Black People in the Future
Black People
In The
Black People
In The
When a billboard with those words went up in Pittsburgh's East End -- and then came down -- it spawned an art project to explore gentrification, race and other related topics in a changing city. Eleven projects were awarded grants to explore those topics. Here's what they did.
October 3, 2019
"There Are Black People in the Future" by artist Alisha Wormsley rose above Baum Boulevard and Highland Avenue in East Liberty until the building's landlord objected and it was taken down in March 2018. (lastlastbillboard.com)
"Black People in the Future" project continues as participants in artwork-in-residence program host events
The recipients of Alisha Wormsley’s artist-in-residence grants present their work as part of the "Black People in the Future" project.
Artist Alisha Wormsley (Joshua Franzos)

When Alisha Wormsley’s message, “There Are Black People in the Future,” was removed from an East Liberty billboard art installation at the end of March 2018, its creator didn’t disappear with it.

She got louder.

With help from Greater Pittsburgh Art Council’s Office of Public Art and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jon Rubin — the architect behind “The Last Billboard” project that made Wormsley’s almost monthlong display possible — she formed an artwork-in-residence program funded by Heinz Endowments.

The program offered creators and community members living or working in East Liberty, Bloomfield, Garfield, Larimer and Homewood $1,200 microgrants to participate in Wormsley’s “There Are Black People in the Future” project, which began in 2012.

The work of the 11 selected projects will be presented at a community program 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Homewood branch. As part of this program, documentary filmmaker Chris Ivey will screen a preview of a video about the project and process.

The 11 projects addressed development, gentrification and displacement in Pittsburgh’s East End and creating conversations about blackness in a changing city. They include Thomas James Agnew, Ether, Anqwenique Kinsel, D.S. Kinsel, Amos Levy and Kay Bey, Lucas Mickens, Onika Reigns, Felicia Savage Friedman, Ayana Sade Toukam, Woodrow Winchester III and Brett Wormsley — brother of Alisha Wormsley.

These artists spent their summer carrying out eclectic pieces of the “There Are Black People in the Future” project with interviews, song, Afrofuturistic music, video, storytelling, rest sessions, anti-racist raja yoga and technology.

The removal of the billboard caused an outcry on social media and in community discussions. About three weeks after the billboard went up atop a building at Baum Boulevard and Highland Avenue, Mr. Rubin was asked by his landlord, Eve Picker of WeDo property, to take it down, noting that he had violated his lease by not seeking prior approval and by posting something that was “distasteful, offensive, erotic, political.”

Kaisha Jantsch, a summer intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, received a master’s degree from Point Park University.

Thomas J. Agnew stands outside the BOOM Concepts gallery space he co-founded in Garfield. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
"Navigating as a Black Creative in Pittsburgh"
Recorded interviews and a talk with five entrepreneurs about the ways racial prejudice hinders career advancement.
Artist: Thomas James Agnew
D.S. Kinsel, left, and Thomas Agnew discuss their fundraising efforts at a street art workshop and party in honor of BOOM Concepts' fifth anniversary. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Thomas J. Agnew has a veteran knowledge of Pittsburgh. He speaks of the city fondly, like a parent who is trying to lightly guide a child in the right direction but knows it has room to grow and improve — particularly for people of color.

“Often our work is not looked at as being as important as other people’s work,” he said recently in BOOM Concepts, a studio and gallery space in Garfield he co-founded with D.S. Kinsel in 2014. “You kind of feel alone, you kind of feel by yourself, alienated.”

He is using the grant as an artist-in-residency in the “There Are Black People in the Future” project to look at navigating as a black creative in Pittsburgh. He conducted video-recorded interviews with black professionals and creatives to explore the experiences, successes and struggles black people face in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is always stuck on doing the same thing over and over,” he said. “We are bringing new people in to make new connections.”

(Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Agnew moved to Pittsburgh in 2002 to attend the now-closed Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He has worked in various creative fields, including as the editor-in-chief and founder of Jenesis magazine, which has been in production since 2007.

