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“When we’re writing a letter to our father, we’re really writing a letter to ourselves.” An Interview with Teaching Artist Tina Smith-Brown

As part of an occasional series, we will be learning more about the Bartol Foundation’s board members and teaching artists. Tina Smith-Brown is a Philadelphia-based writer and teaching artist. For over a decade, she has presented her Letter to My Father workshop to audiences of all ages, which explores the impact of one’s relationship (or lack of a relationship) with their father.

Can you tell me a bit about your work as a writer and teaching artist?

Anytime I write, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s very important to me that I’m always trying to share something new or teach something to the reader that they might not have known.My purpose in doing that is to teach African-American history subjects that people have long forgotten about or kids may not have known about. For example, Atlantic City was segregated in the 1950s and 60s, and one section was nicknamed by Caucasians as “Chicken Bone Beach.” All the African-Americans would come to the beach, and since they couldn’t buy food they would all pack fried chicken in baskets, so at the end of the day there would be all these bones left on the beach. I think that’s a great piece of history that our kids don’t know anything about, so that’s one of these short stories. So, I always try to write to entertain, but also to teach.

I always say God lets you do some things, and some things you’re just meant to do—it’s your job. And Letter to My Father is my job. I consider it something that I was supposed to do, I was placed here to do. And that started simply with doing workshops for women, giving them opportunities to write a letter to their father and to express some stuff. I realized that we carry things around that we never got off our chest, whether it’s positive or negative. When we’re writing a letter to our father, we’re really writing a letter to ourselves about where we’re at, why we’re at this place in time. And then I realized by talking to so many women who were older—30, 40, 50, 60—that a lot of women were still living their life by situations that had occurred or didn’t occur in that relationship with their father. So, I considered what if we could start doing this earlier, if kids started addressing some of this stuff? And you find out that it’s okay to talk about this relationship. It’s okay to feel good about it, feel bad about it. It’s okay to express how you feel in your life, if you’re happy, if you’re sad. It’s okay to open that door. And so, then I developed Letter to My Father for kids, and I started doing workshops for kids,

What attracted you to becoming involved with the Bartol Foundation as a workshop leader?

Bartol is just a fabulous organization for teaching artists, especially teaching artists that are just starting out. When you’re just starting out, you don’t really know how do I go about this, or what should I charge, or who is my workshop really for? And they help you to narrow down those very important essentials. I take a lot of their courses that have taught me how to market my workshop, how you should set up for your workshop, how to figure out who your audience is, how much to charge for a workshop. I love having Bartol in my life personally, but I also love that they are opening the door to help so many other people. You can come in for advice if you need it, you can come in for conversation—they really lift up the teaching artists. And I am extremely grateful for that.

What’s been the most rewarding moment from your time working with the Bartol Foundation?

Learning how to make my marketing package [for Letter to My Father]. Because in order to do that, you have to narrow down who you’re advertising to, your audience. And once you’re able to do that, that’s half of the battle. Every workshop is not for everybody. I offer Letter to My Father to adults and kids, but I have a specific workshop for each one. So, when they helped me narrow it down, I realized that I needed two separate workshops, that I needed to look at it in two different ways. I think that was the most powerful workshop I ever attended with them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think that it’s important that teaching artists apply for grant money, not just for the monetary help, but for the shot in the arm that it gives you. Once I received those grants [from the Leeway Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts], I felt like I was truly recognized. I felt like I was legitimate—like somebody believes enough in me to put money behind me. That just made a huge difference in my life. So, I always like to encourage teaching artists not to give up. If there’s a grant and they think that they can qualify for it, apply for it.

To learn more about Tina’s work, visit https://tsmithbrown.com/.

Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity

 

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