Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman.
As Deputy Secretary of Arts and Culture it is my great honor to be with you today to celebrate the important work being done at the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding.
We’ve been sitting for a while, so – before we dive in -- I invite you to check in with your body at this moment. Wiggle it a little. Let your shoulders relax. And let’s take one big deep breath together. Take a look around you for a moment. Make eye contact with someone new. Marvel at the fact that the air that was just in your lungs might now be in theirs.
There is no power point for where we’re about to go, and so I invite you to imagine that behind me there’s a backdrop of your choice. A painting or photograph, a color or pattern. You create the scene.
Indeed, I invite you to infuse this entire moment with your own imagination, for while I do have “prepared remarks” of a serious nature to make, they are incomplete without the creativity that you bring to them.
Okay. So we’re here. We’re in our bodies. We’re alive.
And we’re alive at a strange time.
This is an era of broken systems—from healthcare to energy to education to the way our entire economy is structured. We inhabit a planet on the verge. The problems are complex, the solutions uncertain, but there is one truth we can hold onto: if we are going to keep our society and planet healthy, all people must be empowered to imagine and enact alternatives for a better world. In order to do this, to cultivate effective co-creators of new systems better aligned with equity and sustainability – we must deepen our investment in the tools and tactics that grow empathy, imagination, and the capacity to collaborate. We must encourage creative risks. We must nourish the artist in us all.
And that is why, on October 5th, 2013, in the midst of the federal government shut down we held a press conference and launched the US Department of Arts and Culture. The USDAC is the nation’s newest people-powered department. We don’t have an office in DC or a federal line item. Rather we are an act of collective imagination. Today I invite you to fuel the department with your own imagination, to join us in asking, “how might we harness the transformative power of art and culture to cultivate imagination in the service of ethical action?”
As a framework through which to consider that question, let me share the truths that USDAC holds to be self-evident:
1. Culture is a human right. As expressed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” It is our sacred duty to remove impediments to the exercise of this right.
2. Culture is created by everyone. The art, customs, creative expressions, and social fabric of every community and heritage contribute to the vitality of our common culture. Our cultural institutions and policies should reflect this, rather than privileging favorites.
3. Cultural diversity is a social good and the wellspring of free expression. Its support and protection requires the equitable distribution of both public and private resources, particularly to correct past injustices and balance an excess of commercialization.
4. The work of artists is a powerful driver of social good. Artists can play a pivotal role in community development, education, healthcare, protection of our commonwealth, and other democratic public purposes. Indeed, artists’ skills of observation, improvisation, innovation, resourcefulness, and creativity enhance all human activity.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said.
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
We are all here today, I posit, because we are committed to eradicating that fear and bridging that separation. And in thinking about how to do that the words of the USDAC’s Chief Policy Wonk, Arlene Goldbard, come to mind:
“We have to be able to imagine another’s experience, and to see ourselves in the place of the other fully enough to feel genuine empathy. We have to hold dual consciousness, remaining self-aware and simultaneously aware of others. We can’t get there merely by thinking or talking about it. This learning has to be experienced in all dimensions: somatic, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. And the strongest, clearest, most powerful place in our world where all of these dimensions converge is in what we call art,”
Think about that for a moment. Have you ever had a transformative experience with art? A moment of deep empathy made possible through music, film, literature, painting, dance, or theater?
Hold that thought. At the Department we believe in embedding participation into all presentation. Why am I up here speaking? This room is full of wisdom. I wish we could all hear each other’s songs and stories, passions and questions, over home-cooked meals from one hundred cultures. (sigh) At the very least, I want to take one minute and invite you to turn to someone near you and share a moment in which some experience of art or culture helped you forge an empathetic connection with another. Share whatever comes to mind. You have until the music stops…And, begin!
Now, what if the experience that you just remembered was somehow made more frequent or accessible to anyone anytime? What might the world look like then?
In pursuit of that world, I’m asking you not just to help barn-raise the new people-powered department but also to help disband it, to make it one day obsolete. Our imaginations are warmed up, so please join me now on a journey to the year 2033, when, perhaps, in a room like this, someone is giving a speech, wearing a hat like this, and they say:
[puts on hat]
Two hundred fifty seven years ago, our country’s founders documented their vision for a nation grounded on principles of solidarity, collaboration, and partnership. “We the people,” opened a portal to a potential wonderland of civic engagement where every citizen’s voice was equally respected. This vision was bold and beautiful. And it failed. We as a country were not ready. We were not ready to respect and honor the native people whose land we ravaged. We were not ready to treat every citizen equally regardless of race, of gender, of national origin, of creed, of religion, of ability, of all the qualities and capacities that make us each unique and connected.
Just twenty years ago, back in 2013, we covered our ears to shut out the echoes of the gunshots ricocheting from the walls of movie theaters, classrooms, and shopping malls. We squeezed our eyes shut to delete the images of half-naked, digitally altered women’s and girls’ bodies selling cars, vodka, burgers, insurance. We zipped our lips as our elected officials allowed Corporation Nation’s bitter promises of money and power to lead them to choose war, poverty, and incarceration for our fellow citizens. But despite feeling frustrated and angry, we never lost hope and imagination.
We saw that the tools that could help dig us out of our messy jungle of suffering and deception were not shovels or guns or spreadsheets. We needed accordions, stories, memories, murals, parades, and typewriters. We knew that creative citizens are better citizens, that participatory artistic practice is a gateway to ongoing civic engagement, that our communities and institutions are more cohesive and more resilient with art, culture, and collaboration at the core. And so we created the US Department of Arts and Culture.
Twenty years later we’ve sent more than one million trained members of the Culture Corps into public service, infusing arts-based pedagogy and theory into all of the federal departments. We’ve witnessed a tremendous rise in empathy as all children grow up immersed in creative activities and arts-based education continues through adulthood and eldercare. We’ve seen a decline in disease as nursing and medical staffs deploy new techniques in creative listening, storytelling, and arts therapies. Big-box stores have been repurposed as cultural centers, sites of creation and cohesion rather than consumption. There are arts bodegas on the street corners providing art supplies, musical instruments, and rehearsal space for youth, alongside vegetables and cereal. Today, all businesses, coops, and for-purpose organizations (formerly known as non-profits) hire artists and train their employees in arts-based management theory and methods.
If you had asked what the American Dream meant in 2013, you would probably have heard stories about individual men who had “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” going from rags to riches. “Success” was defined by money, power, fame, and material possessions. This morning on my way here, I asked a cluster of teenage girls on the solar subway what achieving “The American Dream” meant to them. They erupted in excited chatter, “’The American Dream’ is a storycircle around a central fire!” “’The American Dream’ is a neighborhood choir!” “’The American Dream’ is a street filled with flowers and paintings and very different kinds of people coming together dancing, celebrating, laughing.”
We have achieved our mission to spark a self-perpetuating movement dedicated to cultivating equity, empathy, and social change through creative action. The Department is no longer necessary. And so on this day in 2033, with exploding gratitude and pride, we announce that we are dissolving of the US Department of Arts and Culture.
Friends, we have a ways to go to get there. But what we imagine together we can create together. Of the world’s many crises, a creativity crisis is not among them. Indeed, creativity is one of the world’s greatest renewable resources. We have it in abundant supply. As Citizen Artists with the USDAC I invite you to harness that creativity in all of your changemaking work.
In tackling the world’s most dire problems we need seriousness of intent, of course, but we also need serious play. And so let me leave you with one last thought: changing the world for the better should be fun. Our greatest innovations and our most important solutions will come when we carry a song in our hearts, when we remember our cultures and traditions, and when we step up as artists of society, working together to expand our collective circle of care.