A conversation about RACE: an exhibit, a summit and an identity

A summer series of workshops on race and identity culminates this month with a Youth Summit that asks, "Are we so different?"

by Weenta Girmay

The traveling exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? arrived at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the spring of this year and explores the anthropological, scientific and lived experience of race in the United States. The Carnegie Museum took the exhibit one step further, creating a summer teen workshop series called the “Youth Initiative on Race and Identity,” where teens partner with local organizations to create media that translates the exhibit from their perspective.

The Sprout Fund spoke with Laurie Giarratani, Assistant Director of Education for the Natural History Museum and Amalia Tonsor of The Labs at Carnegie Library about what went on at the summer workshop series and what’s in store for the culminating teen-led Youth Summit on Race, October 22nd.

What is the Youth Initiative on Race and Identity and how does it relate to the Natural History Museum’s RACE exhibit?

Laurie Giarratani, Carnegie Museum: This is a travelling exhibit that examines race from a couple different perspectives. It looks at the biology of human variation and how that differs from a lot of popular concepts of race, it looks at the lived experience of race and racism in the United States and also the history of the idea of race.

Our goal for the youth initiative and the youth summit is to engage teenagers with these ideas and the content of the exhibit and to help them connect with other organizations that they can continue to work with to explore these ideas.

Where were the teens recruited from? Were they from diverse backgrounds?

LG: The group was definitely racially diverse as well as geographically diverse. We had students from urban public schools, suburban public schools, charter schools, private schools. There were 20 kids and about 6 different schools. We had one student who was homeschooled. They were from different parts of town, in the city and the suburbs.

Who are your collaborators and how did they help facilitate the workshops?

LG: We have been working with The Labs at Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, the Literary Arts Boom, and the Warhol to put on the workshops with teens that happened over the summer and…we’ve been working with two groups at the YWCA, with Alexis Howard from teen services and with Dina Clark from the Center for Race and Gender Equity.

Were the teens comfortable talking about race? What kinds of questions did they ask themselves and each other?

Amalia Tonsor, The Labs at CLP: There were varying levels of comfort and experience in discussing race in our group, but all the students were genuinely interested in exploring their identities and working toward openness with each other, and the atmosphere was generally candid and sincere. They were especially interested in the ways that racial identity plays out differently for people depending on other aspects of their identities, such as class, gender and ability. We focused a lot on police violence and racial profiling, especially in response to the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The teens expressed grief and rage about this incident, as well as insight and curiosity about how youth (and adults) in Pittsburgh are and are not organizing around these issues, and how the media portrays youth of color and youth activism.

What did you think these teens ultimately learned from having these conversations?

AT: I see some amazing new alliances emerging from this project, and ultimately I think that is the major outcome—that these teens have experienced the ways that a creative media project can create a container for these difficult conversations and amplify their voices. In sharing those projects, their art can serve as a tool to broaden the scope of the conversations and open that space in more places.

What kind of media did the students produce during the workshops?

LG: The students ended up producing a few different kinds of media. They noticed that there are not a lot of teen voices in the exhibit…so they took elements of the exhibit that spoke to them and put their own teen voice into it.

They produced a series of activity cards or trading cards that focused on specific exhibit components. For example, there’s an exhibit about sports teams that have American Indians as mascots so the teens looked up which local schools have Native American mascots.

In our Oakland workshops we worked with The Labs at CLP and we actually ended up bringing in another partner, Hip Hop On Lock. We had one group of teens that did a spoken word piece. They all composed poetry outside of our workshop sessions and when we were together during their workshops they read their pieces, thought about the themes that connected them and did an interesting video of themselves reading poetry.

We had another group discussing how race plays out at their schools. These teens hosted their own roundtable discussions, which they videotaped. There’s a lunch table that visitors can sit down at and watch this video. A few of those students are from City High and they’re also using this as a part of their senior project.

The third team did a project that was related to the Teeny Harris archived interviews and they went outside of workshop time to interview people in different areas of Pittsburgh. They visited libraries that have Labs over on the Northside, Squirrel Hill and here in Oakland and they did person-on-the-street interviews which they videoed. All those different media pieces will be on view at the youth summit on October 22nd.

What will the day of the summit look like?

LG: The actual day of the summit we’re going to have up to 140 teens here at the museum, 20 of them have participated in our summer programs and then the rest of them are coming from schools and other kinds of community organizations that have applied to attend the summit.

Everything is going to be teen-led the day of the summit.

The morning session we’re actually going to mix up students from all the different schools and organizations so that they’re doing workshops with students that they don’t necessarily know, but at the end of the day they’re going to reconvene with the students from their schools to debrief the morning experiences that everybody had and start to brainstorm some actions that they want to take about ways to implement the ideas that they encountered.

What surprised you about the workshops and the summit?

LG: Something that we didn’t expect at the beginning was that so many of the groups that are coming to the youth summit are interested in presenting. If anything has surprised me it was that the reach of the summit and the interest in it has been a lot broader than I expected…we have even more schools that want to participate.

How long will the RACE exhibit remain and the teens’ work remain on display?

LG: The exhibit actually closes on October 27th, so it closes pretty shortly after the summit.

I think we’ll be able to judge the success of the program by seeing what the teens and different organizations’ next steps are. For the museum, the idea of engaging with different partners to connect teens to different resources, that’s an idea that will continue to be infused in our programming.

Published October 16, 2014