“The Legacy Project: The Eyes of Our Ancestors:” A shared vision made real at East High School

“The Legacy Project: The Eyes of Our Ancestors:” A shared vision made real at East High School

East High School Courtyard. January 9th, 2020 [Photo: David Kramer]

Last week, I received an invitation from Theresa Danylak of the University of Rochester’s Warner School for the January 9th grand opening of The Legacy Project: The Eyes of Our Ancestors:

East High School, in conjunction with the University of Rochester and the Department of African/African American Studies at the Rochester City School District, will unveil a series of panels, approximately 10 x 4 feet in size, each featuring a life-size portrait of a significant individual/leader of color. The project, titled The Legacy Project: The Eyes of Our Ancestors, installed 29 close-up portraits of both local and national/international leaders, all connecting to the Pan-African, Latinx, and Island/Asian Cultures that are at the heart of East’s school community. The selection of individuals featured and honored throughout this series was based on community input—from the voices of Rochester youth and their families, as leaders they deem important to the Greater Rochester community.

Photos: David Kramer, 1/9/20

This project will be on display in the East High School courtyard, allowing room for future growth and the addition of individuals for years to come. Each portrait includes a brief story and historical facts about the individual featured. Nine local Rochester activists will be unveiled and featured, as well as 20 well-known national/international activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, and other activists/revolutionary leaders who have inspired countless Rochester families and dedicated their lives to equity and the overall prosperity of the collective communities. The artwork on display was created off site by local artist Shawn Dunwoody.

(left) Shawn Dunwoody at the rhapsodic piano; (right) Dr. Jason B. Willis at the delectable spread

When arriving, I was charmed by melodies from a piano installed in the hallway outside the auditorium and feasted heartily on a spread prepared by East culinary students. I was glad to see several friends of the magazine, including Shawn Dunwoody, Shaun Nelms, Lovely Warren and Jason Willis.

(l-r) artivist Shawn Dunwoody at Sasso on Park Avenue, East Superintendent Dr. Shaun Nelms, associate professor at the University of Rochester with Roland Williams at the East football field, Mayor Lovely Warren at a University of Rochester poetry reading and Dr. Jason B. Willis at the Cobb’s Hill basketball courts.

Nonetheless, I did not know what to expect from the exhibit itself whose very finishing touches were being prepared as we enjoyed the food, music and watching East art students create on-the-spot paintings.

Before the speeches and the tour of the courtyard — kept brief as Dr. Willis said that short speeches make for long friendships — I wandered over to the courtyard. Solitary in the chilly January air, I came literally and figuratively face to face with some of the greatest icons in American and Rochester history.

The first to tour the grand opening. 1/9/20

The shared vision of Willis and Dunwoody is to focus on eyes. Eyes have been called the windows to the soul. In the semi-portraits looking down at a snowy courtyard in a mid sized American city, I felt the portrayed activists soulful and universal vision — speaking to people of all color. The eyes themselves do not feel watchful or judgmental. Their gaze is welcoming, beckoning. Simply asking viewers to pursue their own vision and perhaps one day to add their eyes to the walls.

To learn more, I asked Dr. Willis, Director of the RCSD’s Department of African & African American Studies a few questions.

What was the genesis and progression of the project? 

The genesis and conceptualization for “The Legacy Project; The Eyes of Our Ancestors” was my idea that emerged as a result of knowing that there were several “non-negotiable” features to this project. In early 2019, Superintendent Dr. Shaun Nelms asked if I would lead an effort to make his school campus more culturally responsive in an environmental restoration capacity.

Robert Benz (left) from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative next to Dr. Shaun Nelms, East High Superintendent

In the vein of true transformational leadership, Dr. Nelms trusted me with managing the project and provided a platform for me to work/showcase some of my skill sets. He and I knew that the Arts is a powerful modality for youth learning in the urban motif. Additionally, I knew students and parents had to be an integral process and as the Director of African & African American Studies at the RCSD, I was quite familiar with Afrocentric curriculum that would align to their ideas. We surveyed parents and families and asked the question, “who are the people in your history that represent a revolutionary leader and activist.”

My next step was to understand the potential scope of the project and to quickly onboard our local artist and internationally renowned Shawn Dunwoody who graciously accepted my vision for the project and he worked to bring the project to life.

President Barack Obama by Shawn Dunwoody

When we initially discussed only painting the eyes, Shawn’s face beamed with creativity and I knew that this was what we were doing moving forward. He articulated that, “…when you look into someone’s eyes; it tells a story. It makes you wonder, “what was that person going through” or “how can I lead in a way that makes my life’s journey something people want to memorialize?” He was amazing, brilliant, fun to work alongside and wonderful with our students that assisted in constructing various pieces of the project.

Shawn Dunwoody interviewed outside the Edward J. Cavalier Auditorium at East High School.

Will the images occasionally be available for public viewing? 

Yes, we are constructing a community calendar and people are always welcome to visit, but need to contact the school first to make provisions.

Video screen in the kiosk looking out to the courtyard

Will the project become integrated into classroom learning? 

The turtle of knowledge

There is a complete curriculum element that is being facilitated across the East EPO campus and it aligns to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as a theme to reinforce the legacy of historical leaders, both local and international. This story tells the tale of a lady that finds self-actualization through trials and tribulations in her life. The development committee for this project believes that this is likely consistent with our youth’s plight and our greater Rochester community story.

What do you see at the mission of the Department of African and African American Studies?

The mission of the Department of African & African American Studies is to work diligently to bring opportunities to students and faculty that feature multi-centric curriculum (specifically African/African American/Hispanic & Latino Afro- Caribbean), integrated cross-curriculum experiences, professional developments opportunities for students/teachers/admin., serve as an outlet for culturally responsive pedagogy and practice and represent my family name to the best of my abilities.

How do you see the Department progressing in the future?

I see the department working in partnership with all agencies laser-focused on meaningful outcomes for children that follow fundamental research methods such as being Generalizable to larger populations (Can we scale best practice to size efficiently?), is it Valid (Have we measured outcomes in a way that fosters growth and opportunities for our youth?), Is it Reliable (Can I repeat and expect the same results across school, grade level, etc.?). Additionally, I will always strive to foster the highest levels of relational capacity with any constituent by modeling the type of transformational leadership that drives my moral compass.

Dr. Jason B. Willis interviewed.

My department will also grow in ways that are hard to measure such as community love, youth respect and appreciation, testimonies of courageous conversations that refract the lenses of how people treat other people, my consistency as a model/mentor for young Kings and Queens, the amount of love and support my family/community/friends breathes into me that maintains my “cup running over” and the thought of my Mom & Dad smiling down proudly.

SEE ALSO What the new East will and will not be

Dr. Shaun Nelms

RCSD’s Djinga King-St. Louis on Afro Centric charter schools and making learning relevant for students of color

Djinga King-St. Louis, RCSD Director of African & African American Studies (after a seminar at the Wilson Foundation Academy, 2014)

Monroe’s Latin American Lit course breaks new ground

James Monroe teacher Alexci Reyes and his class


About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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