D.C. Area Arts Spaces Bring Youths and Creatives through the Pandemic

Long before the start of the pandemic, many young people in the District had expressed, and showed significant displeasure with the subject matter in their schools and their quality of life in communities where bullets, without warning, often claimed the lives of their peers.
Sam P.K. Collins

Long before the start of the pandemic, many young people in the District had expressed and shown significant displeasure with the subject matter in their schools and their quality of life in communities where bullets, without warning, often claimed the lives of their peers.   

In response to these harrowing conditions, social entrepreneurs Marshall Pollard and Kirk Keys combined their community-oriented ventures into what’s today known as The Creative School, an organization striving to immerse the youth of Wards 7 and 8 into lucrative and expressive hands-on activities. 

Through The Creative School, dozens of young people have not only channeled their grief for lost ones into grassroots political action, but launched the Southside D.R.I.P. juice brand as a show of their health consciousness and business acumen.

In the latest juncture of the program’s existence, these middle and high school participants are learning photography and preparing for a trip to Birmingham in celebration of Juneteenth.

D.C. Art Spaces - WiBridgeDC

“We feel that schools are stifling kids’ creativity and preparing them to work at desks and for corporations, either outside or inside the prison system,”  said Keys, The Creative School’s co-founder and community connector who’s known to many young people as Coach K.

Earlier this year, Keys and Marshall, who’s known as Mr. P., joined EASY1.23 and Effective Action to Save our Youth along with other community organizations, clergy, and mental health groups to help The Creative School’s youth honor the lives of Stormiyah Jones, a charter school youth who committed suicide in 2018, and Karon Brown, a young man who, several months later, was gunned down in his community.  

In honor of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the youth conducted a photo shoot at The Dojo Photo Studio and other spots throughout the District, including the Big Chair, their stomping grounds of Emmanuel Baptist Church, and The Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center, where they learned to run a pop-up shop, and make apparel and “love and light candles.”  

“We want The Creative School to tap into our kings’ and queens’ creativity and passion at a young age so they’re getting experience and exposure, and grasping what they might want to do in life,” Keys told The Bridge. 

“Things are happening in life so we [also] want to keep [alive] the legacies of the youth we’re losing too soon. Instead of our kings and queens grieving and coping on their own, we want them to tap into healthy and communal ways to grieve with each other.”

Amplifying The Voices of the Youth

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that the youth of Generation Z are becoming more left leaning than their older counterparts who identify as Millennials and Gen-Xers. 

When it comes to race, a significant number of those polled said they believed Black people in the U.S. are treated worse than white people. Respondents also appeared more welcoming of cultural and societal changes, and more desirous of government intervention in matters of income inequality and increasing living costs.

In the District, the Shaw community in Northwest has become a poster child for the rapid gentrification that, throughout much of the 2000s, has pushed out legions of Black people to the eastern parts of the city and D.C. suburbs.  

D.C. Art Spaces - WiBridgeDC

In 2019, Shaw served as the epicenter of the globally renowned “Don’t Mute DC” movement through which the go-go genre has even found a following among the city’s political elites.

However, as youth advocate Sudi West told The Bridge, an often overlooked aspect of the “Don’t Mute DC” story involves the hundreds of young people in the Shaw community who stood up for Don Campbell’s Central Communications/MetroPCS storefront in 2016 when developers and transplants initially attempted to silence the go-go sound resonating from it.

“Go-go is not just entertainment,” said West. “It’s a live, participatory place-making genre, an organizing practice of active self-determination that our youth and city need now more than ever.”

West, the director of the Shaw Community Center, recounted watching dozens of youth from the center, located in the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ on 11th Street, marching alongside members of their family to the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest. 

Sudi West D.C. Art Spaces WiBridgeDC

He said the group, in solidarity with displaced migrant children around the world, publicly displayed their art of clay boats. This culminated in a series that the Shaw youth choreographed with performance artist Tsedaye Makonnen. Photojournalist Kiah Lewis captured the moment and her clips of the youth beating their feet outside of Campbell’s MetroPCS store would accompany the #DontMuteDC hashtag on Twitter in 2019.

