PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 2: conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the first in a series of blogs profiling the USDAC’s Policy Prototype projects, seven projects across the U.S. receiving micro-grants to document their work related to the proposals in “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

To embody platform point 8, “Adopt a Cultural Impact Study,” in South Carolina, the Charleston Rhizome Collective proposed “conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation.” The project aimed to engage Charleston residents in using “maps as a way to understand where we belong and promote an awareness of our rights to remain here. We are promoting a travel in the past, marking the roads of today with our places of living, worshiping, shopping, learning and public transportation, so that we can learn about our future.”

Starting with young people, teachers, and artists at the James Simons Elementary School, the project developed interactive, map-based “Imagination Stations” (a concept the USDAC piloted in our October 2015 National Action, #DareToImagine) to be installed as part of a five-week exhibit and public program at the City Gallery (run by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs) in the summer of 2017. A free downloadable catalog of the exhibit, including many images and texts, is available here.

 "conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

"conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

The Collective comprises Debra Holt, Gwylene Gallimard, Pamella Gibbs, Jean-Marie Mauclet, and LaSheia Oubre. They are artists, educators, and activists who’ve teamed up to engage the greater Charleston community through art, building awareness and action to address escalating displacement as both the cost of living and local development and zoning policies push many lower-income residents out of longstanding neighborhoods. They’ve been working together for quite a few years. For example, read about early work here, including the “You Comin’” project, documenting first encounters catalyzed by the Collective at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.

The name conNECKted was chosen in 2014, when the city released a document entitled “Partnership for Prosperity: A Master Plan for the Neck Area of Charleston and North Charleston,” land between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, from the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to I-526. Community meetings were sparsely attended, raising concerns about whose voices were included and whether the real planning agenda was to develop prime real estate, with the Neck’s African American residents displaced as economic collateral damage.

Pamella is a teacher’s assistant at James Simons, so she has a close-up view of the impact of displacement. She noted that there are plenty of schools open on the Charleston peninsula, but because the city is closing a lot of public housing there, quite a few black families are leaving. She poses a question for leadership: “If you said you were for diversity, how can you go from all-black schools to integrated schools to basically all-white schools? When you were wanting integration, you said that you figured out a way to get kids in the school together. Will you do the same thing when you have a majority white population? Will you try to make sure that you keep some of the black kids going to school in the city? That's what I'm interested in.”

Jean-Marie echoed these questions: who is being served by development decisions in Charleston? “About ten years ago,” he said, “I was at a function at Burke High School which was brand new. I was talking to a white gentleman and I said ‘Man, they really made a big effort for that school. That's very nice. And local kids are going to be very well-served.’ And he looked down at me and said, ‘But Jean, who do you think they're building those schools for?’ I thought they were built for the locals but he knew ten years ago that the schools were going to be re-segregated—obviously.”

I asked what led the Collective members to believe art-making would have impact. Jean-Marie clarified the necessary approach: “We realize that as artists we have to be grassroots in order to have any kind of impact. If it's our ego that we're projecting, it's not going to work.”

 "conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

"conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

The conNECKted exhibit at the City Gallery validated that understanding with a rich variety of elements including conversations with people who had something to say about the issues (in fact, I took part in one such public discussion via Skype). Debra noted that “People came back two or three times in case they missed something the first time or in case something got them the first time, they wanted to come back and see it again. And a lot of people signed our petitions too.” Gwylene added that people responded enthusiastically to all the other participatory elements too: “All the papers we had, there was something could be written, a petition or a question to answer or the book of grievances, the register of dreams, they were all totally filled up.”

There were three petitions: one to support removal of a billboard leaking over a house in the neighborhood, one to ask for a monument to Robert Smalls (an historic figure you'll read more about below), and the third connected directly with the USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform, asking

How would Charleston be different if new construction and development projects, rezoning decisions, and "Creative Placemaking" interventions had to pass a Cultural Impact Study (CIS)—analogous to an Environmental Impact Study-before approval? Right now, when authorities consider whether to approve such initiatives, they think about money (who profits?) and environmental impact (will endangered species habitat be negatively affected? Is there potential pollution?).

Sign this petition to say that Charleston should adopt a CULTURAL IMPACT STUDY requirement, assessing potential negative impact on social and cultural fabric. How will the proposed development affect the meeting-places, sites of public memory, embedded history and meanings people have invested to make their neighborhoods vibrant and welcoming? What about the rights of existing residents to remain in their neighborhood if they wish? Every community should be authorized to access, study and act on these too. Whether the potential impact is gentrification and displacement or outright destruction of existing cultural fabric, the purpose of a CIS is to help public officials make informed decisions. If they find negative impact, a CIS would equip authorities to disallow proposed projects or require amelioration before things can proceed.

