By Catherine Kempista
Simply put, Iz Balleto takes care of people. And those who have been lucky enough to cross paths with him through work, volunteerism or friendship, all share the same sentiment.
“He is lifting up so many people right now. There aren’t too many people like him, so when he talks, I listen,” says Jet Phynx, CEO and founder of Jet Phynx Films and The Dirty Popcorn Black Film Festival.
Balleto, community engagement specialist for the Delaware Art Museum, has been an activist and community organizer in Wilmington for decades, sharing messages of love, peace and empowerment. In his current role, he has brought his activist and community organizing skills to the museum and is laser focused on creating programs that add to a living archive of the artistic and cultural contributions of Delaware’s BIPOC communities.
“I knew I needed to get my foot in the door at the art museum because I found out what you do in the art museum, or what happens on the walls, they put it in the archives,” he explains. “As somebody that’s been a migrant, somebody who’s been invisible, I need to make my people visible.”
Balleto has made a name for himself in Delaware for bringing a new and diverse array of programs to the art museum, which, in turn, has brought new and diverse audiences to the institution. But connecting people to their histories and empowering individuals is nothing new for him; it’s who he’s always been.
Born in Peru and raised in New York City, Balleto found a sense of place and identity in both the museums of the city and the foundational hip-hop scene of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I saw the value in art because as a child growing up in New York City, the art museum was a place where I learned so much about different peoples’ culture, different ideas, different minds,” says Balleto. “And hip-hop was my father, hip-hop was my mother. In that era of hip-hop culture, hip-hop music had a lot of knowledge.”
In fact, Balleto credits hip-hop music for helping him learn English.
“You had groups like Public Enemy, X Clan, Guru, Gang Starr, that were speaking and educating, so that helped me see who I needed to be as a person. Being repetitive with the music and listening, that’s the way I learned,” says Balleto.
Emerging from what he describes as “a troubled youth” and difficult living conditions, he moved to Delaware in 2001 to support a family member who has recently relocated to the First State. He was 27.
“I moved to Delaware without knowing Delaware. I’d never heard of the state,” he says. “And I decided to start fresh.”
In 2003, Balleto started working at the Wilmington Riverfront as a porter, cleaning restrooms and picking up trash. Here, he met Abundance Child and the Delaware Art Museum’s Joyce Schiller — two people who helped lay the foundation for his next chapter.
Planting the Seeds
“He was working at the Riverfront and was really cool with my stepdad,” says Abundance Child, founder/owner of Drop Squad Kitchen, formerly Molly’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream. “He was always in the store. We had this love of hip-hop, and I had never seen someone like him before.”
Balleto, who had always been active in the hip-hop scene in New York, had sought out something similar in Wilmington but came up short. To fill the gap, he hosted parties at his apartment, freestyling with friends and playing everything from mainstream hip-hop to underground artists.
“My apartment would be filled, and we would just be freestyling over beats,” he says. “One day, Abundance walked in because her brother invited her. She said, ‘Would you mind doing this at my spot?’ Abundance Child gave me a chance.”
From that point forward, Balleto became the head of her street team for Thorough Thursday open mic hip-hop nights at her venue in Wilmington. While drumming up attendance, they both hoped to discover local talent and cultivate homegrown artists in Wilmington.
“Many people from the neighborhood — from the West Side, from the East Side, North Side — felt welcome,” he adds. “They found a place they could practice their art form. It became a home to many.”
Around the same time, he also met Joyce Schiller, curator of American and Illustration Art Collections at the Delaware Art Museum. He was assigned to clean the museum’s offices, which had relocated to the Riverfront during its renovation in the early 2000s.
“She was like, ‘You have a way of speaking. And I would love to bring you in,” Balleto says. “She told me to apply to the museum. So, I literally started from the bottom.” He was hired as an operations technician at the newly renovated museum in 2005. Schiller passed away in 2016.
Grateful to have an opportunity to work at the museum, Balleto understood the importance of the museum not just as a cultural institution but for its role in preserving history.
“I need to help the community understand that this is their museum, too, especially for my city that is 70 percent Black and Brown,” he says.
