Some people would walk down Ensley’s streets and see empty storefronts, but Deidre Clark sees potential for growth. Some people would pass through Ensley and hear only gunshots, but Clark hears the song of a vibrant community working to extricate itself from the stereotypes placed upon it. Some people would say Ensley can’t change, but Clark says they’re wrong.
“Ensley is more than what you see in the news and hear on the radio,” said Clark, founder of Kuumba Community Art in Ensley. For Clark, the community has long been defined by what outsiders had to say about it. Now Clark is using Kuumba to empower residents to tell their own stories through photography.
The idea for Kuumba came to Clark at a Kwanzaa celebration. “Some friends invited me to Kwanzaa on the night they were celebrating kuumba, which means ‘creativity.’ The teaching is, essentially, that you should always do as much as you can in such a way that you leave your community more beautiful than when you found it. I thought ‘kuumba’ would be the perfect name for an arts center,” explained Clark.
It wasn’t until her five-year anniversary at a creatively unfulfilling nine-to-five came and went that Clark began working toward making Kuumba a reality. “I’d read this study done in the UK that explored the public health benefits of arts activities in neighborhoods. The art contributed to mental and emotional health because arts-rich communities attract new residents and businesses and increase quality of life,” Clark said. As an Ensley native with strong family ties to the community, Clark knew bringing arts opportunities to Ensley would bring positive change with it.
Clark held the first Kuumba class at the Ensley Rec Center, where she taught five boys digital photography for eight weeks. From there, Kuumba took off and she taught three summer camps for a total of more than 50 students.
Currently, Clark is only teaching digital photography because that’s her area of expertise, and she’s mostly self-taught.
“It was a total fluke how I got into photography,” Clark recalled. “I went to the University of Alabama and we could check out cameras from the library. One day, I checked out a fancy point-and-shoot and got hooked. I’d check out one, take it back, and check out another one for two years.”
When she returned to Birmingham, she bought herself a Canon Rebel, and the rest is history. “I had no exposure to photography growing up and none in high school. I took a few classes at UA, but mostly I read books, met other photographers and practiced,” Clark said. “Photography is empowering, so it’s important to me to share that with others.”
Kuumba’s latest initiative, 100 Lenses, seeks to do just that. 100 Lenses is a joint venture with the Bethesda Life Center in Ensley and focuses on the public health benefits of empowering a community to tell its own story, thereby increasing quality of life. Participants are encouraged to photograph the things in Ensley they love, don’t love, and want to see change. The goal is for people in Ensley to define their own community through the photo voice method —the use of images that lead to dialogue that will inspire political and social change.
“The photo voice method is a way of acknowledging the community’s people as subject matter experts. It seems like when politicians and city officials make decisions, they’re always referring to research done by outside parties, when they should be referring to the people,” Clark explained.
“There’s a quote in Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk that says, ‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’ For so long everyone but the residents of Ensley have told the story of Ensley, and the outsiders’ story has become the definitive one. 100 Lenses is an opportunity to make our story the definitive one,” Clark continued.
The photos taken as a part of 100 Lenses will be on display at the Bethesda Life Center, then the East Ensley Public Library, and will continue traveling to other locations around the community. She hopes to have 100 participants, so that there will literally be 100 lenses photographing the community.
Kuumba is also working on another initiative with the Ensley Merchants’ Association that will begin in the coming weeks. Art in the Windows will feature the works of various artists in the windows along 19th Street in Ensley’s business district. Art will be displayed in the windows of both existing businesses and vacant buildings in an effort to increase foot traffic to the area.
“Ensley has been on the decline since U.S. Steel closed the plant here. Merchants want to increase foot traffic to attract new businesses and we believe art is a good way to do that,” said Clark, who has been working to recruit artists.
Though Kuumba is working to change negative perceptions of Ensley, Clark knows there’s only so much Kuumba can do as a standalone organization. “It’ll take many different people and organizations to acknowledge that there is good here and work to tell the good stories. It’s easy to tell the bad stories, but you have to work to find out that there were five black boys coming to the Rec for eight weeks to learn digital photography and that their exhibit drew 75 or 80 people,” said Clark. “That didn’t make the news.
“By no means can I romanticize Ensley. It has its faults; every neighborhood does. I don’t argue with Ensley labels. It’s up to people to have an open mind and see what’s really happening here,” Clark went on to say. “People here want to see the community bounce back. I’m proud of that.”
100 Lenses will consist of two five-week classes that will kick off on Aug. 18. Classes will meet at the Ensley Rec Center at 6 p.m., one on Mondays and one on Wednesdays. Participants must live in Ensley or have family ties to Ensley. Cameras are provided, so people need only show up. To sign up for 100 Lenses or to participate in Art in the Windows, email email@example.com.
Kuumba also accepts donations of digital cameras, art supplies of all types and monetary contributions. Clark is also looking for volunteers to teach classes so Kuumba can expand its art offerings.