The Diatribe launches the city’s first anti-racist art project led by youth, POC and LGBTQ+ artists

“When George Floyd was murdered I was really angry. I was super upset,” says Marcel “Fable” Price, executive director of The Diatribe and former Poet Laureate for the Grand Rapids. “And when I saw how Grand Rapids reacted, it made me even more upset.”

While many painted murals over boarded windows, he says artists didn’t have complete creative freedom. 

“So, I said to myself, if we had a liberated art project, what would that look like?” says Price. “And then [what] I realized, in all of my naivete, is that I can't define that, only people can define that.”

With the mission to empower youth to share their stories and create change, The Diatribe uses performing arts and programming rooted in poetry to teach students about social issues and how to tell their own stories.  

The Diatribe began about eight years ago when it constructed the first blind and deaf-friendly ArtPrize exhibit. “Before we knew it, a lot of teachers were bringing their kids to the shows we were doing,” says executive director Marcel “Fable” Price. “And then teachers started to ask us, ‘hey, have you ever thought about doing this in schools?’”

The group of young creatives didn’t think they were qualified to be mentoring students, but after some coercing, they agreed. Before the pandemic, the West Michigan nonprofit was in over 30 schools in 12 months, with various programs for youth.

Writing to Right Wrongs is one of the nonprofit’s programs, which teaches students about gentrification and redlining in the city and its impacts on housing. In one of the last sessions, Price brought in seven Black, brown and LGBTQ+ artists to ask students — what does anti-racist art look like to you and, if you had art that reclaimed your neighborhood, what would that look like?

They were blown away by the depth of the responses. “Some students, they said, ‘anti-racist art is art that doesn't just have us dead in it.” Others said they wanted to see Black superheroes and doctors, not just athletes and musicians. 

This was the first step in the 49507 Project, which will combine student responses and community input to shape murals, which will be painted by Black, brown and LGBTQ+ artists on the sides of predominantly seven Black and brown-owned businesses in the 49507 ZIP code. At the unveiling, students will read poetry beside the murals.

Many of the participating business owners have a dedication to their neighborhood and community. When COVID-19 struck, Angelica Velasquez, owner of Casa De La Cobija, set up a community food pick-up center in her parking lot and managed to secure $20,000 in direct cash assistance for her neighbors. 

According to Price, the translated name of her business could be more fitting. “Angelica, she owns a business called The House of Blankets and she’s literally a blanket to the community,” he says.

Other participating businesses include Public Thread, Boost Mobile, Forty Acres Headquarters, the South East Market, Grand Rapids Area Balck Businesses and The Old Goat. 

Community listening sessions are currently being held to collect opinions from residents and over 100 Black and brown community stakeholders, not only about what anti-racist art looks like, but also about what [residents] want to see in their neighborhood and, ultimately, what a liberated community looks like. 

“We're having people who do survey and data work write down everything people say and record all of it so that we can go back to the powers that be and the funders, and go, ‘You say you care about equity, but yet you have all these white people making decisions. Here's what Black and brown people say we want our neighborhoods to look like.'”

Price encourages the community to get involved. “Come and see this art, come soak in these experiences, come listen to what people are saying,” he says. “And see if we can use this project that grew from one mural to now seven. If it can change the narrative of our neighborhoods, and hopefully, maybe one day, we could get the 49507 zone to be a multicultural arts district.” 

The 49507 Project is funded for three years, but Price hopes the project can continue, and with a larger goal in mind. 

“I had this dream that we could connect an entire neighborhood and that if we did so, we could shift how neighborhoods were funded and people could say what they wanted in their neighborhoods and how they wanted it to look. And, if we got enough people, that we could do it because that's what voting is, that's what politics is — it’s a numbers game.” says Price. 

Through canvassing, apart from the community listening tours, the 49507 Project will pay Black and brown canvassers to survey the neighborhood of 5,500 homes, which will help to not only gather data, but to also help get that sector more active in the community. 

“If you can get 5,500 homes to demand the things that they want, can you change a neighborhood?” says Price.

“I think that Grand Rapids is hungry for the flavor. And I feel like it's hungry for that culture. I feel like it wants to do better. And, I think that sometimes if you're a disrupter, people think that you hate where you're at or that you dislike it,” he says. “I think that so many of the people who are involved with this project love the city so much that they want to create what they want to see in it.”

Photos courtesy of The Diatribe
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