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Azariah Cole-Shephard, 2016 Youth Poet Laureate, Captures the Spotlight

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When 18-year-old Azariah Cole-Shephard speaks, people listen.

 

That’s because Oakland’s newly awarded 2016 Youth Poet Laureate doesn’t just have something to say – she has a captivating, educational and unapologetically bold way of telling it.

 

 

“Azariah is fired with the cause of justice. It heats up her words. Stand back lest ye be scorched!” says Wilson Riles, former Oakland City Councilmember, who served as one of this year’s five Youth Poet Laureate judges.

 

Now in its fifth year, the poetry competition arrives through a partnership between the Oakland Public Library and Youth Speaks, a multifaceted organization that challenges and supports young people to find, develop and share their voices as creators of social change.

 

Cole-Shephard received the award after participating in the highly competitive application and interview process, judged by a jury of accomplished authors, educators and community leaders.

 

“A lot of my work is motivated by injustices with the status quo and a lack of affirmation for Black girls – and people of color as a whole – in a society that consistently tells them they aren’t good enough,” says Cole-Shephard, who recently graduated from Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy in Oakland.

 

Many of Cole-Shephard’s poems amplify the voices and concerns of youth of color, who are often left out of conversations surrounding race relations in the United States. Through her poetry and live performances, she challenges this status quo by taking on difficult topics such as mass incarceration and racial profiling.

 

Photos courtesy of Azariah Cole-Shephard.

Photos courtesy of Azariah Cole-Shephard.

 

“Those topics weigh heavily on my heart,” she says. “There’s a lack of conversation about it amongst youth, so talking about it on a larger scale was important.”

 

Cole-Shephard says she was “in shock” after finding out she had won this year’s Youth Poet Laureate award. For others though, the decision came as no surprise.

 

She was the runner-up in last year’s competition and emerged as the best of five finalists from Oakland. She was also a finalist in this year’s Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam.

 

She’s even made a name for her self as a performer and poet with Brave New Voices, a seven-year initiative through Youth Speaks that Cole-Shepherd describes as “one of the only platforms that exists for youth from all over the world to come together and engage as poets and voice their struggles.”

 

Along with the title of Poet Laureate, Cole-Shephard receives a year of mentorship and support from Youth Speaks and the Oakland Public Library. The organizations help her arrange press interviews and appearances like one at Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, where she recently performed her piece “For the Black Men My Love Cannot Protect.”

 

She also received a $5,000 college scholarship, which will go towards her education at Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering at San Jose State University. She plans to study electrical engineering and hopes to minor in African diaspora studies.

 

According to Lana Adlawan, a supervising librarian for teen services at the Oakland Public Library, a key part of the program is leadership and making sure the laureates are ready to lead their city. She and many others agree, “Azariah is ready to do that.”

 

“Right now my focus is pouring into other people who came from or are going through the same process that I went through,” says Cole-Shephard. “Writing [poetry] is a very effective way to access youth because it’s a perfect balance between essay and rap music… You can engage these interests and educate at the same time.”

 

With big plans and even bigger dreams ahead, Cole-Shephard stands out among even the brightest emerging poets and engineers. Still, she maintains a simple philosophy that speaks volumes about her craft and future: “My overall goal is to make change.”

 

Activism

San Francisco Proposes Art Installation to Honor Black Lives, History of African Americans

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent.

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Dana King/ Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco, CA. – Mayor London N. Breed today announced the City of San Francisco is planning a new public art installation to honor Black lives and the history of African Americans. The installation is planned to be located in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse next month, in time for Juneteenth.

The installation, ‘Monumental Reckoning,’ by Bay Area sculptor Dana King, honors the first Africans stolen from their homeland and sold into chattel slavery in the New World. The installation consists of 350 sculptures representing the number of Africans initially forced onto the slave ship San Juan Bautista for a journey of death and suffering across the Atlantic in 1619. A handful of these original 350 ancestors became America’s first enslaved people.

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent. Protestors toppled the statue on Juneteenth 2020.

“The art and monuments that we choose to display in our city and the civic art that fills our public spaces must reflect the diversity of our community, and honor our history,” said Breed. “This powerful public art installation in Golden Gate Park will help us not only commemorate Juneteenth, but also serve as an example of how we can honor our past, no matter how painful, and reflect on the challenges that are still with us today.”

Monumental Reckoning would allow visitors to commune with the figures. The phrase “Lift Every Voice” would shine from atop the nearby Spreckels Temple of Music through a second, connected piece by Illuminate the Arts. These are the first three words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song written by civil rights champion James Weldon Johnson which was first performed in 1900—the same year the Spreckels Temple of Music opened. 

For more than a century, Johnson’s song of unity has been sung as the Black national anthem. U.S. Representative James Clyburn is currently leading an effort to have the song named America’s national hymn.

“I’m excited to see the new monument go up in Golden Gate Park to honor Black lives and the rich history of African Americans,” said Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. “I think this is a perfect example of trying to right a wrong. Rather than uplifting individuals with oppressive histories, this is an opportunity to honor diversity and our community through public art.”

The installation was approved by both the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee this week. It is currently under review by the Planning Commission. “Lift Every Voice” will also need to be approved by the City’s Historical Preservation Committee before it can be installed. If approved, Monumental Reckoning would open to the public on June 19, or Juneteenth 2021, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The art piece would remain in place through June 20, 2023.

