Images from the installation of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum Men of Change exhibition. Credit: Michael Barnes

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Ten months after the killing of George Floyd sparked a summer of protest and reckoning with America’s recurring anti-Black racism and aggressive policing, the trial of Derek Chauvin is underway. Juxtaposed against startling images of police violence and reiterating the truth that Black lives matter is an exhibition titled Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets, a powerful photo project in Deanwood illuminating the achievements and contributions of African American men. The project features historical figures like Duke Ellington and Kendrick Lamar, as well as local community change makers. 

While visitors haven’t stepped foot in the Anacostia Community Museum since March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, this hasn’t stopped the small but mighty museum from continuing to build. The ACM literally took the exhibition planned for its indoor exhibit area and brought it to the streets. The project is an adaptation of the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service’s Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.

“Bringing culture to people and the community is profoundly significant. It’s very much in keeping with the reasons for the exhibition being born in the first place,” Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, says during a conference call. Multi-photo panels stand against fences around the Deanwood Community Center and nearby Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.’s only all-male public school. The exhibition is open 24/7, and it’s boldly prophetic.

“The draw to the neighborhood was Ron Brown College Preparatory High School because they specifically enroll African American boys and other people of color. Their whole model is built around restorative justice,” says Andrea Jones, the associate director of education at the ACM, who worked on exhibition programming. Students from the school narrated the audio tour of the exhibition. 

The weatherproof black and white images are a mixture of stately portraits and full-body shots that capture the gravitas of these men’s lives. They feature everyone from historical figures like Bayard Rustin to more recent change makers like Kehinde Wiley. They’re emboldened by text written by Isaac Perry that reads, “Have you seen them? They are bold. Powerful. Tragic. Beautiful. And true. They are icons often rendered invisible by a country, yet uplifted by a culture. They are men whose stories are the legends of the past, the inspiration for the now, and the beginning of the future.” 

The exhibition is divided by themes, with men sorted into sections on storytellers, myth-breakers, fathering, community, imagining, catalysts, and loving based on their particular work and impact. The section on storytellers, featuring the likes of Carter G. Woodson, Dick Gregory, and Alvin Ailey, sits right next to the Deanwood Library, and the section on community is right next to the Deanwood Community Center. Everything is profoundly intentional. 

David Smith, an entrepreneur with deep roots in the community, his father, Anthony Smith, and his late grandfather, Lloyd D. Smith, president of the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, are all featured in the exhibition. That representation speaks to the cross-generational conversations the exhibition is fostering. “When my father was president of the Deanwood Citizens Association I was really young, and I remember working with the community. At the time, my grandfather Lloyd Smith was the CEO of Marshall Heights Community Development Organization and he was working on this major development on Minnesota Avenue.” When asked what it means to be represented in the exhibit along with his father and late grandfather, he responded, “We all worked together to build a community, so I would say Sankofa. You always have to remember your past, understand it fully, be honest about it, and let it guide you as you move forward. Hopefully, this Sankofa message goes forth for the next two or three generations,” David says. 

David’s participation in the exhibition further propels his work as a community activist. He’s also a part of the Deanwood Economic Development Corporation, and he’s working to ensure the community is involved in conversations about development. He’s also working to shift the concentration of poverty in the neighborhood. 

“East of the River communities have 2 to 3 times the national rate of involvement with the criminal justice system when factors of concentrated poverty, failing schools, no [or] low economic opportunities are present, it’s a pipeline to prison,” David says. 

As a part of the exhibition, the Deanwood Citizens Association nominated their own past and present Deanwood men of change. On April 2, the exhibition unveiled men who have made bold and important contributions to the local community. A participatory component is included in this section, allowing visitors to share messages on hanging wooden tags, to honor the men (or people) of change in their own lives. “Working with Anacostia Community Museum and the Deanwood Citizens Association in and off itself makes it an honor, because the process of engagement was done in a way that empowered the community and included them in it,” David says. 

This hyperlocal approach is a testament to the Smithsonian’s commitment to further its community engagement, Adams notes. “We have all really learned a whole lot from the experience, because I think at first we wanted to make sure we were engaging the community. Going to the people instead of having people go to us had a profound effect,” says Marquette Folley, content director for SITES. “First of all, you are opening up the content to anyone walking by so they don’t have to be going to a museum to see it. They could just be going along their everyday business, and some of these people may not have even come inside of the museum,” Folley continues. 

Although the exhibition currently inhabits Deanwood, there are plans to expand its impact throughout Ward 8 in larger-than-life projections illuminating building façades after dark beginning April 2. Those pop-up sites will feature historical excerpts from the current outdoor show and art images from the original exhibition. Throughout the months of April and May, projection sites will be announced via social media on the day of the occurrence. Viewers discovering the projections are invited to take a picture and share their images using the hashtag #MenOfChangeDC. 

In another expansion, on April 24, Men of Change programming will be brought to the Union Market neighborhood for a drive-in movie event showcasing original short artistic films from the exhibition. The films include Alvin Ailey by Cary Fagan, Jazz Greats by AG Rojas, James Baldwin by Hank Willis Thomas, and Dick Gregory by Shaunte Gates. The evening concludes with a film by former Halcyon fellow and local DC artist Kokayi, entitled On Dreams.  

“There are folks out there who are having neighborhood meetings around the exhibit because it really is as much theirs as it is ours, which is great,” Jones says. Later this spring, the exhibition will also expand to feature Deanwood families of change. 

“I got a chance to show what the culture is as a family from Deanwood. This is how we survived, because we believe in family,” David concludes. 

Men Of Change: Taking It To The Streets. At and around 4800 Meade St. NE to May 31. menofchange.si.edu.