Ever since I was a little girl, my mom said I had no problem speaking up or speaking out. This superpower resulted in being put out of class, having notes sent home and regular phone calls from my teachers. I was first able to harness and hone this gift by singing and dancing at talent shows in the Bronx, New York. This gift still manifests itself in my life today through art. Many say, “art is life,” but how many know that using our voice is art? Much like art, our voice can connect people, and serve as an interpretation for someone who might not understand our perspective, ideas, emotions, or personality. Still, more importantly, it can serve as an educational tool to reframe narratives. When I left everything familiar to me 25 years ago and moved to Richmond, I had no idea I would use my voice as an art administrator and an elected school board official to do just that, shift narratives.
Twenty-five years later, I use the art of advocacy and the science of connecting to people to address injustice. My work and my voice act as a bridge that aligns cultural building with my lived experiences, the same way I used the arts as a form of creative expression when I was a little girl. They both teach, are relatable, and tell a story. As Deputy Director for ART 180, I have improved, advanced, and advocated for the arts in education. I am tasked with elevating, enhancing, and sustaining the work of the arts by creating safe and restorative spaces for young people in educational and communal spaces. I help guide others toward self-justice, which focuses on reclaiming one’s own voice, dignity and joy through love and healing, in a way that promotes agency and liberation for black people. This type of work eliminates barriers and reveals pathways to cultural equity and inclusion in the arts and education. Focusing on deep listening and transparency, I've asked myself, “If art truly represents life,” and I substitute my voice for art, how does my voice allow for a connection to life? An example of this has been moving out of the shadows and using my voice to encourage people to come out and embrace their truth and experience. How do you define your artistry? How can you use art to speak your truth? Are there ways you can help others do the same?
Richmond has a long history of silencing the voices of youth and people in marginalized communities, from its broken education system to the systemic racism plaguing the former Capital of the Confederacy. We’ve seen it before the removal of the monuments and we still see it within the context of gentrification, though a governor that wants to remove Black History from schools, and the uptick of gun violence in the black community. We have progressed three years after the pandemic, but there is still much work to do. Richmond’s commitment to racial equity comes in waves. Though many teachers and advocates recognize the arts' value in expression, connection, healing, and career development, art programs are often negatively impacted by budget cuts. As a city and as a country, we need to fund and fully integrate art into our educational system because it builds the confidence, creativity, agency and voice of our youth. Art is a powerful tool for equity and justice.
My top priority for this city is building a culture of Restorative Justice through the arts and improving and repairing the relationships that have been broken within our communities. Restorative Justice is a set of principles, a philosophy focused on mending broken relationships to create a better future. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a real push to understand the importance of this work. We need leaders that understand this methodology and will do what it takes to see it implemented.
We would see significant changes in our most distressed communities if we adopted a city-wide approach encompassing the spirit and true energy of healing a community. To address equity for all, we must start with those who have been harmed most and have the most needs. Instead, services for marginalized communities are not the same as they are for the communities of the wealthiest people. We allow the invisible lines we call districts to be the determining factor as to what a community needs. This needs to stop!
I would like to see more spaces that reflect the power of art, as art both improves learning and enriches lives. We could start by allocating more funding to schools for arts programs. Bridging the gap between art and education is synonymous with community building. Particularly in schools where ART 180 is shifting the culture with the development of in-school residencies that allow students access to art for more than once a semester. My goal is to see art integrated into our communities by giving voice to the youth that speak with pride, credibility, and validity —helping to put their stories out into the world and allowing others to absorb and understand them.
I’m excited about the Black Renaissance taking place in Richmond in the form of black entrepreneurship, black arts and culture, black history, black women leading, or black youth rising. I hope my work as a facilitator, healer, art administrator, School Board member, and Restorative Justice practitioner will expand and be adopted as a new approach to teaching and learning. This holistic approach creates equity by integrating creativity and student achievement at the same time. I hope this work expands to other cities and that Richmond continues to be a catalyst for change.
Liberation and healing in society will occur when we first engage our own stories with curiosity and compassion. I have several personal and communal liberation practices grounded in love that have allowed me to connect more deeply and creatively to myself and others. Through the transformative process called Radical Permission, I was able to work through the fears that had been holding me back for so long, in order to harness my personal power and live a life of liberation and justice. I also learned from our beloved ancestor and sister, bell hooks, that Love is Justice! Another key experience was the Education for Racial Equity with Resmaa Menakem, where I learned and cultivated an embodied practice of anti-racism while deepening my love and practice as a culture builder. As someone who values community and collaboration, I have immersed myself in Restorative Justice Practices with several Richmond colleagues as we build out Restorative Richmond (est. 2022). If you are doing the work of justice, I suggest any or all of these tools to help you move towards personal and communal liberation.
As art intersects with cultural awareness and the workplace, traditional job models need to integrate creative pathways that connect with expression in the community. The intersection of art and education is the space I play in. What spaces are you in that urge you to address the cultural “isms” that exist for black people? How will you become a part of the community to support the cultural inclusiveness emerging into a new and expansive awareness, one rooted in self-validation and reflection as the gateway to becoming/feeling more connected?
A native New Yorker, Nicole has made Richmond home for the last 25 years and has enjoyed affecting the creative landscape of the city through her volunteer and professional service. Her passion for elevating the community, identifying problems, and jumping in makes her one of the most effective collaborators in Richmond—a natural visionary with high energy. As the Deputy Director at ART 180, she is responsible for donor development and retention, special events, programs incorporating Restorative Justice practices, and operations management. Her steadfastness and sense of self-love, compassion, and respect bring forth power, healing, and truth. Her resilience and leadership stem from her core belief that lived experiences can drive action and advance equity, diversity, and inclusion practices in fundraising. Nicole is a constant cultivator of creating safe spaces and structural change for justice. Known as a detailed oriented planner and strategic thinker, she is often tapped for planning and advisory capacities for some of the most progressive non-profits in the area. Nicole has also been a member of the Richmond Public Schools Board representing the 9th District since 2021. IG: @9thdistrictnicole @embodhi_rva https://www.art180.org/
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