Centering, Naming, and Liberating through Black Creativity

The Black Transformative Arts Network combines a learner-centered approach with Africana knowledge pools, Black history, culture, and arts to transform and transcend status-quo learning in a multi-generational context.

Growing from the Heinz Endowments’ multi-year Transformative Arts Process, the Black Transformative Arts Network (BTAN) is opening the floodgates of their past work to an even broader community of educators, creatives, teaching artists, and caregivers.

For centuries, Black history, arts, culture, and language were all but erased from public education. By concentrating on “out-of-school time” and working on behalf of those that stand in their creativity in front of children and youth, BTAN is working to reinfuse Africana legacies through community arts education, while also increasing the visibility and unity of Africana artists, youth, educators, caregivers, and community members.

They approach this work through a powerful lens of liberation and healing, one that centers the experience of the Black child and honors the diverse perspectives of all Africana peoples.

We sat down with Taliya Allen and Sister IAsia Thomas, two members of the network’s facilitation team, which also includes Medina Jackson of The P.R.I.D.E. Program and Justin Laing of Hillombo LLC. in an advisory capacity, to learn more about Transformative Arts Education, BTAN’s knowledge- and network-building opportunities, and their path ahead.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, what is Transformative Arts Education?

Taliya Allen (TA): It’s about looking at all of the different elements and frameworks of Black liberation thought and ideology that inform how we want to move forward as a people, and using that to guide how children are learning. It’s about working from a liberated gaze. It’s hard for us to imagine a world without oppression, because we have so little evidence of Black history that hasn’t been tinged by oppression. So, we also use Pedagogy of the Oppressed as a guiding tool.

Sister IAsia Thomas (SIT): We think about affinity spaces, too; meaning, explicit, protected spaces for Black people and African-descended people. We consider the combination of all things that happen in any learning environment—whether it’s a classroom, a recreation center, or any place that has the intention of doing creative work and standing before children. It’s also about infusing learner centrality, so there’s a balance of voice, power, and perspective in the room. What’s transformative is this combination, the uniting or the yoking, to use a term from yoga practitioners. We’re yoking through the creative process.

TA: It’s about asking: How can we provide practices in the classroom that will center the culture of the children who are learning and be radically different than the experiences they’re having in typical institutions? How can we ensure that they are learning their history, and that they are learning things from a cultural lens and perspective?

One of our guiding principles is Sankofa, a West African term meaning “it’s not taboo to go back and retrieve what you have forgotten.” When we center the identity of the Black child, we’re lifting that up.

SIT: And we’re only using the term “transformative” until we can find a more indigenous or African-centered way of describing it. We’re using English language to describe something that’s galaxies bigger. The same applies to our use of the term “Praxis.” We remain in process, as will those that come after this part of the movement, when it is ready for the next set of agents. Our agency in the current context blends together theory and practice, hence Praxis.


How does Transformative Arts Education connect to other practices like culturally responsive education and anti-racist education?

SIT: When we talk about a transformative arts process, we’re also asking ourselves: How do we build cultures of liberation and deconstruct racism? And we’re trying to really take the training wheels off of the deconstructing racism part. If we focus on racism so, so much, it makes our legacy and our history secondary, and it gives everything attached to it a notion of oppression. Transformative Arts Education is about looking through a liberated gaze that’s also culturally-responsive and African-centered, and we take the time to look at the social justice context when we have to.


How do you operationalize the concepts of Transformative Arts Education work within the network?

SIT: As I mentioned, we use a Praxis model that brings together the philosophies that we’re interested in and unifies those instructional teachings and facilitation practices. It’s an educational forum, kind of like the brains of the network!

TA: Praxis first emerged as part of the TAP project. It was a natural way to help teaching artists develop their craft. We would have “Praxis Saturdays” as a way for artists to reflect on their practice, enrich themselves, network, and develop ideas to take back to their learning environments. Now, we intend to do that for a broader audience. Praxis is open not just to teaching artists, but parents and caregivers who might want to adopt some of these practices to work with their young people.

SIT: Praxis is one of four containers that we use to realize our work. We also focus on uplifting Africana visibility, uniting Africana youth, and building a network of Black artists and arts educators.


What are some of the things you do in Praxis?

