ROCHESTER — In what will be a first-of-its-kind space here, a local writer and anthropologist is launching a creative hub dedicated to amplifying Black voices and expression.

Griot Arts, a gallery and bookstore, is set open in July at 115 N. Broadway, on the northern edge of the city's downtown. Owner Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara said the space is the culmination of years of conversation with other Black artists around how to create a sense of belonging and healing to the area's Black community.

The latest census reports 9.2 percent of the city's roughly 122,000 identifies as Black or African-American, making it the city's largest non-white demographic. And while Nfonoyim-Hara acknowledges the city has made strides in recent years to become more inclusive, she said much of the work tends to happen from the top-down. With Griot Arts, she sees an opportunity to begin to shift that dynamic to the grassroots level.

"We focus so much on the barriers and the things that are keeping — particularly, Black people — from succeeding in this community," said Nfonoyim-Hara. "But it almost becomes this pathologizing, kind of like the charity-case Black community; versus trying to celebrate and find empowerment and joy, and let people lead what needs to happen and what kind of spaces need to exist here."

Nfonoyim-Hara, a former Fulbright scholar, came to Rochester a decade ago after spending time on the coasts and in London, where she earned a graduate degree from Oxford University. As an arts writer, Nfonoyim-Hara's prose and poetry have earned praise from institutions including the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. The mother of two now moonlights as the host of the Rochester-focused public TV program, "R-Town," while she writes the first pages of her first fiction novel, a historical fantasy centered on ancestral myths from the Cross River region of Cameroon and Nigeria.

Nfonoyim-Hara began laying the foundation for Griot Arts earlier this year with a series of local events for Black History Month. Those included a film series with Pop's Art Theater and open studio times with Art Heads Emporium. The events, she said, reinforced her idea that art can be used as a vehicle for healing and dialogue — not only for the Black community, but for anyone willing to share space and learn from one another.

"Black culture is essential to American culture, and so being in conversation with it makes it less of this sort of thing on the side that we have to address and workshop," Nfonoyim-Hara said. "Social justice work can be done in creative ways. But it needs to live in a community. It needs to be done outside the walls of a boardroom."

At Griot Arts, that work will include open studio events, family programming, and rotating exhibitions featuring BIPOC artists from the community. Nfonoyim-Hara, who is self-funding the venture, will be the business' only regular employee. The space, she said, will lean on a "hub and spoke" model, with the intention that artists and nonprofits will be able to use the space for cultural programming.

So far, those collaborators include Tierney Parker, a mixed media artist who has been consulting Nfonoyim-Hara on the space. Jahbulani Ori, a Rastafarian artist based in Rochester, will be the first artist to be featured in the Griot Arts gallery. It will be Ori's first solo exhibition, as well as his first time showing his work outside of the Twin Cities.

Like Nfonoyim-Hara, Ori is a trailing spouse — a term used here to describe a person who comes to Rochester because their partner works at Mayo Clinic. It's a demographic that so often infuses the region with creativity and culture. But for people of color relocating here, it can also be isolating, said Nfonoyim-Hara.

By opening up avenues for Black creativity and expression, Nfonoyim-Hara believes Griot Arts can play a small part in changing the narrative of what Rochester has to offer people of color.

"There is still so much promise in Rochester," she said. "It is still a city in the making. We can still make good choices. We can still hold all of the things if we are brave enough to do so, and if individuals like myself and others can feel empowered to do so."