Community Cultural Development (CCD) work is complex in the ways power seeks to preserve itself and the ways communities relate to power. While CCD practice requires focus and a willingness to confront issues, its secret weapon is the joy of individual and community expression. Because CCD practice locates itself in a community’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and material traditions and features, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
One can starve to death for lack of food, and one can die when one’s cultural roots are poisoned, asNgugi wa Thiong’o makes plain in Decolonising the Mind (1986):
The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle. Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency, and a collective death-wish.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms a simple and profound concept: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (Article 27, Section 1) This principle of cultural equity has always been just under the surface of Roadside’s activity.
The 50th anniversary celebration of the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 2013 brought together activists and artists of different ages and backgrounds with civil rights veterans, who, as young men and women in the 1960s, put their lives on the line for freedom. Often described as the theater wing of the civil rights movement, the FST was founded in 1963 at Tougaloo College in Mississippi by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members.
In 1985, one of FST’s founders, John O’Neal, held a funeral, “a valediction without mourning,” in New Orleans for the theater. People came from struggling communities in different regions of the U.S. to perform and witness theater’s power to address human rights and think together about social justice. Roadside performed South of the Mountain, which tells the story of the moment in an Appalachian family when hillside farming and barter gave way to coalmining and the company store.
The 1985 funeral’s weeklong series of performances and dialogues culminated in a traditional second line. Snaking from Congo Square down Dumaine Street into Treme, the relic-filled FST coffin, its pallbearers, and its gathering of followers shimmied and shook to the syncopated beat of a traditional brass marching band. From the ashes of the Free Southern Theater arose Junebug Productions.
The FST anniversary made one wonder what a 21st century theater of liberation would look like, and the role community cultural development could play in such a movement. Those who understand power understand the power of culture and its devised expression, art. They understand that those who control the means of cultural production control the story the nation tells itself.
Roadside’s community cultural development practice seeks to unmask power so that it may be shared in service to the ideal of a cultural democracy in which all cultures have an equal chance to develop – and inevitably to cross-pollinate.
Some see signs of a new populist democratic movement beginning to form, a movement akin to the labor and civil rights movements of the last century. One can be sure that resistance to such a movement by those relatively few currently holding inordinate amounts of power will be swift, unilateral, and, if necessary, brutal.
Those in power will be counting on unwitting allies – those who can be riled up by the red herring of some enemy out to destroy them, and those within progressive ranks who can be co-opted by being told that it’s about them as exceptional individuals rather than about collective struggle.
As Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry has observed, "Individual genius of the modern kind never has courage equal to its essential loneliness, and so it commits itself passionately to clichés of individualism and a uniformity of innovation, ignorant of what precedes it, destructive of what it ignores."
We should know now that even movements originating from good intentions can become problematic as unintended consequences mount. The antidote to unintended consequences and co-option is vigorous critical discourse in which we agree to build and sharpen each other as we hold each other accountable for our decisions.
Presently, this iterative discourse is almost non-existent in the nonprofit arts sector, so plenty continues to go wrong. But struggle is an alternative to despair, and community cultural development can energize communities, making them more conscious of their capacity to transform themselves with people power.