Hailing from a small town just 90 minutes east of Houston, TX, Nijeul X. Porter is an educator, producer, and cultural organizer currently living in Los Angeles. His journey to being a waymaker started with the arts, as an actor. He graduated from Howard University in 2011 with a bachelor of fine arts in theater, but later realized his future wasn’t on stage. He went on to complete a master of fine arts in producing and arts management at the California Institute of the Arts in 2015 and has since worked at the intersections of art, community, and education. He’s currently the director of communications and strategy at Waco Theater Center, a performing and visual arts organization aiming to empower artists from the African diaspora in L.A.
Nigel sat down with SoulCenter’s founder Erin Washington and program director Toran X. Moore to talk about his journey as a waymaker and his hopes for the future.
What was your journey to waymaking?
Art was my entry point. I was in the theater as an actor, and I realized that’s not what I wanted to do or what I needed to do. I discovered that there’s a whole crew of people that makes what happens on stage come to life, and it was through a mentor who said, “Hey young man, Leadership Management Administration — you should consider this thing.” That was the starting point. And every day, I’m like, damn, I can’t believe I’m in this room. I’m in this conversation. I’m on this Zoom call with these people talking about these things. I have influence, particularly for Black people, particularly for some of our most impacted communities, to help shape the narrative, to ask the questions that don’t get asked.
Who or what inspired your journey?
Over the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and how creative she is. She used to make photo albums, she would help us with all of our school projects, and she’s probably one of the most creative people I know. And as I’ve gotten older, I see so much of myself in her. So the first person I’m gonna name is my mother.
Then I’ll say, because it was just my mom, I have had an affinity in particular to Black men. I can track over the years particular Black men that have either asked me questions that I had not been asked, or who have pushed me in a direction or helped guide me. And some have transitioned and some are still with us. My first theater teacher in high school was a huge, rambunctious, loud man, who was the first Black man to teach me how to tie a tie. He taught me how to change a flat tire. He was just filled with stories about his time in New York and his time in L.A. And here we are in Port Arthur, Texas, and I’m like, I never thought about anything outside of this place. I also want to name a Black costume designer who designed all over the world but had a strategy for involving his students in his professional work. I was a student at Howard when I worked as his assistant and he took me all over the country. He just allowed me to see the process, allowed me to see Black leadership in terms of directors. But more importantly, he’s the one who was like, son, you see, we working on this Black show and the decision makers in the room are not Black. I need you to be on that side.
Waymakers can operate in different kinds of spaces. How do you balance being in spaces that are drastically different from each other?
As I navigate different spaces, I try to remember that assimilation is easy. And so I push against that as hard as I can. A friend of mine, Dr. Terrell Winder, who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, always says to stand in your truth and honor my truth. And then Reggie Ray, who I talked about earlier, always said your work will speak for itself. I feel like if I’m in a board meeting at the million dollar institution, or I’m at the community meeting, I’m the same person. I’m strategic in the boardroom because I know the language, I know a way of navigating, and I know the dynamics of that space, but I’m still showing up as Nigel. I’m still showing up with, Yes, call me Nigel X. Don’t get it twisted.
What do you hope for Black folk in the year 3000?
When I think about 3000, I think about what Black life looked like before integration with modern technology, analysis, education, and resources, in the most sustainable way. I also think less about what that final vision or product is, but [more] about a process for us to maintain ownership, maintain the values that we have. Our communities have a way of working and communicating that no matter what we end up doing, our process centers us and our sustainability in ways that may not currently exist.
There are possibilities to break through if we center ourselves. If we give all of our energy to trying to break systems instead of energy into building new ones, we might be working at a disadvantage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.