Intercultural and intergenerational conversations about the bonds between art and social justice.
“You and I are women of a certain age. We’re both ethnic minorities in this country. The connection I think we have is that both of us work in art, not that we’re artists. We both value the arts as an agent for social change.” And so the conversation begins between friends and colleagues, Anan Ameri, of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services and the Arab American National Museum, and Vanessa Whang, a consultant affiliated with Leveraging Investments in Creativity and the Ford Foundation’s Artography Program. The two discuss place, and how much it matters in who we are and who we become. Anan speaks about being a Muslim Palestinian woman in America and about the Arab American community. When the topic of mentors comes up, Anan says she was more influenced by events than individuals. They surface some pros and cons of growing up and living in the very diverse United States. The conversation concludes in mutual agreement about the satisfaction of doing cultural equity work. ______________________________________________________________
Arlene recounts her early encounters with cultural equity work: from her working as a visual artist creating posters and graphics for organizations during the anti-war and the civil rights movements through her first official “community arts” job at the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program. She describes the first time she realized she was more interested in the overall organization of culture vs. making individual artwork herself, and how that interest evolved to her studying cultural policy. Jamie asks Arlene why she thinks culture is the best mechanism to incite change, as opposed to law or politics, and Arlene explains the way she measures transformative change. Jamie asks Arlene for her opinion about the future of the field, and Arlene says she foresees problems as it becomes more legitimized and professionalized. Arlene considers technology and globalization, and describes how the work could be propelled into an international context. Arlene reflects that there are two principles she holds true to in this work: to speak truth to power, and, to puncture assumptions of privilege. The conversation closes with Arlene’s insights about sustaining cultural equity work. ______________________________________________________________
Nick begins by asking Dudley how a thirty plus year inter-cultural exchange between traditional artists in Appalachia and Zuni, New Mexico, began from a game of basketball. Dudley recounts the founding of Appalshop, the multi-media arts and activist organization in Whitesburg, KY, and its performance wing, Roadside Theater. Dudley describes Roadside Theater’s methodology, and Nick asks how one sustains grassroots theater in Appalachia for more than thirty years. Dudley talks about the importance of having a reciprocal relationship between the artist and audience, and quotes startling facts about shifts in audience demographics. Nick asks what Dudley would say if he were talking right now to the people with the purse strings. Dudley and Nick discuss core principles of the work, including pluralism, cultural equity, and community grounding. Dudley ends by citing two things he learned from Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Center: “One, if you’re not encountering some resistance in your work, you’re probably not that engaged. Two, you gotta be paddling, waiting for the motion of the ocean to cause a wave to form. Myles caught two great waves: the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.” ______________________________________________________________
The conversation begins as Stephanie and Baraka both share their earliest memories of the power of art connecting to social justice. Baraka speaks about how she joined the Shrine of the Black Madonna in 1973. Stephanie remembers being inspired by a dance group in college comprised of students from Africa. Baraka explains that she used to write poetry, and was first inspired by Amiri Baraka. Stephanie and Baraka agree that both their college experiences shaped them, especially because it was the black power days: there was a lot of passion on campus, and students felt a real responsibility to the neighboring community. They speak about formative moments in their post-college years, and share stories about their mentors. They also reminisce about how they first met. The conversation concludes with a discussion on leadership succession and spirituality. ______________________________________________________________
Marta begins by asking E’Vonne to talk about her position at the National Endowment’s Expansion Arts Program, which was integral to the community arts movement. E’Vonne says that one of the most vital pieces of the Program’s vision was connecting people. She explains that the word Expansion in the title was about expanding the concept of what 1971 America thought was art; the Program was purposefully not named multicultural or minority arts. Marta asks what role Expansion Arts played in fostering the community arts movement, and E’Vonne answers, “By putting the arts on political agendas and by identifying alternative funding opportunities.” E’Vonne describes the Program’s peak, from1983 to 1987, and later, the Program’s dissipation. Marta concludes the conversation by noting that what’s most important is not that a particular organization survives, but that the principles and passions that it was founded upon survive. ______________________________________________________________
Jack is a cultural activist. He speaks about the need to play many roles, and about his passion for hearing stories and sharing in the process of retelling them. He shares his experience founding the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas. Thenmozhi talks about using story as an organizing tool. Jack responds with a description of how freeing the storytelling process is, and suggests we develop a politics around storytelling. Thenmozhi talks about being Dalit, from the Indian “untouchable” caste, and how that inspired her to take up cultural equity work. Jack begins a discussion about racism and institutional racism, which he encounters as a public historian working within universities. Thenmozhi responds with her experiences as the Executive Director of Third World Majority, a new media training and production resource center in Oakland, California. Thenmozhi talks about the appropriation of indigenous people through the popular American practice of yoga, which leads to a discussion about the politics of crossing cultural boundaries and linking struggles. Thenmozhi cites the 2001 World Conference Against Racism as one of the formative moments in her political learning. Thenmozhi sings a song inspired by her mentors. ______________________________________________________________
The conversation begins with the question whether art is a means to an end, or a means and an end? Peter points out that art has been used in times of social injustice, so it is not intrinsically good, but, he believes, art is intrinsically human. He shares some of his background, including how he was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in a family of refugees who had fought the Nazis with art. The topic changes to funding strategies, and San San points out that Peter has gone from a national position at the National Endowment for the Arts to a community grounded one at the Humboldt Area Foundation. Peter compares working nationally and locally, and describes the ways in which communities work with each other. San San asks about the difference between art and culture. Peter asks San San to respond to the questions she just asked him, and she describes how she began her career in cultural equity with a love of both art and psychology: she is a visual artist schooled in clinical psychology. San San talks about her current position as the Program Director of the Cultural Equity Grants Program at the San Francisco Arts Commission. The conversation turns to philanthropy, particularly as it relates to social change. Peter asks San San to share an unexpected lesson she’s learned, and she talks about growing up in Boston during desegregation. San San questions how one can remain optimistic doing social justice work, or any other field rich in ideas but under resourced. ______________________________________________________________
Tonya and Amalia discuss being grounded in the traditions of their communities: for Tonya, the Native American community, and for Amalia, the Chicana. They agree that there was pressure from their families to “succeed in the other worlds,” and Amalia admits that the next generation will inherit the pros and cons of this professionalization. Tonya describes her family’s expectation that after she left the community to attend law school she would return to give back. Tonya and Amalia talk about the importance of family. Next, they shift to a discussion about cultural rights. They discuss some similarities and differences between their communities, and Amalia notes that their histories both overlap and conflict: “It is a story of overlapping struggles, of people separated by the very enemy that they have in common, because that enemy finds a way to define them in different terms, in a way that they have no common terms.” Both share stories of colonization, and describe ways in which their communities contribute to the country and world. They end discussing the current issues on their hearts and in their minds, including the environment, immigration, and human exploitation.