Deidre Clark: At home as owner and founder of Ensley’s Kuumba Community Art design academy

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Deidre Clark (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Deidre Clark (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

Deidre Clark is at home in Ensley.

Kuumba Community Art, which she owns, is a graphic design academy for high school students and rests in the heart of Ensley, and is part of the collective, Ensley Alive.

Clark, 35, has no intentions of moving Kuumba, either. She sees the impact that it makes.

“One of the most fun things that happens here is we’ll have kids whose parents own businesses on the block, or maybe just walking to and from the store, or from school will peek in the door,” said Clark, who was also born and raised in Ensley. “One day they’ll finally be brave enough to walk in and say ‘Hey, what are y’all doing?’ Even the smaller kids who aren’t able to come in and learn just yet are being exposed to graphic design.”

Kuumba, which means creativity in Swahili and is a Kwanzaa principle, was inspired by her brother.

“My brother was murdered when I was 12 years old, and he could draw very well. I identified him as an artist although he didn’t consider himself one,” Clark said. “Especially around summer I would always think about my brother, so I got to a point where I began to wonder what it would be like if there was an art program for students, because not everyone plays in the band or plays sports. My brother did neither.”

Clark — mother of two boys: Benyamin, 5, and Akili, 2 — called area high schools in 2013 to see about existing mentoring and tutoring programs for art. After she was unsuccessful she began the process of creating Kuumba, and the design academy opened in January 2016.

Kuumba is important for several reasons, said Clark, who studied English and African-American studies at the University of Alabama. One is that it gives students the opportunity to be introduced to a non-traditional career field and gives young artists a safe space to be themselves and create, she said.

“If you are creative and you come from a household that tells you that you can’t make any money doing art – and what does that do to a young creative, to be told that this thing that gives them life does not sustain them and that they have to pick something else – here is a space where you don’t have to pick something else,” she said.

Kuumba also exists because of two issues in the design world, Clark said.

“One problem is specific to Birmingham: in the school system there is no clear or early introduction into the creative industry for students,” said Clark, who attended Jackson Olin High School. “The other problem is national, potentially international: the design industry has a diversity problem.”

One of her greatest rewards is seeing her students evolve. One, Shea Washington, is a senior at Jackson Olin High School and has done graphic design since she was in eighth grade.

“When we met Shea, she was painfully shy, and it was really hard to get her to talk,” Clark said. “It’s been fun over the years watching her open up and talk more, and take on leadership. She had a head start in design, so she’s been able to really help her classmates.”

Students have created work throughout the city including for The Junction Stories, Tedx Birmingham, The Rotaract Club of Birmingham and Alabama Media Group.

Kuumba also has an important impact on how some view Ensley, she said.

“I think the media grossly over-reports on the horrible things that happens over here,” Clark said. “I understand and agree that horrible things happen over here, but I also know that really wonderful things happen here.

“There is not another space in this city that operates like ours,” she said. “What does it

say to the rest of Birmingham that something as cool, fantastic and innovative is happening in Ensley when all the news ever tells you about Ensley is that somebody got shot, robbed or there was a drug bust. I’ve got a different story, and for as long as I can impact that in any way, I will continue to do that.”