Shirley Franklin & Sierra King: When Black Women Step Up to Lead Change
Shirley Franklin is one of the most prolific Black Women in Atlanta history. Just in case you didn’t know, she was not only the city’s first woman Mayor but also the first African-American woman to serve as Mayor of a major southern city. That was in 2002 and she ran this city eight years strong. Throughout her time in office, she balanced the budget shortfall, initiated municipal government oversight and made the lives of everyday citizens that much easier (hello covered potholes).
But her imprint is far more than those tangible accomplishments. Her essence is left in intangible ways through a vision for the future of Atlanta. She had the foresight to look at how things could be and how they should be many years down the road even after leaving office. Sustainability. That’s what she procured through her work and activism. She definitely showed Atlanta what it needs to take care of and preserve. She was instrumental in that in key ways. And she kept that historic Atlanta story alive.
The annual Shirley Franklin Day at the Center for Civil and Human Rights recognizes her contributions to the city’s legacy. Her work upheld, through the middle and high school youth the day empowers through reflection, inspiration and transformation around topics of civic engagement, community service and local activism.
Community Manager Sierra King led an Arts and Activism workshop at the event. It morphed from doing something with photography to creating mini murals and allowing it to be interactive with whoever was there. Most of Sierra’s early work has centered on protest. And it has highlighted the subtle ways, like in Franklin’s case, in which activism is not just raging and loud but simply using one’s voice.
Sierra shared with me her take on the relationship between arts and activism. She also mentioned why fostering the youth or those that come behind us is ultimately important and Black Women’s inevitable role in it all.
What kind of relationship does arts have to activism?
I was telling them at the workshop, I think arts and activism is always pushing and pulling with each other, whether the artist intends it or not. Whatever the time that you’re in, it can be seen as activism because you’re providing a voice to something that necessarily wouldn’t have a voice. I think a lot of when we think about the word activism, we think about this fully charged type thing and it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. It can be super positive, just something coming authentically from you that is either sharing a different perspective or different story and aligning with your values things that you see important.
What essence do Black Women bring when we talk social justice, equality or civic engagement?
I think Black Women are at the forefront of that. For example, you see Shirley Franklin being one of the first Black mayors of Atlanta. And what she was able to do across the board, whether it be bring The Beltline, working closely with Mayor Jackson for the Olympics, and all of her values she instilled into her mayoral candidacy. And even now with Stacey Abrams running for governor and Keisha Lance Bottoms as mayor.
They’re in these political spaces but even more further than that, Black Women are really at the forefront of the art spaces as well here in Atlanta. In the event that we had earlier this year with the Black Elephant Gift Exchange, the women here have been championing for years, just black women in art and getting that voice, getting that perspective out of them showcasing their work, Sistagraphy. Just having that group of women, the women at Hammonds House and Lauren Jackson at Zucot Gallery.
So, I think Atlanta is a great space for not only women to be in those art spaces, but to be in roles in charge of those and making the decisions that need to be made.
How do you see TILA pushing this work even further, especially with the Art Basel campaign?
I think in my Community Manager role here has been something that has developed into me just wanting to share my network, skill set and knowledge. And just see exponential growth from those last years and how else can I pass this on to someone and they matriculate into their career path. I think that is instrumental into how we’re moving in these different spaces, like Art Basel and different spaces working with people in Atlanta, on a timeline that wouldn’t have been able to see the light without us coming together as a group and understanding the vision for these things. Not only being a space for black women here, but pushing the narrative from a local one to a national one and going to Art Basel.
Shirley Franklin Day was targeted at the youth. In your opinion, what kind of energy do they bring and how does it motivate your work?
I think that children and youth, no matter their circumstances, no matter what they’re going through or what’s happening in their life, are so resilient and they’re so passionate about the things that they’re curious about. If given the tools, if given the time and space, the possibilities are endless. I like working and documenting that age because they’ve given themselves permission to think about endless possibilities.
I think that a lot of people don’t foster that early on and then they get to our age and realize “oh, I kind of want to go back into this career of being an artist” when you’ve been one all along. Just me figuring out how I want to fit in to doing more workshops, fitting in more working with the youth and things like that on my own as an artist is something that’s very important to me.
Just that piece of what would you do for your younger self type of thing. I would have liked for someone to be like, “this is a possibility” or just validated that art is a possibility and how i want to do it. And if you go after it then you can have anything you want.
Being limitless…is how every person should feel. Public servants, like former Mayor Franklin, use resources to positively impact many through mechanisms like jobs, safety and education.
And Sierra, who is a leader in our studio and a leader in the arts community as well, does it all to help others. Being in this position is hard. But baring in mind how things can be better for those outside yourself is how changemakers lead the way. We commend those with the courage to step up and do the gritty work. We see the undeniable fruits with former Mayor Franklin and we know Sierra is surely planting the seeds for a beautiful garden to grow.