DEI Talks: An Interview with the Black Leaders in Art Collective

As a graduate-student-led journal at the University of Michigan, the editors of Music & Politics in the Moment are particularly eager to learn more about efforts to make our own university community a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable place for all. We were thrilled when we learned that a group of University of Michigan students have formed a collective with the goal of supporting Black students, addressing issues of representation in programming and the need for safe spaces for Black students within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

Most of the initiatives we have covered in our DEI Talks series have been founded by either graduate students, professors, or other career professionals, but the Black Leaders in Art Collective (BLAC) was founded by undergraduate students. We are inspired by their motivation to take immediate action where they saw an important need, despite the fact that they are in the midst of some of their most rigorous academic training.

The following interview questions were answered asynchronously and have been edited for clarity. Thank you to the founders of the Black Leaders in Art Collective for taking this time to share with us about your project!


How would you describe your work/project?

Mattie Levy: Black Leaders in Art Collective is an organization at the University of Michigan built to support Black students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and STAMPS school of Art and Design by providing performance, networking and collaboration opportunities. 

What inspired you to begin this work? 

Aldo Pando Girard: I can’t say that there was a specific moment, but it was really a series of conversations with my peers in the music school. We were noticing in the repertoire selection from our ensembles to the material covered in our musicology and music theory classes, that there was a lack of range and diversity in material covered. This lack of diversity in material reflects the political allegiances of the program as a whole and contributed to our feelings of alienation from the general community of artists and scholars at UofM. This feeling of alienation directly contrasts the profound sense of community that we encountered as we connected to other Black artists at UofM who were dealing with similar issues and feelings as they navigated this predominantly white space. We were inspired to create this organization to make sure that all Black artists at UofM had easy and regular access to a space where they could come together in community with other Black Artists in order to feel supported and heard in a way that the school itself was not providing. 

We were inspired to create this organization to make sure that all Black artists at UofM had easy and regular access to a space where they could come together in community with other Black Artists in order to feel supported and heard in a way that the school itself was not providing. 

What are the main goals of your work, and how have you accomplished them thus far?
Aldo Pando Girard: BLAC has three main goals that we consider central to our work: building community, providing performance opportunities, and providing professional development opportunities for Black artists at UofM. We have built community through karaoke events and other fellowship-style events with food and music. We have had difficulty providing performance opportunities because of COVID-19 and funding issues, but are trying to make this a higher priority at the moment. We have provided professional development opportunities through a panel discussion with Black faculty at UofM, which allowed students to learn from their professors’ experiences and ask questions about their journeys as artists and the ways in which their Blackness has affected their professional journey and their relationship with art as a whole.

How do you see the future of this project? What do you hope this will accomplish?

Mattie Levy: We hope that this organization will continue on after we graduate. We hope to offer annual showcases, workshops, and scholarships, and to raise money for anti-racism initiatives. We also want BLAC to be an enduring space for Black artists to connect and feel safe. 

How do you see this project addressing broader current social justice issues?

Chase Warren: The Black Leaders in Art Collective addresses the issue(s) of lack of spaces for Black students/artists within SMTD & STAMPS by providing those safe spaces we need. By doing this, BLAC is also addressing the issue within the art world of not having enough representation of black artists/artistry on programs, recitals, etc.

Have you encountered any obstacles in going about this project? Such as budget deficits, pushback from people, availability of resources? 

Chase Warren: The main obstacles we faced in starting and continuing BLAC has been budget and COVID. Since quarantine started and all students went online, it has been difficult for BLAC to build up participation due to our meetings having to be on Zoom. However, since returning in the fall, BLAC meeting/event participation has increased, which is exciting! 

Was there anything that surprised you during the process of completing the project?

Chase Warren: One thing that surprised me was the amount of students who were not in SMTD & STAMPS, but who would come to our meetings to participate! BLAC members would sometimes come to meetings and bring along their friends who were enrolled in other schools at the University of Michigan. I am glad to have had a number of students participating in our organization who may not necessarily be artists themselves, but want to support people they know, or just take an interest in events with BLAC overall.

Did you model your work off of any other, similar initiatives? If so, what did or didn’t you like about those that already existed?

Mattie Levy: We originally were inspired by the work of the student organization “Creatives of Color”, which brings artists together from a variety of disciplines to create projects and to present them at an annual showcase. We wanted to create a space that expands this work, and that caters to artists in academia. Not only did we want to be an organization that inspires collaboration, but we also wanted to help Black student artists in their careers and with their mental health. 

Are there ways for people reading this to get involved? Do you have a website, FB, etc.?

Website: https://maizepages.umich.edu/organization/blac 

Email: blackleadersinartcollective@gmail.com

Instagram: b.l.a.c.atmichigan

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