Have you ever walked into a business or neighborhood and heard the proverbial record scratch? Have you ever felt unwelcome in a space full of people who do not look like you? I have. How can a space make someone feel out of place because of their ethnicity? We live in a world where, on paper, every American has been guaranteed the same rights and freedoms. The days of Jim Crow and separate but equal are behind us. We can walk through Downtown Anywhere, USA and not be bombarded with signs banning entire demographics of people. However, there are still boundaries and hard lines that separate Americans by their race. We are still divided by neighborhoods and the experiences that shape individuals living in those places. How can we tear down those boundaries? And how can we as a community create space in which all feel welcomed and included?
"The Line" is the first interactive forum workshop in Virginia Stage Company’s Education and Community Engagement Department’s "Art For Social Change Series." It promises artistic immersion using scenes from James Baldwin’s epic 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie, modern dance, spoken word, digital art, and open forum, discussion-based activities. This workshop will provide our community with a vocabulary for deconstructing racial boundaries. By empowering community members to investigate and deconstruct racially divided space, The Line will inspire the creation of democratic and equitable spaces in southeastern Virginia.
Spoken word artist and public school mathematics teacher, Michelle Vinnie, has partnered up with VSC to use her voice to activate change in her community. She is a talented woman who is driven by her passion for education and activism. I had a chance to catch up with Michelle and ask her a few questions about her life as an educator and an artist. Vinnie describes her career in teaching as:
“one in which I have to be dependable, open-minded, flexible, creative, and determined. It consists of planning lessons, building relationships with diverse groups of students, teaching concepts, analyzing data, reflecting, and then using that information to drive instruction.”
However, in her work as a spoken word artist, Michelle indulges in the opportunity to explore and express herself through the creation of original material. Vinnie notes, “I get to discuss a wide range of topics and influence people around the world. It is exciting work and is not limited to one curriculum.”
It is clear that both roles are incredibly rewarding and speak to her natural need to include everyone and foster their growth. But, I do not envy her as she tries to find ways to reach out to students in a world of ever present distractions.
“The most challenging aspect is being able to keep the students motivated to want to learn everyday. I find that many students have developed apathy for math. You really have to make the time to get to know them, so that you can make your content relative to their lives,” Vinnie confessed.
Then she immediately turned that very challenge into a source of inspiration and pride. When I asked her where she drew inspiration she cited her students who have the most stacked up against their success.
“Students that have disabilities but still don’t use those excuses and go above and beyond to excel in school inspire me. Guiding them makes me feel very rewarded. It inspires me to want teach and reach more students from all backgrounds,” Vinnie said. “Throughout the year I have been collaborating with The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. Through their teachings, I have been enlightened on other topics including race/origin, body image, the cycle of prejudice, and more. During their programs I often perform spoken word poetry.”
Michelle draws from the Queens of hip hop when she begins to write a piece in response to her work with The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities:
“Music from female rap artists like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott inspire me. They make music in the hip hop form that makes me want to go and create songs.”
Michelle Vinnie, like so many other teachers, hopes that work like The Line can be taken into the classrooms and inspire the creation of democratic learning spaces:
“I hope that through participating with The Line, I can gain more knowledge and be able to share the information back at my school to influence staff and students.”
On August 21 at 3PM, Vinnie will perform with other artists, such as Ann Mazzocca and local culture creators like Lisa Godly, at the Slover Library in VSC’s The Line. This is a free event and is recommended for ages 15 and up. However, seating is limited, so we ask that you register for your spot in advance here.
Kat Martin is a Resident Theatre Artist in Virginia Stage Company's Education and Community Engagement Department. She is also Virginia Stage's Assistant Director and Resident Dramaturg.