“The memory of African descendants deserves to be told truthfully and publicly,” said King, Monumental Reckoning’s creator. “Monumental Reckoning fulfills both objectives with the installation of 350 ‘ancestors’ who will encircle the Francis Scott Key plinth in Golden Gate Park. The ancestors stand in judgement, holding history accountable to the terror inflicted on the first group of enslaved people brought here in 1619 to the last person sold to another, all victims of chattel slavery. Even though the business of enslavement ended long ago, it still resonates generationally for African Americans and forms the bedrock from which systems of oppression proliferate today.”

Fundraising, community outreach, and ongoing support for the installation is being provided by the Museum of the African Diaspora. Creative and programming support would be provided by The Black Woman is God, which is an annual group exhibition of Black women artists curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. The project celebrates Black women as essential to building a more just society and sustainable future and reclaims space historically denied to Black women artists.

“What Dana King’s powerful installation communicates and commemorates is a sober cultural gut-punch long overdue, and I hope it’s the beginning of many such visual testaments in the public realm that venerate the origin stories of our most marginalized and disenfranchised populations,” said Ralph Remington, San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs. “We almost never see images of Black people represented in our public monuments, or in the American telling of history. So, it’s no surprise that in a society rooted in white supremacy, people of color remain invisible and undervalued in our mythology, symbols, architecture and national narrative. While the City examines the historic works in our Civic Art Collection and the future of monuments in San Francisco, this installation will help build and advance a discourse about who and what we venerate in our open spaces.”

 “We are incredibly proud to host this powerful piece,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “Monumental Reckoning prompts frank discussion about the legacy of slavery, while charting a course between past, present and future. We are grateful to have these crucial conversations in Golden Gate Park—a beloved public space that belongs to everyone.”

This story was produced by the San Francisco Mayor’s office.

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Art

MC Arts Gallery Opens During the Marin Open Studio

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: TheArthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

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From top: Oshalla Marcus (director/curator, MC Arts & Culture) with Osiezhe’s drawings to the right of the photo, Zwanda, Mitchell Howard , ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band: Carlton Carey (drums), Mwanza Furaha, (vocals), Jack Prendergast (bass), Ricardo Moncrief (keyboard), James Moseley (guitar, vocal). Photos by Godfrey Lee.

The MC Arts Gallery, located on 100 Donahue St. in the Gateway Shopping Center in Marin City, is open during the Marin Open Studios, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 & 2. 

The Gallery and its website display the art of a number of Black artists which includes: The Arthur Wright, Lumumba Edwards, and Maalak Atkins. Zwanda and Mitchell Howard also display their art at the Gallery. 

Zwanda seeks to be creative as she expands her ideas as a sculptress and painter. She is inspired by the human figure and dancers and is fascinated with music and the instruments themselves. Her art is a way to express this love and to share it with others.

Mitchell Howard studied art at San Francisco State University and the Computer Arts Institute of San Francisco. He was an art director at Cummingham & Walsh in San Francisco and has displayed his paintings at the Hannah Gallery, worked on the Rocky Graham Park Mural and has taught art at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy Elementary School.

“Art can bring people together and illustrate things that people can relate to,” Howard says. “Art can also be powerful in sending social messages to society. Art makes you think, it expands your horizons and makes you use your imagination. People may see different things in the same painting.”

Osiezhe, Shakira Gregory’s son, will be displaying his drawings at the Gallery.

The ISOJI’s Art Is Health Band played last Saturday afternoon with Mwanza Furaha as their guest vocalist.

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Art

City Council Approves $480,000 in Arts Grants

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

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The Oakland City Council approved $480,000 in grants to 17 Oakland-based non-profit organizations and 20 individual artists through the city’s Cultural Funding Program, Neighborhood Voices.

The city made the announcement Tuesday about the grants, which will support 772 distinct arts events and activities that will expose more than 110,000 participants to cultural programming.

The grant program seeks to bring Oaklanders together to create and support a sense of belonging within a community, to foster social connections that lift people’s spirits, to encourage community well-being and offer visions for a collective future, according to the announcement.

The following individual artists each won $7,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Frederick Alvarado; Karla Brundage; Cristina Carpio; Darren Lee Colston; Maria De La Rosa; Elizabeth D. Foggie; Rachel-Anne Palacios; Laurie Polster; Hasain Rasheed; Kweku Kumi Rauf; Carmen Roman; Michael Roosevelt; Fernando Santos; Teofanny Octavia Saragi; Kimberly Sims-Battiste; Cleavon Smith; Lena Sok; Babette Thomas; Ja Ronn Thompson; Joseph Warner.

Each of the following organizations received $20,000 Neighborhood Voices awards:

Asian Health Services for Banteay Srei;

Beats Rhymes and Life;

Chapter 510 INK;

Dancers Group for dNaga GIRL Project;

Dancers Group for Dohee Lee Puri Arts;

Dancers Group for Grown Women Dance Collective;

East Oakland Youth Development Center;

Higher Gliffs for Endangered Ideas;

Hip Hop for Change;

Junior Center of Art and Science;

Mycelium Youth Network;

Oakland Education Fund for Youth Beat;

Oakland Theater Project, Inc.;

Sarah Webster Fabio Center for Social Justice;

The Intersection for Alphabet Rockers;

Women’s Audio Mission;

Youth Radio/YR Media.

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