Innovation LABS at the third annual Light City Baltimore concluded last week, packed with unprecedented access to Baltimore’s movers and shakers, and the nudge to get the city collaborating for change.
Bright and early Friday morning, the second floor of the IMET center filled with eager creatives, and philanthropic interests, arriving to learn about the connection between Baltimore and its own bustling arts scene. MC’d by light city chair, Jamie McDonald, a lifelong social justice champion, the day was filled with panels, performances and speakers addressing ways to use art, film, mentorship and creative entrepreneurship to address and support the entirety of Baltimore’s diverse and often misrepresented population.
The event opened with former Baltimore Youth Poet Laureate, Mohammed Tall, who captivated the audience with profound spoken word poetry on themes of social justice, racial identity, and personal loss. Tall, currently a poly-sci major at Morgan State, was the true star of the morning, setting the day’s tone teetering between heartbreak and hope. He is proof of the power of art as a therapeutic device, and we were delivered a humbling reality check with the refreshing fortitude of an informed youth voice. He silenced an audience too eagerly buzzed with caffeine and demanded we leave our comfort zone.
A panel discussion lead by MICA president Sammy Hoi addressed how the arts university is re-thinking its relationship with the community of Baltimore. MICA has launched a 10-year, city-wide, creative entrepreneurship initiative called Baltimore Creatives Accelerator Network (BCAN). In its pilot year, BCAN is guiding ten local business startups through an intensive business mentorship program, with a long-term goal of attracting and retaining talent in Baltimore and helping the creative eco-system to grow. BCAN also projects a commitment to diversity inclusion (all 10 pilot businesses are minority owned). Under the idea that artists are problem solvers, and thus, should make excellent entrepreneurs, BCAN strives to find Baltimore’s promise through creative enterprise, stressing that creative citizenship can change the world, and that decent careers need not come at the expense of others.
Discussions on the power of documentary film making, and art as activism offered overall advice on what it means to maintain an art practice in a sustainable way, and the importance of paying it forward, once you figure it out. Photographer Kyle Pompey asserted that his saving grace in high school was finding influences in his life that let him be himself without harming himself. Now an educator in Baltimore city, Pompey knows that there is no better motivator to youth than seeing tangible examples of successful professionals that look like oneself.
Many panels reminded us that the key to having your voice heard is to produce the content.
“Just go out and make something,” was the advice from actress and director Sonja Sohn, on a panel discussing her new documentary, Baltimore Rising. “Find the power, mine whatever talent you’re missing. Opportunities present themselves when you put yourself out there.”
Themes of Diversity, Feminism, and Amplification of the Youth Voice were common throughout the morning, offering not just solidarity, but tangible solutions to creating more equal spaces, and securing funding for every cause. We were reminded throughout the program that activism – and influence – begins with one on one interactions, and the best activism is showing up for people who need us. Keynote speaker Joyce J. Scott, a MacArthur Fellow, performance artist and educator, closed with the message that we are all capable of profound influence, through both art and human interaction. Insisting that we owe it to each other to show up and share our own gifts.
“You are the arbiter of your art,” said Scott. “Every time you hold someone’s eye, you’ve changed their life.”
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