Black youth in Philadelphia not only face budget cuts, criminalization, school closings, and asbestos scares but also a lack of representation in public schools. These students make up 52% of the district and yet only 24.5% of teachers are Black. With the pressure of meeting curriculum demands and surviving the daily dangers of being Black in America, many rarely feel welcomed, cared for, or seen in what should be their second home; their schools. Their education isn’t tailored to their identities, needs or their realities. In these circumstances, there’s a limited amount of opportunities for our children to have creative outlets that truly develop their voices in a world that encourages their silence and ignorance.
Where education meets art and social change is the intersection of liberation and visibility for Black youth. The same holds true for Black adults who may have been deprived of representation and opportunities for self expression in their earlier years. Cultivating ones ability to name their feelings, document their realities, and envision a new world for themselves is the power of art. It creates a lifestyle of wellness, community, empathy, and action that’s unwavering in the face of white supremacy.
Founded in this climate by Kyra Williams, Stories In My Backyard (SIMBY) understands the power of Black storytelling, amplifying Black femxle voices and tapping into our imagination for liberation. We are a Philadelphia based arts education and social change nonprofit led by Black womxn that provides online and in-person learning to Black womxn and girls through arts programming, community events, and creative content. Our goal is also to create social awareness and action through art, discussions, and environments that tackle social justice issues impacting our livelihood. Through representation and access to information, we’re developing the creatives of tomorrow while uplifting the artists of today. To extend our reach, we've partnered with the Philadelphia School District's TV Station (PSTV) to host workshops for middle and high school students.
Founder & President
I'm a twenty-four year old multimedia artist and social entrepreneur; a photographer, videographer, writer, DJ, and instructional designer from Philly who is also the founder of Stories In My Backyard (SIMBY). As a Gates Millennium Scholar with a BFA in Recorded Music and a minor in Africana Studies, I've also received my MA in Digital Media Design for Learning, all from New York University. The opportunities and financial support that I've had along my journey has allowed me to understand first hand the impact of investing in education for Black youth; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNCF did that for me. My personal mission is to pay my fortune forward to Black womxn & girls with this nonprofit.
As a college student, I've never allowed my finances to inhibit my service to my community and I don't plan on starting now. Over my four years as an undergrad, I've volunteered as a DJ for Philadelphia youth track meets while also photographing athletes to commemorate their experiences. As a freshman at NYU, I co-moderated a panel on diversity and inclusion in entertainment with Matthew Morrison. Upon the release of Marvel's Black Panther, I then held a roundtable discussion with my peers to unpack themes within the film and build community around blackness at this PWI. In my personal work, I've also made it a priority to amplify the Black voice in every medium that I occupy whether it's through images I take, songs that I play as a DJ, videos I create, or topics that I cover as a writer.
In the fall of 2019, I expanded the scope of my service and held a one-day photo workshop with Ruby Johnston at The School District of Philadelphia's TV Station (PSTV). We taught basic photography skills to ten Black girls from the Philly Factor Track Club. After teaching these middle school aged student-athletes, I immediately saw the need and impact of a long term program dedicated to Black representation and youth development outside of traditional classrooms. It was also clear to me that this was how I could walk in my purpose, seeking Black liberation through art.
As a graduate from NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the arts education that I’ve received has changed my life. My experiences have changed how I view traditional public school education. It's opened my eyes to the lack of access that exists to these types of spaces for people of color and people of impoverished communities like where I’m from, especially for Black womxn and girls. But in reality, we are the people who need arts education the most as it's tied to our liberation and activism. So, I've accepted the responsibility of being the change that I want to see. I look forward to building educational environments in the arts as an instructional designer and creating content that's rooted in the Black femxle experience across various artistic mediums, providing representation while amplifying our voices.
Shelley connects individuals and businesses with media opportunities to tell their stories. She is the executive director for PSTV, the education channel for the Philadelphia school district—the 8th largest district in the country. From the ground up, with her multimedia and audio production experience, Shelley has built PSTV into a leading industry standard multimedia environment for Philadelphia students. Her passion for teaching and mentoring youth is very prevalent in her work as she shares her skillsets with young people who may have never thought about an interest in media or never had the means to access such resources.
