Althea Bennett Wants to Amplify Minority Artists’ Voices in Classroom Conversations

On a cold and rainy Sunday morning in February, I dragged myself out of bed to attend a student journalism conference at the new WBUR space on Commonwealth Avenue. With sleep still in my eyes, I sat down in the second row to listen to a panel on podcasting—the hottest trend taking over the media world. As the speakers took the stage, I noticed that two of the women looked particularly fashionable in their streetwear-inspired outfits. With their undeniably cool style and energy, Althea Bennett (who introduced herself “Daughter of Contrast”) and Amber Torres proceeded to discuss their podcast Hoodgrown Aesthetic, which is about raising awareness about minority artists.

I was so moved after hearing the two of them passionately describe the process of starting a podcast with such a clear mission in mind that I decided to start listening to one of their shows when the conference took a break. I was instantly hooked, and I knew I had to get connected to them somehow. When my COM 201 professor assigned us the task to write a profile on any inspiring individual from Boston, I seized the opportunity and reached out to Althea, who agreed to let me shadow her for a week.

Photo Credit: Victoria “Savvvag” Griggs

I asked to meet Althea at the MFA where she works as the Family Programs Lead Educator. Wearing her short, bleach blonde dreads dipped in hot pink loosely pulled into a messy bun and a dainty gold chain dangling a Nefertiti’s bust charm around her neck, Althea greeted me in the lobby. We casually ambled across the gallery floor of the “Gender Bending Fashion,” which Bennett had been wanting to visit to plan her next lesson.

Bennett’s job consists of designing all of the lesson plans for the museums’ educational art programs and sometimes supervising these activities. Being raised by an African-American father and a white mother has encouraged Althea to raise awareness for and infuse the topics of identity and multi-cultural appreciation into her lessons. Instead of shrinking away from her distinctiveness, Bennett has chosen to embrace her dualities by describing herself as “Daughter of Contrast.”

She typically plans activities based on exhibits featuring minority artists she connects with, as well as other cultures that are not traditionally shared in classroom settings. As an artist, an educator, and an activist, Bennett’s intersectional identity, as well as her extensive creative knowledge have allowed her to stimulate meaningful conversations within her community about minority representation in the art world.

“She’s always been a voice for her people and for her community and that’s always something I admired about her,” says Corinne Sanders, one of Althea’s best friends.

Photo Credit: Emma Kopelowicz

Bennett caught the artistic bug when she little. Her dad would give her old VCRs and various materials, which she would transform into elaborate sculptures. Every scrap was a new opportunity to put her creativity in action. Even when friends came over Althea would always have some kind of arts and crafts activity on hand.

“She brought out the creative side in a lot of people. I would go to her house and sit on her fire escape and draw or paint,” says Raskassa Ramsey, one of Bennett’s closest friends since elementary school, who also grew up on the same street as Althea in Mission Hill.

Photo Credit: Althea Bennett

Creativity has been a part of Althea’s life for as long as she can remember. Bennett described the diverse elementary school with an intensive art program she once attended as “hippie-esque.” Her instructors there encouraged her to apply to the Boston Arts Academy for high school, where she received a scholarship to spend a semester in her junior year at The Oxbow School in Napa, California. Oxbow is an intensive “studio artmaking and interdisciplinary humanities” program, according to the school’s website. Bennett earned her bachelor's degree in Sociology from The New School and a B.F.A. in Fine Arts from Parsons.

While her experiences in elementary school were relatively positive in terms of celebrating her heritage, it was not until high school that Bennett felt like a minority for the first time. “I feel like I always embraced [my identity] and then when I didn’t see as many [biracial people] I was like, oh, I guess I’m a little rarer than I thought,” says Bennett. “When I went to boarding school, I found it really important to explain my heritage to students because they didn’t really understand who I was.”

