Artists as Change Agents

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people's institute
Logo for The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond

A revolution that is based on the people exercising their creativity in the midst of devastation is one of the great historical contributions of humankind.

Grace Lee Boggs

people's institute
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

I’ve had the privilege of attending five of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism/Community Organizing workshops. I’ve attended it when it was all women of color, when it was for social workers and educators, and when it was for religious organizations. Each workshop is a unique experience, but the one that will always stick out in my mind is the one for artists and arts administrators I attended in January 2013.

Maria Bauman of MBDance and Sarita Covington of Company Cypher worked tirelessly to put this together, and I’d been waiting for an arts-focused training for a while. So when I had the opportunity and the fiscal solvency to attend, I booked my train ticket to New York City so fast you could hear a sonic boom.

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I’m so glad that I did. I barely remember the snow and ice, the malfunctioning G train, or how much I spent eating out. What I do remember is coming away from that experience with the feeling that artists as a group (individuals may vary) possess a cluster of characteristics that can make us ideal educators, activists, and organizers for gender and racial equity in the arts.

Let me explain.

I sat in that room full of actors, dancers, writers, and arts administrators, and I noticed something strange. When the conversation turned into the deep stuff, there was very little of the tension that’s often shows up once a group hits what we called “the growing edge” — that space where our old consciousness hits a new level of perception. In other workshops, this tends to take the form of resisting the new information and perspective, sometimes vocally. But in this workshop, there wasn’t much of that.

Instead of resistance to the concepts and principles presented by the People’s Institute, what I noticed about this training was a spirit of openness and acceptance. There was no debate, but there was a genuine desire to understand. That helped a lot of people in the room open up,  go deeper and make personal connections much more smoothly than usual.

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It wasn’t because everybody agreed or had the same ideas. The group varied by gender, class, race, sexual orientation, ability or disability, educational background, and general life experience. Each person came with their own perceptions, needs, ideas, and dreams. Yet, through those differences, we were able to reach common ground and find areas where we could work in solidarity with one another, even though we may have had very different artistic paths.

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Why is that?

Most of us were theatre and dance people, so I’m going to focus on those because I’m most familiar with them. If you have insights from other performing arts and other artistic media, it would be great to hear about that. But what struck me was how, if I looked at the traits for a community organizer and lined them up with the traits for a theatre or dance artist, there would be many commonalities. Such as:

  1. The ability to form positive working relationships with many people from a variety of backgrounds, ability, and temperaments.
  2. Organization: Who does what; when and where it happens; how to get there; where this or that goes; what needs to be bought, transported, or disposed of.
  3. The power to imagine a new reality and manifest that vision even with limited resources.
  4. Creative problem-solving: What do you do when you have a problem that needs to be fixed in a short amount of time?
  5. The courage to dream big and pursue those dreams.
  6. The talent for sharing the universal through the particular.
  7. Empathy for people who have radically different experiences and perspectives.
  8. The ability to communicate a message in a way that reaches people in the deepest parts of themselves.
  9. The willingness to experiment with new forms and content.

When you look at it like this, it’s easy to see how often we, as artists, sell ourselves short as potential change agents. We sometimes act as though work that is not overtly political limits our ability to make an impact.

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It doesn’t have to be that way. Look at what we bring to the table! We carry that with us no matter what we’re working on. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a production A Raisin in the Sun or Peter Pan.

The workshop showed me that we artists don’t lack creativity, ability, or drive. There may be a knowledge gap, but that’s relatively easy to fix. All we need is to have a space to share information and experiences. There may be a lack of resources, but the tools and abilities we have at our disposal can help us work around that. Our artistic communities have such deep reserves of generosity, kindness, and imagination. I’ve seen what we can do when we put our heads together and try to create something amazing.

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The experience of being surrounded by vibrant, creative people who have a vision for a world free of racism, free of sexism, free of homophobia and transphobia and all forms of discrimination and oppression was one of the most affirming and inspiring things I’ve ever encountered. It showed me so much of what we’re capable of, and I’m so pumped to do my own part to make that happen.

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How about you? Will you join me?