BAM’s DanceAfrica — the largest African dance festival in the country — returned on May 4th with programming devoted to the dance traditions of Haiti and its resonance as a symbol of Black Liberation. This Memorial Day weekend features a virtual lineup of dance premieres that will pay tribute to the concept of Iwa, or spirits of Haitian voodoo. Kicking off the weekend will be tonight’s teen-led Haiti in Full Scope, a slumber party-themed event for teens grades nine to 12 that will feature storytelling, art-making, and presentations by teaching artists.
The event is the culmination of BAM’s 18-month Brooklyn Interns for Arts & Culture program, or BIAC, which helps students develop college and career readiness. It will be the first fully “youth-led, youth-focused, youth-produced” program organized by BAM, said Education Manager Mecca Madyun. The goal for the event, Madyun said, is to launch a tradition of programming created “for youth, by youth.”
“We really support their vision — and so we try to remove our wants, our needs, our tendencies to say “this is what you should be looking at, or this is what you should be trying to get,” said Madyun. “We’re always posing questions, for them to dig a little deeper.”
BIAC interns are often predominantly students of color, Madyun explained, and, while none of the current interns are of Haitian descent, she said, many of them have grown up around Haitian culture and traditions simply by living in Brooklyn — which has such a prominent Haitian population that the neighborhood of Flatbush, where a large percentage of the borough’s Haitian-born residents live, has been designated ‘Little Haiti.’
“For them to be able to delve a little deeper into that – I think it gave them a stronger sense of how they connect with other cultures, and how those cultures have fed other cultures around the world.”
The Haitian Revolution, through which Haiti became the world’s first Black republic, plays a central role in Haitian culture, Madyun explained. In learning about this, she said, “they really wanted participants – the other youth coming to this event – to be able to find a connection with this culture that may not be their own,” she said. “To understand that at the root of it all is this resilience and this strength and this power within that keeps people going – and it’s a force.”
For interns like Nahima Kistoo, a student at Uncommon Charter High School in Crown Heights, the internship has deepened their understanding of the country’s complex history and cultural influences.
“My background is Afro-Caribbean, and I know a lot of Haitians that I used to go to school with – their families were immigrants from Haiti, and they would have to some extent the same experiences, the same foods,” said Kistoo. “[I learned that] there’s Latin American influence, there’s a lot of French influence from the African diaspora. All of that plays a big factor, and the only portion that I knew about was the Afro-Caribbean side.”
Over the last 18 months, interns learned about the process of planning and executing programs like DanceAfrica from teaching artists and BAM staff. Members of departments like PR, Marketing, and Institutional Advocacy gave presentations on the many moving pieces that go into the planning process, said Madyun.
“The students were super excited because they were receiving information that they can actually utilize, moving into their future,” she said. The process of creating Haiti in Full Scope gave students the chance to put their new knowledge and skills to work — and, on a deeper level, to learn how to execute their own artistic vision and ideas.
“They really taught me how to stand on my own, and be confident in my own space,” said intern Janai Pelzer, a student at Digital Arts & Cinema Technology High School.
For Kistoo, one of the most rewarding experiences was having their interests taken seriously by adults.
“It was really nice to have adults ask me what my hobbies and interests, besides ‘what are my career goals?'”
Program staff — a team consisting of Madyun, Director of Education Ava Kinsey, and lead teaching artist Lonnie Woods III — also showed students that it’s possible to have a career in something they love.
“It was really a great experience to be opened to that and being exposed to the people who are in the arts currently and do that full-time and pursue their passions.”
6/1/2021 - This article originally included an incorrect spelling of one of the intern's names; it is Nahima Kistoo, not Nashima Kisoo. It has been updated with the correct spelling.