It takes great tenacity, discipline, and endurance to stay the course to fulfill a mission, and that’s what trailblazer Carolyn Butts, 51, has achieved over the last 25 years. With a strong commitment to excellence and magnanimous love for the arts, she offers a global platform showcasing the talents of poets, writers, artists, and filmmakers. Two cultural institutions owe their existence to her vision. Carolyn started African Voices (AV), a leading nonprofit arts magazine when she was age 25. Five years later while working on a short film entitled Underground Voices with poet Reg E. Gaines, she discovered through her research that there were less than 1% of female directors in Hollywood. That’s when she founded Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series.
To say that 2017 has been a great milestone for Carolyn’s many accomplishments with her two cultural institutions would be an understatement. African Voices celebrated its 25th anniversary and its been 20 years for Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival and they kicked off a yearlong series of events. This included an awards ceremony for Reel Sisters where they honored three actors, Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow) and theater and film actress Vinie Burrows (Walk Together Children).
One of the festival’s film highlights was the sneak preview of the documentary “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart that was screened last October at the Magic Johnson theater in Harlem. Various clips were presented at the event and afterward, a conversation took place between the audience and the award-winning documentary writer, producer and the film’s director, Tracy Heather Strain. This historical documentary that explores Hansberry’s life and art beyond A Raisin in the Sun, will air on PBS on January 19, 2018, and will feature interviews with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and other luminaries.
A proud Brooklyn native, Carolyn has worked on numerous projects to increase the visibility of African-American artists in literature, film, and art. As a publisher, she has created a space for readers to enjoy poetry, visual art, fiction and features on artists from across the nation and abroad. She has received many awards for her exemplary work, which includes the prestigious Louis Reyes Rivera Excellence Award for Educator Artists that she received in 2015 from the National Writers Union for using the magazine as a platform to nurture young writers. One such program launched in 2002 is Get Your Read On! that brings the love of writing, reading, and storytelling to young people in low-income communities.
Carolyn’s astounding achievements with Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival has received much attention that now places her in a position to open even more doors. She recently received word that Reel Sisters is an Academy Qualifying Film Festival for short films, which means they can now submit short narrative films for Oscar consideration; such recognition provides even greater opportunities for filmmakers of color.
On December 19th Carolyn was honored for her astounding work in the community and was presented with a proclamation by New York City council member Jumaane Williams at City Hall. Carolyn discusses with 50BOLD the long journey that brought her to where she is today and of her drive for the work she loves.
50BOLD: What motivated you to start a magazine like African Voices?
Carolyn: I was motivated because in the 90’s I didn’t see anything out there for us that was close to what I envisioned and that was consistent. I was inspired by The New Yorker Magazine and wanted to start a literary magazine where one could enjoy rich stories and art. I also liked the idea of using the cover as a gallery for a new artist. Subscribers would get excited when they would see the artwork, and they would tear off the front cover and put it up. So I really wanted that feeling that people were having a relationship with the magazine, and could use it in their daily lives and be inspired. Our magazine is about history. It’s documenting the greatest among us; it’s about who we are and how we tell our stories. Many of our prominent writers and artists that came before us have been documented through African Voices, as well as simultaneous voices you’ve never heard before–so it’s intergenerational.
50BOLD: You have a great passion for teaching young people about the arts. Can you tell us why you launched ‘Get Your Read On’ for the youth?
Carolyn: I wanted young people to connect with professionals in the field who could give them knowledge and teach them how to become a writer or visual artist. I wanted our youth to be inspired by experts in the community who are already actively implementing their craft. So we would bring in teachers, storytellers, as well as those in the theater to work with young people in various schools.
The other program that I’m really proud of is the storytelling and architecture program that we’re doing in Harlem. I hope it spreads. I think it’s a unique concept because people will usually just deal with architecture. Rarely are the two combined together but I think a collaboration is needed because you’re talking about the history of a community. This is teaching architecture in a way that’s cohesive to how people live. Children will learn why there’s a research institute in Harlem—The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture or why we have the Apollo Theater. They learn the history of the places and they also learn the history of people like Zora Neale Hurston who once lived in that community. This is making the community alive for them in a new way. They’re learning about their history and who lived in the community in the past and in the present. And they’re also learning the physical attributes of designs and math. All of this is combined with writing, science, and math.
50BOLD: What ages are you working with?
Carolyn: We’re working with sixth graders. However, for the ‘Get Your Read On’ program, we work with grades K through 12. In that particular program young people in Harlem also create their own poetry anthology and the art to go with it, so it’s a fun project. So I feel passionate about the magazine and this project. Although I’m not a professional artist or anything like that, when I come into the classroom the kids are told that I am a publisher. It’s important for them to see a Black publisher, a Black woman publisher, so they can be open to similar careers that they may not have been exposed to. One of the missions of African Voices is also to pass on this legacy to young people.
50BOLD: Passing on positive legacies to our youth is so important because so many are in trouble in public schools.
Carolyn: I think it’s very important to understand the challenges that the school systems are confronting today. We’re at a critical moment where we can lose our kids. The reason I feel so connected to this is that I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, and the schools have declined since I’ve been in attendance. There’s fighting in schools, children are struggling with learning disabilities and the school systems don’t have the resources that are needed. I feel this is the time to really focus on our youth because this is the generation that is going to take care of us. So that’s why it doesn’t matter if you work with 100 or 200 students like we do in some of our programs. If we reach 10 of those kids, those are the 10 who are going to come out as leaders and make important contributions in the world and this is what really matters, and it is part of our mission.
