Black to Our Roots teens pose for the 'Words Don't Die Poetry Slam' fundraising event poster. (Feb. 2010)



(from left to right, Jahbari, Chris, Tyrone, Bryon, Durreshahwar, Nehemiah & Jahril (front center)


Black To Our Roots >> Baltimore


The Organization

This summer, a group of Baltimore City high school students prepares for a three-week educational journey to Ghana, West Africa, a trip sponsored by the organization Black to Our Roots. Black to Our Roots is a Pan-African organization located in Central Baltimore that supports youths ages 13-18 through cultural experiences and education. The organization started in 2002 in Atlanta, Georgia, and has branches in New York, Washington, DC, The Virgin Islands, and in 2009 Baltimore, MD. Black to Our Roots sponsors about ten teenagers to Ghana each year. 

Black to Our Roots helps cultivate a love for African culture and creativity. The youth involved include poets, dancers, writers, artists, musicians and community organizers. To prepare for their trip to Ghana, the teens must fundraise for their own trips. During their trip, they will partake in tribal ceremonies, educational tours, youth summits, and interactive experiences with the Ghanian youth. Black to Our Roots wishes to assure the spread of education among continental Africans as well as Africans throughout the world. In educating and training the youth of today lies the hope of African peoples and the keys to their future. I created a proposed promotional campaign to increase community awareness, sponsorship, and funding. I designed promotional posters that featured photographic portraits of those Baltimore youths enrolled in the organization's yearly education pilgrimage to Ghana. I explored the text of the teens aspirations for taking the trip, and the use of type and color to achieve an effect. 


The Posters & Design Strategies

For my first design strategy, I photographed intimate portraits of the Black To Our Roots teens. 
I wanted to channel the urban-esque feel of Baltimore City by taking their portraits in black and white. I wanted to keep the treatment similar to documentary street photography. I posed each youth to face the camera so their face could be completely visible. The closely cropped portraits engage the viewer to truly experience the teens' expressions and might invite the viewer to learn more. One possible weakness of using tightly cropped photographs is that they would not be accessible enough to a wide audience. I interviewed the youths, and after hearing their stories, I knew I wanted them to be an integral part of my design material. Their faces and aspirations paint a more vivid picture than a heavily typographic poster. I wanted viewers to feel a connection with the portraits. My overall goal was to present their portraits to a wider audience who normally wouldn't have access to their stories and faces. 

My next design strategy was to explore the words and voices of the teens through their stories and desires. The teens were required to submit essays in order to be accepted into the Black To Our Roots program. The organization allowed me to read their essays so that I could incorporate their words as text in the portrait posters. After reading their essays and sorting through their spoken interviews, I decided to focus on one clear reason why each of them wanted to go to Africa and how the trip could potentially change their lives. I wanted to find specific goals which a wider audience could support, understand and respond to. I did worry, however, that I wouldn't be sharing enough of their aspirations. Can one reflective word serve as a concrete hook for a poster?  In the search for a focus, I interviewed several of the teens who had already committed to experiencing the journey.

Eighteen-year-old Malcolm Malachi Banks said during his interview, "What I expect to gain out of this experience is a new me. I want to give what I have. Any new experience changes a person. I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for the people that can't do it. I want to experience what they experience. I want to feel how they feel." The text treatment for his poster states, "I want to give." 
When I asked 14-year-old Jahbari Love, who studies dance at West Baltimore's Connextions Leadership Academy, why she wanted to go to Africa, she responded wholeheartedly,  "When I first began to study dance, my body was overcome with wild and precise movements. The rhythms of the djembe filled my body and carried me through the choreography. Ever since I've had an intense and strong desire to travel to the motherland." I chose to explore her love for dance. The text treatment for her poster states, "I want to move." In addition, she spoke about her passion for dancing. "The skill I value most about myself is dancing. Going to Africa will help me develop this skill within myself. It'll help me better understand my relationship with the people. In order to really understand my people, I must understand their history, as well as our place of origin."

Narrowing down their individual goals helped me identify a specific style to feature in my design. Using their own clear desires achieved my main goal of inviting the viewer to want to know more about the teens and their reasons for going to Africa. I realized that I didn't have to communicate each interview or every one of their reasons for going to Africa, only enough to make supporters interested and to make them see the potential the experience can have for the viewer's life. My use of the teens portraits, reflections, and stories made people curious and invited empathy in the viewer. 

My third design strategy was to incorporate typography and color for specific visual effect and style. Individual portraits emphasized each teen as unique. They had their own beliefs, backgrounds, and desires. Each of their reasons for going to Africa was unique. So, to create a unified look to accompany the photos and text, I created a vibrant color illustration incorporating the shape of Africa, coupled with each teen's desire for going to Africa. The black and white of the portraits coupled with the vibrant art created an interesting, dramatic contrast. I created the typeface from brushstrokes for a distressed, urban feel. I wanted to create a graffiti/street feel that spoke of the teens' backgrounds and communicated with their audience. I was worried that the typography and the images wouldn't work well together as a coherent whole. I wanted to ensure that in representing the urban aesthetic of which they could be considered a part that I didn't take the road so often traveled with the design. I didn't want a simple classification of "urban" to be used with the work. As the Black to Our Roots program represents something larger than "urban," the aesthetic and design choice had to reflect that. I was concerned about the types of risks I would have to take in this exhibition as a result.



The minimalistic portraits convey the teens as they are now, and the vibrant color palette reveals their coming-of-age experience. Assuming their lives will be changed, they see everything in a different light, a different color. I hoped this would create a common thread that would unify each portrait. This became the optimal solution once I decided to give each poster the same treatment in terms of hierarchy. For the youth of Baltimore City, it's all about an experience. It's a search for a cultural identity and unity. They want to travel, not to permanently relocate. Many of them don't know where in Africa their ancestors are actually from. They simply want to discover themselves, to learn the traditions, learn from the people, to experience and connect with the land of the ancestors. They want to start their own movements, to push for their own right for better schools, a better education, and better neighborhoods. A trip to Africa just might help them create their own mini-revolution here in Baltimore City. This poster campaign will help them promote their organization and themselves with pride.

The overall goal for the organization is to support the youth as they learn and follow their dreams. Specifically to get them noticed in their community, to receive the support they need, and to potentially change their lives. Furthermore, I will keep promoting the organization and the teens both graphically and by volunteering. They are seeking another exhibition space to house the poster series and other design material I have been assisting them with including the design material I contributed. 

Additionally, two film students from Towson University have archived the exhibition to use within their senior film. They wanted to film each aspect of the program and the process that has enabled these students to visit Africa. While they will not accompany the student group to Africa to continue to document the journey, they sought to include the exhibition as part of the impact of the experience. I plan on working alongside them to showcase the student's reactions and interactions with the poster designs. 

© Jennifer White-Torres 2010