He loves Pittsburgh with a passion, sporting a baggy vintage Pirates jersey and always focusing his words on how the city could improve. Yet he takes issue with Pittsburgh’s self-recognition at times, noting contradictions between things like repeat Most Livable City awards amid rapid gentrification and stagnant wages.

“They’re not really telling stories of what’s going on here,” he said. “We gotta change the narrative.”

Agnew will interview black creatives and conduct panel discussions about how to make art and entertainment more fair and diverse, as well as to provide attendees and business owners with a framework to build connections to engender collaboration in the future.

“So a part of my project is looking at successes,” he said. “To be able to do something like this is to show all the people in the city doing big things.”

Christian Snyder: csnyder@post-gazette.com

Ether looks for the perfect black gown during The Project Prom boutique in March at Thriftique, Lawrenceville. Project Prom provides eligible teens with a selection of free prom dresses, shoes and accessories. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
"The Afrofuture Has Arrived"
A concept album inspired by such issues as postmodern Afrocentrism (emphasis on African culture and the contributions of Africans), Afrofuturism (futuristic or science fiction themes with elements of black history and culture), being black in Pittsburgh
Artist: Ether
Ether stretches the strap of a silver heel over Batman socks during The Project Prom boutique. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

It’s been just a few months since Ether, an 18-year-old rapper who lives in East Liberty, graduated from high school. And since graduation, they’ve been busy.

Born Julian Butler, Ether prefers the one-word moniker and identifies as nonbinary, preferring the gender-neutral pronoun they. That’s just the start of their identity. From pansexual to rapper to proud Pittsburgher, Ether aims to solidify their place in the community now and in the future through music they make, which reflects their musical upbringing.

“I am a rapper, but I’m also a rock star. I’m a singer, but I’m also a producer. I’m a lot of things,” Ether said.

Ether’s mom is a classic rock fan, raising the rapper on everything from Nirvana to Jimi Hendrix. Dad was all hip-hop — Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Del the Funky Homosapien — the list goes on and on.

Ether’s project is a 19-song album with the working title “Listen to Me.” Ether wrote lyrics that specifically deal with Afrofuturism and has worked with friends to create artwork to reflect that. They displayed one example of their visual work, a fantastical anthropomorphic creature with horns, wings and other futuristic ideals. It’s reminiscent of anime, another source of inspiration for Ether, who favors series that feature black characters.

Just 16 at the time, the rapper recalls when Alisha Wormsley’s billboard, which read “There Are Black People in the Future,” was removed in 2018 from its position atop a building in East Liberty after the owner of the building invoked a lease clause that stated billboards on the building could not be distasteful or political.

“Whether that billboard was gonna be there or not, it didn’t stop anything,” Ether said. “It’s not about the billboard really. It’s really not. Of course, I have the right to be upset that they took it down. But I don’t think it was even about the billboard. It was about the fact that we had to say it.”

When Ether found out they were selected as one of the recipients of the resulting artist residency program, designed by Wormsley and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Office of Public Art, they couldn’t believe they had the opportunity to work with Wormsley.

“It’s awesome being around her,” Ether said about Wormsley. “She is like an embodiment of hope here.”

Christian Snyder: csnyder@post-gazette.com

Anqwenique Kinsel is a soprano who studied classical music and opera but also sings jazz and soul. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)
"Just Sing! A Vocal Intensive with Anqwenique"
A workshop to give black women control over the stress and trauma of motherhood through singing and vocal exercises
Artist: Anqwenique Kinsel
Soprano Anqwenique Kinsel performs with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in July at the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium in the Hill District. (Andrew Stein/Post-Gazette)

Anqwenique Kinsel is a new mom, which is a challenge enough for any woman but even more so for black women.

Pregnancy and motherhood can be more difficult for mothers facing racism or race-related trauma, according to a report in the The New York Times. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women.

But Kinsel wants black mothers and aunties to find self-care and healing amid a major societal health crisis.

Kinsel, an artist and educational director at the Pittsburgh Festival Opera, reflected on the phrase, “There Are Black People in the Future,” and found this phrase to be an intersection of her motherhood and her practice. Her goal with “Just Sing!” — a workshop she held in June made possible by the residency — was to give black women control over stress and trauma through singing and vocal exercises. Her husband, D.S. Kinsel, co-founder of BOOM Concepts, also is a recipient of one of the art residency grants.

