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A visit to “Eban Kids” at the Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy is like entering the bedroom of an enthusiastically creative child.
Every inch of the walls is decorated: photos overlayed with flowers, collages of friends wearing funny hats, crayon drawings, paper butterflies, hearts, picture books, notes of encouragement and hand-made award certificates affectionately Scotch-taped with purple feathers.
These are artifacts from a long partnership between poet and community organizer Sabriaya Shipley, 28, and a cohort of about 15 teenagers she has been working with on various art projects over the last six years.
Shipley saves everything.
“This is a compilation of memory boxes,” she said. “We had someone come and say, when you walk into this gallery space it’s as if I’ve shrunken you down and put you in my memory box and told you to just walk around.”
Shipley used to work at Tree House Books in North Philadelphia, directing literacy programs. There she met kids coming in to get help with their homework.
“She was my after-school program teacher at that time,” said Mukhlis Jabbaar, 16, who started going to Treehouse when he was 9. “My dad sent me over there because I was struggling at math. It was a really fun place.”
Ana Gadson, 17, started going to Treehouse three years ago for a Black girl book club twice a week that Shipley had organized, to talk about books centering Black girls.
“Not only were we reading books and talking about the stories that we read, we were also sharing our own stories and writing about that,” Gadson said. “I thought that was really nice.”
With a deep bench of teenagers ready and willing to dive into projects, Shipley began searching outside Treehouse. In 2020 the Black girls reading group became a magazine, Griot Girls, supported by Philadelphia Young Playwrights and the Colored Girls Museum.
In 2022 Shipley went to the Painted Bride and formed Ubuntu Kids, a project wherein the kids imagined their ideal home, and manifested them as miniature dollhouses. It was displayed at the Urban Creators space in North Philadelphia as part of Painted Bride’s Resistance Garden program.
“We talked about what was home to us, what places we grew up in, or what aspects of our homes felt grounded,” Gadson said. “It was wonderful because I really enjoy making miniature doll houses. That just sent me to the moon.”
Jabbaar and Jaheim Faison, being 14 and 12 at the time, imagined their dollhouse as a safe bulwark against a future zombie apocalypse.
“Had a garden on top, armory and weapons in the basement,” Jabbaar said. “But still kept a library in the foundation.”
In 2023 Shipley led her cohort to Rosine 2.0, a collective based at Swarthmore College that leveraged art practices toward community harm reduction. For that project, Shipley gave the kids cameras and had them walk through Bartram’s Garden taking pictures of each other, then sat down to record three podcast episodes, “Generations Talkin.”
That was Jabbaar’s favorite.
“I really didn’t want to go out that much. Just wanted to stay in the house to be alone,” he said. “But Ms. Sabriaya called and said, ‘We have a photo shoot.’ So I might as well go. It was nice going out there, walking a trail, having fun, taking your pictures with friends.”
The results were included in an installation at the Icebox Project space, at the Crane Arts Building, as “Generational Feasting.”
In 2023 Shipley became the director of Theatre Philadelphia, promoting regional theater and staging the annual Barrymore Awards. She brought her kids along on that ride, too, recording a series of podcasts about plays from the youth perspective, “Act Two: Next Generation.”
“This whole room is a collaboration of my journey as educator with my youth,” Shipley said. “I take them from project to project. I’ll be, like, ‘I’m doing this project. I wrote this grant. You want to do this?’ And they’re like, ‘OK!’ What’s funny is their parents are the same way.”
Each project has an element of fun baked into it, along with a thread of something serious: Shipley is intentionally creating community among Black youth and archiving their works to create connections across time with the Black youth of tomorrow.
“Our Black and Brown students deserve teaching artists, performers, and storytellers to guide them into becoming their own artists,” reads the “Eban Youth” exhibition statement. “They also deserve to see that there is capital in Black and Brown art and how that economic capital is also a part of our Philly and global community’s history.”
When Shipley left Tree House in 2022, she promised the young people she mentored there that she would not leave them behind. When Shipley’s texts started coming again, the teenagers were only too willing to follow.
“Sabriaya’s way of teaching, there’s an undercurrent of love in everything that she does,” Gadson said. “And of giving. You’ve heard her say, again and again: Making space for people.”
The name of the exhibit, “Eban Youth,” references the Ghanaian adinkra symbol, resembling a fence that defines a space for safety and security.
That tracks with Gadson. Sitting in the gallery, she said she felt embraced by a community.
“It has this feeling of togetherness,” she said. “Feels like a family album. It just feels warm, maybe like someone’s maxed-out living room.”