The Black Teaching Artist Lab: Pan-African Cultural Exchange

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The Black Teaching Artist Lab: Pan-African Cultural Exchange

Melissa Parke, Founder, The Black Teaching Artist Lab

Black Teaching Artist Lab Founder Melissa Parke. Photo: Gilberto Ortiz.

In 2020, amid a global pandemic and an extended and overdue reckoning with systemic racism in America, the Black Teaching Artist Lab was born. Founder Melissa Parke had been thinking about the idea since 2019, and she launched the organization at a time when many teaching artists were interrogating their own practices for the first time. Parke’s goal was to help Black teaching artists “become better equipped to teach Black learners and to better understand their own Black identities,” through both travel and a new educational framework (you may remember these opportunities from past Baskets). As the Lab continues to grow in its third year, so do its aspirations. This month, Parke sits down with us to reflect on its pandemic origins and share how things are going for the organization.

1. When, where, and why was the Black Teaching Artist Lab founded?

Black Teaching Artist Lab (BTAL) first began in early 2019. I was working as a community manager for the Brooklyn Creative League (BCL), a co-working space in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by successful social entrepreneurs. I knew I wanted to be just like them; I was inspired to turn my big ideas into something real. I was laid off from BCL at the onset of the pandemic, and that’s when I decided it was time to focus on my idea for a cultural exchange program for Black and Brown educators.

At first, BTAL was called Black Teaching Exchange, and its premise was to send African American teaching artists to Ghana, where they might learn more about American Black culture through a cultural exchange program. When traveling abroad ceased to be an option, due to Covid, I tried to think locally. During that time, there were so many protests and conversations about race happening here in the U.S., and I felt that our program might help advance those conversations.

That was when I thought of creating a framework to not only help Black learners and Black teaching better understand their Blackness, but also to help all educators and learners to understand Blackness through arts education: the Afrocentric Social Emotional Learning framework. This framework seeks to help Black learners better understand their own Black identity, the emotions that are associated with being Black in America, and how to manage those emotions through art.

2. Where does BTAL concentrate its efforts now? How would you articulate your goal, in those places?

Right now, our focus is on gaining knowledge about teaching artistry and entrepreneurship. We just completed a one-year ethnographic study with our partners at Creative Generation to gain a deeper understanding of Black teaching artists in the field. Our hope is to start BTAL with a research-based foundation that drives our next steps, giving us a strong sense of the needs of Black teaching artists as we develop curriculum, travel experiences, and learning tools for those we serve.

3. What feedback, or which concerns, do you hear most often from teaching artists in the African Diaspora? Has this feedback led you to change your thinking or programming in any way?

We want to make sure that our work captures the breadth of our members’ experiences. Maybe the strongest feedback we’ve received was to take time to learn more about each culture, community, and demographic in the African diaspora—that’s why we committed to research. As a Black person whose family immigrated here, I thought it was going to be easy to move around each culture in the Diaspora—after all, that’s been my lived experience—but I learned quickly that isn’t true.

Many of my teaching artists have shared with me their collective need to gain a better understanding of who they are and how they can see themselves in other cultures. From language to sense of self and Black identity to social customs, the experiences of Black teaching artists differ drastically across the diaspora. For instance, factors like Colonialism and white supremacy play a role in how one might express their Blackness, especially in educational contexts. Still, when we’re having conversations with these teaching artists, there is an unspoken understanding that we are connected through our African roots, especially when we participate in the arts. I feel that there aren’t enough initiatives that explore and build upon this phenomenon.

4. Please describe the Pan-African Cultural Exchange—what it is, how it functions, and how it came to be.

As I started to build out BTAL and the Afrocentric Social Emotional Learning framework, I realized that traveling has incredible potential to help teaching artists understand their roots. The Pan-African Cultural Exchange (PACE) was the next logical step. It aims to provide opportunities for Black-identifying teaching artists to travel to different parts of the diaspora and teach the Afrocentric SEL to groups of teaching artists from across the diaspora. The hope is that Black teaching artists more deeply examine their own identities and engage with the larger Pan-African community through social-emotional artistic practices.

5. What are the greatest challenges you face in your work?

It has been difficult to operate without a clear model, as I haven’t yet found an organization doing this work on a larger scale. The structure of the work is unique, and we’re doing our best not to fly blind as we build out our programming. Happily, the teaching artist and arts education community has been more than accepting and loving toward us, and I now know that I have a family I can turn to when I need help.

6. What’s next for BTAL?

We are currently working on our pilot exchange program, which will take Black American artists to Puerto Rico. We’re working with local cultural institutions there to make it happen. Recently, I’ve decided to create a think tank of leading educators, curriculum designers and cultural thinkers in the arts to develop an Afrocentric Social Emotional learning curriculum. This way, there is a system in place in schools, cultural organizations and communities where our culture can be taught.

If you are interested in joining or contributing to the Black Teaching Artist Lab, reach out to Melissa Parke at


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