Sign this petition to say you have a right to a say in Charleston's future: Culture counts, History counts, People count—YOU count!

As the official press release stated, “the goal here is to realize that, in this era of displacement and denial of history and culture, ‘Belonging’ is the key to empowerment and transformation, the cornerstone of our present and future realities.” Petitions have been delivered to key city officials, and the Collective is exploring other ways to make Cultural Impact and Belonging official policy in Charleston.

Petitions were just one participatory element of the project. For example, they brought pre-printed cards to Marion Square in downtown Charleston and asked people to write a note to the mayor, then sent one to the mayor each day for a hundred days. “That was our introduction into the City,” said Pamella, “because they wanted to know who's this group they've never heard of sending a letter to the mayor once a day.” A wallpaper of all the postcards was created and presented to the mayor six months later as a reminder.

Serendipity was powerful in a project open to emergence. Auzheal Oubre, the brother of Collective member LaSheia, was in the gallery space during installation. He pointed out that buried under nearby shrubbery was a memorial for Robert Smalls, who escaped from slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship and went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives after the Civil War. Making the memorial visible became part of the project, as did 96-year-old Samuel Joyner’s account of Charleston’s Mosquito Fleet of small fishing boats. “It was heartwarming,” LaSheia said. “Mr. Joyner came, and when he saw the replica of the boat and the video of himself, he just cried. It was beautiful watching him listen to his own voice and his own story.” Among the generations of Joyners who visited the exhibit was Samuel Joyner’s son Jermaine, who had been an elementary school student of LaSheia’s and was now principal of the school where she works. “That's Charleston,” said Pamella.

The Collective’s work has gained power and resources since last summer’s project, receiving an award of $300,000 from ArtPlace America for conNECKtedTOO, a plan to create “a solidarity hub and network linking Tiny Neighborhood Businesses to cumulate buying and selling power, engage residents in decisions over business ownership, loans, job training, hiring practices, wholesale prices, schooling and housing.”

Gwylene described the underlying idea: “Each tiny business belongs to different communities, the communities of the businesses who look alike, the communities that live on the same block, the community of businesses that are held by only senior people and so on.” Jean-Marie added, “Take a corner or a little part of a street which has two, three, four, five businesses and you cluster everything. You work with that group as a cluster more than as individual businesses. Like it might be more representational of that little neighborhood rather than the business by itself.” 

Continuity and synchronicity are seen as key to the Collective’s work to enlarge belonging and equity, as Jean-Marie explains: “Everything seems to be getting stronger because we have this stream that's flowing, and all the information, all the work, all the effort that Gwylene and I and then all the people that started working with us, they're all going into the same river and we create this big stream. It's this vision that's pushing us forward which is really gaining a lot of momentum.”

If you’d like to explore bringing a Cultural Impact Study or the Policy on Belonging to your community, please feel free to contact us at

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 1: Prototyping Possibility, An Overview

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

In November 2016—at CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 in St. Louis, just a few days after the presidential election—we launched “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform,” ten points of intervention to help bring about cultural democracy, to nurture a social order of equity, justice, creativity, and belonging.

Policy proposals like these are just ideas until people start putting them into action. This blogpost is the first in our “Prototyping Cultural Democracy” series, documenting seven projects that received small grants through USDAC Lab to implement aspects of the Platform at the local level:

  • conNECKted Imaginings for Truth & Reconciliation, Charleston, SC
  • BeCville, Charlottesville, VA
  • Belonging Bandwagon, Crestone, CO
  • STICK + MOVE, Richmond, VA
  • Migrant Stories: Participatory Theatre with Migrant Workers, Eastern Shore, MD
  • Remember 2019, Phillips County, AR
  • Art Powered Places, Philadelphia, PA

We’ll be profiling each of these policy prototype projects, sharing documentation and interviews with the people executing them—so stay tuned! The first profile, focusing on the coNECKted project in Charleston, SC, was published today.

How did the USDAC’s policy prototypes evolve? It all started with our policy and action platform.

