When you walk into the Dunning Recreation Center in St. Paul, you’ll see a large mural painted on the wall. Light blue swirls fill the background, representing the African word and symbol Sankofa: “Go back and get it.”
“It’s the idea that we can’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been,” said Anthony Galloway, the executive director of Arts Us. “It’s a philosophy that’s common across the continent of Africa, across the diasporan people — this notion of connection to ancestors, connection to our history.”
The details of the painting show the journey of African diaspora communities. “We’re interrupted by this space that tried to interrupt and change how we do community,” said Galloway when explaining the mural. “But our roots, as you can see in the picture, run deep and can interrupt and bring something new into this industrial space, so eventually we come back to a space where the community is whole, and that’s why you see this cornucopia.”
“One of the things we want to do as a center is partner with organizations that share that mission … to elevate the contributions of African peoples to the world,” Galloway said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, students practiced drawing cartoon characters with instructor Eboni Bell, artist and owner of I Dream in Color. Bell had been working with the students for the last five weeks, leading up to the final project of drawing superhero comic books.
“The superheroes are supposed to be very representative of who they are, so in other words, very rarely would you see a superhero that looks like [a student] or looks like me or looks like you,” said Bell. “So the idea is that they get to use this opportunity to create a superhero that represents who they are.”
Students come to Arts Us after school to do homework and participate in daily workshops that cover African storytelling, dancing and drumming, along with visual arts, and are taught by local artists and community members.
“All of the black artists you can think of have come and taught and imparted some of their knowledge here at Arts Us,” said Galloway, who participated in the program when he was young.
Arts Us — which was founded in 1992 by Toni Carter, Rose McGee, Cathy Beechum and a community of black artists and educators — works to develop young leaders in arts, culture and science.
“Our core belief is that youth can arrive at artistic excellence and develop leadership skills through the experiences of peoples of African descent, wherever they’ve gone across the world,” Galloway said. “Our hope is to give youth a lens and examples of leadership in multiple mediums and areas, and we are unapologetic about that.”
Since Galloway joined the nonprofit in August, Arts Us has been expanding its program and is changing its name to the Arts Us Center for the African Diaspora.
Program Director Ebony Coles started working at Arts Us summer program while she was in college, eight years ago.
“I love working with children, you know, to be able to see them grow up, to follow their dreams and watch them blossom,” Coles said. “Of course working with people that look like me is a plus. I’ve never had that opportunity and it’s priceless.”
Coles said the program has grown over the years. “When I started here our summer program I think we had maybe 30 kids, and then now we’re at a point where we need to start expanding our space,” Coles said.
Now more than 150 students participate in their summer programming.
The organization’s focus on culture involves hosting gatherings, meetings in a space for cultural exchange to converse about black history, as well as offering a civil rights research experience for students. High school students spend six weeks in an ethnic studies course at the University of Minnesota, and then travel across the country to visit places where the civil rights movement took place.
“They’re actually going to get to talk to and experience the places where civil rights was done,” said Galloway, who ran his program at his previous job. “Then (they’re) going to chronicle their whole experience in poetry.”
As part of expanding science programming, the space has an Afro Culinary Aquaponics lab in partnership with the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center, where students can learn how to grow foods that are part of the African cuisine palette.
“The idea is that these youth over here are throwing their hair back and all along their hair are the names of black scientists and technology inventors and explorers,” said Galloway of the mural design. Each name will have a QR code with information about their work.
“It’s combatting this notion of Africa as a place that technology needs to happen. No, the story was that major advancements were happening across the continent were interrupted by colonialism and western intrusion,” said Galloway. “So we don’t get the names of all these folks, because we’re not taught it.”
On Saturday, April 13, from 5-8 p.m., Arts Us Center for the African Diaspora will be hosting a fundraising gala, “Sankofa: Spirit of the Ancestors,” at Concordia University. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who used to participate in the Arts Us program, will be the keynote speaker.