I’m on a journey. You should join me.
In January I joined the A-REALL cohort. A-REALL is a professional learning community for arts educators, TEACHING ARTISTS, and arts integration classroom teachers committed to anti-racism in learning spaces. Presented by the MSDE Fine Arts Office and Arts Education in Maryland Schools, we meet bi-monthly to address racial inequities in arts education.
Additionally, we are expected to develop an archival portfolio of our personal experience. We are to submit monthly projects. Our first assignment was “All About Me,” which invited me to look at my own racial history. As I prepared to create my piece, I unpacked the topic. I wrote in my journal. I spoke to guardians and loved ones from my childhood. I asked important questions to recall events and better understand the experiences. I reflected and brainstormed with family, friends and colleagues (Angie and JanLee!).
After I completed my piece, I wondered, what now? Does this go in my basement?
Then I remembered my application to this program where I said, “I must do more. Be braver. Get wiser. Act stronger. I want to teach and live more boldly, intentionally and transparently.”
This is me doing that… always failing forward. This is where you can join me. Below my piece I dropped some of the questions the A-REALL team invited me to consider so that you can reflect on the questions too. Or respond to others that pop up in your world – there is a lot for each of us to unpack! Then take an hour, a day, a week, a month and respond creatively. Use the literary arts, media arts, dance, music, theatre, visual art. Heck bake your response or grow it in a garden… am I going overboard? I think not! This is an important conversation that we all need to have with ourselves and with each other. And don’t miss the final step, SHARE YOUR WORK. Because as a dear colleague, mentor and friend texted me today, “It’s hard to grow without sharing.” (Thanks Denise.)
Let’s fail forward together. It’s the only path towards making diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion a possibility.
By Jennifer Ridgway in collaboration with Angela Ellis
I grew up in Poolesville, Maryland, a small, rural town where most residents attended local churches on Sunday mornings. White supremacy and racism were normalized in Poolesville’s schools, businesses, government, families, and even its churches. As newcomers to Poolesville, my parents were invited to attend Poolesville Memorial United Methodist Church, what we soon understood to be the white Methodist church. It wasn’t long before my parents learned that the head usher made a practice of telling first time attendees who were Black: “Your church is down the street.” Many questions arose for my parents. They discussed race and colour with their four children. We watched PBS’s Eyes on the Prize and Roots. We listened to Soul Train and WHUR’s Quiet Storm. And we attended local churches that were identified in the community as Black. This was my beginning. I am still on this journey. Which is why I return to this place again and again.
It reminds me to let go of the familiar, embrace the uncomfortable and unpack Whiteness.
It situates me in new spaces with a sense of curiosity, play and wonder.
It challenges me to understand different ideologies and explore new ways of being me.
It allows myself and the people I encounter to be complex works of art.
Always learning, always in process.
I am a theatre artist attempting a visual piece to practice stepping into unfamiliar territory, and perhaps to get a little uncomfortable, as I demonstrate how my childhood experience with race and skin colour has and continues to shape me. Inspired by the folk art that I experienced within my family and at all the churches I attended, this is a visual representation of my beginning.
This piece uses 0.3 miles of yarn to depict the loosening and unraveling of the tightly knitted binding of institutional racism. I collaborated with Angela Ellis, who is a member of Elijah United Methodist Church, the Black church that was 0.3 miles down the street from Poolesville Memorial United Methodist Church. Angela is a personal mentor, artisan, public speaker, community organizer, wife, mother to my Godsister, grandmother and always family. She knitted the two churches as the foundation of the piece. Seemingly identical in their denomination yet knitted separately by the colour of their skin. My adult guides from my childhood – both Black and white – spoke and acted in ways that moved them and me towards progress. In between the two churches is a depiction of the journey of difficult conversations and hard work that never ends. It flows into my experimentation with arm knitting, as I continue to build on that foundation with my own engaged practice. I learned to arm knit to complete this piece. It required me to essentially bind myself to the work and to be fully engaged. It is imperfect as this journey requires mistake-making.
There are times I can’t imagine it getting any harder, more impossible, darker. It does. Sometimes I think I’ve mastered it. I haven’t. It is in me. White supremacy and racism are a part of all of us. It is woven into every part of our society and world. It needs constant work.
I wonder how long are you willing to learn something new, to be uncomfortable, to work at this issue … 0.3 miles? A mile? 3? 3 years? 30? A lifetime?
Lean in. Get involved. Question. Examine. Push. Rest. Go again. Push. Rest. Resist. Examine. Question. Always hold to the light.
Ready to move out of the nest with me? Start with these reflection questions:
- What was your earliest memory around skin colour? Where were you? Who were you with? Was it something a family member said? Was it an event you and your friends participated in? How did you feel?
- How did your parents or caregivers talk about skin colour? How did their beliefs and views shape you? How do you feel about the words your parents or caregivers use to refer to people of color today, now that you’re older?
- We are often trying to be seen as competent or as authorities, but in the work of anti-racism, you will need to unlearn and learn for years. How can you cultivate a spirit of teachability and humility? How can you walk in love instead of judgment, so that you can learn and not become defensive?
- White supremacy doesn’t just superiorize the dominant (white) culture–it normalizes it. Can you think of ways that you’ve participated in normalizing white culture, at the expense of other cultures?