Standing for Cultural Democracy had been in preparation for many months before its November 2016 launch, with strategic questions multiplying in the run-up to the election. We doubted there was an immediate likelihood that any new administration, regardless of party, would support the kind of public service jobs program we called for in point one. After all, despite economic challenges and often-high unemployment levels, no Congress had seriously entertained a “new WPA” (to borrow a term from the 1930s New Deal that employed many artists through the five projects jointly known as “Federal One.”) In short, some ideas were planted as seeds that would need long-term cultivation.

Others were immediately feasible depending on political will and public demand. The Policy on Belonging, Platform point five, calls for public and private entities to adopt a formal Policy on Belonging and four other initiatives to deploy artists in public space, making belonging real. The Cultural Impact Study, Platform point eight, calls for universal adoption of a requirement that the impact of public interventions and policies on social fabric and cultural citizenship be studied and harmful impacts addressed, analogous to an environmental impact study. We knew these could be adopted at local, regional, or national levels, but we also knew that the results of the 2016 election would have to inform strategy. How?

My keynote speech for the plenary session launching the platform acknowledged the gravity of the moment. In retrospect, when you consider that we had no idea precisely what was to come, it takes on more intensity.

“The challenges we face under President Trump—racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, institutionalized greed, state-sanctioned violence, and every other form of predatory behavior—are not new. But the level of response is already astounding. We will be working in countless local communities to build on the courageous action already seen from mayors of sanctuary cities, leaders who have declared their refusal to normalize hate, vast numbers of individuals and groups who have already—less than two weeks after the election—taken action in the courts, on the streets, and in their own lives and communities.

“Protecting and defending are urgent, essential priorities. The USDAC stands with all who are endangered by policies that deny belonging and further threaten the people. We stand to support and assist all those who are affected by the repression of rights. We will work with you to co-create a network of connection and support, to share skills in planning and executing creative resistance, and to bring as much attention as possible to your courageous work in kindling a shared vision of cultural democracy and putting it into practice. 

“And while this massive outpouring of creative resistance unfolds, we can’t surrender our dreams because we awoke on 11/9 to this funhouse nightmare of democracy.”

Standing for CD cover image.jpg

Whatever the future might hold, we knew in November 2016 that Citizen Artists were committed to cultural organizing at the local level, work that would continue regardless of who occupied the White House. To catalyze and document some of this work, we put out a call offering micro-grants for participatory, replicable “pilot experiments that show how the Platform can be put into action.” Just $500 per project was available to support effective documentation and help in some small way with the work. This blog series shares the completed projects with you.

We hope they inspire you to find ways to implement Platform points in your own community. Right now—with the Supreme Court upholding the Muslim ban, basic cultural rights being eroded every day at the border, and an epidemic of phone calls to the police denouncing law-abiding African Americans for even showing up in public space—the Policy on Belonging (which has its own free, downloadable toolkit accessible here) seems especially germane and necessary. You can start with your own community. Consider asking your local house of worship, school board, neighborhood association, city council, or other group to adopt the Policy on Belonging, to commit to vetting their own actions for their impact on true cultural citizenship.

Whatever you’re inspired to do, whichever platform points are related, please feel free to call on us for help at

USDAC Welcomes 10 New Outposts!

USDAC Welcomes 10 New Outposts!

A few months ago the USDAC put out a call for groups of Citizen Artists to form local Outposts committed to enacting USDAC values in their community. It’s our pleasure to introduce the newest Outposts to join our national network. These dynamic groups are situated in rural communities, urban centers, and college towns. They champion issues ranging from equal representation in the arts to creating space for artistic action based in love and care, to holding dialogue for community transformation, and much more.

Profiles in Artistic Response Part One: Michelle Angela Ortiz

By Gabrielle Uballez, USDAC Minister of Collaboration and Activation

Among the sounds of the guards, it feels little by little that life is leaving us.
Now there are more than 600 days without freedom and counting.
My son asks me, "Mommy when are we leaving?"
I reply, "We are leaving soon, I can take you soon, soon we will be happy outside.
I pray and at night, I look through my window and I would like to touch the stars.
I would like to become one of them.
To shine in the dark and walk along with my son towards freedom.
Wet and cold, I embrace my son over my heart, where I keep everything
and I beg for his forgiveness.

These are the translated words of a woman incarcerated at the innocuously named Berks County Residential Center, a family prison located an hour outside of Philadelphia. They are excerpted from Seguimos Caminando, a collaborative public artwork featuring stories written by two mothers in custody at that facility. In today's zero-tolerance world, these sad words seem so fresh, today's headlines. But this mother's 600 days without freedom passed long before the White House announced that brown bodies would be punished first and judged later. Like a gas leak, this emergency seeped throughout our nation until a match was lit: the family separation crisis.

