"I put myself in three boxes," says Ali McClain from the conference room of the West Side Community House, where she runs a summer camp for girls. "I'm a poet. I'm a youth advocate. And then I'm also an arts coordinator."
In that third box, McClain co-founded the local artists' collective, Acerbic. She describes it as a youth-focused group that champions artists of color with installations and programming throughout the city. Its work has been featured at Slavic Village's Rooms to Let Program for two years running.
"The first year, we had been talking about the idea of feeling out of place. And we wanted our audience to feel what we feel, especially as artists of color in Cleveland's arts scene. And so we turned the basement into a prison."
Right now, McClain's in her "Ms. Ali" box, running the Summer of Sisterhood program she designed when she started working at the West Side Community House. After college, the Euclid native spent a few years in Michigan before returning home.
At the moment, she's taking a short break to talk to Scene while the 41 10- to 18-year-old girls participating in the camp are upstairs watching a movie. She's got her camp T-shirt on too. It's gray with a silhouette of a black girl in the center.
On Aug. 5, the camp will conclude with a blow-out performance at Tri-C, featuring original music performed by the campers. One year, the girls performed for a United Methodist Church national conference in Louisville where the keynote speaker was Hillary Clinton.
"It's always incredible to see these girls," McClain says. "Many of them have no experience in performance, but it always comes together and it's always powerful."
Though the content of the campers' work tends to be, in McClain's words, "girl-empowerment focused," this year they're talking about the national climate: about police brutality and about guns.
"They're trying to create music that addresses that stuff, but also offers some kind of solution, and then remembering that because there's so much badness, this should be a good. If Eric Garner was, 'I Can't Breathe,' what can I do? Can I show the world that I am beautiful and brave and brilliant? At the same time, we have to realize that we are living in a really ugly time."
That's part of why McClain has fused her work to include both art and advocacy.
"For me, it just comes naturally," she says. "Art should do something. It should move people. It should be teaching people and it should be helping people discover who they are. Art is activism."
In the fall, McClain will return to the Northeast Ohio MFA program, where she'll soon receive a degree in poetry. (She's already received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from the University of Toledo.)
And if her schedule wasn't full enough, McClain is working on a book of poetry. She also has work forthcoming in Belt Magazine's Race Anthology, and one of her poems recently won a prize from the Academy of American Poets.
"Yeah," McClain admits, glancing at her watch, "I guess I've got a lot going on."