By Linda Frye Burnham

Community Arts Network Website

Alternate ROOTS' 25th anniversary celebration, "FOCAS: Focus on Community Arts South" (April 17-21, 2002, Lexington Kentucky) was located at "The Intersection of Art and Activism." That intersection became the context for five days of performances, workshops, case studies, panel discussions and group conversation.

Other writers have described the events and the participants in FOCAS. (See "Critical Relations in Community-Based Performance: The Artist and Writer in Conversation," Sonja Kuftinec's outstanding essay on the criticism panel at FOCAS, published on the Web by the Animating Democracy Initiative. See also "Writing Deeply: A Discussion with Three Writers," a three-way conversation among Jan Cohen-Cruz, Sonja Kuftinec and myself about strategies for critical writing about individual artists or companies, posted in CAN Conversations in advance of the criticism panel, at FOCAS.) This essay is about the ideas that emerged from this multiethnic gathering of artists and activists. The events included not only members of Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organizations Of Theaters/Artists South), but people from all over the U.S. who are interested in art for social change, deeply rooted in specific communities. For most of them, "community arts" means professional artists collaborating with people who are not trained as artists to frame, examine and/or solve a burning social question about the environment in which they live. Most of these practitioners wear multiple hats, work in several artistic disciplines and have experience in such far-ranging fields as law, social service, politics, labor, journalism, academics, organizational development, community organizing and philanthropy.

To further set the context for this essay: Its citations are drawn from transcripts of six conference sessions, each of which began with a panel of speakers and progressed to a group conversation. They were titled:

  • Investigating the Intersection of Art and Activism
  • Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution
  • The Next Frontier of Community Arts Criticism: What Do Artists and Writers Want?
  • Community-based Art: The National Perspective
  • Does a Social Agenda Limit Visionary Art Making?
  • Where Do We Go From Here?

The conversations raised a wide range of questions, including:

  • What is the function of art in society?
  • What are some effective models and tools for artists and activists working together for social change?
  • How does this work address concepts of inclusion and diversity, class and race?
  • What alliances and power relationships are most useful?
  • What principles govern working with project participants?
  • Is there such a thing as collective vision?
  • How is this work valued?
  • Will community arts survive?

And the answers? In the overwhelming majority, they had to do with some aspect of partnership or collaboration. While the FOCAS participants differed in some ways, they usually turned to the principles of participatory democracy and cooperation, even compromise, as a solution to the toughest problems. Hearing every voice, coming to consensus, serving common needs were the driving principles in these conversations. Even their most elementary notions about art were based in service to the communities with which they identify.

The Function of Art: Making Life Better

In addressing the basic definition of art and why they do it, some of the conference's most vocal participants had no doubts. Art was seen as a tool for social change. Carolyn Morris, who in 2002 became the executive director of Alternate ROOTS, sees this point of view as essential to the mission of all the members:

Carolyn Morris: The whole purpose of the membership of this organization is to learn how to use our art to address social, political issues in our communities. For John O'Neal and others, social change is art's essential function:

John O'Neal: It seems to me that the function, the aesthetic function ... of art is to raise the question and explore the answers of how do we make it better? What do we do to make it better for ourselves, for our families, for our communities and ultimately the world?

Nayo Watkins: I don't understand art when it doesn't live in real life. We are talking about art that is being made in real communities and in real life. ... There is something about social change work that transcends the gig, the contractual terms, and even the desire to simply do good art.

Hasan Davis: I use art as a survival tool. I don't make art for the sake of pretty pictures. ... I will go with what I know -- what I understand about art, what I understand about life: There isn't a real separation between those two, because in my opinion art is life. It is that thing that provides us the substance and the challenges to move and to face the world.

Alice Lovelace was very clear about the route through which she arrived at her social contract as an artist:

Alice Lovelace: What my daddy taught me was that I had the privilege to gaze out into the world, and that the world belonged to me. I had every right to know not only what was happening in the world, but to comment on what was happening in the world. When I was about 26 I divorced my husband. I was a single mother with four children. I was trying to write, and nearly going insane. I found a little church in my neighborhood that let me come in to teach a writing workshop to boys in the neighborhood. What little I knew I would teach to them. One day two professors and some graduate students from Washington University came in when we were doing the reading, and afterwards they said, "You come to Washington University with us." They took me into their writing workshop there. They taught me that if privileged people and if the ruling class could have art, then working-class people deserved art. If I had a gift, I was to give that gift to the community that made it possible for me to survive. They told me that was my job. To be a poet of the people.

I came to Atlanta in 1976. I met Toni Cade Bambara. Toni became one of the greatest influences on my life. Toni took me in and she talked a lot about what was the social responsibility of a writer. A writer had tremendous power in a culture. Along with that came a great responsibility. Toni set me down and she told me, "Alice, writing a poem is good, but it is so much better to write a proposal. When you write a proposal, what you do is you leverage money for a community. You allow people who have dreams and have no idea that those dreams can be realized, you bring those dreams to fruition. Your job is to write whatever the people need you to write." She told me that whatever I did was art, and I believed it.

Then I went to the neighborhood arts center and I met John Riddle, who is an extraordinary painter. John, noticing my fiery ways and my habit of always causing a lot of tension wherever I went, set me down one day and he said, "Alice, change is possible. This is what it is, baby. If you want to make change you have to work hard and you have to not care who gets credit." I said, "I understand that."