In Art Became the Oxygen: A Guide to Artistic Response, the USDAC argues that  “emergencies demand cultural responses.” At the USDAC, we demand change through action and through art. We support the Citizen Artists whose work is rooted in the ethics of community-based art, social transformation, and truth.

Michelle Angela Ortiz is one of these artists. Ortiz commits her practice to social justice through nuanced storytelling in collaboration with the communities whose voices her art amplifies. Ortiz, the daughter of immigrants, has nurtured a community-based arts practice for nearly two decades. She focuses on the stories of immigrant families, many incarcerated in migrant detention centers.

Ortiz’s work is visually stunning, politically charged truth-telling steeped in hope and love. On a recent panel at the Americans for the Arts annual convention, Ortiz detailed her process of collaboration with detained migrant mothers. The needs and safety of her collaborators come first. She avoids re-victimizing her collaborators, choosing not to focus on the stories that audiences expect to hear—stories of trauma, sadness, and fear.

Although stories of trauma arise naturally during their many conversations, they are not the focus. Ortiz centers conversations on migrant dreams, hopes, memories, and futures. Ortiz told me she sees her work as "an opportunity to amplify the existing voice and power of the community,” aiming “to create work that is powerful and that creates empathy so we can see the humanity in these stories."

"I am emphasizing the importance of presenting the stories of families affected by detention and deportation,” “in ways that people can connect, empathize, then channel that energy into action,” Ortiz says. “I hope to build on the existing power of the families through this creative process so they can reveal themselves not as victims but as full whole human beings that continue to fight for themselves and the love of their children."

Beyond their intrinsic power, the stories told through Ortiz have great beauty.

Flores de Libertad is one of Ortiz’ visually stunning, creative actions featured through Monument LAB, a public art and history initiative based in Philadelphia and a collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia. In 2017, Ortiz led several community workshops at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in which 100 volunteers created more than 1,600 paper flowers which were combined with flowers made by the mothers detained at The Berks County Residential Center. Each flower—ranging from vibrant pink to white—contained a written message of freedom. On October 25, 2017, thousands of these delicately hand-folded and hand-dyed tissue flowers  were arranged into an all-caps ten-by-forty-foot expression of freedom displayed at the north gates of Philadelphia's City Hall.

 Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The creative action was accompanied by a conference led by the Shut Down Berks Coalition, demanding an end to family detention.

Coordinating  with community organizers and activists is essential to Ortiz’ practice. She states that her work should be “utilized in the moment as a forum to speak about issues,” and “move empathy and anger into the direction of action.” Ortiz acknowledges that as an artist with U.S. citizenship she can enter and exit a detention center with ease, freely acknowledging her privilege. Critically, Ortiz recognizes that her work “has been built on the work of my parents and ancestors.” This drives her passion to “invest my cultural currency to do this work in community."

Her close attention to ethics and care for engaging with community organizers are real. “I first learn and listen with organizers on the ground to make decisions where messaging will have biggest impact,” Ortiz says, “and I acknowledge the work that’s already been done by organizers and families."

Another recent work, Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking), featured as part of Monument Lab, also demonstrates Ortiz’ commitment to ethical collaboration and nuanced storytelling manifested in striking new-genre public art.  

That time-based and temporary work features stories written by two mothers detained with their children at the Berks County Residential Center for nearly two years. The animated projection starts with the wrought iron gates of Philadelphia's towering City Hall opening at the base of the opulent brick and marble columns while the voice of one mother echoes through city streets. The images and narrative that follow recall a detained mother’s past life in Central America and express her hope for the future. The animated images include abstracted water, feet on the sandy banks of a river, two hands outstretched and reaching for each other, the silhouette of a mother carrying a young child, the brown eyes of a woman looking toward the sky with hope, and handwritten letters in Spanish by the detained mothers demanding their freedom.

 Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

The stories were authored in custody. Ortiz explained that the audio could only be recorded after the authors’ release.

With the support of the Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship, Ortiz is currently working on phase two of her project, Familias Separadas, initiated in 2015 as a series of temporary site-specific public art works that document stories of immigrant families affected by detention and deportations in Pennsylvania. The artwork created in phase two will amplify interviews with mothers who have been released from Berks and who are either still living in the U.S. or have been deported. Together, the artist and her collaborators are sharing the message that families belong together, not in cages, but free.

What can Citizen Artists learn from Ortiz's work? That artistic response can catalyze direct action if grounded in hope and love, not focusing solely on crisis and pain.

