LaShara Morgan: This is Kiesha

Words and Painting by Sarah Johnson

LaShara Morgan has been known as Kiesha as long as she can remember.  And “I’ve never not been around kids. People lways told me, ‘you were always mothering.’” With a hearty laugh that is her signature, Kiesha remembers,  “As a kindergartner I would talk about my classmates as ‘my kids.’” She smiles broadly and laughs again, shaking her head at herself.

Helping others comes naturally to Kiesha. “I can’t just see someone in need of help and not help.” An example of this was related to a stranger she often saw walking, always appearing stern and frowning. One day she spotted this stranger making his way down the sidewalk, carrying his groceries, underdressed during a bitterly cold winter storm. She recounts his surprise as she pulled over and offered him a ride. He accepted, and it was the first time she had seen him smile. The power of that moment has stayed with her.

Kiesha recognizes the importance of acknowledging and embracing all parts of life, including the impacts adversity can have on us.  “A lot of people feel they would be judged or looked down upon if they share their stories of pain and suffering when, to me, those are heroes, because you don’t know who you’re helping by opening up and sharing your stories. There are a lot of people out there who are silently suffering, and I wish they knew that they didn’t have to, that they can speak up. There’s someone out there, we’re here! There’s a lot of people out there who want to help you or be that support.”

In the past several years, Kiesha has offered more than her kindness to youth of color in this community by establishing and providing a positive, consistent adult presence with the group Our Voices.  She has also given her love, persistence, tenacity, advocacy, artistry, mentorship, generosity, sense of humor, accountability, time, meals, rides, funds and more to support, lift up, and “make sure (youth) don’t get stuck.” Of Our Voices, Kiesha has said:

“For me, Our Voices is about family. Togetherness, a safe space. They’re young people, they have a lot to say, they have a lot to show.

I saw a very big problem. I was constantly told how negative the Black students at the high school were...I would constantly say are you all talking to these kids? Are you checking in on them to see why they are feeling this way and why they are doing the things that you’re saying they’re doing? These kids weren’t heard. They were stereotyped.”

Kiesha points out that the consequences of youth being misunderstood and marginalized are enormous, and notes: “If you don’t reach out to get to know them, they don’t feel like they have anybody they can confide in, they don’t feel like it’s a place they can go, so they just hold all this stuff in. And yes, it starts to show on your face! I don’t think they knew they were walking around looking sad and looking angry, when all of those different feelings were just being bottled up inside of them, you know it starts to show. It wears on your health.”

So Kiesha did what Kiesha does: she saw a need and she addressed it. “It went from putting (Our Voices) together because of all of the negative sayings and things that were being said about these kids, and I wanted people to see that it’s not that at all. These are people. They matter. They have voices. They will be heard.”

Kiesha creates opportunities for youth and young adults to explore their values, culture and ancestry, strengths and skills, and discover who they want to be. She states adamantly, “All these talents: I refuse to let you sit on those talents. I want to be a part of helping them do all that they can, and that’s a lot. ” And indeed, the youth of Our Voices have hosted numerous talent shows, events for the community such as Daddy Daughter Dance and Juneteenth celebrations, murals and art shows, organized rallies, among others.

Kiesha points out, “This is our future! We need to help them grow, help them come out of these shells, reach their potential… I’m proud that they allow me to be a part of it. All I did was give them a platform and they’ve taken it from there. This is their group, Our Voices.”

When asked what she wants the community to know, Kiesha shares, “Be there, be welcoming, be understanding, be a true listening ear and not just someone who’s there and nodding your head, like really hear these kids out. Be a true authentic person, a human.” She goes on to say, “We’re here, we’re here to stay, we have a voice, we matter. We’re not transplants, we are part of this community. You’ll be seeing a lot of us, you’ll be hearing from us a lot.”

Artist Statement:

This is Kiesha (LaShara Morgan): 24x30, acrylic & gold leaf on canvas. 2022

It has been my distinct honor and pleasure getting to know Kiesha over the past few years (Kiesha is a treasure of a human and I love her). I have shared with her many times that more than once I have been going down the street and spotted her giant vehicle packed to the gills with people she is transporting, all of whom have their heads thrown back in the midst of laughter. Each time I run across this image it makes me smile. This is Kiesha. A powerhouse. Maker of joy. Resilient AF.

It was a delight to have Kiesha’s permission to do my best to honor her beauty with this portrait for the Spillway project. After spending some intentional  time continuing to get to know each other, Kiesha allowed me to take some reference photos. Unsurprisingly every last one was gorgeous, and (unsurprisingly) in most of the  photos she was laughing (this is Kiesha).

And so, for this portrait, it felt right that her portrait highlight her laughing. This is Kiesha.

I chose many bright colors, iridescent & glossy varnishes and gold leaf to symbolize the light that comes from Kiesha and her endless actions to build community, resilience, and belonging. The deep matte and vines on her clothing represent her ongoing growth in  spite of barbs and thorns. The words behind her are her own. I pay tribute to fiber artist Bisa Butler as a significant artistic influence for this portrait.

Winona is richer because of Kiesha and Our Voices, and I am grateful to be able to walk alongside, collaborate with, and get out of the way of these forces for good. Hear Our Voices.

Sarah Johnson, Community Engaged Artist, 2022

Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.