Hasan Davis, Alice Lovelace's son, related a similar, but even more personal story about how art functions as a social tool in his life as an artist, attorney and activist:

Hasan Davis: For me, I took this idea of art as an activist tool to help me redefine what I have a right to have access to. I have a right to build relationships and have meaningful connections with people that don't look or live like I do. ...

Art is that thing in my life that has been the central focus of my survival. It was a gift from my mother at the age of eleven when she took me and she put a piece of paper in my hand and pencil and said, "Write it down."... I started to write on this pad of paper and I ripped through about the first six or seven pages because I was so mad, so angry because nobody ever listened to what I had to say. Everybody was telling me that I didn't have to worry about not being able to read because it isn't gonna matter. I was gonna be dead. I was gonna be just like my cousins. I was gonna be just like my family. I was gonna be just like every other black man that ever came through the system. I was gonna be rejected. I was gonna be put out. I was gonna be gone. That was my reality. Then I had this pencil in my hand. And I had the power to say everything I ever wanted to say to the world about who I was. That first piece I couldn't even read because it was so illegible. When I was done I got up to walk outside, and I didn't hit anybody. I didn't scream at anybody. You know? I didn't get on the bus looking for somebody to look at me wrong so I could go off on them.

I found a voice. That voice saved me. I've got a brother doing 25-to-life for murder. I've got a brother doing 57 years. I buried five cousins. The youngest was 14 when he was shot between the eyes. I've been kicked out of every educational institution I've attended. I have received my graduation diploma from every educational institution I have ever attended. Not because I am a stellar student. I think I am smart. But because I found who I was through the art. There was nobody who could shake who I believed myself to be by putting their labels, putting their tags, putting their other stuff on me. That is how powerful the arts are. ... Art is not a part of life, it is not an addition to life, it is the essence of those pieces of us that make us fulfilled. That give us hope. That give us dreams and provide the world a view very different than what it would have been without us.

For Social Change: Baptized in Activism

Most participants carried activist credentials or deferred to activist strategies when discussing methods of using art as a tool for social change. In an exchange about collaboration between activists and artists, speakers talked about it as an opportunity for mutual benefit and learning.

Dudley Cocke: I would want to look at ... work at intersections, so that you are looking at immigrant rights groups working with artists. I think there is a very fruitful exploration where partnerships are happening at what might be called the intersections of a couple of disciplines.

Alice Lovelace: [In] a true, deep and sincere partnership between arts and established activist organizations, I think we bring a vision, a passion, a way of allowing people to come forward and declare, and they bring the experience of how to measure outcomes, how to make sure that out of all the work that is done something gets accomplished. The something might be small, but we move the world in increments.

Caron Atlas: We need to be sitting down more at each other's tables ... really learning more about our common values and our common strategies. ... Part of it is communication, but part of it is developing joint strategies.

Claudine Brown: In all the communications on art policy, we name problems but we haven't had a movement where we solve any of them. We just kind of lift up all the challenges that we are facing. There are other communities like the environmental community and the healthcare community that have had some real successes. I think that it is real important that we start working with activist organizations with whom we have overlapping issues so that we can start realizing some.

Bob Morgan: Art can suck people into activism. Just the beauty and presence of it. People will take you on with your art if they want your art enough. They'll swallow their pride and take the activism with it.

Many ROOTS members and their colleagues grew up in the South with the Civil Rights Movement. Nayo Watkins equated what she learned about civil rights with what she believes about human rights.

Nayo Watkins: When I understood I was an activist I was probably about 17 years old, in Mississippi. The principles and the values that I learned then about what civil rights are, and what human rights are -- and it is very hard to separate those two things. It is very hard to teach somebody to be human without telling them the historical and civic scope in which they live. If you tell somebody to stand up and be straight and they are in a 70-mile-an-hour hurricane, they need to know what that wind is about. I see it as very hard to deal with a separation between human and civil rights.

Some Southern artists learned firsthand about the Civil Rights Movement's incorporation of different art forms in that cultural battle. Ann Grundy was the daughter of the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was taught something very specific about music.

Ann Grundy: The 16th Street Baptist Church was not only one of the organizing sites for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was an African cultural Mecca. Even now, I am 56 years old, I can still see Friday afternoons: Windows are up. The place is filled with "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and then Talladega's choir, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Morehouse Glee Club. All of these people, all of them would come to my father's church and give these concerts. ... He would explain to me. He would interpret it. So, I grew up understanding that the songs I was listening to were not about dying and going to heaven and loving Jesus. These were fighting songs! So, when I heard the choir sing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," I knew they were not talking about somebody called Jesus hanging from a cross. It was really a description of what was happening to African people. Did you see what America did to me?

Grundy works to pass along the history of African-American people and their civil-rights struggle to young people in her day-camp programs. Her students travel an African-American history trail, visiting important historical sites and hearing about the history firsthand.

Ann Grundy: Every black person in this room knows that we've lost. We have lost. The public schools are not about to teach this history. Because if they do, they empower us. And if they empower us, we will knock down the walls. And they know that. So, somebody has to step forward, and I'm saying every black church -- forget the Bible. Teach our Bible! Or teach it as a companion piece. But we've got to begin to put back in place the things that make us whole. You know, you don't think human beings have done it and you don't think human beings can do it.