TA: We explore multiple frameworks. We might have a teaching artist present from the lens of African-centered education, then we might have someone else present who has a Nation of Islam background or a Christian theological perspective. And we look at how you can still center the identity of the Black child in all of that, and still have a transformational experience.

SIT: We also look at ideas around critical race theory, social justice context, restorative justice context, healing context, Black contemporary arts context, culturally responsive, African-centered arts, and critical pedagogy.


What are some ways educators can incorporate Transformative Arts Education in their teaching, and, what might be some of the challenges they face?

TA: Everyone’s going to start in a different place, but it always starts with questioning. Why is my sidewalk cracked? Why doesn’t my community have resources? Why are we starting from behind? Asking those questions. And centering, through whatever your medium is, the identity of the Black child. That’s really the crux of our work. As long as you’re asking those questions and you’re able to explore Black identity and culture, infuse history, and infuse radical truth-telling, then you’re doing the transformational work.

I think the hardest part is pacing, because Black history and experience is a multitude of multitudes. It is extremely complex. We have not always been the architects of our own story. A lot of us are unlearning a lot of really harmful things and rediscovering our history and roots. But there are so many living history holders in our communities who are underutilized and undersupported. Give them reverence, and build through that fact—that there are already transformational teachers in the community. Support from that angle.


It’s been a tumultuous year for educators, for the Black community, and for the arts community. How is the current moment impacting BTAN?

SIT: In the pandemic context, we’ve made materials and resources available. For example, we distributed weekly packets to neighborhoods through community centers and recreational facilities. These were designed to help you take a break from being in your headspace, and move into your heart space, embracing what we refer to as Kuumba, or creativity. We also offered an emergency fund to help artists, teaching artists, and creative people in need. We made that accessible to young people as well, and the second round of payments is going out soon.

TA: We had an event scheduled in March that was supposed to be the community launch of BTAN, which was canceled because of COVID. Later that month, we were supposed to have our second Praxis and we had to cancel that, too. Our intention at the time was to move things virtually, but then that real human need came to the forefront. That’s when the emergency fund became our focus.

In August, we hope to get back to Praxis. We want to have teaching artists perform virtually or to do virtual lessons to engage young people who are at home and maybe under-engaged. We’re really trying to work through the logistics of that, making sure we find the right formula to make what was supposed to be a really powerful in-person Praxis experience a high-quality virtual experience.

SIT: From our observation, people are really operating from a multi-disciplinary reality right now. Our notion of transformation has literally come to a very integrated place, and we’re trying to bear that in mind when thinking about the significant things we need to make accessible in the Praxis learning environment. This is happening at the same time this country is on fire. There’s a real social justice tone and undertone that we have to respect and acknowledge, but still infuse it through the lens and the reality of what we’re committed to elevating.


And looking ahead, what does the future hold for BTAN? What larger hopes do you have for your community?

SIT: One of my top priorities is continuing the current theme we have for Praxis, which comes from the Zulu term Kwethu Lalikile, or the missing. One of our city’s very few Black ceramicists, Tonee Turner, has been missing since December. Every week, literally, a Black person goes missing for reasons that we understand, or reasons that we don’t understand. When we were to meet in person before the pandemic, we had invited Tonee’s sister to join us and help us look at Kwethu Lalikile in a very real way. The reality is that Black children, Black elders, Black adults, go missing in the world all the time. And we want to use our platform to raise awareness. One of the fundamental things we want teaching artists to do is encourage the safety and protection of our people, even though it’s uncomfortable to talk about. Uncomfortable subject matters—mental health issues, traumas in the family, and the missing—can’t keep us from speaking out. We need everybody here, and we need everybody to stay here. The Black and Missing Foundation is helping us to help us think through this subject, and help us ask as a network: What is the role that creatives have in the safety of children?

TA: Another long-term goal is building a stronger Black arts sector in Pittsburgh, and being able to address related needs at all levels—needs of the child, of the artists, of the families and communities. We want to make something more sustainable and self-sufficient.

We hope to have a database, or some platform for teaching artists, so that people can see all that Pittsburgh has to offer. Right now, we’re so reliant on word-of-mouth, we need more centralized information so that people who are interested in creative learning can access resources, support children at home, help smaller arts organizations tap into this network and find support, and make opportunities more available for teaching artists, because our region is extremely rich with talented people who want to share their skills and knowledge.


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