Mixed media artist Ronald Draper uses art education in NYC public schools to ‘Affirm Black Genius’
"We know how dope, how smart, how talented we are, but everyone else needs to know it too,” Ronald Draper said.
As children, we grow up thinking that our heroes must be able to fly higher than the clouds, have superhuman strength, or even transform into something beyond our wildest imagination.
That’s what we’re taught, from fairy tales to movies and everything in between. Even the dictionary defines a hero as a mythological figure often of divine origin endowed with great strength or ability. But it’s not until we get wiser that we realize the true heroes are the everyday people who leave a lasting impression for a lifetime through their courage, nobility, and outstanding achievements.
True heroes like artist, philanthropist, and educator Ronald Draper who is making it his mission to change New York City, one kid at a time.
Draper’s passion for the arts and education has led him to use his talents to bring the best out of these inner-city children and add a little color to their neighborhoods. The mixed-media artist creates meaningful work for both residential and commercial spaces.
In 2017, Draper released the #BrownBoyJoy exhibit during a time where the attack on Black men and boys was at an all-time high (Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were murdered just the year before), and we as a community needed to see something joyful behind a hashtag.
In 2018, he launched the “Young, Gifted and Harlem” campaign, which was part of a push by parents and city officials to boost Harlem schools, leading us to the 2021 initiative, “Affirm Black Genius.” The latest campaign was created to cultivate student success through art, culture, and identity.
“The more and more the system seems to fail black kids, I have to fight against it. The system is not giving black kids the chance they deserve, and I need to make sure these Black kids know someone sees them,” Draper shared with theGrio. “The backpedaling or removal of black culture in schools have gone on for so long. We have to do way more work just to make up for it.”
As a Harlem-raised kid himself, Draper understands from first-hand experience how gritty the New York City public schooling system can truly be. From the lack of resources to learning the world solely from a white lens, he wants to make sure these Black and brown kids are seen and heard as much as possible, even if that means calling out school officials. He recalls a time when a principal asked for his art to be more inclusive towards all students, although Black and brown are the majority in their district.
“These students are light years ahead of their Black and brown classmates. So if we have to go over the top for these kids to know their importance, then that’s what we have to do,” Draper exclaimed. “My work is very in your face, very Harlem, and that’s what my people are. So I don’t want them to have to shrink in places.”
“Because at this point, with all the information we have now, what is your excuse not to make sure you’re catering to your Black kids? Even if it seems like you’re going above and beyond, above and beyond now still pales in comparison to what we had to deal with being minorities in the school system for the last hundreds of years. Now is the time to make it right, but equity is not equality, and people always get that confused.”
As an educator, Draper wants Black kids to feel over the top value, and he does that by being loud and proud with everything he does. However, many school districts aren’t fortunate to have an art educator like Draper nearby or art at all.
“A lot of schools want art but can’t find an art educator or they have to make hard choices between art education and money for everything else,” Draper said. “The importance of art education is known, but it’s not a quantitative thing; you can’t test for it. In New York, for example, a lot of its funding comes from high test scores. So the system doesn’t allow schools to flourish the way they deserve, and that’s when I show up.”
One way he affirms the genius within these students is by making their schools a place they enjoy going to and spending time. To make the Black experience in schools better, Draper has done everything (sometimes with his own funding), from adding life to those dreary grey hallways with vibrantly colored murals to accessories and apparel such as shirts, pins, and uniforms.
“I just want them to feel valued and money shouldn’t be a barrier for that,” he stated.
In other ways, he instills the talent all kids already have inside. Educating kids to be their authentic selves isn’t something new on Draper’s never-ending resume, but he does hold his students, past and present, close to his heart.
He shared the story of one of his students, who is currently a fantastic photographer/illustrator flourishing at an HBCU. When the gentlemen first met, the student was in middle school and genuinely struggled to let his artsy come alive for more than one reason, the main one being his upbringing.
“I had this one student who I had to teach him that his mother’s failure had nothing to do with him,” Draper shared openly. “The crazy part is, she’s a great artist herself! But she wasn’t encouraged or supported with her art, so in her feelings being hurt, she was trying to protect her son from that same feeling…wanted to protect him from the heartbreak and pain. So I had to explain to her that ‘these are different times..that was your story, but he has a me, so watch us work.’ And he hasn’t looked back since.”
“Everyone is an artist as a kid; Adults who become artists were just supported,” he added.
In another way that Draper affirms the genius in these students is by helping them find their art, and that varies. “It can be anything–you can find it in accounting if you love the creativity of numbers. I want them to stretch their brains further than me. I’ll give them the tools, I’ll give them the safe space, but I let them find their own way.”
With a solid dedication to amplifying the upcoming generation of Black and brown creatives in his underrepresented community, Draper is the hometown hero we all aspire to be.
Enrollment rates have gone up, his “little art class” is now a school favorite, and he’s restoring culture back into Harlem, which has been displaced due to gentrification.
When asked about his legacy, the artist remained humbled but took a moment to celebrate what’s on the horizon and all the work he still has to do. “I’m just doing cool sh*t for the kids. I want to make sure everyone I come in contact with knows they’re special. 4-year-olds to 40-year-olds; Sky’s the limit. I should be the floor you stand on to go where you need to go.”
He continued, “Early on, I just wanted people to know there’s a crazy black kid who wanted to put on for his hometown, and he did. That was my thought on legacy, not realizing there are thousands of young people walking around with my work. Now, I’m trying to revolutionize black education in certain spaces. I have kids everywhere in the art field, which is crazy. We know how dope, how smart, how talented we are, but everyone else needs to know it too.”
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