by Beverly Aarons
Entrepreneurs, artists, and cultural workers are the heart of Seattle’s South End, but lack of visibility and underinvestment have historically harmed the community. ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop (A.C.E.W.) and a band of community stakeholders aim to change that by creating Seattle’s first state-certified Creative District. Since 2018, the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) has certified eight Creative Districts, but not one is in Seattle — yet. If things go as planned, the new Creative District will encompass the area between Franklin High School and Rainier Beach High School. In a telephone interview, Afua Kouyate, a Seattle native and the executive director of A.C.E.W., shared details about the Creative District and the work she’s done in the southeast Seattle community since 1985.
“It’s about breathing energies into South Seattle,” Kouyate said. “I had so much dialogue with people [who were] like, ‘Oh, well we already have a business district in South Seattle. Oh, we already have our merchants association. We already —’ Yeah, but everybody is comfortably segregated. Nobody’s really doing things together.”
So far, Kouyate has brought together a variety of community groups to work on the Creative District SE Seattle planning committee. The monthly committee meetings are facilitated by Wa Na Wari co-founder Elisheba Johnson. They’ve begun outlining goals, team agreements, and a timeline for completing critical tasks. As of this writing, the planning committee includes the following:
-SEED (Southeast Effective Development)
-Seattle World Percussion Society
-Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC)
-Seattle Office of Arts and Culture
-Ulfumbzi – The Solutions Group
But Kouyate wants more people involved — the more the better, she says. Including a wide cross-section of the southeast Seattle community in the Creative District certification process is critical to reaping the benefits a district might offer such as signage on I-5 and Hwy 67 and more funding opportunities.
“It’s unifying what’s already pre-existing,” Kouyate said. She added that certifying a Creative District in SE Seattle would help everyone (artists, businesses, arts districts, and community groups) gain more visibility with tourists and people living in other parts of Seattle. She also noted the benefits of community stakeholders networking with each other, something she says she has sometimes neglected in the past.
“Over the years it’s been about us providing the services,” Kouyate said of A.C.E.W., which provides dance and cultural events to 1,500 youth annually. “We say ‘thank you,’ and we’re out of there. We don’t sit around and mingle. We don’t mesh it up at all. We’re just very professional, and we go do it. I’m learning that that’s been very dysfunctional because we have not been able to build relationships. I mean, people know us, people love us, but they don’t really know us. They just know that we come out and we do our thing, [we’re] professional and [we’re] gone.”
Some people might not know that Kouyate provides rites of passage ceremonies (rooted in various West African traditions) for community members at every stage of life — transitions to adulthood, marriage, the birth of a child, elderhood, and death, just to name a few — or that since 1998 she has been running an artist-in-residence program that brings three to four African or Caribbean dancers/musicians to Seattle each year. And people can be forgiven for not knowing that Kouyate is an accomplished dancer and instructor who, in 1983, taught dance classes in New York for Babatunde Olatunji’s dance company at the prestigious Steps on Broadway dance studio. Before the pandemic shuttered many international borders, each year Kouyate organized annual group trips to West Africa for people looking not just for “tourism” but to connect to African cultural traditions and ideas.
“So when I went, it was really a spiritual journey,” Kouyate said of her first trip to Nigeria in 1999. “It wasn’t really for tourism. It wasn’t to go to learn drumming or dance. It was a spiritual journey where I went and connected with our people over there. And that gave me the grounding that I really needed at that time. Because I was doing so much work, so much cultural work, I really needed to have that firm grounding from a spiritual point.”
As she explained why she “gets so emotional” about the Creative District and all the work she is doing in Southeast Seattle, Kouyate told me about how she started her “spiritual journey” to African dance, music, and culture right here in Seattle at Madrona Elementary School.
“I was about 9 years old when we had a visiting artist [Babatunde Olatunji] come to our elementary school, and they were teaching African culture,” Kouyate said. “Well, that was it. I knew, and I appreciated, and I engaged, and I made sure that our teachers were still engaging when the artists were gone and they said, ‘Ooh, she’s really into it.’ … And going into my adolescence, I wanted all my friends to do African dance with me. And some were interested. And I always found myself gravitating around those in the community that were … I was always the youngest one … And I loved it … I would say my first phase was really about figuring out who I was, and I thought: ‘This is our culture, and I’m African.’ You know, this is in the ‘60s, right? It was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ And anything that had to do with learning about legacies and the music and dance was amazing to me.”
The passion for “the work” has never left her. She’s been driven by it so much so that she has served as the executive director of A.C.E.W. for 35 years with no compensation. She’s raised her own family and numerous foster children while using her living room as the headquarters of her nonprofit since its inception. But all of that is changing — not her passion but the way she does her community work, which she described as a lifelong commitment.
ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop is moving into the Rainier Arts Center in January 2021, and Kouyate is reaching out to the wider community to help make the Creative District SE Seattle a reality. She says she can’t do it alone; she will need the talents, energies, and vision of as many community members as possible.
Interested in joining the Creative District SE Seattle planning committee? Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive information about the next meeting date. Meetings are once a month for two hours.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image by Tony Su.