Her workshop — more will be planned in the future — is about “reminding people that your voice is an instrument and a gift,” she said.

Participants begin by relaxing in a space with prompts about their lives, such as their favorite songs to sing in the shower. People mix and mingle, enjoy nourishment and discuss the prompts before getting together for a guided discussion. The women of the workshop share resources, and then she leads exercises in breathing, singing and group singing. She ends the session with additional exercises on singing to your child.

She describes the place as relaxed and free, an important night of oral tradition where women share resources and learn self-care.

The workshop is focused on and centered around black women, specifically mothers and aunts, although the general public won’t be turned away. Her last edition of the workshop was a small gathering at BOOM Concepts, 5139 Penn Ave., in Garfield, with many of the women from the Pittsburgh Black Breastfeeding Circle.

Kinsel will announce future workshops on BOOM Concepts’ Facebook page: facebook.com/boomconcepts.

“It doesn’t feel complete,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”

Emyle Watkins, a Post-Gazette summer intern, attends Canisius College in Buffalo.

A workshop attendee is reflected in a mirror surrounded by other installations at BOOM Concepts gallery in Garfield. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
"Totems, Shrines and Sacraments"
Workshops, installations and exhibitions leading to the creation of "unsanctioned street art specifically tied to jujuism and Afrofuturism"
Artist: D.S. Kinsel
D.S. Kinsel reacts as Mayor Bill Peduto declares June 19 BOOM Concepts Day in honor of the Garfield gallery's fifth anniversary. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

There were a few reasons the air inside BOOM Concepts, the Garfield creative hub and studio space, seemed charged with a special kind of energy on the evening of June 19.

For one, that day was Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It also was the first anniversary of the death of Antwon Rose II, the unarmed teen who was shot and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer on June 19, 2018.

And it was a big day in the history of BOOM Concepts, which was hosting a celebration marking its fifth year hosting exhibitions, funding projects and helping Garfield’s artists grow. On hand were dozens of friends and neighbors — almost all black, almost all artists or creatives of some kind. Also in attendance was Mayor Bill Peduto, who was there to award a special proclamation to BOOM’s co-founders, Thomas Agnew and D.S. Kinsel.

Art also was being made that evening. Kinsel, 34, is one of 11 recipients of the “There Are Black People in the Future” artist grants and was hosting a street art workshop as part of his project, “Totems, Shrines and Sacraments.” He invited guests to take part in the “unsanctioned street art” that he’s made his specialty.

“I’m an agitational person,” Kinsel said, explaining his work, in which he affixes provocative words or phrases to buildings or other public places. To get around the city’s graffiti laws, he makes his works removable, attaching them to walls using zip ties.

Kinsel, who married fellow art residency grant recipient Anqwenique Wingfield in September 2018, sees his text-based art about the black experience as being in conversation with Alisha Wormsley’s, but he said his works tend to be more confrontational.

“I was like, how can I poke at people and kinda poke at Alisha a little bit?”

With help from the grant, Kinsel has created and installed works using the phrase Wormsley made famous ⁠— but instead of “black people,” he often substitutes the N-word. The epithet, Kinsel explained, helps him explore anti-blackness as a “universal construct” ⁠— not just in the U.S., but across other countries and continents.

(Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

In addition to his street art, Kinsel put the grant money toward the publication of a new book showcasing his work, as well as that night’s workshop. Kinsel laid out a table of art supplies, allowing visitors to construct street art of their own. As inspiration, Kinsel stuck sheets of paper on the studio walls, listing some potential subjects for guests to reference in their art: the names of Pittsburghers recently shot and killed by police, phrases like “Black on Black Magic” and “HB1664” ⁠— a bill introduced in the state legislature in June that would limit police officers’ ability to use deadly force.

Midway through the event, Mr. Peduto spoke, commending BOOM for its community work and proclaiming that day “BOOM Concepts Day” in Pittsburgh.

“We made it!” someone in the crowd called out, drawing laughter.

