It’s a Saturday afternoon at Asheville’s Arthur Edington Center, inside what was once an elementary school classroom converted into the well-lived-in home for the black and brown teens of Word on the Street.
Keitra Black-Warfield, a 15-year-old who attends Erwin High School, is among eight others at tables or on the floor, are painting, drawing and adding textiles destined for murals to hang from the walls here.
“It changed me for real,” Black-Warfield said of the program. “It taught me about your community, about your family, about your connections you build with people.”
Since its founding four years ago, Word on the Street has fostered writing, photography, artwork and multimedia work from local middle and high schoolers and published it online.
Partly because of the pandemic, and more so the ascent of new online outlets for expression, the program is evolving away from a magazine and the demands of deadlines. Now, students—or, squad members, as they’re called—focus on projects both inside their space at the Edington Center and out in the community.
Word on the Street has partnered with producers of the well-known podcast Palimpsest to create an episode delving into black and brown cultural appropriation and they’re also collecting stories from the historically African-American community of Alexander. Word on the Street is showcasing performance and art from its members, silent auction and a virtual open house as part of its Nov. 21 online fundraiser.
But on this day, students are looking inward to create the murals. Adult mentors hoped to spark some creative juices by posing questions to them such as “Who are my people?” and “What are we building?”
“Take, for example, the first of those five questions, ‘Who am I?’ Everyone will have a different response to that,” said Sekou Coleman, a longtime artist mentor in the program now in his first year as director. “So thinking about ‘How do I want to visually display my answer to the question ‘Who am I?,’ and then how do I use this art medium as an opportunity to represent that?”
When they’re not in this room, students meet up to two other days each week online through Zoom video, which has opened Word on the Street to one former member deported two years ago to El Salvador and another electing to stay home during the pandemic. And for the first time, students have separate meetings for members who are black and those identifying as Latinx.
“Even though we build a safe space for black and brown teens in our squad meetings, these young people show up in society through the culture with which they identify,” Coleman said. “What are topics or issues that are more front of mind within the black community than the Latinx community, or vice versa, and then to bring that home into our shared space and build a much stronger unity between cultural identities.”
Temo Cruz is a 16-year-old attending Erwin High School. He said beyond his ethnic identity, the program has an impact many kids his age can relate to.
“I definitely have gone out of my comfort zone in terms of art. Like usually, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to paint, but now I do,” Cruz said. “Like when I was working on the website, I was sitting at my desk and not really talking to anybody. But going out to events has definitely helped me, and so just stuff like that that forced me to leave this bubble I had created for myself.”