In public schools, there’s no real connection in learning how to be a business owner, or how to be creative. The arts are about creating, thinking out of the box and doing something new. Schools are so focused on teaching to just pass a test so that a child can graduate. There is no real connection to the love of learning, the love of going to a library, the love of picking up a book, the love of going to a museum, the love of seeing dance or going to the theater. With the arts, everything is exposed and stimulated, all your senses, all of your mind and intellect. It teaches leadership skills, responsibility, and discipline in a way that’s accessible to our children. You’re not creating leaders if you teach just to take a test. When you go to private schools they’re teaching kids the love of learning. And they have to conform to testing, but it’s about developing a curiosity in a child so that they will go and do research. They will go out and find their way and have some guidance, this is a different type of teaching. Teaching to just take a test is not working.
50BOLD: You are the recipient of the prestigious Louis Reyes Rivera Excellence Award for Educator Artists for your program ‘Get Your Read On.’ Louis was very connected with the prison system and often reached out to those who were incarcerated.
Carolyn: Yes, Louis used to take our magazines to prisons to share them as well as to his lectures and poetry workshops. He was very committed to making that connection. And so to me this is a special honor to be given the award in his name. It was presented to me and Layding Kaliba [poet, author, activist and former Poetry and Managing Editor of African Voices], and is about our connection to the community which is what we strive for as a magazine. Although we don’t have the ability to do what Louis was doing—at the outreach level, that might be something we may want to do in the future. We hope to keep his mission. And we do have individual editors like Layding, who would pay out of his own pocket to have the magazines sent to those incarcerated individuals who were interested in receiving it. Some of them would call our office and say thank you so much. I think it’s a special thing to nurture a spirit. So getting that award signifies our important role as an activist magazine in the tradition of Louis Reyes Rivera.
50BOLD: In the last 25 years, many magazines in print have come and gone, yet African Voices has survived. What has helped you to become the successful African-American female publisher that you are today?
Carolyn: I believe that being a woman publisher is about taking ownership of your business and that’s what I’m doing in the arts movement with Reel Sisters. People need to see the success of women. There’s a saying that the future is women and I feel it’s our time. Women are the caretakers of the earth. We give birth, we raise families and it’s important that we come together–all different races–and say we’re going to put an end to the violence. We would certainly change a lot but this is going to take a long time to happen—for women to come into their power.
Black power to me is when you have ownership in your community because otherwise, you become a pawn when you need to be a player. And this is the era when you need to become a player.
50BOLD: You were just 25-years–old when you started African Voices, I’m sure there were challenges. Did you have mentors?
Carolyn: I was fortunate enough to have a group of other visionaries around me. I also had Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka to turn to for advice and guidance. Sonia would call to see how things were going and would give me the tools to keep going. And I will never forget how Amiri and Amina Baraka held a fundraiser in their home for African Voices.
I also learned a lot from my mentor, the late Fred Hudson, founder of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, who was right here in this building. He was accessible, and if I had a question, I could always go to Fred. He was a member of the Black Arts movement, and they offered playwriting, scriptwriting, poetry, and acting. Fred inspired us to keep his legacy going which is why we offer such enriching workshops as memoir writing, poetry, and sci-fi. And when we first moved into this building [that’s black owned], he embraced us. He knew what the magazine’s mission was and when he’d have an open house, he would have us come and present. We would talk about the magazine and he would encourage people to subscribe. He also helped by giving us access to his mailing list to let people know about African Voices and to subscribe to the magazine. The Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center was a great institution and it died because when he passed [in 2003], there was no one who had the ability to keep the place running financially.
I learned that you need more than just being excellent in terms of your art, you also need to have financial managers and have the ability to really run a business. If you don’t have a head for business because you’re coming from an artist space, then you need to find someone whom you trust in the business community, who knows the arts and can help you develop a strong arts institution. Every Black institution that I know of have gone through some harsh financial times and were saved by a white benefactor. It would be nice to have that legacy where the Black business community can be the savior.
50BOLD: Can you talk about your work with the Reel Sisters Film Festival. Do you have a team that works with you to organize this event?
Carolyn: There is no way that I could ever do Reel Sisters on a high level of professionalism without a team of volunteers. The people who helped me start are whom I call the co-founding members like Rodney Hurley. I went to Long Island University and already had an idea of what I wanted to do and he opened the door for us to use that space. For ten years we didn’t have to pay anything as the space was donated. He administrated part of the festival where the films were coming to him. And he would have the interns involved. So it was such a gift to be able to have people you could lean on who were professional. Yes, I was clearly the founder but I could not have done it without visionaries, who were committed and who dedicated their time to make this dream come true. Those other co-founding members are Clairesa Clay, Patrice Bradshaw, and Pearl Bowser, who helped to make Reel Sisters happen. You may be able to publish a magazine alone, but you can’t organize a film festival without a team.
50BOLD: How can people help to support this important work that you’re doing?
Carolyn: We’re always looking for volunteers for Reel Sisters from those who have different expertise. Interns are especially welcomed. We’re also looking for contributors to the magazine—writers and visual artists. We really need people to support African Voices. And they can do that by subscribing to the magazine, which is $20 [http://africanvoices.com/avblog/subscribe] or they can make a donation [http://africanvoices.com/avblog/av-matching-funds-campaign]. If someone or an organization has events coming up or products and services they’d like promoted, taking out ads is also helpful. The more people can support African Voices, the more it is going to grow and continue to support the arts, this is going to be the power for the future of the magazine. If one has a bookstore or a business where they can sell our magazine on consignment, this is another great way in which to support us. We appreciate any support anyone can offer that works best for them.