We know that art and creativity can be catalyzed in protest, but must simultaneously be used to “channel care, comfort and connection” (Art Became the Oxygen). Michelle Angela Ortiz’ embodies this ideal. As Ortiz states so beautifully, "talking about love works against the agenda of dehumanization."

 Photo credit: Steve Weinik

Photo credit: Steve Weinik

To find out more about Michelle Angela Ortiz visit her website,

Statement Against June 2018 Border Policy and Muslim Ban

Statement Against June 2018 Border Policy and Muslim Ban

Today, on Independence Day, we are asked to join in a national celebration of human rights, liberty, and self-determination. But our values are only as real as our actions, and judged by our actions, liberty is in jeopardy every day. The ongoing separation and detention of families at our southern border is a moral crisis that strikes at the root of democracy.

Art & Well-Being: Toward A Culture of Health Launches!

The USDAC has just released our free guide for artists, creative organizers, healthcare providers, educators, funders, policy-makers, and communities responding to threats to well-being. Download it for free now. You will read that:

We envision a time when cultural interventions to improve personal and social health are commonplace and well-funded. Imagine not just a beautiful appearance for every hospital and clinic; not just musicians and storytellers on every ward to help people craft the narratives and move to the rhythms of their own healing. Go further and imagine never again having to argue for the necessity of beauty, connection, and purpose to well-being. Imagine the scales falling from policymakers’ eyes, allowing them to finally see that social justice heals. Imagine them investing real power and resources in that truth.

Art & Well-Being was created to answer a question absolutely key to such a culture shift: What can art do to nurture a culture of health? The guide’s answers cover three different approaches:

Prevention: Art can shine a light on essential truths about our individual and collective well-being.

Advocacy: Art can advocate for the rights of those facing health challenges.

Treatment: Art can engage, serve, partner, and support those living with health challenges.

Art & Well-Being cover 5-22-18.jpg

Art & Well-Being includes a framework for understanding a culture of health, one that responds equally to all individual and community needs. It starts with the social determinants of health—such as race, class, and gender—demonstrating how social justice is the single greatest factor in ensuring well-being. Consider these observations by Vicenç Navarro López, a professor who teaches both in the U.S. and Spain:

To quote one statistic directly from the [WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2009] report: “A girl born in Sweden will live 43 years longer than a girl born in Sierra Leone.” The mortality differentials among countries are enormous. But such inequalities also appear within each country, including the so-called rich or developed countries. Again, quoting from the report: “In Glasgow, an unskilled, working-class person will have a lifespan 28 years shorter than a businessman in the top income bracket in Scotland.” We could add here similar data from the US. In East Baltimore (where my university, The Johns Hopkins University, is located), a black unemployed youth has a lifespan 32 years shorter than a white corporate lawyer. Actually, as I have documented elsewhere (1), a young African American is 1.8 times more likely than a young white American to die from a cardiovascular condition. Race mortality differentials are large in the US, but class mortality differentials are even larger. In the same study, I showed that a bluecollar worker is 2.8 times more likely than a businessman to die from a cardiovascular condition. In the US as in any other country, the highest number of deaths could be prevented by interventions in which the mortality rate of all social classes was made the same as the mortality rate of those in the top income decile. These are the types of facts that the WHO Commission report and other works have documented. So, at this point, the evidence that health and quality of life are socially determined is undeniable and overwhelming.

How do we respond to these stark realities? Art & Well-Being features three detailed case studies, dozens of project descriptions, and hundreds of links to powerful arts projects, research resources, and detailed accounts for those who want to go even deeper. A section on right relationship covers ethics, partnerships, and much more.

For example, consider Blood Sugars, a three-year collaborative project between the University of the Witwatersrand and Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) to explore the unique challenges presented by diabetes in South Africa, leading to a series of performances in summer 2017 across Johannesburg and Soweto in South Africa. Or Bed, a remarkable ongoing street theater project of Entelechy Arts in South London. Entelechy’s Older Peoples’ Drama Group that turns on interaction with an elderly woman in her nightgown, tucked under the covers of a bed standing in the middle of a shopping street. Or TimeSlips, infusing creativity into elder care through storytelling. Its founder Anne Basting is quoted in Art & Well-Being:

If we actually spent just one percent of money we spend on pharmaceutical research to find a cure for dementia—which we haven’t done very well at for decades now, and it’s doubtful, I believe, that we will—one percent of that research money, if that went towards programs that fostered a sense of meaning in purpose in people’s lives, then we’d be a lot further down the road in preventing dementia, and easing the symptoms of dementia.
  Bed  by Entelechy Arts' Older Peoples’ Drama Group

Bed by Entelechy Arts' Older Peoples’ Drama Group

Learn more about all of these and many other descriptions and links in Art & Well-Being, available for free download here. And please stay tuned for more information about other ways to learn and share experiences of arts work toward a culture of health, including a Citizen Artist Salon coming up this summer. When you download the guide, you’ll automatically receive updates.