But as valued as Mr. Peduto’s appearance was, Kinsel made clear that BOOM had already made it, long before the mayor showed up.

“Part of black futures is being able to control space,” Kinsel said. “There’s power in us requesting the mayor and his office to come here to provide that proclamation in Garfield, in our community.”

Nick Garber, a Post-Gazette summer intern, graduated from Middlebury College.

Robyn Burton, 19, of Morningside writes part of a collaborative world building project about a future Pittsburgh that is predominantly black. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)
"There Are Black Teens in the Future: Afro Sci-Fi Storytelling at YMCA Lighthouse"
An eight-week course for teens exploring the opportunities and threats for black Pittsburgh 100 years in the future
Artists: Amos Levy and Kay Bey
From left, student Quelyn Holt, 18, of East Liberty, teaching artist Kay Bey of Homewood and student Tyree Allie, 19, of Lincoln discuss the details of their sci-fi world building project. (Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

The year is 2119. The city of New Pittsburgh has risen up out of the devastation wrought by the Third World War, which featured heavy use of weaponized germs. The deadliest of these was malaria, which decimated white populations but left African Americans largely unharmed.

“There are black people in the future. And in this particular case, we are the majority,” explained Tyree Allie, 19, one of six teenagers who has spent the past few months meticulously building this world alongside two teachers, Amos Levy and Kay Bey ⁠— co-recipients of a “There Are Black People in the Future” artist grant.

Levy and Bey work as teaching artists at the Lighthouse Project, a teen center at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA that runs after-school programs in the arts. After getting their grant in April, Levy and Bey pitched the storytelling project to the Lighthouse teens, knowing only that it would have something to do with “black teens in the future.”

(Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette)

“The first conversation was, ‘Do you know what Afrofuturism is?’” recalled Allie, one of the teens. “I had no idea what it was; I just thought it sounded cool. So I jumped on board.”

Through months of twice-weekly meetings, the teens populated the city of New Pittsburgh with a complex cast of characters, indexed in a glossary so readers could keep them straight. Of particular note are CRISPR kids ⁠— humans that have been genetically spliced with another living thing, giving them special powers.

Amos Levy (Kahmeela Friedson)

“It’s my best story that I’m ever going to write, ever,” said Azadiel Watts, 17, at work on a glossary entry for a 16-year-old black, gender-fluid, cat-human hybrid. “They’re 5-foot-8, which is around my height because we’re basically the same person.”

Eventually, the group will produce a book of interconnected stories written by each student, full of the characters they’ve created. Their enthusiasm has caused the course to stretch well past its planned eight weeks and convinced Lighthouse to create a new Afro Sci-Fi club for the next school year.

When the group began meeting, Bey and Levy showed the students a documentary about last year’s billboard controversy that gave rise to the grant program. The students were perplexed by the uproar ⁠— to them, the existence of black people in the future was just a statement of fact.

So it is in their story in which the black majority is both an essential element and also just one aspect of the intricate world they’ve built.

“I’ve always wanted stories starring black people that weren’t just focused on being black,” Bey said. “That is the true core of diversity — when you can just tell a story.”

Nick Garber, a Post-Gazette summer intern, graduated from Middlebury College.

Lucas Mickens (Chris Ivey)
A hip-hop project comprising a song titled "Blackman," the song as video shot in East Liberty and a T-shirt designed by clothing line VUDU with the words "There are black people in the future."
Artist: Lucas Mickens
Lucas Mickens (right) (Chris Ivey)

Highland Park musician Lucas Mickens will present a three-part project titled “blackMAN” for the “There Are Black People in the Future” theme.

The first is a hip-hop song called “Blackman,” featuring Mickens performing as Lucas Akira alongside Pittsburgh rappers Jasiri X and livefromthecity. Some of the lyrics read:

“And his sister’s brother from another

blackman lookin’ out

and his whips a m*******in’ shuttle

blackman in the clouds

hit the switch, we outerspace

yeah, that blackman dimensional

that’s a really, really real thing you just said to me just now ...” 

Mickens said Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X stars in one of the verses, one that he thinks could surprise listeners. In it, Jasiri X raps about the inevitable fact that there will be melanin in the future, as Mickens explained, because “black people have already been here for a while.” 