And so, my husband and I decided, and we found some other people that felt the same way we did, and we decided that rather than just curse the darkness we are going to light a candle. Out of that Nia Day Camp was born. Nia is a Swahili word that means purpose. We began this day camp sort of out of our house a little bit, out of the Y, out of wherever we could. Just trying to do geography, biographies, studying certain eras. ... The program started out as a residential program. Then as we began to travel, the first place we visited was the church I knew so well in Alabama. ... We always include things like Historic Black Colleges and Universities. ... This year we did Savannah, St. Helena Island, South Carolina; and then Atlanta. In the past we have done all of Alabama, all of Mississippi. ... We are not just jumping on a bus and running down here. We are trying to research history. Quite often people who are working in the schools or working in the institutions or grounds didn't know the history. They had to go find somebody like W. W. Laws, who is a tradition in Savannah, Georgia. They had to go find the oldest citizen. So, I would call and say, "Mr. Laws, my name is Ann Grundy and I would really appreciate it if you would work with my students." Quite often these older men and women just get excited that somebody wants to know the history. Tell me what happened here. Why is this in place now?

Neill Bogan agreed with the importance of the place that historical knowledge plays in prominent institutions like media, and spoke of the participation of white Southerners in that task.

Neill Bogan: Major purveyors of history do try to change, but they have to be pushed. What I try to do is to create projects that take personal memory that has been very closely held and put it in a slightly more open circle adjacent to the major institutions in a way that they at least have to acknowledge that they've seen it. In terms of closely held history, ... white Southerners still have a special job to do for the rest of the nation, in terms of quite rightly understanding our own family histories potentially of violence, of the slave system ... very specific historical examples that speak to that historical moment. Right now we are [in a moment] in which the reversal of, for instance, civil rights laws is entirely possible.

Art on the Job: Activist Tools

Several speakers detailed ways in which they are using the tools and principles of activism in both local and national arts projects. Andres Cruz talked about strategies perfected in Central and South America for using art as an educational tool in cultural organizing. Cruz spoke of employing his Latino theater project to help educate Latino immigrant workers who have recently come to work on Kentucky horse and tobacco farms.

Andres Cruz: We understand that the immigrant who comes here doesn't have a strong political consciousness, because you know that everyone comes here to make money. ... What do you do when you have ten kids in Mexico and you have to feed this family? We are trying to change that perspective. When you are here, you can become more than a mule to work 90 hours a week. We find theater is a way to transmit, a way to create consciousness in this population that we need to educate. We have seen the struggle, not as a racial struggle or a struggle that is only in economic terms, we see the struggle in the sense that the struggle is against ignorance. That is the way we are trying to deal with this issue. So, this theater project we are trying to create, which is a community theater project, we don't want to become a traditional theater group and present plays in every single venue in the city. We want to go to the workers. The idea that we have is to take this project to the horse farms, the tobacco farms ... there is a community there which doesn't have access to any cultural indeterminate, that doesn't have any access to education. ... For the horse farms, what we are offering is that ... you will have better workers. In that sense, you will be able to make more profits.

Andrea Assaf talked about the Animating Democracy Initiative, a nationwide collaborative effort to use the arts to bring citizens together for public dialogue around important issues.

Andrea Assaf: One of the goals is to help create partnerships and collaborations between artists and dialogue specialists, with a particular notion of what dialogue is, what community dialogue and civic issues can be, which is different from debate where people will try to prove each other wrong. It is different from provocation, and different from casual conversation, and maybe even different from discourse. Really, what can happen in public settings, when people can really suspend judgment long enough to listen to each other's different points of view and be changed and create change in their community? How can art be a catalyst in that process?

Robert Morgan described a project that brought arts participants directly into a potent lobbying process in the Kentucky state legislature.

Robert Morgan: I want to share an experience about empowering and bringing together a group of people to do lobbying in the state legislature in Kentucky for access to sterile syringes. I always introduce myself first as an artist. I am an artist by profession. I am an artist in your community and I have issues concerning HIV and AIDS and drug addiction. I am talking about empowering and organizing a group of African-American junkies and transgendered, injected drug users with AIDS to state legislatures offices to share their personal experiences and explain to them that this is what is going on in their communities. By the nature of people telling their personal stories, they can effect a change in that individual person to see how the future of their community is dependent on decisions they make about these people who are possibly the most frightening people that have ever walked into their office. To try and use entirely personal experience to build a better future for the state of Kentucky.

Troubled Waters: Crossing the Boundaries of Class and Race

Community art is often credited with bringing people together across the barriers that divide them to deal with concerns that they hold in common. But the FOCAS participants saw deeper issues in reaching across borders.

For Dudley Cocke, diversity in the audience is an essential element for success in his area of work.

Dudley Cocke: I'm very convinced that we will never have a golden age of performing arts in this country without a diverse audience. It is pretty ironic to look back at Shakespeare, 150 years before the birth of democracy, and know that everyone from the queen to the joiner was in that house. We struggle all the time in our theaters to even approach that diversity. John O'Neal agreed that mainstream art reaches an exclusive audience and expresses an exclusive culture, leaving out other classes and cultures.

John O'Neal: I agree with the ones who hold that every social expression is the expression of some community. So-called "mainstream" art is the expression of, in America, those who control the American society. The bourgeois class. The class of the merchants. I guess it is beyond the bourgeois now, because the big corporations dominate and control the standards of value. So, I guess what varies is what community you identify with, and what community you are trying to serve. ... That old bugaboo of class, then: how we come to understand our social, political and economic interests.