Within a few years, he started “planting seeds” with the museum’s staff on different ideas he had to engage the local community in the arts. In time, he would see the fruits of his patient and diligent labor.
‘Lead by Example’
When he wasn’t working at the museum, Balleto stayed busy, immersing himself in a mission to help uplift Wilmington’s communities in any way he could.
In 2004, he and Abundance became deeply involved in Guerrilla Republik (GR), a grassroots organization started by Raab Love, which has become one of the largest hip-hop organizations in the world. Through GR, Balleto started organizing community hip-hop events with a focus on service.
“I felt the need to lead by example,” says Balleto. “People loved what we were doing because every member of Guerrilla Republik would have to do community service once a month to get on the mic. Back then, promoters would charge artists $200, $300 to perform for 15 minutes. We waived the fee and let them do community service.”
In 2007, he also became involved in the Annual Peoples’ Festival Tribute to Bob Marley, co-founded by Genny Pitts, as an event volunteer.
“One person that really opened my mind was Mama Genny,” he says. “I’d never heard of Bob Marley before. I never knew how powerful love could be. He put the message behind the beat, and you just have to listen. So that helped me grow a different side of me.”
To date, Balleto is one of the festival’s longest running volunteers, says Abundance Child.
In the ensuing years, he served as a youth volunteer at the Latin American Community Center, founded 302 Guns Down with Michaelena DeJesus and Jea Street, Jr., and became a coach and volunteer with the Roberto Clemente Baseball League in Wilmington. He currently serves as the league’s board vice president.
The organization serves children ages 4 to 18 and is Wilmington’s only bilingual baseball league. To honor its namesake, the co-ed league focuses on teaching the children the importance of service and teamwork, in addition to baseball skills.
“Iz has brought a lot of awareness to the league with him going around and exposing us to different avenues we would have never had,” says Michael Beltran, board president of the Roberto Clemente Baseball League. “His devotion to us is great.”
Creating a Living Archive
While still in his role as operations tech at the museum, Balleto started seeing his persistence pay off with the educators and curators. In 2016, he played a pivotal role in the composition of My America, My Journey, an interview performance in support of the museum’s Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art exhibit.
“We realized we had something with this approach of working together on these programs,” says Saralyn Rosenfield, director of learning and engagement at the Delaware Art Museum. “He helped recruit the voices that participated and helped draw an audience for this performance.”
In 2017, Balleto was selected to participate in MuseumCamp, the brainchild of Nina Simon, the former executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, for his submission, Respect to the Queenz, a retrospective on the role of women in hip-hop. The museum flew him to California for the avant-garde experience, which was “instrumental” for him. His proposal idea took center stage at the event that August.
Recognizing the interest and the unique talent he brought to the role, the museum transitioned Balleto part-time to the community engagement position in 2020 and then named him full-time to the role in 2021.
“He has been given the reins to determine what community engagement looks like at the museum,” says Rosenfield.
Because of Balleto’s influence and involvement, the museum has featured exhibitions and events highlighting the culture and contributions of Delaware’s BIPOC communities, including Call of the Sun with Aztec Chief Jose Avila of the Tonantzin Yaotecas; Día de los Muertos: Walking Among the Ancestors; and Indigenous Faces of Wilmington with Andre L. Wright, Jr., among others.
Tapping into one of his earliest influences, he just recently collaborated with his long-time friend “Grouchy” Greg Watkins, co-founder of allhiphop.com, and Dr. Traci Currie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with the Inaugural Hip-Hop Cultural Summit.
“The art museum staff and Iz are going above and beyond to make sure everyone is included in the arts,” says Watkins. “Hip-hop is an art form and a high art form. The art museum is really showing they are committed to their mission, making sure everyone is included and welcomed.”
For Balleto, the new title simply summarizes what he has been doing for decades in Wilmington, in Delaware, and in New York.
“My process is being involved in the community,” he says. “I have to make sure they’re involved. I just know that they’re the bridge. You need bridges to build with people and you need bridges to build with your community.”
And for long-time friends, collaborators, and colleagues, he’s doing what he’s always done — uplift and motivate.
“He knows how to motivative leaders to be better leaders,” says Phynx. “If I was a Jedi, Iz would be Obi-Wan Kenobi.”