“I think if we can get people to listen to this song, I think it could bring some peace and understanding,” he said.

The second part of the project is a video shot in East Liberty of passers-by giving their opinions and perspectives, then engaging in some discussion with Mickens and his song collaborators. The artists will be asking people for their opinions on the gentrification of East Liberty, on the country, the world and the “There Are Black People in the Future” theme. The video will be available in late October or early November, Mickens said, at www.compound7.org. 

The final part of the project is a long-sleeve T-shirt the artists will give to anyone who shares his or her opinion on the video. The T-shirt, designed by clothing line VUDU, will have “There are black people in the future” on the back in futuristic font. 

That phrase holds meaning to Mickens, and he recalls the first time he saw it on the billboard in East Liberty before it was removed in March 2018. 

“I knew it had power behind it, and I couldn’t believe it was up there,” he said. “I could feel that people wouldn’t like that.” 

He was frustrated to acknowledge that truth because despite how other people view the message, he thinks it’s peaceful and powerful. 

“It’s just a wake-up call to the rest of America ... the same way you have to be reminded that if you spend all of your money, you won’t have any in the future,” he said. “There will be black people in the future.”

Christian Snyder: csnyder@post-gazette.com Laura Malt Schneiderman contributed. 

Onika Reigns and Windafire perform songs and lead a meditation for "Black Dream Escape." (Delia Johnson/Post-Gazette)
"The Black Dream Escape"
"An immersive sensory napping experience that caters to the rest needs of black people," by the self-described rest doula and licensed therapist in partnership with musician and fashion designer Windafire
Artist: Onika Reigns
Onika Reigns and Windafire. (Delia Johnson/Post-Gazette)

Some studies show that black Americans are likely to get less sleep, wake up more often and not feel well-rested during the day compared to their white counterparts.

Sleep is a public health issue — especially for people of color. For one local artistic duo, sleep is the center of their practice. Rest doula Onika Reigns and 16-year-old musician Winston Nunley, aka Windafire, help people of color reclaim historically lost sleep.

“Black Dream Escape” is an experience intended mainly for people of color. The workshop is 1½ hours of guided meditation, lead by Reigns and featuring music curated and created by Windafire. Typically, in a yoga studio or outdoors, participants arrive to find a space set up for sleep, including essential oils, candles and comforting snacks such as lavender scones.

For the duo, the practice is about bringing an essential aspect of life back to people who have generationally had it stripped away by a history of slavery and later demanding labor expectations. The workshop teaches how to reclaim sleep and overcome the rest debt that people of color have incurred. An event page for “Black Dream Escape” describes the event as a guide from “a world that demands your labor to a world that demands your freedom.”

The workshop is important for white folk to understand the public health issue of sleep for people of color, but space is not created nor centered on white people and their learning. There is typically a $5 reparations fee for white participants.

(Delia Johnson/Post-Gazette)

Reigns runs The Rest Stop, a rest doula service where she facilitates meditative napping. Windafire is a young but well-known artist focused on music, fashion, modeling and herbalism, among many interests.

“Black Dream Escape: Black and Lazy” was held on July 28 in Highland Park, but they plan to carry it into the future. To learn about coming Black Dream Escape workshops, follow the Facebook page — Facebook.com/blackdreamescape — or email Reigns at restisradical@gmail.com.

Emyle Watkins, a Post-Gazette summer intern, attends Canisius College in Buffalo

"I Am Beautiful! I Am Strong! Raja Yoga: Relevant and Radical Racial Conversations Swathed in Love"
Professional development workshops and lesson plans on community love and healing, using yoga and anti-racism practices
Artist: Felicia Savage Friedman
Felicia Savage Friedman. (Sandidge Photography)

East Liberty has changed a lot over the years.

It started as a valley, which became a tavern town, which became a rich suburban hub, which became Pittsburgh’s second downtown, which then became a struggling black neighborhood, which became the place that took down Alisha Wormsley’s 2018 “There Are Black People in the Future” billboard.