But Andres Cruz feels it is imperative to include the classes that control social change.

Andres Cruz: I have the idea that social change comes from the middle class up. We also have to target the Anglo-speaking population that can provide some kind of change. [Our] play is bilingual in the sense that we are trying to reach both audiences to create change. ... one more artist is one less solider. That is what we are trying to create.

Ann Grundy, on the other hand, limits participation in her cultural education projects to African-American children, but she was challenged by the following exchange with a young white conference-goer:

Ann Grundy: When we talk about education for children, it is my understanding that the education for people who have been historically oppressed has to be a different education from those who have been privileged -- whether they know it or not. [In] America, you know, white skin gets you in. Just take a bath, shave that beard and you are in. African children, children of color, have a different burden. The worst challenge in a racist society is the challenge to reclaim one's own spirit. I know what my ambition is, I can't do that with white children. I know what my limitations are. I don't share the white experience. My experience with white people has not been wonderful. Do you hear what I'm saying? So, I have to be honest with myself and say, if this mission is about history -- about reclaiming spirit -- who is my audience? My children. And children who look like them. There have been times in Lexington when I've gone to groups to ask for money. Quite often I am asked this question: "Why don't you take white children?" And the only response I can give is that if you think what we do is valuable, come and talk to me. I will share with you the structure, the framework and all of that. Then you get on a bus and take white children and do it. I can't do that.

Erin Anderson: It is not just the black experience. It is all of our experience. It is all of our history. I myself go to a predominantly black school. All of my experiences are with black people. I can say that in my history of being raised in what is a privileged situation, I also experience the black person's lack of privilege in certain areas. It is all of our history. We all share those common things. By separating it, it is continuing the segregation of our society and of our history. The truth is it is all of our history.

Ann Grundy: But I'll tell you what white people ought to be dealing with. You get on a bus, this is what your curriculum ought to be. Why is it in the world that white people believe -- historically, collectively, there are individuals who are different, but generally speaking, from black eyes -- why do white people think that they always have to be in charge? They've got to be right. It's got to be their damn way or no damn way at all. That is the question white people ought to be asking. That is a profound question. It goes way back to the mountains and all that sort of stuff. I'm not capable of teaching that.

Eren McGinnis talked about divisions comparatively new to the South, where the issue of "race" has been predominantly black and white.

Eren McGinnis: I think that probably the work that needs to be done now in our community, interestingly enough, is between the Latino and African-American communities. These are places where there are a lot of problems. It is going to grow. ... It is interesting, because of media representations the Mexicans here were very, very racist towards African-Americans. Why? Well, there are not many in Mexico and the images that they have of them tend to be of drug dealers, of this or that, and they are not really very flattering. For the Latino community, they are quite frightened. I think looking the other way, they are fighting for the same jobs. They are living in the same spaces. A.B. Spellman pushed the "race" issue into a new realm of multinationalism, and a new generation.

A.B. Spellman: The thing about problems or issues is that they do not segregate themselves: "That is your issue over there." In fact they do move around the room and mutate into new forms. We do meet that up with the arrival of all these people who now live in our country. It is a polychromatic issue that we have now. That is wonderful to me. I really enjoy the fact that I walk down the street and I see and hear all these languages spoken and hear all these different people and kinds of cuisine. And I start to meet second-generation artists who are starting to make new kinds of forms out of the interface of the culture that they brought and the culture that they found. You were talking about Kentucky, that is a national story. The thing is that the kids from these new families are lost between a suspended reality, between the culture of their home and the culture of their peers. We find the arts move into that to a very great extent.

Whatever the gap to be bridged, Dudley Cocke finds it's more effective to build the bridge than to talk about it, and art helps.

Dudley Cocke: With one of the plays we made with Junebug Productions, called "Junebug Jack," ... we would get the music to a community ... a couple of months before and ask the community to put together an ecumenical choir. They put together somebody from the A.M.E. church, some women's chorus, some Presbyterian church. Well, here you had a diversity of the community working on a piece of art. There was no sensitivity to racism up front. It was, we gotta make this art. We've got this rehearsal to do. We've got to get this singing together. So, through a period of rehearsing together over months and finding that they could make beautiful art together these other bonds and understandings began to form. A whole new possibility in that community would open up.

Power Relationships: Partnering with Organizations

FOCAS attendees had a lot to say about accomplishing their goals through collaborations with art and nonarts organizations and agencies, and about the benefits of, and even necessity for, consortia, coalitions and relationships of all kinds. FOCAS itself modeled many kinds of collaborations, not least among its producing team of Lisa Mount, Laverne Zabielski, Crystal Wilkinson and Suella McMillan.

Hasan Davis described his ability to leverage influence with government bodies, based on his accomplishments as an artist who also holds a law degree.

Hasan Davis: As soon as I open my mouth, because I chair the Governor's Group and serve as a national advisor on juvenile issues, people go, "Oh. Well, Hasan has something to say." And it is the same thing that I've been saying for the last ten years, but all of a sudden there are people listening. What that gives me the power to do is to go in and say really sweeping things like, "Art is the only thing that is going to save our next generation." And all those men in those suits go, "Yeah. Um. Yeah. Um Yeah. That is exactly what I was thinking." And I don't have no problem with them saying that they were right there the whole time, even though I know they weren't. This is how we move the system along. So, we have to become more creative. I used to be really mad. I hated wearing suits and I wouldn't do it for nobody. Now I know. If I put a suit on and I go in, I can get them to do what we need them to do. ...

