Urban Artist Alliance Brings Together the Arts and Protest




Following the shooting of Michael Brown this summer, and in the midst of protests and die-ins, many have been looking for spaces they can use to bring communities together for lasting programs and sustained change. We’ve seen Books and Breakfast in Ferguson and Newark, as well as the Ferguson Public Library which not only stayed open while other organizations closed, but also held classes and activities. But there’s another community builder to add to the list, the Urban Artist Alliance for Child Development (UrbArts).

In an e-mail interview with Urban Cusp, MK Stallings founder of UrbArts explained just what it is that the organization does, “UrbArts is a community arts organization that focuses on empowering artists of all ages to transform their communities. About a year ago, Urban Artist Alliance for Child Development began to re-brand itself and broaden its mission to include community development, and to clarify what we think is the best approach to improving cultural experiences in our region for people of all ages.”

While UrbArts focuses itself on artists of all ages, they take great pride in facilitating and mentoring young artists. Stallings gave an example of one touching story, “Just last night, a teenage boy who frequents our open mic was featured in one of our music shows. He’s a black rocker with the freshest afro who digs different punk bands. After the show, I gave him a ride back home — he took the bus and it was too late –and we discussed his disaffection with school. I told him that he might as well continue his education once he graduates from high school, as he builds his following. Who knows, he may develop his act to the point where he can bypass completing a college education and earn a living doing punk rock. In the mean time, take classes.” This type of cultivation, especially in the midst of Ferguson where young black artists and activists are often times looking for spaces to put their energy, a place like UrbArts can help sustain long-term community growth. It can also give birth to individual and collective art, as well as sharper activism.

UrbArts has made great progress in the fourteen years it’s been open, but even before its creation, Stallings was working in the arts world. But he did not have the idea for an arts organization that would focus on youth, until an employee at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center prompted him, asking to lead a poetry workshop at the detention center. “He came to an open mic I ran at Legacy (bookstore and cafe) and asked to lead a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Detention Center. That request, and my ideas about arts in St. Louis, pushed me to found UrbArts.” Many youth, most importantly incarcerated youth and adults, are looking for ways to express themselves and are alongside us in the struggle. As a protest in Boston saw well, as protesters marched, “inmates at the South Bay House of Corrections put their hands up in the air after taping ‘Mike Brown’ on the window of their cell.” Solidarity, as well as art, even in the form of tape plastered on a window, takes courage and is an image we will not forget.

Such art can be used as a catalyst toward great protest and change, “The artist can imagine new possibilities and different realities. He or she can see things that elude people who don’t do creative work. So it’s the creative mind that can reject current realities and articulate new ones through art.” Stallings said.

Stallings has a hopeful eye for the future of UrbArts as well as their connection to the activism community, he wrote us, “Our immediate goal is to institutionalize our efforts and develop a permanent space for the visual and performing arts for community artists. For us, the organizations that emerged during the Black Arts Movement serve as models for how arts based groups can serve the community and offer creative commentary on society. We’re fortunate to have so many socially conscious artists around us who are involved in these human rights efforts. Our job is to push these artists to make profound statements through their art and support them regardless of the response. We are a community of creatives and truth-tellers. A fully operational UrbArts will be a sustainable space for activist artists who can’t rest until they create a better reality than the one that dehumanizes Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.”

As we see with UrbArts and others being able to bring young artists, incarcerated artists, and creative adults together with activism, is a winning combination. The work of organizations and communities can only lead to fuller actions, better strategy and ultimately, change for the better. Join us.

Judith Ayers is an intern for Urban Cusp and has a passion for social and reproductive justice, as well as intersectional feminism. Former farm girl, she now lives in Washington, D.C. after graduating with a double BA in Communications and Political Science from York College of Pennsylvania. With a varied background working in TV and print journalism, non-profit development and communications, polling and elections as well as student organizing, she brings an interesting perspective to Urban Cusp.

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