Caron Atlas, Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, Brooklyn, NY

At a workshop on the West Side of Charlotte, NC, the group—which ranged in age from middle schoolers to elders—created a tree of community knowledge. Its beautiful array of roots, branches, and buds encouraged us to question the system, listen to elders, organize youth. This tree stands for the power of community wisdom, connections, compassion, and creativity. As the tree says, "we are greater than the sum of our parts." Together we can envision a better future so the State of the Union, in our communities, can be strong.

The Building Culturally, Politically, and Technologically Connected Communities workshop was cosponsored by Arts & Democracy, Media and Democracy Fund, Behailu Academy, PowerUp NC, QC Family Tree, and the Tribe. This is being followed up with a USDAC cosponsored story circle on the right to belong.

Lily Yeh, Urban Alchemist, Philadelphia PA

For USDAC: I would like to share this poem by poet Federico García Lorca. May it guide our effort in the coming year.

The poem,
The song,
The picture,
Are only water
Drawn from the
Well of the people
And it must be
Given back to them
In a cup of beauty,
That they may drink
And in drinking,
Understand themselves.

I would also like to share the story of Carpenter Art Garden in Memphis, TN

Awakened creativity on one abandoned property, starting with one mural, a community of hope evolved:

The Carpenter Art Garden began three years ago through a grassroots community effort to revitalize the blighted neighborhood of Binghamton, in Memphis, Tennessee. Still modest in scale, the garden has already generated waves of hope and love among the participants.

Project founder, Erin Harris, credits the Village of Arts and Humanities as the inspiration for the garden:

“The Village of Arts and Humanities, created by Lily Yeh, in Philadelphia, Pa. serves as an inspiration and model for The Carpenter Art Garden. Starting with one mural and one abandoned property, a community of hope evolved. Streets known for drug dealing are now interspersed with pockets of hope and community initiatives. We hope to offer the Binghampton community, especially the children, the tools to create their own ‘pockets of hope’ through ongoing art and gardening projects.”

Before, an abandoned lot...

Before, an abandoned lot...

The Carpenter Garden in the making.

The Carpenter Garden in the making.

Dantonio, a 5 year old little boy, expressed his hope and love during Christmas:

Hey Ms. Erin one day I had a dream about the art garden being so big and everybody coming when they like 25 and 16, 17 .  .  . and it be over 500 people and kid there and we was on tv. And we just was having fun and I walked up to you and said I love you with a big hug.  


Ricky C., an elderly man whose life has been filled with misdeeds and troubles, expressed his sense of hope and gratitude:

Ms. Erin, I like to thank you a whole lot for the opportunity to better myself and to find myself. I am glad I got the opportunity to know you.  May God Bless us all.

From the calm tone of Tray’s poem and the smiling faces of his two younger brothers below, we could never have guessed the challenges they have to face each and every day. Although the three brothers have endured deep pain, they experience happiness and joy in the making of the Carpenter Garden.


Eric Booth, Secretary of Teaching Artists, New York NY

When I was young, and my mother flipped out in weird volatile behavior, I didn’t understand.  I asked my father what was happening, and he always said, “She’s in a state.”  Looking at our national union in 2016, I don’t understand, finding it as volatile and dangerous as my mother was back then. 

That seems like the state of our union.

We are too busy, too loud, too literal, too angry and too divided to remember what we know to be true about our union.

We forget that in this thing-loving nation, nouns tend to separate us and verbs tend to bring us together.  Look at a particular artwork with others and personal opinions and positions arise; join in making an artwork with others and connections bloom.

The state of our union is jumbled, our strengths disoriented.

But the power of our union remembers itself, regains its strength, inside making things we care about, and imagining what can be.   


E. Ethelbert Miller, Minister of Sacred Words, Washington DC

I’m afraid W.E.B. DuBois missed the two point conversion. The fundamental challenge of the 21st Century is not color but religion. The State of the Union Address is holding auditions during the clash of civilizations. Unless we undertake an expansion of focus we will fail all attempts at reaching a level of understanding and transcendence. Yesterday does not prepare us for tomorrow only today does. The State of the Union address is being presented as we reach the bend in the river of history.


The celebrated Address is presidential storytelling at its best. It’s a contrived narrative to make us every year feel comfortable. The Nation we are told is always doing well. The oatmeal is warm and the toast is crispy. But is the butter melting slowly on the plate? Some stomachs are empty while others are full. The President talks to those citizens still courageous enough to listen. But each year there are fewer believers and more gunslingers on the horizon.

By now we have heard the many stories of America. What we wrestle with today is how to listen. How do we finally sit down and engage in the process of reaching the stranger and our neighbor’s heart. Where is the path to intimacy? Which is more difficult to redistribute, power or love?

It’s sad when a speech becomes another detour.  Don’t we know where we must go? There comes a time when we must imagine the weightlessness of freedom and know how fragile it is. It seems each year our hands suffer the scars of amnesia and the deep wounds from the shape of things unknown.

The State of our Union is an answer in progress. It has always been a troubling question for all of us.

