reflect on their expe­ri­ences. Called the Black Thought Project: Lessons on Cen­ter­ing Black­ness, the report explores how these large pub­lic art walls have engaged peo­ple of all races in an effort to trans­form society’s neg­a­tive beliefs about Black peo­ple into affir­ma­tions of their human­i­ty, wis­dom and possibilities.

Con­ceived of by Maven Col­lab­o­ra­tive Fel­low Ali­cia M. Wal­ters, the Black Thought Project has built 15 walls — as large as eight feet high and 48 feet long — in part­ner­ship with orga­ni­za­tions and cre­ators in com­mu­ni­ties includ­ing East Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, and Harlem, New York City.

I want­ed peo­ple to feel what it is like to be in right-rela­tion­ship to Black­ness,” Wal­ters writes in her intro­duc­tion to the report. For Black peo­ple to reflect on our own lives and per­spec­tives know­ing we are being pro­tect­ed, not threat­ened or con­sid­ered a threat; wit­nessed, not pro­filed, judged or sur­veilled; our expres­sions hon­ored, not com­mod­i­fied or exploit­ed. For us to be in our joy and our heal­ing in pub­lic with­out shame or fear.”

This project offers an inno­v­a­tive approach to part­ner­ing with com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers by pro­vid­ing safe spaces to express their thoughts and per­spec­tives,” says Kim­ber­ly Spring, direc­tor of Research and Eval­u­a­tion at the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, a cofun­der of the Black Thought Project.

Mak­ing Spaces for Black Thought

The Black Thought Project report details the process for cre­at­ing a wall. It begins by engag­ing Black com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in con­ver­sa­tion to con­firm that the project will be wel­comed by res­i­dents. When con­sid­er­ing the loca­tion of a wall, project lead­ers ask themselves:

  • What is the Black community’s rela­tion­ship to this place?
  • Did any­thing hap­pen here that may pre­vent Black peo­ple from feel­ing safe?
  • Does law enforce­ment have an active pres­ence here that may intim­i­date or threat­en the safe­ty of Black people? 

Each Black Thought wall requests the Black community’s writ­ten respons­es to top­ics such as:

  • indi­vid­ual worth and dignity;
  • aspi­ra­tions for the com­mu­ni­ty; and
  • heal­ing and repair­ing harm.

Although only Black peo­ple are allowed to write on the wall, non-Black com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers — called thought pro­tec­tors” — are trained to pro­tect the wall as a space for Black expres­sion. When non-Black peo­ple attempt to write on the wall, thought pro­tec­tors inter­vene and engage them in con­ver­sa­tion about the project’s purpose.

The pub­lic dis­play of respons­es shows the pow­er of Black self-deter­mi­na­tion. It gives peo­ple who are not Black expo­sure to authen­tic Black expres­sion. This kind of engage­ment coun­ters nar­ra­tives that lead to the deval­u­a­tion and dehu­man­iza­tion of Black peo­ple, shift­ing focus to what Wal­ters calls the beau­ty, vibran­cy and resilience in being Black and the end­less, irre­sistible pos­si­bil­i­ties when we are free to be and to dream.”

To date, the project has aver­aged 1,000 respons­es per wall.

Lessons from the Black Thought Project

Among the Black Thought Project’s lessons, the report highlights:

  • Build trust. Com­bat a community’s ini­tial skep­ti­cism about par­tic­i­pat­ing in the project by build­ing trust in the wall’s cre­ators as facilitators.
  • Plan ahead. Ensure venues have agreed in advance about details such as how long the wall will remain stand­ing and how to keep it clean.
  • Con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion. The wall’s respons­es are just the begin­ning; there must be ongo­ing, in-depth con­ver­sa­tions about what peo­ple wrote.

The Black Thought Project focus­es on what is already beau­ti­ful and going well, includ­ing the clar­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty, tal­ent and wis­dom that’s already present with­in the com­mu­ni­ty,” says Oronde Miller, direc­tor of Equi­ty and Inclu­sion at the Casey Foun­da­tion. Ide­al­ly, all of this would come togeth­er to form the build­ing blocks for respond­ing to any num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty chal­lenges, includ­ing com­mu­ni­ty heal­ing and repair and the trans­for­ma­tion of any sys­tems and insti­tu­tions that con­tribute to those challenges.”

Build­ing Out the Black Thought Project

Wal­ters and the Maven Col­lab­o­ra­tive hope to expand the Black Thought Project into more com­mu­ni­ties and cre­ate per­ma­nent spaces. They envi­sion co-cre­at­ing walls focused on spe­cif­ic Black expe­ri­ences that are often over­looked, like those of women, immi­grants and the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. In any set­ting, the project might look dif­fer­ent based on what that community’s mem­bers decide they want it to be.

Wher­ev­er Black peo­ple are mis­un­der­stood, dis­placed, sys­tem­i­cal­ly harmed, there the Black Thought Project shall be,” the report states. Wher­ev­er there are Black peo­ple with untapped wis­dom, unex­pressed dreams, unheard solu­tions, there should be Black Thought Walls invit­ing and pro­tect­ing their expressions.”

The project makes it clear that the com­mu­ni­ty isn’t lack­ing vision and aspi­ra­tion,” says Miller. Com­mu­ni­ties are almost always pre­pared to tell you what they want and what they need, but they have too often not been pro­vid­ed the resources, invest­ment and oth­er sup­ports to real­ize that vision.”

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