Overtown in the Making: Kerry Keeler Reflects on Community Outreach

PAMMily member Kerry Keeler has touched the lives of thousands of children throughout her 20 years at the museum. Keeping in touch with many of them, she recently reunited with one of her Overtown program students from 2002, prompting her to reflect on her history of community outreach at PAMM.

“Let’s not go all the way down to that corner,” one of the kids advised our group. We were photographing in Overtown and he had our backs. With a good eye for potential trouble, their eyes were getting sharper in aesthetic ways, too, as we practiced operating cameras, image selection and composition.

Overtown program field trip to Wolfson Media Archives

Through research, film prints and videotape (pre-digital!) the program teachers and students compiled components of a black neighborhood’s story – an ephemeral but once utopian past jolted into the lingering dystopia of the present. Literal blood, sweat and tears experienced throughout the summer forged a lasting bond with each other and the place itself. We trekked through the sweltering heat and baked on buses listening to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and changed-up James Brown’s lyrics from “I feel good” to “I feel hot.” When a school friend was killed in a drive-by shooting, we grieved beneath the Miami sun, in class, in poetry, and in the end, dedicated the video to her memory.

Kerry with a student at MAM

Pérez Art Museum Miami, formerly known as Miami Art Museum, started an education department in the late ’90s focused on partnership with the school system, but sought to produce a unique summer program in 2002. We were fortunate to receive funding for a project enlisting twenty high-schoolers from Booker T. Washington. As a photographer/documentary-maker (also teaching artist), I was excited to take on the role of artistic director and write a curriculum sharing these passions with teens as a way to capture a view of their current community informed by history.

“To witness and contribute to young folks’ art-influenced evolution into adulthood, while being part of Miami’s growth, has been a goal and great joy of my creative career.”

Of the several students who kept in touch with me over subsequent years, the youngest, Kevin Francis, was inspired to be in front of the camera and study acting. He delivered a postcard to me at the museum with his photo promoting a lead performance in a professional theater production. Sadly, this talented young man succumbed to a lingering childhood disease not long after. Arranging another viewing of the video at the museum, his family was invited and we re-dedicated it to him.overtown-program-2002-MAM-postcard.jpg
Postcard of Kevin Francis’ theater production

Another student, Laquisha Jones, wrote me a letter years after the project to report that she too went on to college, a dream she wouldn’t have imagined in the days when her mother was incarcerated, siblings went hungry, and peers were getting pregnant and using drugs. She reflected that putting a camera in her hand had saved her life. I had not known this at the time, and wept more OT tears. Having been inspired by the arts to study dance as her muse, Laquisha later pursued a degree in healthcare, no doubt demonstrating exceptional empathy.

Laquisha Jones

The quietest, most shy student, Qonsheka Scott, overcame stagefright at the video’s 2003 Lyric Theater premiere, compelled to recite a tearful ode to the previous summer’s departed friend with a plea to end senseless violence. In a related coping yet celebratory effort, we went to the Tupac movie together. This also served to cap off her sub-project of compiling a “storyboard” of the rapper’s life in a handmade book. Qonsheka continued to visit the museum quite often, eventually introducing her little boy!

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This winter, I was contacted by former student Marcellas Preston, now teaching with a degree in history. He was requesting another copy of the video to show his students – full circle after 15 years! We set a date to catch up and record a brief interview, accompanied by his girlfriend, but his plan to visit PAMM had an ulterior motive.  She was unaware of the greater scheme to lure her to the scenic portside park for a marriage proposal. Friends and family filtered into the area as the romantic drama unfolded, nary a dry eye by the bay Happy tears this time!

To witness and contribute to young folks’ art-influenced evolution into adulthood, while being part of Miami’s growth, has been a goal and great joy of my creative career.  PAMM outreach programs continue to help expand educational and cultural connections. As that Overtown student was keen to identify, we still navigate challenging “corners,” exploring new avenues toward engagement, expression, and learning.

About Kerry Keeler
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Kerry Keeler is manager of outreach programs at Pérez Art Museum Miami. She attended Florida International University (certificates of outstanding academic achievement), the University of Georgia and Rollins College (scholarship). Additional education includes the American Institute for Foreign Study art history program (conducted in major European cities) and special instruction in Inquiry Method, Object-based Learning, VTS, etc. As a museum educator for twenty-seven years, she has originated and/or facilitated a spectrum of programs, first for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (1990) and then Miami Art Museum (1997) – now PAMM.

In 2002 she served as artistic director for a local and national award-winning teen video project. Keeler has also garnered a National Association of Counties award for innovative programming (2007) and a Florida DCA/VSA “Inclusive Culture” access award (2009). Her experience includes creation/management over many years of “PAMM in the Neighborhood” for summer camps, “PAMM Art Storytime” for pre-schoolers, “PAMM Free Second Saturdays” for families, “Art-2-Go” community workshops, “Touch Tours” for persons with visual impairments, “Brick x Brick” (cited as a model program in 2009 by the New York Times and 2015/2016 two-time National Youth Awards finalist), interactive visitor gallery exhibition spaces, and innovative family packs and guides.

Keeler has judged children’s art shows and teacher grant applications, and is a member of the Cultural Educators of Miami (steering committee), Center for Great Apes, and formerly the UM Chaplains Association. Additionally, she is a prize-winning artist in ceramics and photography, with a Wolfson Media History Award and an Emmy for televised documentaries about the Seminole/Miccosukee and AIDS/African children.

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