Ayolanda Mack Builds Up Black Families

Ayolanda Mack is a rebel and an idea generator. She didn’t always see herself that way.

Mack comes from a long matrilineal line of artists, and art is one way she reveals her rebellious side. It’s a common channel for the ideas she generates too. Mack’s maternal grandmother was a seamstress. When Mack speaks of her mother as an artist, she says “my mom is an artist, but she doesn’t like to proclaim herself as an artist. She just likes to do a little of this and a little of that. My mom was the hair braider in the community. She was the one everyone came to; she had all of the skills.” Mack’s mother is also a visual artist.

For Mack, art began with the creating and not the labels. “To begin with it was just about me and who I was and expressing my identity and pride in who I was and having access to those innate artist skills that passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me and using those and putting it together to make it work,” she says.

Ayolanda speaking at a fashion show she designed.
Ayolanda speaking at a fashion show she designed.

Mack identifies as a multi-disciplinary artist. She makes jewelry. She is a visual artist. She has roots in spoken-word performance and in theater arts. She is also a seamstress, and she adds “I’m a writer too. Writing is an aspect of my art people don’t always see.”

That identity as a writer can seem hidden in some ways. It is behind the scenes in web content and podcasts she makes, but writing has been an arts practice for Mack since she was in grade school. She recalls writing a poem in fifth grade and writing raps for a group she was part of back then. In her basement, Mack keeps a big box filled with her written work. “If I ever question if I’m a writer,” she says “the affirmations are in that big box of writing. Because I am a writer. It feels weird to say that, but writing is where I feel most at home.”

Writing is one way Mack expresses her creativity. As she talks about her arts practice, two themes emerge: need and desire. Both of those themes can be personal sometimes: the desire for fashion she admired but could not afford might inspire an interest in sewing, for example. “I’m an 80’s baby. I remember listening to hip hop and seeing the medallions and thinking ‘ooh I want one!’ I didn’t have access to purchasing the things that made me feel Black power. I was just a girl in Minnesota who wanted a red, black, and green kufi trying to figure out how to get one.”

But, in almost every idea Mack generates, need and desire transcend herself to serve the Black community. Her work is rooted in Sankofa, a principle that originated among the Akan people of Ghana. Sankofa is based on the idea that in order for a people to make progress and build a vibrant future, they must return to the past and retrieve what has been forgotten or left behind. As Mack describes it, speaking of the work she does with her husband, Adrian, “we operate from the notion of having to go back in order to truly move forward. Moving forward is what we see as growth. We believe that the health, and the healing, and the restoration of our people comes from not just looking back but a rediscovery of some of the things we’ve lost. Making the connections to things that were disconnected.”

This commitment to the Black community is evident in two of Mack’s recent projects: Black Family Blueprint and Hey Black Child.

Mack has a degree in Family Science from Concordia University and uses that background to support her efforts to transform the Black community by uplifting Black families. Black Family Blueprint, a coaching and consulting group that Mack founded with Adrian, is a specific way Mack does that work. Through this organization, the Macks help Black families become better parents, more profound intimate partners, and more adept at building social capital. Black Family Blueprint does this work through lectures, workshops, parent coaching, childbirth education, and systems change.

“Black Family Blueprint is designed to build upon the Black family,” Mack says. “Our goal is the preservation of the Black family. We understand that the Black family comes in all different kinds of shapes, sizes and structures, and we know the Black family has been affected by so many different systemic injustices and processes. But we’re still here. We look at the strengths of the Black family.”

Another way Mack works to make a difference in the Black community is through Hey Black Child, a multi-media effort that Mack describes as “a hub for everything positive for the ethnic and cultural identity of Black children.” Hey Black Child includes a podcast she launched with her children during Kwanzaa in 2020 called “Kwanzaa Time with The Fam.” For Mack, the podcast is “a fun space for children to learn from children and to hear children’s voices.”

When Mack speaks of her work as a family scientist, she describes it this way, “we know the ethnic identity development happens very early. Before the age of three most children have some type of an understanding of who they are and for most black children that often comes with an inferiority complex. The research also shows that children who have a positive self concept – which also includes a positive understanding of who they are ethnically and culturally – have better life outcomes. They have better school outcomes. They have stronger relationships with their peers and with their families. So there’s research behind this that shows that when children are infused with positive images of who they are, reflected in their environments, it has a high overall impact on their lives.”

That’s Mack as an idea generator. Her work is supported by science and also revolutionary, even though it may not seem to showcase her rebel side.

Mack has a rebel side.

In her Family Science studies, Mack encountered the idea that people have one of four tendencies. They are: questioners, observers, obligers, or rebels. “I thought I was the obliger,” she says, “the person who does not follow their own expectations and is driven by other’s expectations for them. I’m actually a rebel.”

Ayolanda Mack
Ayolanda Mack

“I don’t want to be chained down by nothing,” Mack says. I just want to follow my heart wherever it may go. It doesn’t necessarily work. It doesn’t always work. I love organic processes. I really love a blank canvas – ‘let me see how I can add color to this’  I love having the freedom to do what I want to do. As a black woman, it’s challenging to have that type of spirit. I’m always trying to rein myself in.”

Mack was selected for the 2020-2021 Springboard for the Arts Fellowship. It wasn’t easy for her to apply, but her time in the program has been validating and helpful. “Even going for this fellowship was really intimidating for me,” she says. “It took a really long time for me to classify myself as an artist. I remember having an aha moment ‘I’m actually an artist, wow that’s weird.’ I had to sit back and think about it.”

Mack will use the fellowship term to focus on Hey Black Child, building out what will be a center for creativity for young and not-so-young artists to share work intended to entertain and inspire Black children.

“Being in the fellowship has given me the freedom to dream,” she says. “In addition to being a rebel, I’m an idea generator. I think of the huge things, and oftentimes they feel so unattainable that I stay in a dream state and not in a manifestation state.”

Mack continues, “the fellowship has allowed me to continue being a rebel and just do and be what I want to do and how I want to be. At the same time, it’s helped me manifest some of my dreams of getting Hey Black Child off the ground. Receiving so much affirmation from my cohort around this project and the necessity of it has been a huge drive to keep pushing.”