Photo Credit: Althea Bennett

Althea grew up on a block with three other biracial families, played with dolls that looked like her, and read books with her mother about mixed families promoting love, kindness, and acceptance of one’s own skin. Bennett’s mom embraced the show-rather-than-tell approach by raising her daughter with meaningful community service experiences. From a young age, Althea was exposed to a diverse variety of contexts, from soup kitchens to domestic violence shelters for women, where she learned about caring for others no matter who they are or where they come from.

Sitting in the living room of her mom’s apartment in Mission Hill, where she is also currently living, Althea and I flip through the love-worn pages of Black is Brown is Tan, a favorite book from her childhood reading rotation. Hanging on the walls of the room are two colorful art prints by an African and a Lithuanian artist, respectively, which Bennett claims have influenced her own artwork. Althea also credits her parents for promoting pride in her biracial identity by incorporating these kinds of representational objects into her life.

“They made me embrace the two sides of me. That’s always been really important to my parents. Putting the duality always in our spaces, physically being shown,” says Bennett as she admires a whimsical poster of figures from Lithuanian mythology representing her mother’s heritage.

Photo Credit: Elli Nguyen

“Identifying as ‘Daughter of Contrast’ was my way of kind of speaking my truth and just allowing people to understand that I know that I kind of teeter on this ambiguous line of a lot of things whether that be like being an artist, being a teacher, [or] understanding how my voice is now a host … [for] highlighting my intersectionality,” says Bennett, as a gold nameplate spelling her moniker in cursive script dangles among the various necklaces layered around her neck.

Bennett also teaches part-time at an after-school program for high school students in Brookline. When she’s not showing them examples of David Hammons’s found object sculptures or taking them to the MFA to have them practice their calligraphy in the Chinese art gallery, Bennett designs lessons for another kind of classroom—namely her podcast. Bennett and Amber started Hoodgrown Aesthetic in November 2017. The show puts an “uncensored spin on art news and history” according to their website by telling the stories of black and brown artists in the 21st century.

“I think it’s important to teach history and to teach about artists of color,” says Torres, “It’s literally our mission to give a platform for that and I’m not surprised that [Althea] fits it into her lessons.” Torres believes that both Althea’s organizational and creative work at various institutions such as the MFA and the Boston Public School system enriches the content they produce on their independent podcast.  “There’s definitely a benefit to being involved in all levels of art in administration and education in the city. I think it makes her well-rounded as an artist, an educator, and as an activist.”

Credit: Elli Nguyen

Althea starts most weekday mornings doing research for the podcast to find potential interview subjects or artists’ work to discuss and promote in the “Tag the Artist” segment of that week’s show. On Saturdays, Bennett sprints home from work at the MFA to meet Amber back at the apartment to start recording, but occasionally they meet at a museum to record their thoughts on new exhibitions around the city. Their most recent “White Wall Review” follows Althea and Amber as they walk through the “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” exhibit that opened at the MFA in February.

Photo Credit: Althea Bennett

Sometimes Bennett blends her podcasting content into the lessons she designs for her students. Last month she taught 5-year-olds about Frida Kahlo, as well as the lesser-known contemporary artist, Nina Chanel Abney, whose politically-charged work grapples with the themes of race and gender. She also mentioned Jane Goodall since animals are recurring subjects in both artists’ work.

“It’s all about introducing them to different heroes and different folks that they can aspire to,” says Bennett about her classroom philosophy. “I’ve always said my teaching style is like hip-hop. It’s a pastiche of culture and a mix of the old and the new.”

Photo Credit: Jourdan Christopher

Althea is a force to be reckoned with in and outside of the classroom. I admire her so much for all of the incredible work that she has done and is currently doing for the arts community. The world needs more people like Althea, who spreads messages of acceptance and love through her artwork, her lessons, as well as her fantastic podcast (which you should definitely give a listen).

I am so glad that the stars aligned on that fateful morning back in February, otherwise I wouldn’t have met Althea, who I can say with absolute confidence is now one of my most inspiring role models.

 

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