It was the middle of June 2021, and the sun just set, giving way to a deep, dark blue sky. Portraits of Paul Robeson High School’s Class of 2021 were visible, shining brilliantly, projected onto Drexel University’s Nesbitt Hall. The seniors’ portraits were paired with their written reflections about who helped them through the year and what they hope their futures hold. I was standing beside Principal Gordon and just in front of us is Muawiyah, a Robeson graduate, as we watched the portraits and writings of members of his class fade in and out on the building in front of us.
Spread across the lawn were folks I hadn’t seen in person for over a year: ArtistYear AmeriCorps colleagues, friends, neighbors, and co-creators from the Writers Room, Drexel University’s community literary arts program. We came together to celebrate the students I worked with as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps fellow at the West Philadelphia high school.
Dejah, a 2019 Robeson alumnus and practiced portrait artist, came back to the school in February to help with the shoot. As a senior at Robeson, Dejah had previously worked with another ArtistYear Fellow and Drexel alumna Jasmine, as part of Writers Room’s TRIPOD program, a writing and photography project sponsored by Canon. Since 2017, TRIPOD brought Drexel undergraduates like Jasmine and me, local high school students like Dejah, and elders in the community together with other socially engaged artists and scholars to work toward social change.
When Writers Room member Carol and her family were displaced after her building was converted to student housing, students like me and Drexel faculty saw how precisely implicated we are in one another’s story. Our documentation and analysis work we engaged in as artists in that first year of TRIPOD lent itself to the work of a community-led participatory action research study of gentrification with Drexel’s School of Education and support from AmeriCorps.
Our diverse collective of writers ages 18-80 worked together as researchers and artists to examine the pervasive problems of housing insecurity that threaten communities across the country. This work has led to the development of Second Story Collective, a creative concept for co-living where shared space and shared interest in storytelling sets the foundation for meaningful intergenerational cohabitation.
Having been a part of this work throughout my undergraduate education at Drexel, I had the good fortune to work alongside Writers Room alumni who had graduated into a year of service with ArtistYear, like Jasmine, and with their students, like Dejah.
When I graduated in 2020, amidst a global pandemic that highlighted the extant inequities in our society and social uprisings that demanded justice for the murders of many, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the only logical step in my mind was to follow the path set by my peers—a year of national service. Continuing the work of the last three years—learning alongside my neighbors and Robeson students and co-creating art that addresses the issues confronting our community—was the only thing I could imagine doing.
Though the pandemic persisted, so did our work. Over the course of my year as an AmeriCorps member at Robeson, I integrated the arts into existing curricula and crafted new lessons with partner teachers to make space for creative expression. I worked closely with four students, Amina, Lyric, Tariq, and Ciani in TRIPOD as we dove deeper into study along with other writers from Drexel, YouthBuild students, faculty, and community members. Zooming from our homes, we explored the history of co-living and affordable housing, and how to can make our vision for a shared living community a reality.
Last summer, I worked with Carol in her role as community researcher. She taught Writers Room members the skills we needed to interview people about living through the pandemic. With Carol’s insights and expertise, I helped my Robeson students develop questions to reflect the stories they wanted to tell about their senior year. During one of our sessions, Carol reminded me that we don’t want to make light of what people have gone through, but we do need to be able to celebrate.
“But We Keep Going” brought some celebration back to the Robeson Class of 2021 who had missed out on much of what makes the end of high school so special. Over the quiet hum of the projector, Principal Gordon tells me about each of the students as their faces illuminate and transform the brick façade of the building. He tells me stories of when they first arrived at Robeson and his hopes for them as they go out into the world. Just then, Muawiyah’s text fills the wall before giving way to his image. A few moments pass before he turns toward me and his silhouette is brightened by the light of the projector.
As we shake hands I ask, “What do you think?”
He turns to see his portrait one more time before it fades to the next student, and says through a smile, “it’s pretty amazing.”
Devin Welsh will be returning to Paul Robeson High School for 2021-22, serving as an ArtistYear AmeriCorps Senior Fellow. He plans to attend graduate school to study the sociology of education.
Rachel Wenrick is the associate director of Drexel University’s Writer’s Room. The AmeriCorps Research Grantee project brings together university faculty, community residents, students, and alumni to investigate the landscape of residential displacement and affordable housing options in the rapidly gentrifying and federally designated West Philadelphia Promise Zone.