Operating from the Place of Yes

Sitting here in the second half of the day at the preconference session for “Culture at the Intersection of Race, Space, and Place,” my overriding takeaway is about the transformative power of the arts.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

It seems like everywhere you turn these days in the social justice/progressive nonprofit world, the catch phrase is “transformative not transactional change.” As I mentioned in my first post, I’m a local government staffer by day, and our bureaucracies and elected offices specialize in transactional exchanges—here’s some money for a program, here are some services, here’s a policy change even… but transformative change, what the heck do you mean by that? (I imagine myself raising the topic of transformational change with a city council aide or a county agency head and the raised eyebrow or blank look at best before we get down to business discussing that, you got it, transactional thing we’re trying to get done.)

Yet the reason this catch phrase has caught on, and is more than a catch phrase, is because I think many of us recognize the truth of the need for deep shifts in how our institutions, norms and practices operate in reproducing and maintaining inequity, injustice, and exclusion. Which brings me to this theme of reimagining the role of the arts and artists in social movements.

Earlier this morning, Favianna Rodriguez, an Oakland-born and bred gem, spoke about how social justice spaces tend to privilege action, often in a “fight back” mode against something. Reactive action, even if it’s focused on prevention, well-planned, and proactively undertaken. (This is the space in which I primarily work.) Artists on the other hand, “work in the realm of ideas; in the space of yes, not no,” as Favianna put it.

To elaborate on this, I think of the work of Octavia Butler, opening up the imaginative capacities we need to contend with where our society’s fissures take us in the not-so-distant future. This isn’t about playing some music to open up a conference, providing the lunchtime entertainment, and making some posters. It’s about arts and culture as intellectual work and a strategic lens as well as a social value for the world we want to live in, to fight for. It’s about an integration of arts into social movements, recognizing that without culture, we can’t change politics—an insight at the heart of the national organization Culture Strike that Favianna helped to found along with my ColorLines compadre Jeff Chang and others.

Maybe all this is common knowledge for the GIA audience. For me and many of us who are not in the arts and culture sphere, it’s still a bit mind-blowing.

Two exciting initiatives/ideas that I took away from the afternoon discussion that build on the theme of the “yes”:

“Radical Imagination for Social Justice”—F. Javier Torres-Campos of the Surdna Foundation shared an example of how social justice funders and practitioners start to operationalize getting out of the fightback mode and “getting clear collectively as communities about what justice looks like and what it is we want to build.” The initiative moves money into the hands of artists to imagine and build justice in real time. Not only does this change the emotional and tangible space in communities, but it incubates ideas – a rapid r&d for experimentation and innovation to capture learnings and move what works to implementation and scale.

The other is what Tracie Hall of Joyce Foundation spoke to, the idea of the “artist as problem solver” and shifting funding models to reflect that understanding. What if instead of phalanxes of graduate students from policy and planning schools doing textbook assignments, we turned our focus and support to creative people from and of the communities who are working in real time to address needs and aspirations in their neighborhoods? This calls to mind our local example of the 23rd Avenue building in Oakland, where people-of-color led social justice organizations, including the queer and trans arts group Peacock Rebellion, who shared tenancy of the space, organized to take it off the market and turn it into a community land trust.

Organizing and building power for arts and culture ultimately must also include the infrastructure, resources and capacity for artists and culture makers to sustain themselves and their work. In a world where only 4 percent of all arts funding goes to organizations serving communities of color, this means prioritizing racial equity-based funding in arts philanthropy.

At the end of the first day of the preconference, I find myself thinking about a conversation I had with Elena Serrano of the Eastside Arts Alliance here in Oakland. She recalled countless community meetings in the San Antonio and other East Oakland neighborhoods, where residents usually are bombarded by dire statistics about the state of their community, the lack of resources and what look like insurmountable challenges of generational poverty and disinvestment. I’ve been to many of these meetings, and sadly, have coordinated many of them like this.

At the end of one session, as community members were asked to do “dot voting” for the solutions they wanted, people kept putting their dots on the idea of a cultural center – the birth of the Eastside Arts Alliance. As Elena put it, “It was the only positive thing. Everything else was what was wrong, and this was a celebration.”