By Justin Laing & Sister I’Asia Thomas

In Pittsburgh there’s a grantmaking program sponsored by The Heinz Endowments called the Transformative Arts Process (TAP) building the field of folks who work at the intersection of African American neighborhoods, arts, culture and youth. In that spirit of field building, Sister I’Asia and I write this post reflecting on the grants program that preceded TAP in the Heinz portfolio, the Culturally Responsive Arts Education Initiative (CRAE), in order to inform TAP. This is new territory. We have worked together in both of these programs, Justin as the grants officer for both programs and Sister I’Asia as the program manager of CRAE in its latter years and also a TAP Advisory Board member since its inception. However, after almost a decade of work in these roles, this occasion has allowed us to have more extensive conversation than we have previously. As we have gone back and forth on a Google doc, this process led us to wonder what spaces there are for people working in philanthropy and people working on funded projects to really hear each other?” As it is for artists, it is difficult for Program Officers and grantees to get authentic feedback from one another on their respective work. Thus, we’ve had some moments causing us to go back and rethink not only the current moment but prior decisions. Hopefully, this article demonstrates the value we found.

CRAE was a six-year initiative in four Pittsburgh Public Schools between the years 2008-2013. It was intended to build a positive racial identity in Black children by providing them access to long-term residencies with teaching artists trained in arts of Africa and the Diaspora. In building this identity it was hoped that children would be better equipped to take on the unique challenge of being Black and in academic settings that doubt their capacity “from the jump”. Support for CRAE from the Endowments was not continued after 2013 when the Endowments decided it should work more collaboratively with the field to design the next round of grantmaking for youth living in African American communities. This new approach became TAP and it is an experiment of The Heinz Endowments as it tries to improve the positive impact of a grantmaking strategy by developing and implementing it in concert with the field. The TAP strategy is available to the public here. Specifically, TAP is building the field of those who work at the cross-section of arts, youth, philanthropy and African American and “distressed” neighborhoods. In the spirit of TAP, we see jointly writing this post as field building in a couple of ways: (1) deepening our understanding of one another’s work through this writing process; (2) demonstrating that the teaching artist practice of writing post-class reflections and then sharing these reflections with colleagues could well be a model to grantmakers to humanize and make the work more just. One of TAP’s goals is to contribute to “Philanthropic Practice” and it would be wonderful to see what other colleagues might find from engaging in this kind of effort.

Sister I’Asia, who is now the Equity manager for the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), recently criticized the TAP board process for not addressing racism. Sister I then led a process in which she asked the group whether we were dealing with racism as a board. The answer? No!  And, around the same time, two Black women artists who taught in the CRAE program attended an informational for a TAP Request for Proposals. There, the artists vocalized that CRAE, built upon an extensive literature review on culturally responsive pedagogy, had a framework that centered the culture of  Africa and the Diaspora, intentionally undoing internalized racism in Black children. As such, Heinz ought to integrate TAP with CRAE’s ideas. As Sister I and Justin discussed this issue she asked questions he hadn’t heard such as  “Why would CRAE’s viable framework be cast aside? Where in TAP’s ideas of building the field was there an acknowledgement that out-of-school time programs may be the only place where a Black child might have the opportunity to address internalized racial inferiority? Why wasn’t there a specific value for organizations and artists to have knowledge of Black arts and culture, if they were going to be working with Black children? Why would this issue of race potentially be left to each grantee to address independently?” Good questions for which there are probably not good enough answers to continue in this direction. We are both interested to see what the rest of the Advisory Board may have to say in response to this post and what other Endowments’ staff who are actively participating in TAP might think.

