As much as I’ve loved museums, they haven’t always felt accessible. Much like other institutions, they have often seemed stuffy and uptight. Outside of the occasional Black History Month celebration, rarely had I seen stories that reflected my lifestyle and upbringing. There was one particular museum that impacted me deeply.
While attending Stanton Elementary, a field trip led to a photography experience. Students were given disposable cameras and asked to shoot their daily lives. A week later, the exhibition hall transformed into a darkroom where we were guided through developing our photos. Those photos were then displayed for other groups to see and share an understanding of collective people power. This was the first time that I was exposed to photography as a storytelling tool. This museum was the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.
Nearly thirty years later, I find myself in that same museum, creating similar opportunities for people of all ages to see themselves reflected in exhibits and programs. I serve as one of the Experience Developers within the education department – tasked with creating experiences that help amplify the voices, share the stories, and highlight the history of the communities and cultures of Washington DC.
If someone had told me thirty years ago that someday I’d be working at a Smithsonian museum, I would have laughed in disbelief. The typical office never felt familiar for a kid that grew up on Stanton Road Southeast. Very rarely have I seen myself in the conventional structure of an institution. But this museum is different, and its aims are strikingly aligned with my own.
Poet, dancer, photographer, and educator – I have the joy of wearing many hats in our community, but one holds reverence above nearly all others. I have always been powered by the people. Serving the community I grew up in has been a key part of my identity. For many years I worked in public health creating educational programs to support healthy decision making in youth, promote HIV testing, and mental health counseling. I now have the pleasure of applying that experience, coupled with a love for the people of our city, to shifting the culture around museums and education.
One of my first actions was organizing the More Than Food for the People resource fair in May of 2021; bringing access to vaccinations, free groceries, job readiness programs, and HIV testing to my neighborhood in Ward 8. I cannot overstate the significance to me of being able to recognize and meet community needs while challenging the role museums play in our society. Seeing the joy on people’s faces as they gathered safely in public, danced to oldies, and left with bags of groceries – that makes the work worthwhile.
Things have come full circle. The kid searching for self in the museum, now helps others see themselves as historic. I’m honored to help lead the museum’s newly created street team. The “Activators” work to bring to life the hidden history of DC’s communities. We believe that history isn’t stored within four walls; but is embedded in sidewalk pavement, growing from the seeds of community gardens, and held in the narrative of the people. We are planning “activations” in the coming months that aim to collect and broadcast community narratives, share local artists and their processes, speak on lesser-known aspects of DC history, and reflect the complexity and diversity of Washington DC. My name is Dwayne Lawson-Brown, Experience Developer at Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, and I’m proud to be powered by the people.