The young women from Youth Options Unlimited had never performed, let alone danced, in front of a crowd before. Yet they found themselves at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, set to perform a number built on their experiences living in Boston.
For the previous five days the young women had practiced their performance in collaboration with a traveling research residency called “My City, My Body: or if Concrete Could Talk, or for those that might be traumatized.”
With the guidance of Destiny Polk, founder of the art-activist platform Radical Black Girl, the participants wrote poems, discussed their stories, and vented about problems impacting both Boston and themselves.
“Destiny’s project … gives young females opportunity to explore, and address their experiences as black and brown girls in Boston while developing their muscle of communication and self-advocacy in a deep and protracted way,” D. Farai Williams, the artistic director of Madison Park Development Corporation, told DigBoston.
Sherley Austin, a case manager at YOU who helped form the group, said that at the start of the program, the girls were skeptical of Polk and the residency. But as the week progressed, they warmed up to the idea.
“They weren’t exposed [to performance] so they don’t know, they’d never been exposed to arts and culture and dance,” Austin said. “They grew on [Polk], and [Polk] grew on them. And the love [has] been made, and they asked, ‘Can we work with Destiny again?’”
A dance teacher, Polk tries to push young people to express themselves unapologetically through movement.
“I teach with the intention of helping other people enjoy being in their bodies,” she said.
Through Radical Black Girl, now going on its third year, Polk curates events, creates performances and short films, and sponsors young and developing talent in the Boston community.
“Destiny’s work is forever evolving and [aiming] to tell a story through her body,” Dzidzor Azaglo, an artist and activist in Dorchester, said. “She doesn’t speak unless [she has] fully explored within herself, [and] that is something that I truly admire about her presence. Destiny is amazing. We don’t deserve her, but we are honored that she has chosen to represent herself through art and also be a vessel to this community.”
Raised in Dorchester, Polk said that from a young age she recognized that she was often one of the few black girls on stage, performing for audiences she felt didn’t reflect her experience.
“The more that I grew into my career as a performer, the more I realized there was this separation between myself and my peers,” Polk said. “Why is it that I’m getting invited into these spaces and on these stages, but my peers who are from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan are not being invited into these spaces, or their voices are not being heard?
“I decided I wanted to address that.”
Ellie Nguyen, founder of the art and wellness platform 3arly July, has collaborated with Polk, and said, “Through radical representation, I hope that folks can see themselves somewhere within our stories and know that they are seen, celebrated, and supported.”
Radical Black Girl’s mission began during Polk’s college years at Wesleyan University. It was a difficult, depressive period.
“I describe it as going through an ego death,” Polk recalled. “Everything I thought I knew about myself just felt like it was stripped away. I lost 15 pounds, was really sick, I fell out of love with dance. I had no desire to show up to my dance classes. I had spent my whole life waiting to get to college to study dance and then I got there and was like, What am I even doing? Who am I?”
In a time of loss, she started journaling, sketching, and eventually getting back up.
“The beautiful thing that came out of this depression was, OK, I’m empty and what can I rebuild?’ I felt like I had opportunity to recreate myself,” she said.
The summer after her first year of college, Polk started a blog, the Grapevine, where she shared poetry and wrote about African-American history and politics. She ended each post with the signature, “A radical black girl that can read and write.”
Eventually, this idea of a Radical Black Girl stuck with her.
“The most radical and dangerous thing a black person can do is read and write and think for themselves,” she said.
Eventually, Polk hopes to transition Radical Black Girl into a national platform. Last month, she attended the influential South by Southwest conference in Texas, where she hosted a meetup for people to discuss issues they want to address in their communities.
“I’ve changed so many aspects of my life through art,” she said. “[Now it’s about] me extending that to other people. That’s really the function of Radical Black Girl … to create impact and to give the tools, creative space, and performance opportunities to artists of color to develop as professional artists.”