In the years since the youth stood up against the developers, they’ve made impromptu appearances at the annual “Art All Night” functions that take place on the streets of District neighborhoods designated as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). 

In Shaw, one of the more prominent BIDs, the young people under West’s lead, including the late student-activist Malachi Lukes, performed their original play “The Wizard of Shaw.” At one point, they’ve done this with the support of artists like Shaw native YPF Poppy, Davey Yarborough of the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, Juju House who played for Experience Unlimited and Matt “Swamp Guinee” Miller of the Afro go-go roots band Crank LuKongo.  

More than a year after a bullet ended Malachi’s life, members of the Shaw community have attempted to weather a pandemic and keep alive “The Real News Program,” a project born in the aftermath of a stop-and-frisk incident involving Malachi and Metro transit police officers.

The youth at the Shaw Community Center have facilitated that program at Lincoln Temple.

“For us the term ‘Real News’ means news that is local, and rooted in the lived experience of community members,” West said as he expressed his hope that this will continue to be the case. 

“We want more production support for The Real News Program. I hope that our youth get to bless that space with their energy.” 

Creating the Premier Artistic Hub

Apprehension about relaxed COVID restrictions notwithstanding, this summer promises a bevy of opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs in the D.C. metropolitan area hoping to take advantage of the public’s fervor for the sun and face-to-face interactions.  

This has especially been the case for the people behind what’s known as the Gateway Media Arts Lab. 

In the months and years before the pandemic struck, the Gateway Media Arts Lab, located in the quaint suburb of Mt. Rainier, Maryland, has been an incubator for artists, writers, producers, photographers, and designers to create, collaborate on, and showcase their work.

The lab, a brainchild of the Gateway Community Development Corporation that’s located on the 3100 block of Rhode Island Avenue, houses seven creative enterprises and numerous coworking groups that provide services in the D.C. metropolitan region and beyond.  

With the input of producer and creative professional Brian Burns III, the Gateway Media Arts Lab has executed a mission that promises to fulfill the Prince George’s Arts and Humanities Council’s vision for not only the arts districts of Mt. Rainier, Hyattsville, Brentwood, and North Brentwood, but production houses along the east coast.

For decades, the council has coordinated financial support for the arts in Prince George’s County, and promoted creative expression and artistic education designed to bridge racial, generational, and cultural gaps.

This has manifested in the launch of arts-focused storefronts and events along specifically designated corridors in the four aforementioned towns. 

D.C. Art Spaces WiBridgeDC

As a member of the Gateway Media Arts Lab, Burns has greatly benefitted. For instance, his team Dem Gibsons Films recently conducted pre-production meetings for the show Double Cross, which is going into its third season on Bob Johnson’s streaming network ALLBLK. 

As a testament to the Gateway Media Arts Lab’s purpose, the artwork of creatives affiliated with the DMV League of Artists appeared in episodes of Double Cross, and participants in Burns’ workshops have also contributed to the show.

All of this has taken place on the cusp of the Gateway Media Arts Lab’s soon-to-come writers club, production curricula geared specifically for virtual production,  and an ecosystem, named BE Creative, in which people learn how to obtain funding for their projects. 

Given the changes in the industry he described as favorable to artists, Burns said that he anticipates other creatives flocking to the Gateway Media Arts Lab to take advantage of its arts gallery, conference area, video and audio recording spaces, and seamstress studio.

Over time, this synergy, Burns told The Bridge, would position Mt.Rainier as a model for arts-based entrepreneurial collaboration. 

“We’ve seen the evolution of the Prince George’s Art District,” said Burns, the associate producer at Dem Gibsons. 

“There are more businesses, growth in membership, and creatives that have projects on the table with opportunities and budget,” he continued.

“This would be an opportunity to catch the true essence of development. This has been ongoing for the last three years. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in things, but the summer is looking promising.” 

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