We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Mentorship as part of The BlackLight Summit

Fri, February 10, 2023

This piece is part of a series about BlackLight Summit, written by Ashayla Byrd, a BlackLight Summit Emerging Artist.

I remember nearly burning the ingredients for my soup in preparation for the Zoom meeting I scheduled with my BlackLight Summit mentor at the time, Krystal Collins. It was 2021, and I, a college senior in Winchester, Virginia, was frantically searching for any semblance of next steps as I geared up to be launched into the deep end of The Real World. In this meeting, Krystal assured me that I would find my way, regardless of how convoluted that wayfinding might be. They supported my soupmaking, asked for the recipe and offered to write my recommendation letter for an internship at Dance Place in Northeast D.C., their workplace at the time. 

To say that I felt bewildered about my path forward is a fierce understatement. But I somehow fashioned myself a cape and became Doctor Strange (the Marvel nerds will understand), imagining the infinite possibilities of each journey forward. In the BlackLight Summit, folks were asking me—an apprehensive college senior—what drives my artistry, what enlivens my soul and what I want to offer to this world. I no longer had to answer within the container of a collegiate setting. I was challenged to consider my worldview and all that has shaped it, particularly speaking to my existence as a Black, queer femme and dance artist. That’s some pretty dense subject matter for someone who only gained access to their birth certificate a couple years prior. 

That near-burnt soup-making fiasco was almost two years ago to this date. I interned with Dance Place for a year before being hired full-time in the presentation department. In April of this year, I will have worked with Dance Place full-time for a year. The mentorship I found within the BlackLight Summit shepherded me onto an incredibly rewarding path at a pivotal point in my life. The mentorship program has evolved continuously in its three iterations, but its spirit has remained the same: it provides a courageous space for village-building, support and connection for BIPOC artists, many of whom also live at the intersections of LGBTQIA+ identities. 

Tariq D. O’Meally, the BlackLight Summit’s lead producer and curator, found artistic and educational thought partners that could transform an amorphous dream into a proverbially living, breathing mentorship program. Ronya-Lee Anderson and Sarah Beth Oppenheim—two pillars of the DMV dance community in their artistry, educational expertise and scholarship—offered their support. “I know that initially one of the things we were concerned about was the leap from graduation with some degree in the arts to a sustainable career…it just wasn’t a part of how we were doing arts education, specifically dance education,” says Ronya-Lee. Although Tariq, Ronya-Lee and Sarah Beth set frameworks for each cohort meeting, they are adamant about reading the room and assessing the needs of the space. Sarah Beth reflects on the process that the team goes through each week and after each full gathering: “We check each other and we support each other and we are able to talk through our ideas in this lovely team of three…Like, did it work okay? We didn't read the energy in the room. Okay. We were too committed to doing our framework. That doesn't seem to be what they needed. What do we do about it? What's happening in the world right now?” Their airtight support of one another begets their fervent support of the BlackLight Summit village.

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” I have heard Tariq cite this Gwendolyn Brooks quote throughout this year’s mentor/mentee series more times than I can count. This year’s BlackLight Summit challenges its community to embrace risk and regeneration, to develop new tools for new awareness and to tap into the wealth of gifts and offerings that each of us has to share. We, BIPOC & LGBTQIA+ people, are the tools that we need for our collective triumph. 

There is no telling who or where I would be without the generosity, wisdom and support of people like Krystal, Tariq, Ronya-Lee and Sarah Beth. They are builders, leaders and community caretakers who are deeply committed to the growth and fortification of this village of artists. And for the record, that soup turned out just fine. Thanks to the BlackLight Summit, I think I turned out pretty okay, too. 

Ashayla Byrd (she/they) is a DC-based dance artist and writer who is dedicated to amplifying the voices of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folks. Originally from Virginia Beach, Ashayla is eager to explore the richness of DC’s dance and writing communities!