The Faces of Harlem

The Scaffold: Equity of Treatment project wasn’t just a response to covid lockdown like I had first thought but a culmination of experiences, lessons, stories and people that I’ve accumulated during the 20 years I’ve lived and raised my family in Harlem. Covid gave me the opportunity to stop and contemplate my journey.

The Scaffold Project is an unofficial love letter to Harlem. I am a native New Yorker born in Manhattan raised in LIC, Astoria but I can’t help but feel back in 2000 when I moved here that I became an adult in Harlem. I grew up here. It wasn’t easy but that’s why I think the Scaffold Project is so near and dear to me. It highlights just some of the amazing, kind, creative, thoughtful, adventurous, artful, smart, beautiful people I’ve met during my life’s journey.

2020 started off really great for me. I had three part time jobs that I enjoyed. In February I started working for the Brooklyn Public Library assisting with the Ezra Jack Keats Book Competition, a competition I had won a bronze medal for in my youth. I was also working for a not-for-profit called Foster Pride and was coordinating weekly art lessons that I facilitated during family visits and I hit my six year mark for working with the Family Programs department at the New York Historical Society. My father received an award from the NAACP in January and in February I was celebrating my Moth Slam win on the historic stage at the Schomburg Library. I was earning enough money to pay all of my bills and my tax refund was very helpful to getting a lot of my financial instability stable. I was saving money again and preparing for a rainy day. Little did I know it was more like a deluge.

It was mid-February when I started seeing more signs that something was going on with this new virus called Covid-19. I remember sitting on the metro north one evening and peaking between seats to see a woman reading an article about the virus. It felt urgent but our government’s response made me uncertain. By March 11th I was still teaching classes in crowded offices for Foster Pride in the Bronx, I was still going to restaurants, and I was still working at the Brooklyn Public Library. It wasn’t until March 16th did things begin to shift. 

It began with the New York Historical Society. I received word that after five years of working with the museum I was to be furloughed. They were unclear for how long I would be on hold, but at the time we all were unclear on how long any of this was going to last. No one knew when public programming was going to be safe again. By May I was notified of my termination. My internship at the Brooklyn Library was cancelled as well. I did some work from home but a lot of my tasks were for the culmination celebration. That became virtual and my services were no longer needed. They were kind enough to pay me the rest of the stipend though. And finally Foster Pride had to cancel all classes too. I was a consultant for them so I’m still on their roster but there was no work for me. 

I’ve been an art educator since my first introduction to the career in 2000 when I worked for afterschool programs and summer camps. As an Art educator for 20 years I was hit with the reality that my career life must shift. How would I pay bills, take care of my children? And I knew other Art educators like me who were struggling even before the Coronavirus so this was only going to make things worse. Right? Then an opportunity was brought to my attention.

I received an email from artist/curator and mother Katherine Gressel, of the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. She notified me about their recent request for submissions for their exhibition Brooklyn Utopias 2020. At first I was very critical of the title. Utopia! Are you kidding?! Why Utopia? It was the kind of word that, I felt, mocked the very concept of peace by implying peace was imaginary or fantastical and could only exist in a perfect world. Then I began amusing myself with the ideas of what if? What would it look like? What could bring it about? Utopia doesn’t have to be imagined and perfection is subjective. After a long meditation and several heated debates with myself and friends I came up with the beginning of a  project idea but I had to flush out the details and consider everything that was going on. And there was a lot going on. By April 2020 we were dealing with Trump, Covid, quarantine, unemployment, racism, police violence and an economic freeze that pretty much strained the working class income but didn’t pause the bills. 

I could have panicked or worried myself into poor health but instead I began doing what I love to do. I created an art project that I could work on during quarantine. I wanted a project that would highlight everyone’s need to be honored with respect and tolerance. I began contacting fellow artists, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and mentors and created a currency of connection and community that highlighted people of all kinds doing their best but all in need of some sort of support. 

Scaffold: Equity of Treatment is about the encouragement of self reflection and preservation and how these very important practices need to be supported by equitable treatment in our homes, communities and world. The use of the scaffolding is to symbolize the individual care and support we all need. My goal is to encourage discussions on self reflection and deciphering what we need as individuals and ways the government can better support these needs. 

I’ve completed 135 portraits and if I could I would make a portrait of everyone in the world because we all deserve support. In the words of Octavia Butler, “Consider – We are born, Not with purpose, But with potential” and potential, with the right support, can become greatness. The only thing that ever made America great was its people. 

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