Andre’ Wright creates space in downtown Iowa City for BIPOC people to heal, create and protest

Witching Hour: Lessons & Visions on Independent Space Pt. 1

FilmScene—Chauncey, Iowa City -- Saturday, Nov. 6 at 10 a.m.

Filmmaker Spotlight: Black Liberation Space

FilmScene—Chauncey, Iowa City -- Sunday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m.

Andre Wright — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

It was the kids who came up with the name.

When designer and Humanize My Hoodie co-founder Andre’ Wright accepted an offer from Revival owner Sheila Davisson to make use of her then-vacant Ped Mall space, he didn’t have a name in mind. All he had was a vision, to “really show this community what inclusion is.” And in the months that he and his team were there, through December 2020, that lesson hit. Although the space wasn’t solely focused on youth, young Black creatives became the core of its user base.

“They got a chance to see constructive Black people,” Wright said. “My hope was that they would come in and be inspired.”

They clearly were. In the midst of the creativity and community spurred there, they began referring to the place in terms of what it had come to feel like for them: a Black Liberation Space. And they weren’t the only ones who were inspired. Filmmaker and University of Iowa MFA candidate Trevon Jakaar Coleman crafted a tight, 12-minute documentary of the space with the same name; it’s been getting attention as it makes the festival rounds.

The film is an homage to the work that went on there and the people it touched. At just 12 minutes, it leaves you wanting more — which is appropriate, because so does the space itself. There is a sense, both in watching the documentary and in speaking with Wright, that there is so much more ahead for this idea, and for all of the other ideas swirling in Wright’s inventive mind.

For now, Wright has been meeting with some of the students who frequented the Black Liberation Space at various spots in downtown Iowa City, and they’re working on projects in their own homes. He sees himself as a Professor X to the young people he works with.

“I get to help them understand what their talents are and how to use them,” he said.

He’s determined to continue to source opportunities for them, to help them discover ways to work within the field of art.

“This is what kids and other adults are telling me,” he said. “As much joy as this community offers, some people don’t feel the same, because they are excluded from the table.”

Wright saw the Black Liberation Space as “a chance to fight back … a form of protest, but in a way that was more empowering.”

“It was almost like a 3D visual of us humanizing ourselves in the moment,” he said.

By Quincy Jagnow, BLS student

But it wasn’t exhibitionist. In fact, he said, they never even opened the front door of the space. Everyone entered and left through the back door. It was of, by and for the community it served, not a showcase for the world at large.

Wright recalled the waves of support that have run through activist circles in the wake of various tragedies in the Black community, but he remembers them as transitory, performative.

“It upset me to see people fall back from something that was so passionate to me,” he said of the way those waves receded. He wondered, “Are we ever going to get liberation here? Are we ever going to be able to have a real conversation about liberation and what that means for us?”

He’s feeling more optimistic about that possibility now. As he searches for a new location for a reiteration of his vision, he’s also refining and heightening it.

“This would serve as kind of an incubator for different kinds of services,” he said, speaking excitedly about a barber, for example, who had set up shop in the original space. “We build relationships,” he clarified, “more than being an incubator. And those relationships let us know how we can help each other.”

By Dalia Hurtado, BLS student

Wright wants to build a place “for our people to have a place of belonging,” he said — and he wants it to be in the heart of downtown, in a place where it can have the most impact and in a way that allows the users of the space “to actually do action, not just talk about things.” He sees opportunities for community development, for financial literacy, for providing jobs.

“If we’re not being vocal about these things, the conversation won’t be had,” he said.

Ultimately, it comes down to discerning the best way to help in each individual situation. And to do that, you have to know people deeply.

“How do you treat your friends? How do you treat your best friend? You learn,” Wright said. “I don’t think we spend enough time learning other people.”

Genevieve Trainor is arts editor and publisher at Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 300.

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