1in10 Success Stories: Loretta Cheeks

Down, down, baby. Down, down, the roller coaster. Sweet, sweet, baby. I’ll never let you go. Chimmy, chimmy, coco pop. Chimmy, chimmy pow. 

As a child, I remember playing this game where the rhyme, rhythm and clapping hands were my instruments during play in the park. Play, a form of communication, is an integral part of human behavior. However, as we advance chronologically, the culture says “play is for kids”—to be taken seriously, don’t play. If you want play as an adult, become a part of the audience―go see the play. 

As I matured in my profession as a computer scientist, the integration of play with work was virtually non-existent. Computer scientists like patterns and methodologies that are neat and share similarities, in which forms of repeatability exist. Play, on the other hand can be full of surprises, with many bends and variations in rules. 

Meeting Dr. Raquell Holmes became the reconnection point for learning about play and performance in the sciences. If you’re reading this and know Raquell, you probably share similar sentiments about her—appreciating the way she shares her network and resources, how she is free enough to be her authentic self, is unassuming, super smart, and cares deeply about growing as humans. 

I recall meeting Raquell and the work of improvscience at the ACM Tapia Conference in 2014. We shared a round table topic discussion. She asked questions and listened with genuine care to what I had to say. In introducing myself, I shared the Artificial Intelligence scholarly work I do, and I mentioned that I founded and led a non-profit, Strong TIES, for introducing and engaging Black and Brown youth in STEAM education using culturally relevant tools. This became our connecting point.

In 2014, I began to introduce African concepts of song, dance, drumming and rhythm, like call-and-response and polyrhythms, into Strong TIES programming as a way to bring context to computer science principles. In 2015, Raquell invited me to apply to be a presenter at CESTEMER, which gathered scientists and artists from across our nation at UC Berkeley, and made it possible for me to present at the conference the work I had been doing with youth in Phoenix, AZ. This experience was the impetus to an entire level of expressivity for making the “A” [Arts and Performance] in STEAM big within Strong TIES. 

Raquell's spirit of freely sharing her rich network and storehouse of tools created the tone for this conference and for many other gatherings like this in years to come. CESTEMER (now Creating Ensembles) reintroduced me to an appropriate placement of play and performance and opened my eyes to new possibilities of integrating improv into the sciences for the support of my students, for growing in community and for me personally. Over time, I would gain a better understanding of the significance of Raquell’s improvscience work and why it is an integral part of the scientist's growth and development when striving to make connections with an audience. 

Any listener of blues, jazz, gospel, rap and other derivatives of the mixture of African and European culture has experienced improv and rhythmic content, which creates a soulful connection between the performer and audience. In these music genres, elements of the traditions of western and central Africa exist. For instance, the African music format of call-and-response, blue or bent notes, and polyrhythms—layer on layer effects―serve as ways of social integration, mechanism of heart connection, as well as musical structure. Raquell’s business and leadership through the work of improvscience honors the traditions of western and central Africa and brings elements of the past forward. 

improvscience is something special that transcends the separation between the performer (scientist) and audience (learner). Because of improvscience’s awakening of play and performance in me as an instrument, Strong TIES now integrates this powerful element in all its programs. 

As time progressed, I would experience Raquell beyond conferences and workshops. I am her client and friend. We have shared meals, laughed a lot, and celebrated great milestones over the years. Her coaching has helped me to grow. What she delivered went beyond tools and techniques. Rather, her coaching sessions offered different perspectives that delve deep for understanding very challenging situations and getting to the heart of the matter. 

Raquell, 10 years of creating and building, I am sure, has been rewarding and challenging. Your persistence and determination allowed you to create the life you want to live, chart a path that is non-conventional and, in the process, find a way to deliver value that influences the world. For this, my friend, I applaud you and celebrate your accomplishments. I look forward to what is in store for improvscience or other creative works. Thank you for choosing to include me in your building process and sharing your rich resources that made it possible to serve thousands of Black and Brown students internationally.