“Go forth and kick ass!”[i] was the directive given to me by Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, recently retired Curator Emerita of the Museum of Arts and Design, former executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and former curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did I end up in conversation with such distinguished company?
The Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship (ICA), at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) “trains emerging arts-based professionals, transitioning into NYC cultural institutional public leadership and management, with a targeted focus to include and support persons from historically under-represented communities… The Fellowship also includes site visits at NYC arts and cultural institutions, along with networking opportunities with notable senior arts executives.”[ii] As a fellow of the spring 2016 cohort, I was paired with Dr. Sims, along with three of my fellow fellows, and scheduled for an interview, which proved to be nothing less than inspirational.
I am a community-based visual artist from Baltimore, Maryland and I am a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. I have followed the work of Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, founding director of CCCADI, since 2007, when she visited my school, Maryland Institute College of Art. I was completing a Master of Arts in Community Arts degree at the time, and I remember feeling very exhausted. I hadn’t even graduated when Dr. Vega encouraged me to continue my education beyond the Masters level, stating that there are not enough women of color with advanced degrees. I listened.
Ten years later, I still live in Baltimore and work primarily in the South. When I applied to become an ICA fellow, I proposed that my participation in such a fellowship in NYC could give me insight into the workings of the cultural scene in any city, and it would afford me the invaluable opportunity to consider these things amongst peers.
In order to be able to make the commute to NYC, I also applied for and received Artistic Assistance funding from Alternate ROOTS, an organization based in the Southern USA whose mission is to support the creation and presentation of original art, in all its forms; whose members strive to be allies in the elimination of all forms of oppression; who are committed to social and economic justice and the protection of the natural world.[iii]
This fellowship provides tools for us to “understand the historical context for NYC’s current cultural arts landscape as it relates to NYC’s changing racial, ethnic and cultural communities; deepen skills in public management, leadership, communication and best practices in advancing cultural equity; enhance personal awareness, courage, clarity and commitment regarding their purpose and promise as progressive leaders in this field; examine the historical constructs classifying some art as ‘high art,’ the standards that drive it, and how societal bias obstructs cultural equity; receive career advisement and create a professional development plan; broaden [our] work experience in the arts advocacy sector via cohort assignments; learn how the range of NYC’s key public arts institutions work and gain access to these institutions and their leaders via site visits; [and to] gain and apply skills to strengthen their institutions, and/or cultural work via [this,] the ICA final project.”[iv]
It was mentioned many times that a “core emphasis of the Fellowship is the advancement of cultural equity.”[v] Baltimore Racial Justice Action (BRJA) defines “equity” as “the condition that would be achieved if identities assigned to historically oppressed groups no longer acted as the most powerful predictor of how one fares, with the root causes of inequities, not just their manifestations, eliminated. This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce or fail to eliminate differential outcomes by group identity/background (economic, educational, health, criminal justice, etc).”[vi]
Now having practiced professionally for at least ten years, and having collaborated extensively with other like-minded artists for social justice, I think it’s fair to say that we operate, collectively, from a position that conceives of equity as an achievable outcome. In fact, as artists, it is literally our job to envision the equitable society in which we would like to live. Yet, this fall I will begin my third year in an American Studies PhD program, which has offered different perspectives and ways of theorizing American society, some of which identify notions of equity, here on this land, as part and parcel of a national mythology. Following those lines of reasoning, “‘twas never thus!”[vii] and indeed, perhaps it never can be.
Cultural equity, or lack thereof, in this country, correlates to lines first and most prominently drawn along race. Those lines are older than the nation-state of “America” itself, dating back to at least 1492 when Europeans ravaging Hispaniola wondered if the natives they encountered were fully human.[viii] America was founded on genocide. To date, its existence depends on the invisibility of the indigenous populations that remain, and the legacies of violent subjugation of the descendents of enslaved people who made this nation “great.”
Inequity stemming from white supremacy is embedded in America’s DNA. In the architecture of the buildings where the American government is housed, in contemporary popular culture, and even in the hearts and minds of young children, race-based inequities are perpetuated. That’s why, when I recently participated in an Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (with a close friend of Dr. Sims, Dr. Leslie King Hammond), I said “I’m not sure racism actually can be undone here.” And I’m not sure that equity can actually be achieved. That’s an honest summation of where I am right now- holding space for the contradiction between visions, and practical knowledge of racial formation and the social construction of realities on this land.
I ask, if equity indeed cannot be achieved in America, what, then, is our work? Is it always in the undoing? Is it just the struggle?
As Dr. Vega herself writes, “The challenge for historically marginalized communities that are part of the matrix of the United States and other colonial countries is how to have their cultures and contributions valued as integral to the civil society they have been critical in forming.”[ix] And “[i]mportant to the process of sustaining people on the margins of colonial imposition has been devaluing humanity, history, and creative products of those historically oppressed which renders invisible the contributions they have made to their countries and to world cultures.”[x] In other words, our histories are not History and our art is not Art.
It is difficult to offer strategies to achieve cultural equity in NYC’s communities when I don’t believe wholeheartedly that equity is even possible in America. I am, however, able to offer strategies based on personal takeaways of this fellowship that I believe can be put to work to keep all of us strong, and enable us to move forward, if nothing more.