Felicia Savage Friedman, a yoga instructor and the owner of YogaRoots on Location, has lived in rapidly changing East Liberty most of her life, and she still considers it her home.

“When that billboard was taken down it really hurt my heart,” Friedman, 55, said, “but it also showed me why I do what I do.”

For her project, “I Am Beautiful! I Am Strong!” she conducted professional development workshops and lesson plans in August at The Kingsley Association yoga studio on community love and healing, using yoga and anti-racism practices.

Friedman, who has a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and a master’s degree in elementary education, engaged adults and children in her project in breathing exercises and restorative poses to help them cope with the anger and pain of societal racism and sexism.

“Yoga, in Sanskrit, means your body bringing your soul back to a higher power,” she said, and doing so yields strength and peace.

In professional development sessions with teachers and social workers, she discusses the diversity and biology of skin shades, introduces yoga as a way to embrace them, and asks the participants to recognize their own skin biases using Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test.

“I want to create a community of folks to hold us accountable for our biases,” she said. “Racism has been taught, and since we’ve been taught these behaviors, we can unteach them.”

She believes making participants more ethnically and racially aware is the way to do that.

“At the end of the day, what I really want is for us all to see humanity in each person,” she said.

Kaisha Jantsch, a Post-Gazette summer intern, received a graduate degree from Point Park University.

"The Gathering"
Overnight all-female event with food, performances, restorative yoga, painting, beading and spaces in which attendees could rest, dream, meditate, cuddle and embrace
Artist: Ayana Sade Toukam
Ayana Sade Toukam. (Office of Public Art)

In 2010, most of East Liberty was black.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, no single race made up more of the 15206 community that year, yet by 2017 the reverse was true: White individuals made up most of the neighborhood’s population.

Still, reggae and Orisha artist Ayana Sade Toukam, 29, couldn’t understand why Alisha Wormsley’s “There Are Black People in the Future” billboard bothered them.

“I was confused as to why people were so conflicted about that statement,” she said. “[The removal of the billboard] speaks to the fact that Pittsburgh is still very racist.”

With her artistic event, “The Gathering,” Sade Toukam — a Jamaican American wife, mom and student of African studies at Howard University — thinks that she and the other “mystic mamas” and “wild women” in attendance can help change that.

She describes “wild women” as caring individuals who identify as female and live authentic, genuine lives. They become “mystic mamas” once they have a child, she said.

Her overnight all-female event — which took place Aug. 30 at an Airbnb on Trenton Avenue in Wilkinsburg — hosted “delicious, healthy food,” performances, restorative yoga, painting, beading and spaces in which attendees could rest, dream, meditate, cuddle and embrace.

“I think there is a particular mystical power women have,” Sade Toukam, of Wilkinsburg, said. “At the end of the day, it’s really us who lead.”

But only through a place of peace, connection and power, she said. That’s where her project comes into play.

“I want to create an environment where we can have intimate, genuine relationships,” she said prior to the event.

The idea is to let women know that they are not alone and to help give them the connections and resources they need to be healthy. Sade Toukam’s theory is that if women are healthy, the community will be healthy, too.

“Communication is the missing piece,” she said.

Kaisha Jantsch, a Post-Gazette summer intern, received a graduate degree from Point Park University.

Woodrow Winchester III, a professor of engineering at Robert Morris University, speaks about his Afrofuturism project the East Liberty Neighborhood Happy Hour at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in June. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
"Art+Engineering: Towards the Humanistic Technologist"
Develops a plan for a 2020 exhibition by area black artists that explores the future of East Liberty's black community through the lens of the area's growing tech industry presence.
Artist: Woodrow Winchester III
Stuart Candy, a Carnegie Mellon School of Design professor, Adrienne Wehr, a multi-disciplinary artist, and Woodrow Winchester III, a professor of engineering at Robert Morris University, listen to Kelly Strayhorn Theater Executive Director Janera Solomon speak during the East Liberty Neighborhood Happy Hour in June at the theater. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

On walks through Bakery Square in Larimer, Woodrow Winchester III questions whether tech giants like Google that share the same spaces as he does, are impacted by the diversity around them.

He knows, as an educator and human factors engineer, that diversity has the power to make tech more accessible and applicable to all.

