Editor’s note: The writer is a member of Women’s Center for Creative Work, supporting the organization at the entry-level membership tier.
As her husband started to lay down the floors and her friends painted the walls, Abigail Lopez-Byrd saw her dream for Color Compton begin to come to life. Her organization focuses on art, activism and history and encourages young people of color to tell their own stories. Just a couple of weeks before the pandemic started, Lopez-Byrd signed a lease on the new space in Compton. When the plans really went into full swing, she was also pregnant. Her uncle, brother, dad and other supporters came together to take advantage of the time the space was closed to prep it for when they could officially open its doors. She commissioned artists, most of them Compton-based, and filled the space with her collection of books.
But for the founder and executive director, that opening looked different than expected. On Aug. 29, the space had its grand opening, but it would soon have to be appointment-only.
Artists, creatives and advocates for the arts often find ways to work with complicated problems and few resources. In this sense, no year has been more testing than 2020.
“Southland Sessions” spoke with five different people about how they shifted the focus of their creative organization to keep afloat in 2020 and best serve their community. Beyond the big institutions in the city, these organizations seek to make a difference and uplift while filling the creative needs of the people around them, from teens to adults.
The programming Lopez-Byrd hoped to have in-person has been put on hold, but another purpose emerged for the space. One of the organization’s board members started using the conference room for classes. Other people asked if they could drop in for meetings; college students also use the space. Lopez-Byrd says that TedxComptonBlvd will be using the space for their event as well.
Lopez-Byrd wasn’t the only one signing a lease during this precarious time.
An independent bookstore focusing on Black books, zines and comics, The Salt Eaters is slated to open in 2021. Asha Grant sealed the deal for a space in Inglewood this year, bringing her dream from 2019 one step closer to reality. She was stunned by people’s support, many of whom shared her fundraiser for the shop on social media. The goal was set at $65,000, says Grant, and it was raised in one week. People got creative with their support, she says; one couple hand-poured candles and gave the proceeds to the shop. While Grant had “sort of tabled” the idea of the bookstore, the events of 2020 sparked her dream again.
“The amount of Black women and also specifically Black trans women that were being killed while we were all just sitting at home watching and listening, really lit a fire under me to return to this project just more seriously,” Grant tells “Southland Sessions.” “Even though we were in the midst of this purgatory state, nothing felt more dire than to focus my energy on creating a safe space for Black women, for Black trans women, for girls, for femmes, for non binary people … I just wanted to have something waiting for us when this was finished.”
Grant hopes to have “a very, very soft launch” in 2021, depending on circumstances around the pandemic. She hopes to start with appointments and individual tours. Already, her bookstore is reaching people outside of Los Angeles (and even the U.S.) through donations and ideas for collaboration; one teenage girl from Milwaukee wants to start a virtual Black girl book club series, says Grant. She also hopes to “create a really small community coworking space that has a computer and printer.”
Another organization that saw a significant amount of support was the bookstore and creative space Reparations Club, a Black-owned business focusing on fostering community for Black artists and other makers of color. Previously located in Mid-City, the team saw a surge of interest in supporting Black businesses and experienced an influx of orders and attention.
But the physical space was an important part of the space’s connection with its community, especially because it keeps a mostly low profile on social media (thriving instead through word of mouth). The Club’s community continued to grow, and the building had some structural flaws, so the team hoped to move soon; the pandemic gave them more time to do so since businesses were closed. They’ve since signed a five-year lease for a space in West Adams and recently opened a kiosk for curbside shopping.
“We’re super grateful and appreciative and also mindful not to assume it’s always going to be that way,” Jazzi McGilbert, founder of Reparations Club, tells “Southland Sessions.”
The space previously held events like hosting rapper Noname’s book club, a Saturday morning cartoon watching party with Black-owned cereal to snack on, yoga classes, readings, live music and more. McGilbert says the team hopes to host these events again in the future “and still keep that same warm, familiar vibe that people seem to resonate with.” The business started adding handwritten notes to orders for a more personal touch. McGilbert says a friend’s grandmother who quilts blankets out of Crown Royal bags has now been making masks for sale. In the meantime, they’ve had to find ways to keep in touch with their community.
“Communication is more important now than it’s ever been, so for our business, that means finding new ways and kind of coming to terms with the fact that it’s probably going to be a little bit longer before we’re all meeting in person again,” said McGilbert. “So trying to come up with something more dynamic than just a random Instagram live here or there. We do want to still amplify our message, which is just being a space for Black creatives, especially, but creative people of color and having rich, robust conversations.”
Not being able to convene in person makes sparking connections a little more difficult, but creatives continue to find ways to foster community.
The Women’s Center for Creative Work hosts programming, art exhibitions, performances and more while also helming a publishing branch, the Co-Conspirator Press, and supporting various other arts community projects. In addition, WCCW has made news for offering emergency health care funds to artists who might otherwise lack the health care they need (it also offered COVID-19-focused relief this year).
Nearing the end of their lease this year, the team decided to make a big shift and start searching for a new home that could host more people than their current one. They’ve currently set up shop in a studio in the back of Avenue 50 Studio, where they signed a one-year lease. Programming director Mandy Harris Williams organizes all programs virtually, with recent ones focusing on disability justice. The team has also organized digital residency projects.
The studio spaces serve as a home base to print Co-Conspirator Press books and a new magazine, Salima, with a first issue launching in February and a second in the summer.
“It proved to be a good time to invest in some of those projects that have been percolating, but that we haven’t really had the time to work on with everything going on in the space,” Sarah Williams, executive director of WCCW, tells Southland Sessions. “This is a good opportunity to kind of invest some of our time and energy into this project, which can be appreciated totally remotely.”
There’s only so much you can do remotely, but for Karina Esperanza Yánez, founder of Greetings from South Central, a community-based arts organization that brings art education and art-making to South Central Los Angeles youth, it was all about using what’s there.
Her team communicated with parents and students, asking what worked best and how the transition from classroom to online learning was developing. Yánez originally wanted to create more relationships with schools through in-person visits, but the current conditions shifted her plans. Her outreach now includes encouraging students to seek out whatever arts-related opportunities they might be able to find during such a challenging time.
“I obviously want students to participate in our programming, but I definitely want them to take advantage of other programs, too,” Yánez tells “Southland Sessions.” “What we’ve been spending a lot of time doing is showing them the websites to all these other organizations … I’ve been trying to kind of get them comfortable with the idea of looking at things online and taking advantage of all the resources that exist … Bridging that communication has been really fascinating for me right now.”
Yánez has been able to extend her reach beyond South Central Los Angeles to reach kids in Koreatown, Little Armenia and even Chicago. She’s also thinking about the channels young kids are already on — like TikTok — and how that can be connected to art-making and creativity.
The organization now has two new online programs as well as recent collaborations with The Broad and the Corita Art Center.
These spaces contend with the major changes and restrictions of a global pandemic, finding ways to keep their creative energy alive and give back to the community. Whether or not they have a physical space that can fully operate in pre-pandemic conditions, these leaders continue to emphasize the importance of making and appreciating the arts.
With a spotlight on workshops about history and art, Lopez-Byrd often talks to her students about the power of the archive. And it’s a driving force for her plans going into 2021.
“I want to really focus on continuing to empower students to use whatever art tool they want to use to tell their story…” says Lopez-Byrd. “If you don’t tell that story, how are future generations going to know? How are we going to continue to dismantle this narrow view of what it means to be from a certain community? That’s only going to change with art.”
Top Image: People read at Reparations Club. | Cara Elise Taylor