Cultural anthropologist strengthens community through art
Jackie Lewis-Harris has used her artistic and cultural studies expertise to carve out safe spaces for the youth of Ferguson, Mo.
Over the last year, the University of Missouri–St. Louis associate professor has worked with the Ferguson Youth Initiative to develop a suite of programs that positively impact the community.
First, Lewis-Harris secured a $20,000 grant from the St. Peter’s United Church of Christ trust and a $50,000 grant from Community Action Agency of St. Louis County to develop the FYI Backbay Drop-In & Drop-By program. At this location, kids ages 11 to 21 can meet up under the supervision of Catholic Relief Services counselors and relax. Tutoring and art therapy sessions are also available.
“There wasn’t a place in Ferguson where kids and teenagers could hang out, so I helped the Ferguson Youth Initiative write up a grant for the Drop-In program,” she said. “On Thursday, Friday and Saturday kids can come by and socialize in positive ways. We have computers, art supplies, books and video games to keep them engaged.”
Lewis-Harris’ next step was to invite several diverse and talented St. Louis artists to visit the recreation center and offer demonstrations to the kids.
“There are a lot of good artists living in St. Louis and coming out of Ferguson. People just don’t know,” she said. “I’ve roped St. Louis Poet Laureate Michael Castro into doing a reading. The Community Artists for Peace will come and workshop with the kids. And of the artists who have presented so far, Dr. Dan The Pancake Man was the most popular. He drew portraits with pancake batter and served them. Some of the kids were so impressed, they didn’t even want to eat the pancakes and ruin his work.”
Converting a firetruck bay into a performance area was the final touch to make the arts and recreation center a hub of expression and creativity. On the first Friday of every month, this stage hosts the Open Arts program where anyone age 11 to 21 can perform in an open-mic format.
“Mainly, young people get up and do their rap or recite their poetry,” said Lewis-Harris. “Sometimes they sing or dance. Once, an 11–year–old was playing Jimi Hendrix. I was in the basement when I heard him, and I was like ‘Who is that?’ So I went to the stage and checked him out. The guitar was almost as big as him! But he had it propped up, and he was wailing.”
Throughout an expansive career, Lewis-Harris has served as a Peace Corps volunteer, an art historian and a museum curator while traveling and experiencing the cultures of destinations such as Liberia and Papua New Guinea.
Associate Professor of Anthropology Sheilah Clarke-Ekong has carefully observed how Lewis-Harris puts her background into action to address social justice issues in St. Louis.
“Professor Lewis-Harris teaches the lessons that enhance our understanding of cultures both similar and different from our own,” said Clarke-Ekong. “She looks deeply at issues of social justice and is able to see where and how all art forms inform this dialogue. Art is real. Art gives meaning. Art hurts. Art explores. Professor Lewis-Harris pushes the barriers to encourage students young and old to explore and embrace the arts.”
Award in hand, she has already begun planning for her next project, an exhibit of murals created in the wake of the Ferguson demonstrations.
The exhibit will feature photographs, videos and first-hand accounts of artists who participated in designing and painting the murals. The exhibit is tentatively planned to show at four locations: The Center of Creative Arts, the Sheldon art galleries, Ferguson Youth Initiative headquarters and UMSL.
Lewis-Harris believes art is an important part of promoting much-needed social dialogue.
“The solutions to problems we face have to be holistic,” said Lewis-Harris. “You can’t have just statistics or just the money. You have to understand what members of the community feel and think. If done from the heart, art can build bridges. In the case of the Ferguson murals, even those people who don’t go to museums, who don’t go to art galleries, can take a look and see the mindset of the community. They can almost hear the message shouted, ‘Together we stand.’”
An Arts and Education Council video interview featuring Lewis-Harris can be viewed here.
Short URL: https://blogs.umsl.edu/news/?p=61361