In keeping with the idea of experimenting with grantee inclusion, Justin has taken this opportunity to reflect on Sis I’s and the artists’ criticism and see how it might augment TAP.  Taking our cue from the Sankofa Bird, the Akan Adinkra symbol that was the symbol of CRAE and prods us to go retrieve the good from the past, we want to bring the good of CRAE forward. In this way, that good can be offered to current and future participants in TAP. So, in listening to the critique that TAP would benefit by being complemented with a revisiting of CRAE , Justin went back to look at the ideas of the two programs. Blackness and Africanity almost jump off the page in the CRAE program language. Here, artists and schools are directed to employ arts of the African diaspora, while in the case of TAP explicit reference to racism and the power of Black culture is not mentioned in the criteria for transformative arts practice. Without this criteria, Justin had to acknowledge that TAP de-centers the importance of race and culture in its ideas of transformative pedagogy. And yet Sister I’Asia saw that TAP has grantmaking practices that can move philanthropy towards a mutual accountability that are equally important parts in undoing structural racism that CRAE did not have.

As mentioned above, TAP is an experiment in philanthropic practice. TAP’s grant making strategy is being co-authored with arts practitioners, whereas the CRAE grant was made by The Heinz Endowments to PPS with almost no engagement of the Black teaching artists that would be called to implement the grant. And, though TAP hasn’t acknowledged the Africanity or Blackness of curriculum content as critical in undoing systemic white supremacy, it is experimenting with alternatives to philanthropy’s opacity and general lack of power sharing. Thus, it’s framework is suited to answer the question: what will we do to go back and fetch from CRAE and bring into the present?


The Creation of TAP Race, Arts, Culture and Youth committee (RACY)

In response to Sister I’Asia’s provocations, we have taken the step of creating a Race, Arts, Culture and Youth committee. Our first agreement is that we will spend 30 minutes at the beginning of each TAP Advisory Board meeting centering a RACY issue or question. In this way, Advisory Board members bring the RACY experience they’ve just been through to the conversations and decisions that they are being called to consider during the rest of the meeting. We are also beginning to imagine and plan an anti-racism/pro Black culture “unconference” that will give teaching artists, youth, parents and grantmakers from Pittsburgh the opportunity to share & learn how arts and culture supports whole child development for youth living in African American & “distressed” neighborhoods. Our intent will be to offer ideas and models that say transformative arts practice for youth living in the aforementioned communities must center RACY questions and issues. We know too much about the impact of racism on even early childhood learning to not make this kind of work a required part of transformative arts practice. One of the reminders Justin has had in this conversation with Sister I is that there is no neutral stance when it comes to addressing racism and Black youth. We either center the discussion and encourage it or we de-center the conversation and discourage it.


Include A Review of CRAE for both the current TAP Advisory Board and new TAP grantees

In January of 2017 there will be eight newly awarded two-year teaching artist residency programs. The TAP orientation for these new grantees will begin with a review of the CRAE framework so that the teaching artists and host organizations have the opportunity to take advantage of the CRAE ideas, apply these ideas as they make sense to them and to give feedback as to their thoughts about the model itself. We are hoping that this and presenting CRAE to the Advisory Board might provide us with a new CRAE opportunity.  One where we demonstrate that indeed it is not taboo to go back and fetch the past in order to improve the present and shape the future. Just this engagement between the two of us has been a step in that direction and we hope a contribution to the conversation of what is quality or transformative arts education and philanthropic practice. We would like to thank the Memphis Music Initiative for this opportunity and for the work they are doing to raise the visibility of Black arts & culture in the arts education discussion.



Justin Laing is a Senior Program Officer for Arts & Culture with The Heinz Endowments and, in addition to his work with the Endowments, lives with the issues of this article as one of the founders of the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy, a Black culture based Saturday Academy and program of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity’s Iota Phi Chapter, and as a parent of three Black children he has and is working to school with his wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing.





Sister I’Asia Thomas is Project Manager of Cultural Responsiveness and Equity for Pittsburgh Public Schools and uses tenacity and gratitude to Africa and its many art manifestations through and with the power vested in her to support Afrocentric Infusion into Pittsburgh Public Schools curricula and pedagogy. A thing that glides on the wings of CRAE….