By Linda Frye Burnham

Art in the Public Interest and Community Arts Network, Fall 2007

Recently I had an experience that may be unique in the community arts world: a focus group designed to connect a national arts initiative to activism. I was among a dozen artists, writers and activists invited to participate in a two-day “summit” in which we were exposed to a project that will roll out nationally in 2008. But the meeting was designed to do more than get us interested in the project, or even to critique it. We — treated like experts — were asked to use our imaginations about it. The question was: How do you imagine Thousand Kites working for you? The answers were intriguing and the process may be useful for many other initiatives in the making.

Thousand Kites is a media-arts initiative designed to spark a national dialogue about the criminal-justice system in the U.S. (“Kite” is prison slang for a letter or communication.) Produced by the artists of Appalshop, the time-honored arts and media center in Appalachian Kentucky, it’s a potent response to the mushrooming U.S. prison industry (sometimes called Incarceration Nation). It sheds light on the “Supermax” prison boom in the economically distressed central Appalachian coalfields, and the social impact of moving hundreds of thousands of inner-city minority offenders (“the worst of the worst”) to distant rural outposts.

As they say on Appalshop’s Web site:

…as a rural community we have been offered prisons as one of the only forms of economic development. We want a better future for rural communities. The United States criminal justice system is growing every year. Many citizens in the United States do not know or understand who is behind bars. As artists we believe that sharing the voices of families and the impact over-incarceration has on families and communities is a positive step towards a healthier society.

Roadside Theater’s Dudley Cocke told us at the summit that Appalshop wants to “take this work to full impact for once,” and the organization will continue to invest energy as the project grows.

The components of Thousand Kites include community-based theater, Web, video and radio projects created with inmates, prison employees and their families. Appalshop is implementing a number of innovative, deeply interesting strategies to make the best use of the tools at their disposal.

Meeting at the Summit

The Thousand Kites Summit at the Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pa., on October 1-2, 2007, was co-hosted by Working Films, a national nonprofit based in North Carolina that links nonfiction media to activism. Their strategies are designed to do more than just get a project seen; they help to put it to work changing the world. Working Films’ Robert West, who facilitated the meeting, referred to this event as a “focus group,” but it was more like a brainstorm, overflowing with information, energy and networking. We left it with more than information; we left it with plans.

One of the core components of Thousand Kites is “Up the Ridge,” a feature documentary film co-directed and produced by Appalshop media artists Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby. It’s a powerful look at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Wise County, Va., and at its local impact as well as the economic decisions that put it there. Other components include “Holler to the Hood,” a weekly Appalshop hip-hop community-radio project on WMMT 88.7 by Szuberla and Kirby; “Calls from Home,” a downloadable annual Christmas radio show featuring messages from families to their incarcerated loved ones; “Thousand Kites,” an adaptable community play by the artists of Appalshop’s Roadside Theater; a 24-hour online radio station; radio and audio clips; and a highly interactive Web site. Most or all of the components will be available to the public for use without charge. They are accompanied by press kits and study guides.

The invitation from Working Films framed the summit this way:

Our objective for the summit is to bring together as a strategic team the creative energies of the filmmakers and producers of THOUSAND KITES with criminal-justice organizations, experts and activists as well as folks who can help us address rural communities. In this meeting we will lay the groundwork for a larger collaborative effort; developing some pathways so the film and other components serve as a resource to the most grounded and effective effects in the field, which may include: closing the divide between rural and urban communities, prison reform and basic human rights of prisoners, de-criminalization of low-income communities and their members, sustainable economic-development strategies not dependent on the creation/construction of prisons.

Here’s a hyperlinked list of the organizations that took them up on the summit invitation:

In addition to Nick Szuberla, Amelia Kirby and Dudley Cocke, the Thousand Kites team already includes writer Donna Porterfield, musicians Carlton and Maurice Turner, filmmaker Anne Lewis, writers Arlene Goldbard and Jan Cohen-Cruz, media producers Dale Mackey and Taki Telonides and Free Range Studios Web design.

Using Media

The meeting began with an outline of Thousand Kites by Szuberla and Kirby and examples of ways in which they are already using its components. For instance, “Calls from Home” is an annual radio broadcast featuring phone calls from mothers and children, brothers and grandparents speaking directly to their incarcerated loved ones. WMMT-FM, Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Ky., records toll-free calls from family members on December 12 from 6 to 11p.m. EST. The program is edited and uploaded to the Web for stations to download on December 14 or the program can be mailed on cd.

Community radio is a great way to reach people in prison, and it doesn’t take a lot of resources. “We’re not talking NPR,” said Szuberla. Some of these stations are extremely low-power. But, he said, for prisoners with radios, nothing can keep the radio waves from going through the prison walls.

To make stations aware of the program’s availability, Kirby called every community radio station in the U.S. (“We now have a database.”) As a result, “Calls from Home” is broadcasting over some 100 radio stations, including every community station in Michigan, and it’s being used in other ways:

  • In Maine. a prison-reform advocate played the program for prisoners at the Hancock Jail and facilitated a discussion afterward.
  • In Virginia, a prison-reform group played segments of the program for state legislators as part of an effort to educate them about the criminal-justice system.
  • In Washington State, a prison activist group played “Calls from Home” as part of a fundraising house party.
  • In Kentucky, California and New York, educators are using it as part of their curricula for classes ranging from criminal-justice issues to media democracy.
  • At the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, prisoners aired it several times on their prisoner-run station, WLSP.

Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, told us she had volunteered for the campaign and called stations to ask them to play the show. The public response crashed Appalshop’s Web server. Challenging us to come up with other ways to use “Calls from Home,” Szuberla called it “reality radio, not mediated” and he’s proud of it as a replicable model.

Next we saw a 30-minute clip from the documentary film, “Up the Ridge,” and we participated in a reading of Roadside Theater’s community musical play, “Thousand Kites.”  Szuberla and Kirby and Roadside artists Donna Porterfield and Dudley Cocke detailed ways those components are already being used. For example, “Up the Ridge” is show at every RIHD meeting and event throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the film inspired November Coalition’s project The Drug War, It’s Prisons, Poisons and Environmental Racism The script and music of the play — based on hundreds of interviews with and writings by prisoners, corrections officers, their families and people living in the communities where prisons are sited — is offered without charge to any community that wants to produce it. The first full production is by TheatreUNCA Stages in Asheville, N.C., November 14-18. The TheatreUNCA cast and crew are keeping a blog to detail the development of the show at http://thousandkites.pbwiki.com/

Focusing: What’s in It for You?

The rest of the meeting was organized around the question: How can this material be part of your movement in a way that helps you best?

We discussed themes we care about that emerge from Thousand Kites: youth incarceration, families torn apart, cost, privatization, drug laws, shame and the conspiracy of silence, incarceration history, legislative connections, community security, race-based sentencing, ineffective re-entry into society, commerce that thrives on misery. We talked about lenses through which to approach those themes, that is, what approaches would reach and convince an audience: compassion, fiscal impact, reasoned argument, human rights, civil rights, spirituality, safety. We learned about “restorative justice,” a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior.

We talked in great detail about viral marketing through: social networks like Facebook and MySpace, targeted communications, Skype discussions,  video and text blogs, storytelling using an 800 number linked to a digital answering machine, a Google map showing where communities are producing the “Thousand Kites” play.

We broke into small groups and jammed on ideas like a Web quilt, radio clips as bait for legislators, the “slave” element of the 13th Amendment, a quiz on whether you are connected to these issues, connecting with celebrity ex-offenders (Charles Dutton, Tim Allen; Dante Culpepper was born in prison), which states have restorative-justice policies, the Prison Media Network, Prisoners Day in Canada, useful grants from humanities councils.

In closing, here are some of the ideas the summit participants are committed to exploring:

  • Including “Up the Ridge” as an educational tool in organizing communities connected to the AFSC’s STOPMAX campaign (an effort to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement and torture), and exhibition of the film at the STOPMAX Conference, May 30-June 1, 2008, at Temple University in Philadelphia.
  • Performance of the “Thousand Kites” play by RIHD staff and volunteers at Prison Awareness & Feed the Homeless Day in Richmond, Va., and elsewhere “as often as possible.”
  • Embed of the Thousand Kites 24-hour online radio station on the Community Arts Network Web site.
  • Continued promotion of “Up the Ridge” by the November Coalition. (They’ve already linked Appalshop with the Bioneers and Al Sharpton through the film.)
  • Partnership with People Against Injustice in creating a documentary about prison abuses in Connecticut.
  • Partnership with Penal Reform International to link the initiative to PRI’s human-rights agenda, and introduction of Kites to their human-rights networks.
  • Integration of Kites tools in Critical Resistance’s grassroots organizing for CR10, its 10th anniversary and strategy session, September 26-28, 2008, in Oakland, Calif.
  • Partnership with Grassroots Leadership in translating “Up the Ridge” to the community dynamic in Texas, with the goal of using it in their campaign to abolish the for-profit jail and detention system.
  • Repurposing of the audio soundtrack of “Up the Ridge” for a half-hour edition of “Making Contact,” an award-winning, weekly magazine/documentary-style, public-affairs program by the National Radio Project, heard on some 200 radio stations across the U.S., Canada, South Africa and Ireland.

Those are some powerful results. This meeting was funded by Artography: Arts in a Changing America, a program of LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity) supported by the Ford Foundation. Artography “seeks rigorous artistic practice that provides leadership within a changing demographic terrain.” Appalshop sought funding for Thousand Kites based on the demographic changes caused by the prison incursion into Appalachia. That’s what I call creative financing.

It’s this kind of cross-sector thinking that is moving many social-justice efforts forward together and integrating the arts into real-world change. Events like the Thousand Kites Summit make indelible links between artists and activists. Everyone at that meeting now understands Thousand Kites and how to think creatively about using it in their work. To find out more about summits like this, visit the Working Films Web site.

Linda Frye Burnham is a co-director of Art in the Public Interest and the Community Arts Network.

Original CAN/API publication: October 2007

Cite This

Linda Frye Burnham. “Thousand Kites Summit: A Community Arts Focus Group .” https://roadside.org. April 30, 2014. https://roadside.org/asset/thousand-kites-summit-community-arts-focus-group.

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