I've been working also with a group of young folks in a secure residential facility, young people who have broken the law. I do this work because I understand that there are a lot of young people out there who have been discounted or removed from the system. We have the power, the means to redevelop them and recreate them as whole human beings. I believe that art is the way to do that. I've been able to leverage my power in this committee to start to generate more energy through the arts council and through organizations across the state to get art programs in juvenile facilities, to create real dialogue and building of artistic heart in criminal minds. I think it is that same transformation that Andres is talking about. We give them the pen and they have to drop the sword.

Andres Cruz talked about different sorts of leverage with those he is trying to influence.

Andres Cruz: There is no resistance at all from the horse industry. It has been very easy. ... The problem I see I'm gonna have is going to the tobacco farms. First you've got the contractor, who really doesn't want to lose any profit and doesn't pay any taxes, of course, and the farmer who thinks of these workers and the only thing he sees is the efficiency of the worker. The big issue is gonna be to see how we are gonna get there. I've got a connection with somebody in a shady part of town. We'll get there. Don't worry.

Participants who work in national agencies urged the development of wide-ranging partnerships and networks.

A.B. Spellman: One trend that we [at the National Endowment for the Arts] did note in the work of community-based artists and arts organizations that work close to the ground, as all you do, is the formation of partnerships was getting to be more and more important. These were partnerships across the spectrum of nonprofit and social-service work. We have partnerships between arts organizations and everybody from zoos to healthcare facilities. They are yielding great and tangible results.

Let me read to you a project example. This is the Log Cabin Literary Center in Boise, Idaho, not known heretofore as an exemplar of multiculturalism. This is for a project with the Idaho Health and Human Resources Road to Recovery, The Boise Art Museum, Zoo Boise, The Idaho Historical Museum, The Nature Center, The Boise Public Library and the Boise Department of Parks and Recreation. A series of field-trips, workshops and a writing camp for students age 9-14 to write about their experiences. Thirty-five children will participate in this project, mostly Mexican-American, who reside in rural southwest Idaho's agricultural communities. English is a second language for almost all of the participants. They will develop writing skills by visiting museums, libraries and community centers and crafting essays, journals, poems and stories. Here we have artists moving right into an issue that is important to the development of these individuals in this strange new place they are finding themselves in. This is taking place all over the country in all kinds of shapes and forms.

Some spoke of an urgent need for the strength offered by coalitions.

Claudine Brown: We [at the Nathan Cummings Foundation] learned a lot about the characteristics of strong community-based institutions. ... What we recognized was that ... a lot of these projects were great projects and were being worked on in isolation. Sometimes we would say to a grantee, do you know about that person doing this work on the west coast, and they would never have heard of them. We were really conscious of the fact that there was no broad communications strategy that allowed community-based cultural workers to engage in meaningful discourse and share ideas.

MK Wegmann: We are not invited into the established arts organizations. The community-based arts work is driven by artists. Although I don't want to be negative, artists are at the bottom of the food-chain in the national support system for artistic practice. We don't control the resources and we have to struggle to gain access to the resources. ... with the majority of those resources going to the larger, more established organizations. How do we counteract that? I think there are a number of ways. One of which is building partnership and coalitions. To find our allies where they are.

Wegmann gave examples of the partnerships her organization, the National Performance Network, is creating with the Network of Cultural Centers of Color on subsidies for touring artists of color; with the National Association of Artist Organizations, Diverse Works Art Center in Houston, Texas, and the Arts Administration Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a mentorship program for young arts administrators; and with Arts International and La Red, a Latin American network, on international cultural exchange.

Such collaboration means strong partnership between artists and the administrators of organizations, said Wegmann. She advised the artists present to partner with arts administrators and consider them allies, not adversaries, in spite of historical tension between the two groups.

MK Wegmann: Administrators are not in opposition to artists. Administrators provide the infrastructure that gives artists the framework to do their work. But the arts-administration programs are not turning out people who understand artist-centered work, who have experience or appreciate the value of artist centered work or community-based work.

Power Over or Power With: Working with Project Participants

Every conversation at FOCAS included basic principles for working with project participants in art for social change. Whether the area of concern was trust, accountability, liability, commitment, communication or negotiating differences, the conversation started and ended at the same place: partnership. Treating project participants as collaborators -- rather than the subjects or objects of a project -- was seen as the right thing, the most effective thing to do.

But collaboration with populations of people in desperate need takes training and skill. Whether the project team is working with incarcerated young people, elders with health problems, people with disabilities, people with HIV and AIDS or immigrants for whom English is a second language, it is clear there are enormous adjustments to be made every day, and often compromises.

