Bayeté Ross Smith: Everyone Belongs

By Armando Bellmas

Alumnus artist-in-residence Bayeté Ross Smith (2008) is visual artist, journalist, and educator who examines the concepts of identity, beauty, and value in his work. He recently completed a fourteen-week residency at TED, the proponents of “ideas worth spreading” and the ubiquitous talks. The goal of his residency was to produce a talk and project based on an idea, with the resources of the TED network behind him in both preparation and implementation.

Watch the TED Talk:

“I decided to investigate the idea of belonging versus inclusion, and examine how creating multicultural equitable environments are a critical next step for humanity’s evolution. I decided to approach this through the idea of productivity and how we all benefit from the wealth of perspectives that we have access to,” says Ross Smith via email. “Especially when multiple identities and cultures have access to each other in an equitable way.”

“The United States is actually a model for a multicultural, global, inclusive society. That’s who we are at our best.”

That idea of belonging, or “everyone belongs” as he declares, flows throughout his TED Talk. “[The United States] has never excelled solely based on one ethnicity, one sex, one gender, one intellectual perspective, or one cultural perspective,” he told us after a visit to McColl Center this month. “The greatest achievements have often come when a broad range of people from a variety of cultural and intellectual perspectives have been involved.” However, he adds, “contributions to American society made by Black Americans, Women, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, etc. are often overlooked, downplayed, or flat out ignored.”

“The United States of America is not synonymous with whiteness. Linking the two is detrimental to this country and the entire world.”

How do we remedy that? How do we lay a foundation of everyone belonging? “Properly teaching history is a start. Properly contextualizing current events is a start.”

Ross Smith adds: “I have seen everyone belonging mostly through sports and the arts. There is something about the meritocracy of athletics that creates these few moments where everyone can belong. It’s obviously fleeting to say the least, but we do see them. I also feel like there are moments in the arts, when artists are working together with a sense of everyone belonging. Not necessarily in how artists are acknowledged in the art world or academia, but in the moments when artists band together to create important work. I have seen a lot of us come together and share mutual understanding.”

“If we model a multicultural, inclusive, equitable society here, it will have global impact.”

Ross Smith initiated two art and media projects, in conjunction with his talk, during his TED residency. “I have been working on an episodic series, that I host, which examines the intersection between the arts and hard sciences. It explores how artistic thinking, the process of imagining something and then using the information you have in order to create that thing, is an integral part of scientific exploration and discovery. I am also working on a project that will engage law students around ideas related to art, identity, and equity so they will become more thoughtful and informed policy makers and caretakers of our legal system.

Image: Bayete Ross Smith speaks TED Resident’s Salon, June 6, 2017, New York, NY. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED.