Gantt Center's 'Unmasked' Keeps Public Conversation Going, Even In Socially Distant Times
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture has long been at the forefront of public forums in Charlotte. The center's popular Talk About It Tuesday events brought experts together to talk through vital and complex topics like gentrification, the criminal justice system and barriers to economic mobility.
But 2020 and in-person events haven't exactly gotten along, with gatherings severely limited to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That doesn't mean engaging conversations can't still happen, though.
The Gantt Center went virtual with a series called Unmasked that started with the reason everyone is wearing masks. COVID-19 death rates are higher for Black Americans, and the center brought together Q City Metro publisher Glenn Burkins, minister Ricky Woods of First Baptist Church-West, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and Jerome Williams, a vice president at Novant Health, to talk about it.
"A lot of these issues are not new," said Witnie Martinez, the Gantt Center's vice president of institutional advancement. "They are systemic, and COVID-19 has only heightened the issues, and it's heightened the community's education around some of the things that the Black community has been dealing with for years.”
The discussion was streamed on Gantt's YouTube channel. It was a hit. And It was the start of more Unmasked conversations. There's a new one each week.
In late May, protests erupted nationwide and in Charlotte after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. As demonstrators took to the streets, the Gantt Center launched another big Unmasked conversation, "We Can't Breathe," turning the spotlight on systemic racism and police brutality.
The conversation's billing succinctly put it: "Recent events, as expounded on by various social and news media platforms, have shown that Black lives today are threatened by much more than a potentially deadly virus."
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams was a guest along with Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, CNN commentator Bakari Sellers and Alvin Jacobs, a local photographer and image activist whose "Welcome to Brookhill" exhibition is featured at the center.
"Change will require us to collectively do the work long after the protests are over," Gantt Center CEO David Taylor said in a letter published ahead of that Unmasked conversation. "It requires true leadership from the national level to the community level. It requires persistence — and above all, it requires white people who have benefited from the system the most to use their privilege to stand up and speak out to effect change."
Other Unmasked conversations have brought in big local names: Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham and Public Health Director Gibbie Harris, among others.
"It's been one of our primary purposes through that series to make sure that we're involving community leaders that are actually in the positions of power," Martinez said.
The conversations aren't stopping any time soon.
The next one, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, is called "Giving Black" and focuses on Black philanthropy. Tiffany Capers of CrossRoads Corp. will lead a panel that includes Kelly Davis, executive director at Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation; Herb Gray, CEO of Life Enhancement Services; and "Giving Back" author Valaida Fullwood.
Martinez says the conversation will be about how philanthropy doesn't just mean donating money to organizations.
"It's really more about building the community and strengthening the community and giving time and showing the community that you care, but really doing it from a standpoint of, 'If we don't take the time to really care for each other within our own community, we know that no one else will," Martinez said. "... Our focus is on things like volunteering and just educating each other, raising the next generation of torchbearers for our Black culture."
The Gantt Center's also been trying to make change happen through its Initiative for Equity + Innovation. Jacobs' "Brookhill" exhibition focuses on life in a low-income African American neighborhood in Charlotte. An upcoming exhibition, "Inter|Sectionality: Diaspora Art form the Creole City" features work from 25 Miami-based artists and two guest artists from Charlotte, Monique Luck and Stephanie J. Woods.
The Gantt's also in the early stages of putting together a "We Can't Breathe" exhibit that focuses on police brutality and recent protests for change in Charlotte and elsewhere. Art, after all, plays a role in documenting society.
"Yes, we can have the pretty art – and we have the pretty art – but it really is about making an impact," Martinez said. "So, when you walk through the doors of the Gantt Center, 1, you feel like it's a place for you, but 2, you'll also feel like it's a place that's making an impact beyond the pretty art.
"It's making a statement. It's giving a voice to those who consider themselves to be voiceless."
But for now, events, and Unmasked conversations, will stay virtual. And there's a silver lining to that: Martinez said more than 15,000 people have tuned into the conversations over the last few months.
A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.
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