‘They learn their voice is important’

Youths talk with community leaders on the topic of Afrofuturism

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The six youths who participated in the Conversations with Gen Z forum may be teens, but the discussion with the community leaders on Aug. 8 was certainly at the adult level.

“They (the community leaders) valued our opinions and listened,” said Zarion Crews, 16, of Denver. “Just having conversations with people older than I am helps develop ideologies.”

Conversations with Gen Z is an opportunity for PlatteForum’s ArtLab interns to speak with community leaders on a variety of contemporary issues. Conversations with Gen Z happens every year as part of RedLine Contemporary Art Center’s annual 48 Hours of Socially Engaged Art & Conversation Summit.

PlatteForum is a Denver-based, nonprofit arts, youth development and artist-in-residence program. Its ArtLab is a “year-round, out-of-school paid internship program for a cohort of 17 high school youth from historically marginalized populations that integrates the creative process and art-based learning with academic, personal and professional skill development,” according to program literature.

RedLine is also a Denver-based nonprofit. It serves as a “contemporary art center and artist residency that fosters education and engagement between artists and communities to create positive social change,” as stated on the website.

Both organizations are located in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, and serve the metro-wide community.

This year’s theme for the 48 Hours summit, as well as the topic for the Conversations with Gen Z, was Afrofuturism & Beyond.

The youths participating in the forum got to speak with Dr. Christopher Bell, an associate professor of media studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who specializes in the study of popular culture; Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver; and Toluwanimi Obiwole, a Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised multidisciplinary artist, healer, educator and organizer.

Afrofuturism is loosely defined as “a movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of Black history and culture,” according to Oxford’s English Dictionary online.

With the panelists, the youths were to discuss “Black thought/philosophy, inclusivity and representation in media and the arts,” said Esther Hernandez, creative programming manager at PlatteForum.

They were charged with coming up with all the questions on their own, and, she added, leading the conversation.

“It’s really important for youth to talk with community leaders about current issues. It can affect change,” Hernandez said. She added that the hope is, following the conversation, that the youth will be able to create the world they want to live in. “Having this experience gives them (the youth) the ability to go forward in their future. They learn their voice is important.”

She added that the community leaders were also genuinely interested in the conversation, and seemed to enjoy discussing the topic with the teens.

It was valuable to “be able to see and understand different peoples’ perspectives on Afrofuturism,” Crews said.

This was the second time he had participated in the Conversations with Gen Z, which is voluntary for ArtLab interns.

“Afrofuturism has always been relevant, but now more than ever, it’s in the limelight,” said Jojo Valdez, 19, of Denver, who participated in the Conversations with Gen Z for the fourth time. “We as Gen Z need to know what’s going on in the world. We can’t make a difference if we don’t understand what’s happening.”

The panelists hold a variety of different — but each important — roles in the community, which made the conversation even more valuable, Valdez said.

“Art is a universal form of communication,” Valdez said. “That’s why it’s so important to talk with community leaders. It’s valuable to learn how other people view Afrofuturism.”

Afrofuturism is very much a part of today’s youths’ lives, said JC Futrell, director of education at RedLine.

“Our young people have grown up with this culture” of Afrofuturism, Futrell said. “It is their norm.”

Being a generation that’s post-Black Panther Party, young people today have been influenced by figures such as Kanye West, who is an American rap artist; and former U.S. President Barack Obama, Futrell said.

It is important for youth to be able to engage with leaders who they can identify with, Futrell said.

Because “one day,” Futrell said, “they will become the future leaders.”

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