ROOTS and Race

Anti-racist grant making and how it changes things

Carolyn Morris and Lisa Mount

Alternate ROOTS is a coalition of artists and cultural workers in the Southeastern USA; addressing racism and other oppressions has been integral to our mission for a long time. At our 2004 Annual Meeting this past August a panel of ROOTS' founding members discussed the function of ROOTS as a cultural continuation of the civil rights movement - beginning with our founding at the legendary Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee.

Through a strategic planning process in 2003, ROOTS realized that we were not being as inclusive as we thought, neither in our internal decision-making processes nor in our grant making practices. For example, funds were not equally or proportionately benefiting nonwhite ROOTS members and their audiences. And we didn't have a way for artists to be accountable for their commitment to anti-oppression work. We decided it was time to put our monies where our mouths were. At our 2003 Annual Meeting our sixty-plus-member board of directors decided to include anti-racist criteria in the guidelines for our core grant program, the Community/Artists Partnership Program (C/APP). [More information about this decision-making process can be found at the link to the fall 2003 ROOTS Journal on the ROOTS Web site, or at the ROOTS Reader section of the Community Arts Network.]

C/APP supports residencies and projects that extend or deepen the presence of artists within a community. Artists work with partners to address concerns that have an impact on communities of place, tradition, or spirit. We now seek projects that explicitly address the root causes of racism or other oppressions in addition to projects that serve disenfranchised communities, create cultural exchanges within immigrant communities, and develop new relationships and/or strengthen existing ones among artists/arts organizations and non-arts groups.

We changed other grantmaking criteria in response to the information we gathered during our planning process as well, including the regional distribution of funds and the size of the grants. For 2004, thanks to consistent support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation, we are fortunate to have $35,000 to distribute to ROOTS members. While this may seem a modest amount, ROOTS' successes have proven the value of small money that is strategically directed to artists who have few if any other resources.

When the proposals came in, we saw a variety of ways in which anti-racist activities could be addressed. Some of the projects that were funded tackled black and white conflict head on:

  • Creative Teams trained artists, community leaders, and youth through art making and diversity workshops to address racism and its manifestations in Beaufort County, South Carolina.
  • Maurice and Carlton Turner of M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction) and Kathy Randels of Art Spot Productions partnered with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi to create an arts festival. The resulting "State of the Nation Art & Performance Festival" created a performance and exhibition forum for democracy and an open space for discussions on the state of our nation. It also served as a laboratory for the community to study how artists create socially infused art through one-on-one dialogue.

Other C/APP grantees used this opportunity to address shifting demographics:

  • In Louisville, Kentucky, Gregory Acker developed a project in collaboration with Americana Community Center, Zambia Nkrumah/River City Drum Corp., and Jefferson Community College to make public installations and performances with recent immigrants, refugees, and low-income families. The project offered a way for those who are often silent to let their voices be heard.
  • At Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs, Georgia - a school with a more than 50 percent nonwhite population - international students painted a mural to reflect the diversity of their school and community in collaboration with Gateway Performance Productions and their artistic associate, Gerard Mo Chara Kelly, an internationally acclaimed muralist and former prisoner of war in the Long Kesh concentration camp.

The conflict-of-interest-free panel that we assembled to make the 2004 C/APP grant decisions suggested that ROOTS provide grantees with a working definition of racism. In 1995 the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond taught the ROOTS community their definition, and it has guided much of our work since then: Racism = Prejudice + Power. Renewed focus on this question has led to an exploration of more nuanced definitions of racism by Resources for Social Change, ROOTS' community arts training arm. A clarification will appear in the 2005 guidelines for the program.

This year's Annual Meeting was strongly affected by the direction we took last year. In 2003, as in many other years, it was difficult for the membership to hear that ROOTS was not fully reflecting our mission in our programs and services. Although it was a struggle, we developed a plan that has resulted in outstanding community arts projects being funded. Representatives from the funded projects participated in the 2004 Annual Meeting and helped make it especially dynamic. Reports from the meeting will be included in the fall 2004 issue of the Up from the ROOTS Journal.

Being more inclusive and equitable in our 2004 giving helped increase the number of artists, community organizers, and arts administrators of color at the 2004 Annual Meeting. Additionally, we welcomed a younger generation to ROOTS who reflected race in all its shifting definitions and who were completely comfortable with deep conversations about oppression.

ROOTS has been willing and able to address internal dimensions of racism, privilege, and power through dialogue and through professional development for our executive committee and our members by Resources for Social Change. As a result, we have built greater trust both internally and externally among our members and our constituents.

ROOTS is much healthier because of our decision to specify that uprooting racism is a priority for the organization and the communities our members serve. We are intrigued to see how this choice will continue to play out over the coming years.

Carolyn Morris is executive director, Alternate ROOTS; Lisa Mount is immediate past board chair, Alternate ROOTS.