Knowledge and Wisdom

My first GIA conference is over, and I am so glad for the opportunity to be part of this one, focused on Race, Space, and Place, taking place in my adopted hometown of Oakland, California.

Overwhelmingly, what I’ve taken away is a sense of optimism and excitement at the new discovery (for me) of such a vibrant and dynamic world of arts and culture strategists, funders, creators, workers, wonks, and change agents committed to social justice. I’ve been poring over Oakland’s Cultural Development Plan in my spare time since the conference, and found its guiding vision to be so profound: Equity is the driving force. Culture is the frame. Belonging is the goal.

I’m someone who comes from the school of leading with racial justice—explicit, centered, in the forefront. It was fascinating to listen to the thoughtful discussion between panelists Randy Engstrom and Vanessa Whang, and the audience, during the Cultural Equity session about the interaction between racial equity and cultural equity. No one dismissed the importance of leading with race, and it was clear that people understood from experience doing this work, that race without fail drops off the table unless it is explicit and centered. Yet, there was also acknowledgement that the racial frame doesn’t get to everything we are either. And that culture can encompass race, as well as who we are as women, transgender people, how we parent, how we live and love. I can’t put it better than this quote from the Oakland Cultural Plan: “Reaching well beyond the confines of the arts and artmaking, culture is the embodiment of forms of knowledge and wisdom people have gained through their different lived experiences of how to survive and thrive.”

With my policy strategist hat on, I see one set of tools from the conference falling into the bucket of “Culture and arts as a robust vehicle for building a just and equitable city.” This includes wealth-building for marginalized communities, workforce development, housing and anti-displacement initiatives, youth development and education, and more. Some of the ideas and examples I heard in this category:

  • The Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), an innovative property acquisition, low-income financing, and long-term leasing model to stabilize arts and cultural organizations and develop their economic assets.
  • Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture’s efforts to partner with philanthropy and the school district to restore arts curriculum to every public school in the city.
  • Los Angeles County’s funded recommendations to develop creative workforce development pipelines through paid arts internships for community college students, high school students arts employment and learning opportunities, and creative workforce development centers linking students and mature workers, especially from marginalized communities, to training and opportunities in creative industries.

With another hat on—let’s call it my “emergent strategist” hat—I’m loving the relational, visionary, and spiritual elements that threaded through the conference (or at least the sessions and conversations I was drawn to). I finally read Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy on a long flight recently, and it sits on my desk now, much-dog eared, it’s wisdom still waiting to be digested and absorbed. No surprise then, that the first session I went to was “Transformation in Action: Embodying Emergent Strategies,” organized by Sage Crump. Sage offered a grounding exercise based on Adrienne’s advocacy for passion, longing, and pleasure as a powerful source of motivation and a driving force for making change.

What do you long for, what is your vision for the arts and cultural ecosystem you want?

It only took a minute of sitting in silence for me to conjure an image of my three-year-old son, growing up in this ecosystem we are blessed to have in Oakland, despite its many challenges and hard realities, teetering on a balance beam amidst the city’s tensions and inequities. I long for him to stay at his ethnically diverse, Spanish-immersion preschool where they will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos soon. I long to enroll him in Shaolin Life and BoomShake as soon as he’s old enough, and to immerse him in all his heritages as well as see him and his generation remix and create new solutions, new dreams.

From the brilliant john powell’s lunchtime plenary, I’m reminded that, “We’re spiritual animals, and the spiritual part is transmitted through culture.” I’ve heard him say this in years before, but it finally clicked along with the late Grace Lee Bogg’s insistence that we work for evolution, not just revolution. Culture, the story of the bigger “We,” is how we move forward as a civilization, and evolve as people. Besides his philosophy, I was also struck by john’s story of growing up in Detroit in the pre and early Motown days. Not only did he live through—all in his youth—America’s concept of colored, negro, and Black, he also shared the memory of a time when Detroit only had two hours of radio time a day for Black music…just as Motown was coming on the scene, to transform the landscape of the American and world music industry.

Ultimately, john powell helped me see how the dots connect—whether one is working on artmaking and cultural creation or organizing grassroots campaigns. He said this:

Analysis is not the same as communication.

Communication is not the same as narrative. (And good narrative feeds the soul.)

Which is not the same as organizing. An organization is about power.

We need alignment of all of these, to create change that is about equity, but goes beyond equity to create for everyone a world of belonging.