Alumnae in the Arts Highlighted in Special Black History Month Assembly

(L-R) Alana Blaylock ’07, Tiia Richardson ’83, Amy-Sharee Smith ’03, Maxine Lyle ’96.

On Thursday, February 22, the Black Scholars Club at Oak Knoll welcomed Upper School students to a special assembly celebrating African Americans and the Arts. From literature to performance, African Americans’ creativity has shaped culture, inspired generations, and enriched our lives. This special assembly presented an esteemed panel of alumnae who spoke about their journey, experiences, achievements, and the ongoing importance of diversity and representation in the arts.

Members of the Black Scholars Club introduced the panelists, which included Alana Blaylock ’07, Maxine Lyle ’96, Tiia Richardson ’83, and Amy-Sharee Smith ’03.

Shavonda Robinson, Upper School Registrar and Advisor to the Black Scholars Club, moderated the panel discussion. The panelists took turns answering questions regarding their career journeys post Oak Knoll, experiences and lessons learned while at Oak Knoll, specific work they have done of which they are particularly proud, the importance of networking in their careers, what advice they might now give to their former high school selves, what advice they would give to aspiring artists from under-represented communities, ways in which educational institutions can enhance their support for Black students, and what African American artists have influenced or inspired them.

Reflecting on her career as a producer, Blaylock offered these words of advice: 

“Rejection is redirection. In careers in the arts especially, you have to be resilient, have a thick skin, fall down seven times, and get back up eight times. It does all work out, so let go of anxiety about uncontrollable factors. Control what you can, do your best, and see what lies ahead.”

Blaylock was an Oak Knoll “lifer,” which means she attended Oak Knoll from kindergarten through grade 12 and is currently an Emmy Award-winning producer and businesswoman with a background in developing content for the top entertainment platforms in the nation. She has worked closely with networks like Apple, CNN, Amazon, YouTube, and MSNBC. She is a Georgetown University graduate and is pursuing her master’s in Business Administration at Columbia Business School.  

About the grit and resilience she acquired at Oak Knoll, Lyle shared the following:

“Oak Knoll taught me how to defy gender norms. Being in the performing arts, as someone writing a musical intending to get it into a Broadway space, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a choreographer, producer, composer, and playwright. I’m often met with resistance from others in the industry who feel I’m doing too much or wearing too many hats as a female. Oak Knoll has taught me to dig in my heels and not be apologetic for the hats I wear and the many gifts I carry.”

Lyle is a dancer, writer, choreographer, teaching artist, and producer specializing in African American step dance. She’s the founder and artistic director of Soul Steps, LLC, one of the world’s only professional dance companies dedicated to teaching and performing African American step dance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Williams College and a master’s in Fine Arts in Theater Arts Administration, with a concentration in Theatrical Management and Production, from Columbia University School of the Arts.

Responding to a question regarding how educational institutions can enhance their support for black students, Richardson replied:

“Having spaces where everyone is seeing the people of color. I think what we’re doing in this assembly is a perfect example. I think keeping the lens wide enough so that you see every student. I think that is definitely a start. Once you hear their needs, everything will fall into place.”

Richardson has collaborated with fashion industry designers to produce groundbreaking, trendsetting, contemporary, and luxury fashion and denim collections for brands such as Polo, Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss Company, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Monce International, Marc Jacobs International, and Kate Spade. She studied biology at Lafayette College, textiles and color theory at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and nonprofit business at Columbia Business School.

When asked what advice she would give to her high school self, Smith replied:

“I would say take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. I didn’t cultivate as many relationships as I could have or participate in as many activities as possible. That’s one thing I do regret. Open yourself up because you never know who may interact with you. You might miss out on those opportunities if you are closed off.”

Smith is the author of “Fire + Water,” a collection of autobiographical poems and journal entries highlighting a personal healing journey. She founded Healing Write, which she created to encourage men and women to utilize writing as a vehicle for learning, healing, and transformation. Smith is an elementary teacher in the Newark Public School District. 

The wisdom of these former Oak Knoll students of color is too extraordinary to abridge. The entire assembly is available on a special edition of the Happy Kid Podcast. We are grateful for their time, energy, and dedication to Oak Knoll. They are four women living lives of purpose and setting an excellent example for our entire community.