One of the major problems in such projects is developing a sense of commitment among participants -- getting them to "show up" consistently. The key is strong personal relationships. Several people spoke to this:

The voice of an unidentified woman: When we are making work, what does it mean when people can come or can't come? ... I feel like the more I can help to facilitate the groups that I work with to buy into this -- I don't want to use that word buy -- to participate in the notion of their group-ness, right? -- then the less it is about me trying to manage people being there. Now, there is always going to be a reason. I work with three different ensembles. One of them is a group of people with disabilities. There are lots of reasons why people can't get there, you know. And some of it has to do with poverty, and some of it has to do with health stuff. There are always legitimate reasons why anybody can't be somewhere. What I find is that the more the group is cohesive, the more they help each other show up. So, it becomes about how can I help you get this ride, right? How can I maybe help you find somebody to cover for you at work? That is a whole different way of having to think about things. A lot of us who come out of more traditional theater backgrounds would think that the director is somebody who tells people what to do. I just find that the more the process by which we create work involves people, the more they commit to the notion of the work itself and the easier it is for them to show up. If somebody can't be there for rehearsal or performance, then it is going to reflect on the other people. Hasan Davis spoke eloquently about commitment in his storytelling workshops with young white people who have broken the law, living in a secure residential facility in a white Kentucky county -- a challenge and an opportunity for interracial relations.

Hasan Davis: It has really been exciting to me to see these young people, almost all white, almost all from communities that have never purposely interacted with an African-American on any level, and all they've heard is what daddy and granddaddy told them, and we have these conversations pretty openly now. All they know is what they saw on "New Jack City" or [the] gang-bang movie of the week, and then they have a real opportunity to have a meaningful, deep relationship with someone who is trying to build them up. Not only are we building art, we are building community. ...

One of the things I find really interesting is that sometimes the adult who is supposed to be connecting with these young folks usually drops the ball. They are the ones who don't have the [facility] space for you to do something. Or "We forgot you were coming." I try to conduct my work by going with open-space technology. Those who come are the ones that do, and we do. A lot of my young folks say that they couldn't come because they got a job. "I'm 16 years old and I am still trying to take care of my parents and my younger brother and sister." So, you know, we make allowances. If I say, "No. You need to be here," then they won't come at all. I really see that each of those connections builds something. The fact that the door stays open means that when they have the opportunity, rather than sit down and play Play-station, or go and smoke some cigarettes and hang out with the boys, they will show up again. They'll tell me, "So-and-so told me that I needed to come 'cause I haven't been here in two weeks." That tells me a lot about the connection we have made. I want to keep making those connections. ...

So, what I encourage in these young people is accountability. If I can say what my dreams are to myself, and I don't have the strength or the courage to say it out loud, then it is really easy for me to adjust that when the world starts to stomp on me. "I didn't really mean that I wanted to be a lawyer. I meant that I was going to need a lawyer." ... But the process moves us from that, because once we say things out loud, once we share our dreams with the people that we hold as a community, then we have accountability. That is what our young people need to understand: that there are people that are going to hold them responsible for their dreams, but also help them reach those dreams. ... We are building minds that are gonna be really hard to force back into the box that says those people over there are different from me. ... "No, no, no, no. I'm gonna graduate 'cause I have to go on and do some things different than what my daddy did." And for me that's when you know you've done something. It's not about the lecture of it. It's about the passion, and art is passion. We've given opportunity for lots of young people to find a real passion to live beyond what they've been taught to accept, to expect. There is a phrase that is around this community, these mountain communities, called "gettin' above your raisin's." It is a whole idea that you don't have the right to ever dream past where your parents went, to go above where you've been raised. Our objective is to destroy that statement. To remove it from the lexicon of Appalachian thought.

Eren McGinnis talked about cultural difference and two elements she finds at work with Latino participants.

Eren McGinnis: There is something that is called "Latino time". When we were working with a family, oftentimes they were late. Sometimes they didn't even show up. I am familiar with "Latino time" 'cause I sort of run on it myself. ... Like, say I have a meeting with you tomorrow at 8. If I don't show up it is kind of okay, because as long as no one died, it is fine. There is no phone call, no explanation. But I think part of my gig in being a mother and also trying to do filmmaking is that I've had to be very flexible. I'm not going to let people not showing up for meetings rock my world. It usually works out for the best, because maybe he was involved with this or that and so it is better for them to come when they are ready to. I just try to be very flexible and not worry about things like that. ...

I've had the experience of living in two different countries at different parts of my life. I lived in Ireland for a year, and I just recently got back from Mexico. When you do that, you realize how in American culture we are so obsessed with utilizing every second of our time in the most effective and efficient way. Being brought up in that system, I am kind of the same. The Mexicans would put it to me: "While I am hanging out--" or "While I was doing this--," and I'm thinking why aren't you working? They said they are thinking. They are musing. So, it is such a different creative process than what we are used to. I think because we are all way more type-A. I think it is something important culturally to think about. When we are hard-working every second we can, we forget about that musing time.

Andres Cruz: We had a rehearsal last night. We have 12 people [in the project] and five show up. That tells you something. There has to be a balance, but I think in this case the main issue is the process. I think there is a common link for us, the people who belong to this group, that we have a common struggle. That balances the problems that we have to get through together. Most of the people who work in this project don't have [immigration] documents. They have to be washing dishes or doing whatever, and that is a priority. ... We've got six people that don't have more than three months to live in the United States. So for them it is like time is different, business is different, deportation is a problem. ...We have learned to develop new connections and a new language. We've got people that don't speak English, that don't speak Spanish, and we are working together to create something. So, what is our balance? Our balance is a compromise, an idea that we are trying to create together.

Your Voice, My Voice, Our Voices: Who Speaks and in What Language?

