by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Members of Our Voices are looking forward to painting a mural downtown while meeting in a new place.
The group was founded by LaShara Morgan, a local parent with students in the district, to give Black students and students of color a space to talk freely and socialize with one another. Group members previously met at Winona Senior High School (WSHS). In July, Morgan expressed uncertainty to the Post about future ties to Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) following unfavorable experiences with the district.
Most recently, group members have been meeting at the Great River Shakespeare Festival office downtown since about the end of June. Morgan said she is very grateful group members have been able to use the space for free, and the group aims to keep meeting there for as long as the office is available. Another space downtown has been offered for the group’s use as well, she said.
Having been meeting outside the high school for a few months now, would Morgan say the group is officially separated from WAPS?
“I never really felt like we were welcome there in the first place … I kind of feel like they’re stringing me along,” Morgan noted. “I don’t feel that they truly want me in the school with Our Voices, and that they’re kind of pretty much just waiting for me to say, ‘I wash my hands of this, I’m done.’ ... I mean, I’m here, the kids are here, they’re comfortable not being in the school space,” Morgan continued.
When the group had been meeting at the high school, group members had regularly discussed wanting to find their own separate space to gather, she said.
The group’s current plan is to keep meeting outside the district for the foreseeable future, Morgan noted. Due to COVID, group members may not have been allowed to meet at the high school, she added.
Morgan said she had met with some district staff members and elected representatives several weeks ago to discuss the group, and she would like to reach out to schedule a follow-up meeting with them.
“Not necessarily personally me, but I know that it’s had a more positive influence on the whole group as a whole … It’s definitely broken down a wall between us, and I think we’re all a lot closer also,” group member and rising WSHS sophomore Colette Walker said of meeting outside the high school. “And I’m saying that as a new person, because I haven’t been here all the years, obviously. But yeah, I definitely see a change in that. And I’m hoping it stays that way, no matter where we go.”
As the group continues meeting at its new location, group members are working on a mural with Winona Creative Laureate Sarah Johnson. The mural will say “Hear Our Voices,” and it will be in downtown Winona. Group members each have an individual letter from “Hear Our Voices” that they have designed.
“And it’s to represent not just us, Our Voices, but the community, because you don’t see art in this town that represents Black and brown people. You don’t see that anywhere though,” Morgan said. “So that’s why I’m extra excited about this, because having them put their own little twist on it and put their own designs in there, you’re going to see us represented finally. And you’re going to see just how artistic these kids are.”
A number of the group members aspire to be artists and go into fields involving creativity, such as clothing design and makeup art, Morgan noted. She added that she hopes the mural displaying their artistic talents helps shine a positive light on them and catches the attention of those that could mentor them.
“Hopefully this opens doors to the students in Our Voices, and other students too, to have people in town want to see more of this type of art in other places downtown or wherever throughout Winona,” Morgan shared.
Walker is designing the letter “C” in “Voices.” Her design includes someone holding a giant pencil and leaning against the letter. Inside the letter, which will be a bubble letter, she is placing inspirational quotes, such as “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
“If someone’s walking down the street and they are just over it, they can’t take it anymore, I want them to read one of those quotes, see it, and go on,” Walker said. “I want them to know that they can keep going. And I want that to be out in public so people can see that and it can change someone’s day.”
She enjoys sketching, painting, singing, dancing, modeling and acting. She writes poetry and songs as well.
Arianna Berlin-Burns, who is starting her sophomore year at WSHS this fall, is designing the “U” in “Our.” Her design includes a hand and a heart, as well as the world. It also has the saying, “All lives don’t matter until Black lives matter.”
She enjoys singing, dancing with her sisters, drawing and spending time with her friends.
Rising La Crescent High School senior Victoria Howell is designing a letter “R.” Her design features a girl from Africa with flowers in her hair.
“I’m excited about it … it’s nice when people walk and look at it,” Howell said of the mural.
She likes to draw, skateboard, study history and keep up with the news. She is thinking about studying physics, psychology and sociology in college.
Jay O’Banner, who graduated from the WAPS district this year, is designing the “E” in “Voices.”
“I think I feel … pretty great actually that I’ll be painting something and people are going to see it. And I’ll be able to tell those people, ‘I did that,’” O’Banner said.
O’Banner enjoys taking photos, listening to music, singing and taking bike rides. She appreciates capturing images of scenic places, such as the local bluffs. She will sometimes ride her bike around Lake Winona and stop to take photos there. She is exploring the idea of studying art or photography in college.
Maliyah Reed, who will start ninth grade at WSHS this fall, is designing the “H” in “Hear.” She is aiming to paint the letter black and include some words of wisdom on it.
She likes to draw, especially cartoons and animals with fantastic traits. She also enjoys singing and likes musical theater, including the musical “Hamilton.”
Along with looking forward to the mural, Our Voices members are aiming for the group to continue to grow and be a source of support for additional students of color.
“I hope our group gets out there, and I hope it brings more people in so we can help more people of color like ourselves,” O’Banner shared.
“I hope that new people will come in, younger people too, and they can build the relationship and bonds that we have,” Walker said. “And get opportunities to know that they’re worth it and that they have somewhere to go, someone to talk to, and that they’re wanted.”
Morgan noted that she hopes group members keep feeling that they are gaining a valuable experience from attending meetings.
“And … I’m very thankful to the part of the community that is helping out, that wants to know more about these kids, that sees something positive in this group,” Morgan said. “I’m hoping that the others that view this as being a negative group, I hope they come around and see that this is actually needed. These kids need this space. They, again, they choose to do this. No one is forced to do this. They come here on their own.”