"But We Keep Going," the Paul Robeson High School senior portrait series, was celebrated on the evening of June 17 with a projection event on Drexel's University City campus produced by ArtistYear AmeriCorps Fellow Devin Welsh, Writers Room Assistant Director Patrice Worthy, Pearlstein Gallery Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator Leah Appleton, and Greenhouse Media.
Event photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.
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Though the pandemic forced 2021 graduates of Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia to spend most of their senior year apart, some help from friends in Drexel University’s Writers Room meant capping off graduation with an opportunity to feel larger than life.
Thirty-one of the seniors had their portraits taken as part of TRIPOD, Writers Room’s intergenerational storytelling program supported by Canon Solutions America. These images and the students’ musings about the pandemic and their futures were shared online, on social media, and in real life, projected on the side of University City Campus’ Nesbitt Hall at 33rd and Market streets on June 17. The exhibition was dubbed But We Keep Going.
Some of the seniors, Writers Room artists and supporters, and Paul Robeson leadership were present to see these students’ likeness displayed seven stories high, and share kind words about the opportunity which came about because of perceived need and artistic ingenuity.
Devin Welsh, BA English ’20, spearheaded the exhibition as part of his position as ArtistYear AmeriCorps Fellow working at Paul Robeson High School. ArtistYear supports fellows in New York, Philadelphia, North Carolina and Colorado, and aims to “bring arts equity into public schools in economically challenged neighborhoods that might not otherwise have an arts program,” Welsh explained.
He said the idea for But We Keep Going came about during a virtual meeting in late 2020 when the Robeson seniors involved with TRIPOD were talking about the difficulties of remote learning and all the rites of passage they were missing out on due to the pandemic — including their senior portraits.
“Rachel [Wenrick, director of Writers Room and associate teaching professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences] private messaged me on Zoom and said, ‘I think we can do something there.’ So, we kicked it around to see what was possible,” Welsh said. “It was really about celebrating them. … They got such a short-changed year as seniors, and the 2020 year wasn’t great for them as juniors either. So they’ve been dealing with this, and had their whole senior year sort of taken.”
Though the 2021 Robeson High School class went on to have their portraits done, and even an in-person graduation ceremony, the But We Keep Going project and June 17 display showcased the important connection between University and community established by programs like Writers Room. Richard Gordon IV, principal of Paul Robeson High School, addressed the crowd gathered at the projection event and thanked the participants for not only spotlighting the students, but for providing them access and opportunity to learn, grow and showcase their passions through TRIPOD.
“It is very important for us to connect with resources in the community,” Gordon said. “What it’s allowed us to do is to personalize learning for our students and make sure that every single student that comes into our building is engaged in some way. … What Writers Room has done has really impacted the individual passions and motivated students to want to take a look at professions they’ve often felt were out of reach. Writers Room has made them see that it’s within reach, that they can reach whatever dreams they have for themselves.”
Dejah McIntosh, 20, of West Philadelphia and a 2019 Paul Robeson High School graduate, is one such example of this. She has been involved with Writers Room and TRIPOD for several years, and was the talent behind the camera for most of the portraits showcased in But We Keep Going. She said she was happy to help shine a light on the 2021 class and also showcase her own work.
“From being a Robeson student, I just know that this year was really hard for them,” McIntosh explained. “I was like, ‘I kind of want to take pictures of everyone. Can that be a thing?’ And it turned out to be a thing and I was just there to help. I had a great time shooting everybody. Everybody was really nice about it.”
But We Keep Going was also created in collaboration with the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design’s Pearlstein Gallery, and supported by AmeriCorps, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the Pennoni Honors College.
Below are photos from the June 17 event and select portraits and excerpted quotes from the exhibition. You can see the full But We Keep Going portrait series on the Writers Room website.