Amp Up Your Local Organizing: USDAC Outpost FAQs

People across the U.S. have told us they want easy ways to connect locally through the USDAC for support, sharing, and collaboration. That’s why we started a national network of local USDAC Outposts. An Outpost is a group of four or more individuals committed to enacting USDAC values in their community. The next deadline to apply is Friday, 25 May. More info here.

If you’ve been thinking about starting an Outpost in your community but have some questions first, read on for answers. If after reading these FAQs you want to know more or talk things over, we’d be happy to schedule a 30-minute call with you!

  • I don’t know three other people in my area who want to start a USDAC Outpost. How do I connect with other Citizen Artists in my area to start one?

Hold a founding meeting: invite friends, neighbors, colleagues, allies, and acquaintances to imagine and plan what your Outpost could be. And remember, start out as you mean to go on! Invite a core of people that reflects your commitment to inclusion. Extend invitations to people of all ages, races, genders, identities, abilities, and orientations.

You can find more tips for forming your Outpost, including a suggested agenda for holding a founding meeting, in the Outpost Toolkit.  

  • I’m not sure I’m ready to apply by the current deadline. How often does the USDAC hold an open a call for Outposts?

The best time to start is now! But if you can’t meet the current deadline, the USDAC opens applications for new Outposts three times a year, in  October, February, and June.

 Charleston Outpost

Charleston Outpost

  • What kind of time commitment is involved once an Outpost is established?

On average, Outpost organizers spend a few hours per month on Outpost work/play. We’ve provided detailed information on activities and time needs for your jumpstart project—three model project ideas and a way to create your own! We can help tailor your Outpost plans to available time and person-power, so don’t be shy about asking:

  • Will starting an Outpost take time away from the important cultural organizing work we’re already doing in our community?

No. Outposts are here to amplify and connect what you already do and to give you access to USDAC tools and learning experiences that support your work.

  • An Outpost already exists in my area but I don’t know how to join. Can the USDAC connect me?

Yes! All current USDAC Outposts can be found here, and there’s contact info for each one. It may take more than one Outpost to serve larger communities too, so feel free to explore starting one in your neighborhood or with a special focus. If you have additional questions please reach out to us at

  • Does the USDAC provide funding for Outposts?

USDAC does not currently provide substantial direct funding. We do provide a batch of USDAC swag, a web listing, and all the technical assistance you need to boost your Outpost’s fundraising efforts.

Once your Outpost has completed your 6-month jumpstart project you’ll be eligible to apply for a micro-grant.

 Harrisonburg Outpost

Harrisonburg Outpost

  • I see that Outposts are required to do a jumpstart project within their first six months, I don’t know what kind of project to take on. Can the USDAC help me figure it out?

Yes! You’ll find ideas and recommendations for jumpstart projects in the Outpost Toolkit. The USDAC also has other resources and toolkits to inspire your collective action, but if you don’t see something that fits, we’re here to help!

  • I’m part of an existing group or organization that’s aligned with USDAC values. Can we become an Outpost?

The USDAC has many Affiliates—existing organizations, coalitions, collectives, and networks aligned with USDAC values. Affiliates also get listed on the USDAC site, invited to join in Citizen Artist Salons and Actions, and linked into our social media and storytelling efforts. Check out the criteria and the simple application process here, and if you’re not clear whether becoming an Affiliate or Outpost is right for your group, feel free to get in touch: We can set up a call to discuss it if you wish.

  • Do Outposts have to be U.S.-based?

At this time, yes. The USDAC’s focus is domestic. We’re exploring connecting some type of international network in the future, but that will take time. In the meantime, we love being in touch with colleagues and allies abroad, so please drop us a note so we can get acquainted. And feel free to use our Toolkits, Guides, and information wherever you are!


