Stephanie Ellis-Smith was studying retroviruses as a researcher at the University of Washington when she came across a notice asking for a volunteer coordinator to head the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, the first-ever attempt to document an African-American artist's entire oeuvre. She hasn't returned to the lab since.
Once that project was complete, she went on to found an African-American cultural force of her own—the Central District Forum of Arts & Ideas, which aims to expand the perceived boundaries of black culture.
"Black culture is significant to the entirety of American culture," Ellis-Smith explains. "This country is more than just apple pie and the Mayflower. Our organization is here to let people know that our cultures are all integrated, and black culture belongs in some way to everyone."
Earlier this year, for instance, the CD Forum presented its Creation Project Showcase, two evenings of performances by six local artists who'd been given modest stipends and professional seminars to help further their work. Among them was a spoken-word artist who grew up gay, bulimic, and raised by white foster parents. Another artist explored female sexuality in a piece that challenged her strict church upbringing.
Ellis-Smith and her five co-workers also look outside of town, scouring piles of articles and following up on tips each day searching for artists to bring to Seattle. There are no limitations or preconditions prescribed by race. "The point is to show that there is no monolithic black identity," Ellis-Smith says. "You don't become less black if you're a clogger. You don't lose your past by engaging in behavior that falls outside the so-called box."
Founded 10 years ago, Ellis-Smith's brainchild generates a wide-ranging network of support, from Microsoft to public-housing residents, indicating that plenty of folks recognize the need for more African-American art in our city. It's difficult for a local nonprofit to stay afloat, given the challenges of receiving funding and long-term public support, but the CD Forum has never fallen into a deficit. Ellis-Smith says they've struggled, but that they're also vigilant when it comes to their finances.
"We don't have the luxury to fuck up," she says bluntly. "People are giving us their hard-earned money and we're not going to use that haphazardly. We do risk assessments and carefully weigh our options before getting into anything...I can handle that sort of data—maybe it's the scientist in me."
"Really, [CD Forum] is still a baby," Ellis-Smith says. "There's plenty more to be done. Yes, there are efforts to showcase black culture when February comes around, but we want to go beyond that. We want to provide ways for people to experience black culture year-round, and in the process break down all assumptions about it."—Erika Hobart