Martha Richards, Senior Strategist for Women Artists, Berkeley CA

As I have been listening to the recent debates on gun control, I have been thinking about the ways that artists have contributed to this problem and some steps we could take to help to solve it.

On the same day that I heard President Obama’s speech urging stronger gun controls, I went to a movie at the local multiplex.  Although I make it a point to avoid violent movies, I was subjected to fifteen minutes of trailers for new films that seemed to consist of one scene after another where someone was either pointing a gun, shooting a gun, or running away from someone with a gun.

As I sat in the darkened theatre, I thought about President Obama weeping on national television as he spoke about the murder of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  And as I watched actors shooting each other on screen, I started to weep too.  It is so clear that the movie and television industries are playing a huge role in creating the climate of violence that seems to be engulfing us.  It is painful to think about how much money is spent and how many artists are involved in creating films glorifying people with guns.  Many of these artists are our colleagues and friends.  Why don’t they see the social impact of their work?

According to the Parents Television Council, there have been over 3,000 studies over the past 50 years proving that violent programming increases aggressive behavior, especially in children.  A 2013 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985. The Media Education Foundation reports that by the time an average U.S. child reaches age 18, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on television. Media violence undercuts civil rights movements because women and people of color are so frequently shown as the disposable victims.  In fact, the violence against women on broadcast TV shows increased 120% between 2004 and 2009.

The U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a host of other scientific and public health organizations agree that constant exposure to media violence has harmful effects on public health.  What can we do to address this problem?

I have two suggestions.  First, on a personal level, people in the arts need to start talking to each other more about how we are portraying gun violence in our work.  Clearly there are times when gun violence is a key element of a story line, but often it isn’t. Whenever we include gun violence in our work, we need to start asking each other if there are any other ways to move the plot and characters forward.  My instinct is that at least half of the gun violence we see is not essential, and that the characters would be far more compelling if the writers gave them other ways to resolve their conflicts.

Second, as a way to make more money available to people creating non-violent films and television shows, I would like to propose a tax on representations of gun violence.  We tax cigarettes and alcohol to discourage their consumption and to offset the damage they do to public health.  State and local governments reap $15 billion a year from cigarette taxes and $5.6 billion a year from alcohol.  Why don’t we do something similar with violent media?

Imagine how much money would be generated if audience members had to pay an extra 50 cents for every film or television show they saw that showed a gun on screen.  The gun representation tax would quickly generate millions of dollars that could be used to support filmmakers doing non-violent films.  We could also encourage much more diversity by earmarking funds for women, artists of color, and other artists who are currently marginalized.

It is often said that violent programming “gives the public what it wants.” But many Nielsen surveys and Gallup polls show that people prefer non-violent programming. In fact, 82% of the American public thinks that films are too violent.

George Gerbner, the Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications who spent three decades studying television violence, pointed out that since the people making violent shows often have bigger budgets, their shows usually have higher production values than their non-violent counterparts – i.e. the violent shows have bigger stars, better sets and costumes, and more elaborate special effects.  They also have better time slots on TV.  His research found that when violent and non-violent shows had the same star-power and other production values, audience members were more likely to pick the non-violent shows over the violent ones.

The proposed tax on gun representation would not limit anyone’s freedom of speech and it would be simple to administer.  If there is a gun on screen at any point, the tax would be imposed.  If not, there would be no tax.  Producers would still be free to make eye-popping profits on violent shows, and the number of violent shows might stay the same, but their market share would gradually diminish because there would be so many more well-funded non-violent shows to compete with them.

The violence in our films and television programs is affecting every aspect of our lives and it is urgent that we take action. George Gerbner coined the phrase "mean world syndrome," a phenomenon in which people who watch large amounts of television are more likely to believe that the world is an unforgiving and frightening place.  I want to close with a quote from Gerbner’s testimony to a Congressional subcommittee on communications in 1981 which suggests that part of our current political climate is a direct result of the past twenty-five years of rampant violence on television:

"Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hardline postures. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television."


Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging, Tucson AZ

The state of the union is troubled—what’s new?

And—the state of our “Democracy” is challenged by an allure that it is there, on the horizon…liberty and justice for all. However, it remains elusive and feeds a toxic cynicism that harms us. So as Mr. James Brown would say “get on the good foot” … how? Where’s the optimism? The plan?

A double espresso macchiato is a good start,  followed by actions that enliven Democracy by what we make, through voting, through critical witnessing, through protest, through art.

The politics of Dis-belonging, Displacement and Deportation—three “D’s” that don’t add up to anything good. Trump and other rhetorics of hate, gentrification and Obama’s deportation policies fail the union. How do we push back on these givens?


It is in Beauty as the articulations of the plural, how we imagine our lives together with respect and belief in our humanity. It’s the ideal of  “We the people” not the “we” of markets, of me and my friends, but the secular we that includes people that you don’t know. It is trust achieved through listening to each other, looking with our grace for the grace in others and learning how the commons, the union, the “we” in realized in relationships. That’s the homework assignment for us, for the state of the union.