LaShawn Simmons '18 breaks down barriers, builds empowerment with poetry

With a CAST grant, the Posse Scholar made "Ebony Axis," a poetry zine for black women on campus

Photo/Mike Lovett
During rehearsals of "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf," a play presented by Brandeis Ensemble Theater this past March, LaShawn Simmons '18 began to conceive an idea to keep the collective creative juices flowing.

"I wanted it to be part of a movement," she said. "I wanted to continue the care-free black girl vibes. I didn't want it to end with the play."

Simmons, a Posse Scholar majoring in African and Afro-American studies with a minor in sexuality and queer studies, found that the arts offer disarming ways of opening challenging discussions on issues of race and gender and began to think of other ways to engage people through the arts.

"With art, people can feel more engaged, there aren't those barriers that can get in the way of getting to a deeper conversation," she said. "You never know who might be touched by your story."

Simmons' inspiration led to the founding of Ebony Axis, a poetry zine for black women on campus. The seed for Ebony Axis was planted during the play's production, but the concept was brought to reality through the first round of Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) student grants.

The zine was published in September, and Simmons organized an event at Chum's held Sept. 25, where poems from the issue were read, along with performances of music and dance, for an appreciative audience of over 100. After the event, attendees stayed for conversation, to dance, and to hang out. "It became an atmosphere of empowerment," Simmons said.

The CAST program, established last year, includes a minor for undergraduates, grants for students and faculty, and events like lectures and performances throughout the school year. The program focuses on exploring the roles that arts and cultural work can play in addressing issues of social justice and in transforming conflict.

"We're very proud of what LaShawn has accomplished," said Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. "She has made a significant contribution to the lives of students of color at Brandeis, and to the whole university. She’s also set a high standard for future CAST grant award winners. We’re very appreciative of Naomi Sinnreich (P'13) and Elaine Reuben ('63), for their support of the CAST minor and initiatives by its students."

The grant Simmons received was one of two awarded in the opening round of student CAST grants. Sarah McCarty ’15 and Brontë Velez ’16 received a grant for a sound mapping project as a criticism of historically exclusive and inaccessible institutional art spaces. Faculty who were awarded grants through the program will hold presentations and events involving their work on Oct. 23 and Nov. 3.

Categories: Alumni, Arts, Student Life

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