Profiles in Black leadership

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Over the last month or so, following the call to elevate the work of Rochester’s Black leaders and artists, Jeanne Strazzabosco has stepped into an unfamiliar world.

Her quest took her to Amanda Chestnut, a local artist and curator, who has become her partner in telling stories in Black leadership. Together, they are behind “In This Moment: Revolution Reckoning Reparation,” a chapbook series designed to stimulate conversations around existing inequities, in collaboration with Visual Studies Workshop.

“‘In This Moment’ has brought me into a new world where I feel included and welcome and in awe of the beauty that had been missing from my white world,” says Strazzabosco, a retired French teacher from Barker Road Middle School in Pittsford, adding that Chestnut has breathed life into the idea and added to it.

Strazzabosco has personally invested in the project, which has raised nearly $20,000 in donations so far for its first phase—individual chapbooks. VSW is a fiscal sponsor. 

She has learned about the lives of 10 Black leaders, for starters, and connected with numerous artists, photographers and others in the fight against systemic racism.

“Amanda has taken me into her community where I have had the fortune to meet people like Mrs. Dorothy Hall and her son, Dorian,” Strazzabosco says. “Through my laptop screen I am in their homes, seeing their photos on the walls behind them, and I witness how the photographer and interviewer gently build trust and turn uncertainty into anticipation.”

The Halls, grassroots community builders, are among nine other leaders who will be profiled for the series. 

“Leadership isn’t always loud, and it isn’t always public, and it isn’t always highly visible,” Chestnut says. “I wanted to take the voices of people who have been doing leadership, in the case of the Halls, for generations. That leadership has made a significant difference in the lives of a lot of people, but that’s not necessarily understood by the community at large.”

As they chose whom to profile, Chestnut and Strazzabosco were intentional. As Chestnut put is it, they chose “community over ego.”

“The other thing we wanted to do was give people an opportunity to have a platform if it was not the kind of thing they already had ready access to,” she says.

In addition to the Halls, the series will profile:

■ Samra Brouk, a nonprofit leader

■ Luticha Doucette, owner of Catalyst Consulting

■ Shawn Dunwoody, artist

■ Adrian Elim aka Gatekeeper, cofounder and head videographer at Brothahood Productions 

■ Debora McDell-Hernandez, senior director of public and community affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central & Western New York

■ Celia McIntosh, president of the Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking

■ Kathryn Mariner, Wilmot Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester

■ Danielle Ponder, a musician and attorney

■ Herbert Smith, third trumpet at the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

Each leader is paired with a photographer and a writer, Chestnut says. The artists then work together to create a cohesive tale that centers around the theme, “In this Moment,” a challenge to a euphemism often used in lieu of talking about Revolution, Reckoning, and Reparations, she says.

Herbert Smith’s story is written by Taurus Savant. Photo by Jackie McGriff.

“Even though what’s happening right now is very important and it has a lot of momentum, it is not a thing that is new or rare or unique, and these stories that we’re going to be receiving from all of our leaders will highlight that. I didn’t want to accidentally choose folk who have privilege through their power and popularity and lose sight of the fact that this moment is something that’s been happening in the Black community for generations.”

The funds raised will compensate Black writers and photographers for their work on the series. These artists include Jackie McGriff, Arturo David Hoyte, Chris Thompson and Taurus Savant. Phase one, to be complete this fall, will have a limited print run where books will be available for free. 

“As the curator, I’m the last step between the artists and the public, and I want to make sure that all of these voices—the writers, photographers and the leaders—are seen and heard in a true and just way by the public,” Chestnut says. “I want them to be known and understood.”

Over the winter, “In This Moment” will enter its second phase, a fine art edition of all 10 stories. Donors can give toward a single or more chapbooks, an honorarium of a contributor, a team or the whole series. From sales of limited edition books, and other items like posters, the team hopes to raise $25,000 for the Avenue Blackbox Theatre, Strazzabosco says.

Artist Shawn Dunwoody’s chapbook is written by Chris Thompson with photos by Arturo David Hoyte.

Chestnut and Strazzabosco are mulling ideas for programming into 2021 as well, which could include an exhibition at Rochester Contemporary at its Current Seen and lectures. It will hinge on the success of the first phase.

“I want it to be as commemorative for Black people as it is educational for white people,” Chestnut says. “Because Black and Brown people, when they look at this list, they know a lot of people, but not everybody is going to.”

Educating white people about race is important to Strazzabosco, who has grown through this process. She’s had to learn through her Black friends that a true ally gets out of the way, which wasn’t easy to swallow at the outset, even though she’s talked about issues such as hidden biases and microaggressions during her time at the Pittsford School District.

“I really had to think about that. What about me? Well, it’s been about me the whole of my life by virtue of the color of my skin,” Strazzabosco says. “What I would like is for this to give me the courage to approach white people in my world and say, ‘Look it, don’t be afraid.  Do something—find some way to act and make a difference. Get uncomfortable.’”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

2 thoughts on “Profiles in Black leadership

  1. I see that y’all are still engaging in the age-old practice of picking OUR “leaders” for us — without consulting — carry on.

    • If we receive enough funding for a second edition we’re happy to accept recommendations. I would love nothing more than to see this project continue. Each profile costs about $5000 to produce; your contribution, Howard, could help us highlight even more of the great leaders in Rochester.

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