The New Bed-Stuy vs. The Old Bed-Stuy: A tug of war exists between the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) of the past and what the neighborhood is today.
Like many other neighborhoods in New York City, Bed-Stuy has been a site of contestation over the character and collective memory that is attached to a place. With this in mind, The Laundromat Project brought its Youth POWER Lab arts education curriculum to Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM) for after school workshops. For a period of four months students used oral history and fashion design to address topics relevant to them and their neighborhood, such as gentrification and the Black Lives Matter movement. Guided by teaching artist Markita Miler and BCAM Social Worker Director Denyse Murray, students who participated in Youth POWER Lab were able to dissect these complex and multi-layered issues through their work. Oral histories collected, were used as inspiration for a fashion show, which was shared with their peers and community on March 9, 2017 (video below).
The students’ fashion-forward pieces, which they created and modeled, were the culmination of an impressive and intensive four-month curriculum that encouraged a collaborative process where creative and civic engagement skills come into play at every step along the way. As proud members of the Bed-Stuy community, BCAM students were filled with excitement and joy when they looked back on the multi-layered process of these workshops that resulted in an array of exciting art and fashion. After the fashion show, students reflected on their experience with bringing oral history into their artmaking process:
The students were already familiar with the changing dynamics happening in Bed-Stuy and perceive these changes as a “flow of new money coming into the neighborhood.” Many expressed finding themselves in a space that is no longer what they use to remember as they were kids. BCAM student Tanya recalled, “when we did the first activity, and we were blindfolded, I honestly thought we weren’t in Bed-Stuy, [because] there were antique shops and stuff like that. And so, when I took the blindfold off, I was like is this Bed-Stuy? It didn’t look like the Bed-Stuy I grew up in, so I was like, we are going tell the story through our eyes.”
Strangers into Neighbors
BCAM students found the process of interviewing members of their community to be an exciting opportunity to get to know more about the different people who share the neighborhood with them. They also faced frustrating challenges in collecting oral histories, but ultimately found the experience to be to be eye-opening and rewarding, with many getting to know neighbors Bed-Stuy.
BCAM student Nigeria shared her experience with finding a member of the local Hasidic community to interview: “I’ve been going to school here for about four years and I have never had any type of dialogue with any Jewish person I’ve walked past by. In the beginning when we first tried to get people to talk to us, they weren’t really too fond of the idea, and sure enough there was one particular person who was willing to shake my hand and hold a conversation with me and that was an interview that I will always remember because it doesn’t happen in everyday life.”
Oral History as Inspiration for Fashion
After 7 weeks of collecting oral histories and transcription, BCAM students had 7 weeks to translate stories into garments. BCAM student Trevor recalls, “as crazy as it sounds, I wouldn’t really want to change anything, it was a fun experience… I made clothes, I learned how to sew. It was a learning experience that I don’t regret doing.”
Trevor’s classmate shared a similar thought, in which she reveals an active learning experience that she deems useful towards her future. “This program has actually made me start thinking out of the box… I was like Miss M can we use this song, I don’t know, look them up, oh no they’re not from Bed-Stuy, nope. And then I really had to listen to lyrics, and I was like oh my god this would go great and then Miss M would say why, elaborate and I said oh man, but now when I am in class, I really do think out of the box and think like Miss M taught me this.”
Representing Our Stories of Bed-Stuy
BCAM student Amani expressed that her favorite element in regards to the fashion show was “actually being able to walk and represent the Bed-Stuy I grew up in”, which opens up a larger conversation about whom is represented and who is able to tell that story. As brought up by BCAM students Tanya and Alex, often their perspectives as black youth in Bed-Stuy are overlooked. They felt a strong desire to tell their “story from [their] own eyes,” in order to represent an image that exudes positivity. They successfully showed how “proud [they] are of being black” and “how proud [they] are, now that [they] actually put on a show about things like Black Lives Matter, as something that really matters.”
Learn more about Markita “Ki” Mileri and her work with The Laundromat Project’s 2016-17 Youth P.O.W.E.R.Project.