For many at FOCAS, the instrument for social change in a project is the facilitation of unheard voices, often in the form of theater or personal storytelling. Hasan Davis calls it "providing a chance to re-order the world, not the way it should be, but the way we would like it to be. ... That kid needs somebody to hear his voice, to know who he is, to know that he does dream even if it is only to himself. When he has the opportunity to share that dream with the rest of the world, then he is a possibility." Eren McGinnis works with Latino women, "someone who has never seen herself on television. She has always seen herself represented kind of the same way a lot of African-Americans are: kind of bad people, drug dealers, the guy who robbed the convenient store. So, in the type of work I do it is always a struggle and always an effort to show people and to help people whose voices need to be heard."

But the classic image of the artist is one who uses his/her own voice. FOCAS gave some time to the issue of the artist's individual vision, and whether that has to be given up in favor of facilitating other voices. Are the two functions mutually exclusive? Alice Lovelace found solutions that, for her, met both needs:

Alice Lovelace: What I found is that I did need, ultimately, some personal form of expression that was mine. That I owned. That I couldn't be always somebody else's voice. So, what my visionary art became actually was two things that I started to do. One is I developed a process that I call "group-speak." It is a process that allows me to be within a group of people for a certain amount of time and to actually in real time record all of the wisdom amongst the group. I've done it for groups as small as 18 and as large as 250. It is an extraordinary process, and every time I do it and I give the group-speak back to the group, it reinforces to me that indeed this is a visionary thing that I do. The other is the word "wizard," which essentially is being a poet without a net. I allow other people to define what the context of my work will be. Then my job is to give back to them the collaborative, the interconnectedness of what they've given me. Individually they give me pieces of visions, images, words and then my job is to show the group that even though all these things don't appear to be joined, my job is to connect them all together. Which is another way of my saying to groups of people, you are a community whether you know it or not.

Jan Cohen-Cruz pointed to the true artistic skill it takes to organize and direct a community arts project, a task that calls on individual training, talent and vision, and is not a mere act of self-sacrifice.

Jan Cohen-Cruz: Directorial craft is even more important in community-based work, where the director may be the only one trained. If the pleasure of viewing can't be based on the actors' dexterity, then a director who recognizes what each person does best is essential. Who can dance or tell a great story? Who sings in their church choir? Is there an opportunity for spectacle? How can the set and costumes underscore the ideological themes? Who plays an instrument?

... And as for the primacy of technique, there are artists who hide behind it; one of the reasons that directors integrate people with a passionate relationship to the subject is to reinvigorate the art. Mat Schwarzman spoke with startling passion about the dangers of overvaluing individual technical virtuosity, and identified it as a central social issue.

Mat Schwarzman: I don't think you have to look any further than the world of art and culture in our society to find where fascism breeds. I would say that any society in which the individual, technical virtuosity of an artist so far exceeds the social motivations and commitments of an artist in importance, then that society is constantly preparing for war. And anybody who has read Walter Benjamin will see here I am paraphrasing him. Any society in which external human beauty so far exceeds inner human beauty in value, that society is unjust because it fetishizes the fixed over those things that human beings can change.

Sonja Kuftinec brought forth the thorny issue of the artist's own ethics and beliefs, versus the values put forth by participants in a community project.

Sonja Kuftinec: The ethical relationship of the practitioner to the community: How much should the artist allow the community-based participants to "see what they want on stage" when it goes against the artist's own belief and values? ... How much is what [the participants] want influenced by a mediated culture, hegemonic ideology and institutional power relationships? ... How much is it the responsibility of the artist to engage in that kind of social context as well as what an individual expresses as what he or she wants. Does community-based theater have to have a radical or socially progressive agenda? How reflexive should the practitioner be about the work? What responsibility, if any, does a critic have to point out to institutional links that have nothing to do with the product on stage? Who represents whom and in what language?

Questions of Values: Naming and Changing the Criteria

One of the weightiest topics to arise at FOCAS was the value of community-based art. What is it worth -- to artists, activists, communities, critics, politicians and funders? How is its worth assessed? How does that assessment affect the direction, support, effectiveness and sustainability of the work? What are the terms of that measurement and can they be changed? The most obvious measure is money.

Nayo Watkins: We in ROOTS know that one of the issues has been how do we articulate this kind of art in a way that people can make a living, in a way that participants can get paid. How do we get funders to understand that this is not a lesser art. ... we must be able to articulate this work in ways that we can work out that funding. That people can get paid.

Voice of unidentified man: I want to support the idea that we actually do need to think in monetary terms. I recently have started some small programs and I just took it on myself to pay people to do something even though they weren't expecting the money. It doesn't matter to them and the money doesn't really matter to me, but it matters to everybody else. Everybody else is thinking in dollars.

John Grimsley: Applying for grants makes you start to think to yourself, am I applying for this grant because I know what they want to hear? They want to hear the words that sing to them: multidisciplinary, incubator, and such, such, such. I would just really kind of urge people to go into the community and not wait for the funding. There is no time.

Jan Cohen-Cruz enumerated some misconceptions about community art:

Jan Cohen-Cruz: ... the assumption that community arts is an imitation of professional art -- just not as good. Not at all about aesthetics, but rather a form of social work. Composed strictly of amateurs and only for their own edification. Of no interest to an outside audience.

