Telling New Stories

Reflections from an Art and Social Justice Funder

Elizabeth Méndez Berry

Story matters, and we are at a pivotal moment in which there is a growing understanding that narratives that move hearts and minds are critical. Those of us who work at the intersection of the arts and social justice have known this for some time — in the words of Jeff Chang, “cultural change precedes political change” — but it has become apparent to many others that without compelling storytelling, policy platforms do not stick.

In my work leading the Artists Engaging in Social Change portfolio at the Surdna Foundation, a hundred-year-old social justice foundation that works for just and sustainable communities, I have advocated for the value of story: new stories that disrupt old narratives, stories from communities that are more often talked about than talked with, stories that dissolve the barriers between us. In the words of Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), the goal is to create “a new American mythology that is not built on segregation.”

In this role, I have supported organizations — like AAWW and Voices of Our Nations — that advance this alternate narrative, as well as individual artists, like the photographer Matika Wilbur, whose Project 562 captures every federally recognized tribe with the goal of demonstrating that Native American communities are alive despite being “continually represented as the leathered and feathered vanishing race.”

I have also moved back and forth between arts and social justice spaces, advocating for the value of culture and storytelling to social justice funders, and for the importance of a social justice and equity lens in the arts. As I wrap up my time here, it seems like an opportune moment to share an experience that provides a window into the possibilities of crossing over.

In June of this year, my colleague Jessica Garz and I cohosted a panel at the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) convening in Oakland. NFG is one of the most progressive funder networks in the country, and it has a deep commitment to social and economic justice but less of a history of cultural work. Called “The Art of Change,” the panel featured the Los Angeles filmmaker Alex Rivera, the Philadelphia artist Pepón Osorio, and Kiyoko McCrae of the New Orleans theater company Junebug Productions. Before the panel started, I handed out index cards and asked participants to list one thing they were hoping to learn from the panel. Among the questions were the following:

  • How can social change advocates see the arts as an essential element in movement building rather than as an add-on?
  • What are specific ways to support cultural shifts toward social/racial/class/gender transformation?
  • How can we partner with or spotlight artists better and with more authenticity?

There was curiosity and enthusiasm in the room, and the presentations from the artists added texture to the title. Pepón Osorio’s reForm project memorialized one of the thirty-one Philadelphia schools that were shut down over the past few years. To execute it, Osorio engaged a group of former students. They told stories about the impact of its closure on their lives, but they also worked with him to envision their ideal school, and built a maquette of that design, which was part of the exhibit. Over the course of working together, the students’ sense of themselves shifted to the point that they spoke out at a formal hearing of the School Reform Commission, the governing body that had decided to shut down the school.

Members of the audience at the panel identified the process of personal transformation that the students underwent as the type of empowerment usually associated with organizing, not the arts. That was a lightbulb moment for the group: at their best, participatory arts projects can enable people to find their own voices and perhaps to even harmonize with one another. In addition to those personal shifts for the young people, the project shifted the broader narrative about that school, from it being seen as a problem to being celebrated as a beloved community institution. The project got great press both locally and nationally and led members of the Reform Commission to visit.

For his part, Rivera, whose video and film work about the Latino experience has reached millions, offered some insight into the aesthetics of social change. “For the past twenty years I’ve been on something of a quest, to try to find a way to talk about our realities, our lives, and our community, through a visual language that could be many things: dignified, deep, intellectually rich, and also potentially playful and popular. I’m interested in making work that could have broad and deep reach in our culture . . . work that could sit in between forms called ‘high’ and ‘low.’” He went on to draw parallels between activism and art: “In my mind, activists are always involved in something like performance. Activists themselves are people who’ve decided to step out of the routine of everyday life and who hope to express themselves powerfully in public discourse. They inevitably confront visual questions about how to stage an event that creates a powerful impression.”

His words resonated. Afterwards, many audience members who had never made investments in the arts asked for practical ideas about how they might actually support this work. Unfortunately, the specifics of how to operationalize an art-for-social-change grantmaking strategy were given short shrift in our planning. If I were to offer the panel again, I would include a funder on the panel to help describe how to support these types of artists. The conversation also made me wonder about a skill share between arts funders and social justice funders, to discuss how they approach their work, develop strategies, and measure impact. I think this would be fertile territory.

In this new political context, the social justice sector is increasingly interested in supporting narrative work. I think the question moving forward will be if and how funders incorporate the arts into their priorities in a way that extends beyond the poster and performance at the rally and invests in artistry in a way that supports the independent vision of artists (and recognizes that their creations may not always be “on message”). I hope that as those who dream of a more just America consider how to invest in narrative change, they consider supporting those who spend their days developing stories, pictures, and experiences that move people. And to those of us who are already supporting such work, I hope we will partner with those who are curious, because this historical moment is a real opportunity for artists to lead. To create a different American dream, you need a good imagination.