She comes to Philadelphia as a highly recognized collaborative change agent from Silicon Valley with an extensive global background in the nonprofit sector and the entertainment industry. Shelley has spent 20+ years working in community television through management, program development, teaching, and building out production studios in schools and individual production spaces. Working predominantly with students of color, in just under five years, she has had the chance to directly train over 800 underrepresented students in studio production through PSTV. She has provided classes and other resources at PSTV to nearly 7,000 students alongside a team of two others. She has also spent the last two decades working in the music industry on global campaigns featuring international talent. Through partnerships, technology and media, she’s worked to bridge these industries.
Over the years, Shelley has received numerous awards for her work. Currently, Shelley sits on the Board of the Jamar Jones Institute and is also the CEO of her own company, Toolbox Entertainment & Strategic Consulting.
Melita Johnson is a Special Education Director in Alternative Education for Camelot Schools of PA. Although she has many years of experience working in education, 16 years, she is quick to let it be known that it is not a job, but a passion that she just so happens to get paid to do. Being able to give Black children the tools needed to make an impact in this world is a lifelong dream of hers.
Throughout the years, Melita has been a part of supporting the growth of many young talents through the arts. With a love for dance, music, photography, poetry and creative writing, she has had the opportunity to share experiences with her students and the many youth in which she has mentored over the years. Being a former athlete, running track since the age of 15, she started coaching as her children ran. Her oldest daughter is an Olympic Gold Medalist and World Champion. Her youngest is a former college athlete and a computer technology educator for middle school students. Melita believes that, “the arts and sports create a common language that’s understood in the Black community.”
Some of her former students, many of which she considers her “children,” range from professional cameramen to mainstream signed artists. Melita taught dance herself and also currently provides creative outlets for recovering addicts and those suffering from mental health issues. “To be able to see the fruit of the seeds planted has been an amazing experience!”
“My name is Ruby Josephine Johnston and I am a Philadelphia native pursuing a degree in the Communication of the Arts and Sciences. More specifically, I specialize in Visual Communication of Social Scientific and Humanities Data through Statistical and Technological Analysis. I hope that I can use these studies to educate the world on the injustices that have plagued the Black community in hope that my expression of the hidden truth will uproot some tangible solutions for progress in my community.
As a product of the infamous Philadelphia Public School District, I was only able to take two art classes in my entire life; one in 3rd grade and another in 12th grade. When I took that second class I fell in love and discovered my potential as an artist and it’s power to influence. Since then, I have excelled in my art and introspection which has resulted in the discovery of my passion for communication and connection with the environment and our fellow human beings. My life goal is to take my passion and use it as a vehicle for change.”
The SIMBY Series Co-Host
Tyiana Combs is a recent graduate of New York University, having received her bachelor’s degree in Africana studies with a creative writing, history double minor. Tyiana splits her time between New York, where she works as an editorial assistant for Basic Books, and her hometown of Philadelphia, where she attempts to re-create Pinterest recipes and fangirls over Beyoncé. No matter the location, she enjoys reading from a variety of genres and writing both creative fiction and non-fiction, centering the experience of Black womxn in her stories.
Tyiana also has a passion for centering Black womxn and girls in conversation and during her freshman year of college while studying abroad, she volunteered on the creation of the Black Femininity Series; an event which brought six Black women from around the world specializing in media and business to Florence, Italy for a panel on what it means to be a Black woman in today's world. From that experience, she was able to enjoy dinner with Angela Davis in Florence and even participated in the 2016 social media #MannequinChallenge with the famous political activist.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in South Jersey, Mikhayla Wilson is an incoming junior at LaSalle University. She is majoring in political science with a minor in business, hoping to attend law school in the future. As a Black womxn herself, she believs that it’s very important for Black womxn and girls to express themselves freely. She hopes to do so by tapping into her own creativity and helping build a virtual safe space that encourages other Black womxn and girls to do the same.