February 26, 2021

Meet Melissa Parke of Black Teaching Artist Lab

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My name is Melissa Parke (she/her), and as Black Teaching Artist Lab (BTAL) Founder and Program Director, my sincerest hope is that by using art— one of the most powerful tools we have for human expression— Pan-African artists will be able to share their individual stories of the lived Black experience with Black students everywhere.

I am a Brooklyn-based artist and first began developing BTAL in the beginning of 2019. During that time, I was working as a community manager for the Brooklyn Creative League (BCL), a co-working space in Brooklyn, New York. Surrounded by social entrepreneurs at BCL, I was inspired to turn my big ideas into a tangible, new reality.

It was really great to be able to have a job to create a community for this demographic. It was cool to interact and build friendships with folks at BCL. They really encouraged me to pursue BTAL and offered great entrepreneurial insight. I am so fortunate to have had that opportunity.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was ultimately laid off from BCL in early 2020. And that’s when I decided it was time to truly focus my energy on building BTAL.

At first, BTAL was called Black Teaching Exchange, and the premise of the program was to bring African American teaching artists to Ghana, in order to explore what American Black culture was. But with the onset of COVID, traveling abroad was no longer an option. So I had to think of ways in which I could bring something more localized to folks. During this time there were so many riots and conversations about race here in America that were happening and I felt that I needed to use this programming that I was developing in order to help move this conversation forward.

Black Teaching Artist Lab, LLC’s (BTAL) mission is to provide Black teaching artists with professional development and travel opportunities in order to become better equipped to teach Black learners and to better understand their own Black identities.

In response to the unmet needs of Black learners here in the United States, I also developed the Afrocentric Social-Emotional Learning framework in the early part of 2020. 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. The central tenet of the Afrocentric Social-Emotional Learning framework is best described by BTAL’s program associate, Abby Faires:

“We believe Afrocentric Social-Emotional Learning in the arts is a pedagogical framework that will equip Black learners and Black teaching artists to discover who they are (individually, culturally, spiritually); to express their own unique talents; and to uncover how they can serve humanity through their work.”

BTAL’s Afrocentric Social-Emotional Learning workshops are currently being conducted through Zoom and are led by either myself or lead facilitators of color who have been trained to utilize the framework.

Another major aspect of BTAL’s programming is the travel abroad experience (safely launching after the resolution of the global COVID-19 pandemic). The goal here is to have Black teaching artists from the U.S. (as of now) travel to other parts of the African Diaspora, in order to partake in an arts-based cultural exchange, using art to share the experiences of being Black in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.

Being Black in America is an experience that is met with multifaceted hurdles. In some regards, the history and current state of the treatment of Black people in the U.S. makes it difficult to be proud to be an American. However, despite the treatment we have faced, we have contributed to our country’s greatest achievements, both in and out of the arts. It is interesting to explore the Black experience outside of the U.S. and to discover the similarities and differences we share with individuals and cultures in other parts of the Diaspora. What I have found to be most profound is the rich, deep-rootedness to West African culture and tradition that imbues the Diaspora.

Currently, BTAL is working on traveling to Puerto Rico in 2022, with a mission to uplift the Afro-Boricua and community voices on the main island through art workshops.

So, why am I choosing teaching artists to carry out this work?

I believe that Black teaching artists are the social, emotional, and cultural responders for Black learners in the classroom. And by providing these teaching artists with a framework that helps them to better understand their Black identity and culture, as well as the Black identity of their learners through art, I believe we can begin to unlock a vital universal truth: we are all human beings, connected through the human experience.

Black Teaching Artist Lab, LLC (BTAL) strives to provide opportunities for Black teaching artists who are interested in using their own Black experience, identity, and art medium to help shape a more understanding world. To learn more about BTAL, please follow the organization on Instagram @blackteachingartistlab and on the BTAL website: www.blackteachingartistlab.com.

About Melissa
Melissa Parke is a Brooklyn-based creative that is making waves in the arts-education world. Parke initially developed her concept for Black Teaching Artist Lab, LLC at the beginning of 2019, while working as a community manager at Brooklyn Creative League—a co-working space in Brooklyn, New York. Surrounded by successful entrepreneurs and immersed in the social changes that were underway in America, Parke was inspired to turn her big ideas into a tangible, new reality.