Rhonda Greene, Executive Director of Heritage Works Helps Families Explore African Culture Through Music, Movement and Folklore

Identity is often ground zero – especially for children of color. It matters when you understand where you came from and where you’re going. Heritage Works executive director Rhonda Greene views it as essential to our holistic development.

Greene, who studied dance at Spelman College and poetry at Brown University, says her biggest takeaway from her higher education was the synthesis of words and motion – specifically when it comes to the African diaspora and its rich oral history, which is a staple of African culture. And, for 18 years now, she’s brought this to life with her Detroit-based cultural arts organization.

“Our young people need to have outrageous dreams,” she says. “We’re more than enough. We need to write our own story.”

Through Heritage Works’ programs, kids, parents, educators and artists alike do just that, exploring African culture through music, movement and folklore. More importantly, they find ways of expressing themselves individually and collectively.

Greene often uses the analogy of Disney movie The Lion King, where the young cub Simba is shown a blanket of stars in the sky and is told that, through them, he can always find his way back home.


“The stars will help you find your way,” Greene says. “Our work is about illuminating that canvas of stars that we can see.”

Greene, a Southfield native, recalls growing up and attending a predominately Jewish school. “They value their history (and) tradition,” she says, but she found African-American history – particularly the 1960s era – was often glossed over. That left her hungry for detail. “Jewish people take their history seriously. I think we should do the same.”

She launched Heritage Works in 2000 as African Dance Works and was recently awarded an $85,0000 grant from the Dresner Foundation in support of its 2017-18 programming. Its participants are often featured at the African World Festival, held each August on the grounds of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Heritage Works focuses on two programs: Youth Works, which provides school-based classes, such as residencies and assemblies, as well as out-of-school – along with Community Works, which brings dance and art directly to the people. One such project is Intersections Park, located at Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards. This “pocket park” is dedicated to the preservation of the memory of these titular civil rights icons.

“That’s the way we tie youth development and community development,” Greene says. “(Kids) got a chance to look at the history of the civil rights movement, had an opportunity to tell stories and poetry – and then create this space.”

Through the cultivation of dance, cultural history and collaboration, Greene hopes to give youth and the community a new perspective.
“We need to be better connected to ourselves, our potential, who we are as spiritual, emotional, physically beautiful people … and the richness of where we come from,” Greene says. “When you’re able to understand who you are, you’re able to sit at the table and be a full person.”

Heritage Works provides cultural programming aimed at youth and the community. One of its goals is to “preserve and showcase the African heritage and illuminate relationships between American and African traditions.” Recruiting for its summer internship program happens March 17-18. For more information, call 313-496-4000 or visit heritageworks.org.

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