Winchester plans to ensure this diversity is visible to the tech world through his project “Art+Engineering: Towards the Humanistic Technologist.” He’ll be creating a plan for a speculative art exhibition in 2020. He hopes the exhibition will be a “splash of cold water in the face” for the tech community, which can often lack diversity in hiring practices and in user-focused design. 

The East End “reflects, from my perspective, the ideal sort of scenario for the development of inclusive technologies,” said Winchester, a Robert Morris University engineering professor. “So, why isn’t it happening?”

Seeing the rise of Afrofuturism, or the intersectionality of technology and the African diaspora, he wrote “Afrofuturism, Inclusion and the Design Imagination,” which appeared in the publication InteractionsHis writing examines how Afrofuturism could be a lens to help the tech world better create a holistic, inclusive design approach.

(Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

The 2020 exhibition’s plan is to bring art to the spaces that Larimer and East Liberty’s tech industries can’t ignore, so they engage with a perspective that shows the effects of bias and privilege in user-centered design. He hopes those working in the tech industry face the lack of diversity in design approach and make changes to their practices.

The project is still in the planning phase but is tentatively scheduled for the fall.

Although Winchester does not consider himself a traditional artist, he will be a facilitator of the arts through this project.

Emyle Watkins, a Post-Gazette summer intern, attends Canisius College in Buffalo.

Brett Wormsley stands outside of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the Hill District, where he helped teach a workshop for teenagers. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
"There Are Black People in the Future: Creative Expression Contest"
Students grades 6 to 12 at Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh East Liberty and Homewood branches respond to the text using their medium of choice, which were judged by peers
Artist: Brett Wormsley
Brett Wormsley, right, speaks about his experience in graphic design while helping teach a workshop for teenagers at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the Hill District. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Brett Wormsley may have an unusually close connection to one of the figures behind the “There Are Black People in the Future” artist grants, but the path that led him to becoming one of the project’s 11 awardees was far from direct.

Wormsley, 44, is the brother of Alisha Wormsley, whose written statement on an East Liberty billboard in spring 2018 set the project in motion. For his project, a creative expression contest, Brett Wormsley asked middle and high school students in East Liberty and Homewood to respond creatively to that original statement, vying for a $200 prize.

That close connection might obscure just how different Wormsley’s work is from his sister’s.

“Even though we were raised together, we were in two totally different worlds growing up,” he said. “I hung out with people in Homewood. I was a bit of a criminal. She went to [private] Winchester Thurston; I went to public school.”

While his sister’s art tends to be collage-based, his work is mostly influenced by graffiti, a medium he worked in for years after moving to California from Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. He recalls venturing into San Francisco’s train tunnels to paint, mesmerized by the artwork inside.

“It was like a museum of all these different writers and artists,” he said. “It’s a beautiful culture to me.”

But Wormsley missed his home city and returned to Pittsburgh more than a decade ago. A longtime filmmaker, he ran the youth outreach programs at Steeltown Entertainment and now works as a teen labs mentor at several Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches.

Wormsley celebrated his sister’s statement when it appeared on the billboard in March 2018, and he was outraged when the building’s landlord removed it one month later.

“I was probably more upset about the billboard coming down than my sister was,” he said. “I was like, ‘Let’s march. We need to do something.’”

To him, the statement is uncontroversial, an affirmation of survival for the city’s marginalized communities.

“There’s so many forces going against African American neighborhoods. But we’ve continued this far,” he said.

(Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Still, he hesitated to apply for an artist grant, worried that his sister’s role could create an appearance of favoritism. But Pittsburgh is a small city, with a smaller artistic community, and the two siblings have encountered this problem before. As she’s done in similar situations, Alisha Wormsley recused herself from her brother’s submission, which impressed the other judges.

“There’s so many talented kids here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “And a lot of them just need a voice.”

Nick Garber, a Post-Gazette summer intern, is a graduate of Middlebury College.



Nick Garber
Kaisha Jantsch
Christian Snyder
Emyle Watkins
Delia Johnson
Alexandra Wimley
Chance Brinkman-Sull

Laura Malt Schneiderman