Honor Native Land: Are You Hesitating? Acknowledgment FAQs

Back in October, the USDAC launched Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment, calling on all individuals and organizations to open public events and gatherings with acknowledgment of the traditional Native inhabitants of the land. Since then, more than 7,000 people have downloaded the Guide and many have put it advice into practice, with hundreds signing the pledge to make acknowledgment a regular custom. 

Have you been hesitant about acknowledging Native lands at your event? We hope these FAQs will clear things up!

I like the idea, but shouldn’t an Indigenous person be the one to offer acknowledgment? I’m not Native American.

Cultural democracy—the USDAC’s animating principle—says we all share responsibility for a social order of belonging, equity, and justice. If the hard work of confronting and overturning dis-belonging and injustice is left to those most directly affected, everyone else is shirking this collective responsibility. Acknowledgment isn’t a favor others do for Indigenous people. Just like taking action to stop someone from disrespecting or insulting others on account of their gender, orientation, ethnicity, or religion, acknowledgment is a step toward cultural democracy. 

I’m really nervous about making a mistake. What if I mispronounce something? What if I do it wrong?

The most basic forms of acknowledgment we recommend in the Guide are very simple, for instance: “I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on the traditional lands of the ________________ People, and pay my respect to elders both past and present.” It is fairly easy to find the name(s) pertaining to your region. (The Guide is full of suggestions as to how to research this, connecting with local Native organizations, Indigenous studies programs at universities in your region, and online resources.) Much information is available through this online Native Land map; it is often possible to learn correct pronunciation of tribal names by clicking their links on that map. 

If fear of making a mistake trumps doing the right thing, we’re in trouble! If you try acknowledgment with an attitude of sincerity and humility—asking to be corrected if you stumble—most people will respond in kind. 

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What about all the other people who lived here—the Africans who were brought against their will to the communities of color pushed out to make way for gentrification? Shouldn’t we acknowledge them too?

The Guide says that “[f]or more than five hundred years, Native communities across the Americas have demonstrated resilience and resistance in the face of violent efforts to separate them from their land, culture, and each other.” They may have been the first on this landmass harmed by colonial policies, but by no means the last. If you wish to broaden your acknowledgment, the Guide also suggests a longer acknowledgment formula:

“Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to leave their distant homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical to building mutual respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. 

We begin this effort to acknowledge what has been buried by honoring the truth. We are standing on the ancestral lands of the ________________ People [if possible, add more specific detail about the nature of the occupied land]. We pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today. And please join us in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.”

What about more than an acknowledgment: a prayer, ceremony, or performance? Is it okay for me to try for that?

There are many possible steps beyond acknowledgment. All should be offered by Indigenous people. When members of one Native people visit the territory of another, they may engage in a formal exchange of greetings, gifts, and blessings. Artists or spiritual leaders whose tribe’s traditional lands are the site of your event may be invited to offer a traditional cultural protocol or to acknowledge ancestors with a song, prayer, or ritual. Whether you are non-Native or Indigenous, it is perfectly fine to reach out to local Indigenous organizations or individuals with an invitation like this, so long as it is done respectfully. It is important to offer an honorarium or gift as appropriate to the individual elder, artist, or spiritual leader invited to take part in this way. 

You say “Acknowledgment by itself is a small gesture. It becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationship and informed action.” What kind of action? I’m worried that we will be asked to change our programs or staffing or governance in ways I can’t make happen. Higher-ups could be upset if I open the door to requests they won’t grant.  

The USDAC understands acknowledgement as a beginning, a possible opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights and toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture, toward inviting and honoring the truth. To bring about equity, belonging, and justice, things have to change. The first steps toward that culture shift are awareness of what has been and what could be and public acknowledgment of those realities. 

For non-Native organizations, entering into dialogue and relationship with Indigenous people calls for respect and reciprocity, deep listening and truth-telling. There is no immunity from facing these truths. Let us help you strategize about how to proceed: contact us at

We would love to hear about your experience with acknowledgment. A future blog will feature acknowledgment stories from across the U.S. Please share texts, photos, or any other material you like that will help others understand your own process of acknowledgment. Just write to us at We’ll ask your permission before using your experience in a future blog post. 

What Does A #RevolutionOfValues Mean to YOU?

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

#RevolutionOfValues 2018, the second USDAC National Action honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory and message, just launched. What #RevolutionOfValues is needed now? #WhatWillYouStandFor? And how will you stand: by performing Dr. King’s words, making visual art that embodies his message, bringing people together to share resonant stories of what needs doing and what has been accomplished? The free downloadable Toolkit offers guidance on all of these.