The first strategy is a collective, conscious reconceptualization of individual identity. My current contention about individual identity is that it doesn’t exist. We are not unique snowflakes as we are taught to believe in elementary school. And all of our artistic genius, talents, and skills do not begin only with ourselves. We are raised as citizens of our communities, with roles in our communities, on the strengths of our relatives (and We Are All Related), on the prayers and the work laid down by our ancestors. According to sociologists, we aren’t even fully human until we are socialized.[xi] We are never, at any point in our lives, individuals. Yet, capitalism, the true ruler of this nation, worships the ego. The Western art world does as well. Within both paradigms, competition is fierce, resources are understood to be scarce, and fellow artists are enemies.
Let’s consciously move away from ego and toward community with each other. Let’s remind each other that we belong to each other continuously. Let’s live and work and love with that truth in mind. As a result of this fellowship, I read these words of the late artist / activist Fred Ho: “I think the real thing is that the community from which it comes can only catalyze the ingeniousness of individualism. That no one is an isolated singular genius irrespective of all the players’ community in which they journeyed through, I think that’s the key thing. When people talk about, ‘oh your influences,’ that’s just the beginning of a discussion about that kind of interactivity, of the community from which one comes out of as a player.”[xii]
A second major takeaway from this fellowship was an awakening, brought on by guest speaker Ms. Baraka Sele, about the language used to describe our people. Dominant society uses language to diminish our humanity, and likewise diminish our cultures and our art. Words to describe us are always diminutive or disparaging, for example: minority, underserved, outsider, primitive, etc. Words have meanings. They mean more than they say. The language used to describe us tells a story about us. If we use the same language, it means that we have internalized the story. If “the truth about stories is that’s all we are,”[xiii] then we better start telling a different story. A second strategy, then, is to collectively insist on using language that seeks, instead, to reflect our power, beauty, and strength. In doing this, I believe we can also change stories being told about us and thereby change our lived experiences.
Famed postcolonial theorist, and self-identified postcolonial subject himself, Frantz Fanon, spoke to the responsibility (in this case, his own) of oppressed persons to bear the (hi)story of their people. He wrote, “Our history takes place in obscurity and the sun I carry with me must lighten every corner.”[xiv] In other words, it is through the telling of one’s own story that the histories of oppressed people come to be known by all of society. Whether or not tellers share with this intent or sense of responsibility in mind, their stories function as suns, illuminating darkened corners of human experience that have been left out of dominant narratives. But “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,”[xv] as Native Studies scholar, Thomas King, cautions. Stories can control lives, and can hold people captive.[xvi] “…Once [a] story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world. So you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.”[xvii]
A third and final strategy would be to make a conscious effort to tap into our subconscious. Why? Because I know that I know things without knowing them, and so do you. Because I recognize that I am connected to my folks who came before me, who go with me to show me the way, whose experiences and wisdom is embedded in my DNA.
On the very first day that our cohort met, we were led through a guided meditation. I hate guided meditations. I generally refuse to participate. That day, because I chose to participate, I got to spend time with my beloved uncle who walked on several years ago. Because I was where I was supposed to be, and open to doing that I asked to do, I was able to access insight as to why I am even here on this earth.
The third strategy, then, is to tap into the knowledge sealed up in our bones, to believe in magic, to be open to other ways of knowing. After all, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[xviii] If equity can be achieved, we’ll need our own tools to achieve it.
Maybe that’s how we can go forth and kick ass like Dr. Sims said to do.
“Definitions,” Baltimore Racial Justice Action
Accessed July 16, 2016 http://bmoreantiracist.org/resources-2/explanations/
Franz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
Ithaka S+R. Diversity in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Community. By Ron C. Schonfeld and Liam Sweeney. January 28, 2016
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984, 2007), 110-114.
Marta Moreno Vega, “A Transformative Initiative for Achieving Cultural Equity: Community Arts University Without Walls,” in The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics, ed. Randy Martin. (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 159-172.
“Open for Submissions: Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship 2016,”
Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Accessed July 16, 2016.
Omi & Winant, Racial Formations in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Roger N. Buckley and Tamara Roberts, eds., Yellow Power Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 191-213.
“The Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship: Next Gen Leaders Advancing Cultural Equity,” Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Accessed July 16, 2016 http://www.cccadi.org/icafellowship
Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
“What is ROOTS?” Alternate ROOTS, Accessed July 14, 2016.
[i] Personal communication with the Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, June 10, 2016.
[ii] “The Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship: Next Gen Leaders Advancing Cultural Equity,” Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Accessed July 16, 2016 http://www.cccadi.org/icafellowship
[iii] “What is ROOTS?” Alternate ROOTS, Accessed July 14, 2016. https://alternateroots.org/about-us/
[v] “Open for Submissions: Innovative Cultural Advocacy Fellowship 2016,”
Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, Accessed July 16, 2016.
[vi] “Definitions,” Baltimore Racial Justice Action Accessed July 16, 2016
[vii] “’Twas ever thus” a phrase from Thomas Moore’s poem “The Fire Worshippers” (1817), has become a popular literary idiom.
[viii] Omi & Winant, Racial Formations in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s. Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 1994). pp 61-62.
[ix] Marta Moreno Vega, “A Transformative Initiative for Achieving Cultural Equity: Community Arts University Without Walls,” in The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics, ed. Randy Martin. (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 159.
[xi] Ian Robertson, Society: A Brief Introduction (City: Worth Publishers, 1988), 249.
[xii] Roger N. Buckley and Tamara Roberts, eds., Yellow Power Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 201.
[xiii] Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 2.
[xiv] Franz Fanon. Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
[xv] Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 9.
[xviii] Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984, 2007), 110-114.