Kathie DeNobriga: Shifting the terms of the debate so that rather than being held hostage and subject to someone else's evaluation of what is excellent or quality, we reframe the whole debate and talk about things in terms of what the value is. ... We have to really, really claim the ground of value and stand on it firmly. That is what is important, the value of this to the people who are participating.

Ann Kilkelly: One of the places I live is in the academy where the gatekeepers apply exactly those kinds of criteria we are talking about: What is good art and what isn't. They apply that to all the political positions and the programs that are all about social change. It is all a whole system of thinking about what makes something good, or viable. I think you are right, that you can describe all the art that we are hearing about in ways that emphasize its value. You can talk about its flexibility. You can talk about its capacity not to speak in a single voice. You can talk about the multiple dimensions of it that don't attempt to squeeze everybody into the same aesthetic. Those things can actually be talked about as the quality, if we want to use that word at all. ... You've heard: cohesion, energy, commitment, integrity, hearing multiple voices, action as a result. Those are really important ideas about quality that we need to argue for so that those of us who sit in these ivory towers can teach those kinds of values and carry them on. We can change that.

Several speakers referred to the arts-funding apparatus, how it works, what its responsibilities are, what it lacks and what can be and is being done to change it.

Dudley Cocke: I think we lost a lot of our democratic leadership for the arts when we lost the federal role. Particularly the two endowments [Arts and Humanities]. I think they were our chief spokespeople for issues like inclusion and cultural equity. So, I think, in this time where their leadership was really undermined, we have to be very careful in the funding situation that we find ourselves in. It is a lot of private money. Private money is not obliged to the public purpose in the same way that public money is. With the endowment you could always say, hey, it is my tax money too. Now, I think a strong argument can be made because of the tax preference that private foundations get. It is also public money. But I don't think that we are making that case. I think we need to continue to be in conversation with the private funders. We need to find ways to get them to hear our stories and think about our realities. We are going to have to push against the stream, because I think, from my perspective, things in the last five, six, seven, eight years have gotten much more insular and private in the funding world.

Claudine Brown: Our [foundation's] guidelines changed this January and we began to look at how to broaden the field of community-based arts. We now do something called art and social justice. ...We had to get real clear about what community-based work was. We posed four questions that we still use and think are still meaningful. ... Does your board and your staff represent the constituency you are supporting? ... What is the quality of the conversation you are having in your community? ... What kind of cultural citizen are you? We were asking, who do you partner with? ... . The final question ... was the track record of the people working on this project. Others emphasized the importance of the artist's voice in politics and cultural policy making.

Steve Bailey: I would like to see ROOTS become a part of a greater arts think tank in the United States. Policy is being developed by institutions. If we are not at the table we need to make our own table.

Erin Anderson: Be the bees in the politician's bonnets. Instead of just waiting for them to come to us, start sending them letters and constantly bothering them to get involved so that they can form legislation nationally and funding to keep this going.

Crucial to changing the debate about community arts is writing about it. It is clear to many that the practitioners have a responsibility to document the work themselves.

MK Wegmann: Too much of our work has come and gone without there being any archiving, any documentation. The big trend is towards evaluation, but I think documentation is far more important. It is critical that we write about what we do. And that we distribute those writings when they happen.

Ann Kilkelly: I think [what] is troubling about the community-based art world is ... the work is so specific to its own context often that ... it is very difficult for people to know the work in any specific way. We might all know a film because it is distributed to millions, or even a play that has a run of many years. With this work, it isn't even about interpreting it. I think that writers have to describe things. ... It is so ironic to me that the most live and present kind of theater or performance that I know of is that which almost nobody sees. ... I really think it is deeply important that writing and criticism be seen as service to artists. Not in an altruistic sense, but in a really creative and powerful sense. You can be an artist and write about it. Those functions can be very distinct, but they needn't be.

One whole session was devoted to criticism and community arts. It was infused with much of the spirit of other conversations about the value of this work, and how it can be articulated and evaluated to build the field. Once again, "collaboration" was a word used to describe a potentially adversarial relationship -- this time between the artist and the critic.

John O'Neal: No matter how well practiced, and how skilled we are, it is always possible to do better. Then it seems to me that the way we get better, assuming that we work as hard as we can to do what we do, is by sharing our work with others and experiencing the critical evaluation of our efforts by their best efforts. So, from this derives the function of the critic. The critic's job is to say to the artist, if this is what you are trying to do, then have you considered doing this, that? ... Also to consult with the third part of the communication experience, the audience. Help them come to grips with how they can use the material that the artist has shared with them. As long as all three parts to the experience share the same recognition of what it is and how to make it better.

Sonja Kuftinec: The critic is often perceived as [having] a kind of parasitic relationship to the art work. Uninformed and overly theoretical at the same time. Patronizing, confused, biased and reductive. ... Reflexive ethnography [is] a productive way of thinking about how we might negotiate the relationship between the critic and the artist. ... I write and share a lot of [my writing] with [the artists] and then I get a lot of things back ... useful fact corrections, tone corrections and expansions of stories that I try to weave back into my writing. ... A lot of times writers can actually become part of the process.

Lynn Jeffries: What do artists want from critics?... [1] We now have young people flocking to us and asking us to train them in our methodologies so they can go out and do community-based theater. ... We would love to be able to hand them something to read that explains what we

Original CAN/API publication: April 2003

Cite This

Linda Frye Burnham. “Conversations at the Intersection of Art and Activism.” October 22, 2015.

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