These questions are especially poignant when we consider Dr. King’s courage in standing on April 4, 1967—one year to the day before he was assassinated—to deliver a talk entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, held at Riverside Church in New York City.

The silence Dr. King was moved to break had been imposed by people who told him, “‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.’” That night, he responded with unparalleled eloquence and power: “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

That night fifty-one years ago, Dr. King named three forces of domination that have persisted and been opposed this half-century:

[W]e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A Spoken-Word Artist for The Ages

Dr. King’s remarkable oratory—so eloquent and unflinching—reminds us of the power of the word in the service of love and justice. He was many things, but one that isn’t often mentioned is this: a spoken-word artist for the ages. Many of the actions described in the #RevolutionOfValues Toolkit invite you, Citizen Artist, to follow in his footsteps. What #RevolutionOfValues is needed now? #WhatWillYouStandFor?

For the USDAC,  #RevolutionOfValues resonates with our core aim of culture shift, a paradigm shift from an old, inadequate understanding to one which captures our real challenges and possibilities. Citizen Artists are working for a shift from a consumer culture to a creator culture, from a policy based on privilege to a cultural democracy—a true #RevolutionOfValues.

What is yours? The Toolkit gives instructions for submitting art for the gallery and uploading images and texts to social media, as well as planning and hosting #RevolutionOfValues events. Start planning now!

What Can #RevolutionOfValues Do?

Taking part in a National Action can build awareness and mobilize action in your community. It can connect you with Citizen Artists and groups across the U.S. who share your values and hopes. And it can inspire others in ways you never dreamed.

For instance Did you read about The Kudzu Project here this past December? Guerilla knitters in Charlottesville, VA, were inspired by a postcard created by Citizen Artist Dave Loewenstein for last year’s #RevolutionOfValues. Scroll down on this page to see and download a gallery of images created last year, including Dave’s “Defunct Monument” series, then follow the Toolkit instructions to submit your own. Who knows what your vision could catalyze?

Renewing History, Renewing Possibility

Why are we focusing on things that happened half a century ago? What does that have to do with today? The wise and great writer John Berger put it beautifully:

History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.

There are plenty of people out there mystifying—whitewashing—Dr. King’s history out of fear of a present in which in growing numbers are calling for the true revolution of valued he espoused. There has been a movement to #ReclaimMLK from the “innocuous rituals of civic engagement” his birthday celebrations have become, reviving his radical message. #RevolutionOfValues is part of that movement.

I like to visualize each of us as a link in a chain of souls, the connector between three past generations and three generations into the future. Everything we find worth knowing comes to us as part of the legacy inherited from the dead, sharpened to speak to the present. What will you find worth teaching to the next generation, who will teach the next, who will teach the next? #WhatWillYouStandFor?

As part of last year’s #RevolutionOfValues, USDAC folks made a video in which each of us spoke a few lines excerpted from the Riverside speech (scroll down and you’ll see it on this page). Cultural Agent Emmet Phillips takes his responsibility to future generations very seriously. Using that same script (available in the #RevolutionOfValues public folder you’ll be able to access when you download the Toolkit) he made a video with young people from the Children and Family Urban Movement in Des Moines, IA, where he works. Here’s a link to the video on Facebook: watch it and be inspired!

Hellos and Goodbyes at the OOI

The Office of Instigation (OOI) is the USDAC’s Organizing Team—the folks who plan and coordinate our national actions, shepherd our communications, cultivate partnerships, raise funds, connect and grow the network of Citizen Artists, create resources and learning opportunities, and do so much that’s needed to sustain and amplify the people-powered department’s work.

Today we are delighted to introduce three new people who are joining Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz and Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard in the OOI; and to express our gratitude to those who have given so much and are now moving on.

Please welcome:

Minister of Collaboration and Activation Gabrielle Uballez is a cultural organizer, educator, and art omnivore. Her passion for equitable arts access is rooted in 20 years of experience, at every level, in community-based arts and platforms that support artists of color. She most recently served as the executive director of Working Classroom, a grassroots arts organization of which she is an alumna.

Gabrielle will be working full-time on the USDAC’s organizing efforts, reaching out to Affiliates, Outposts, and in all the many ways individuals and organizations make the USDAC work for their local communities and for cultural democracy. "I knew I had to be a part of the USDAC when I saw the visionary Cabinet and network of affiliate organizations and Citizen Artists,” she told us. “These are people I will roll up my sleeves with to build a nationwide, grassroots movement toward cultural equity and belonging!" 

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Gabrielle has served at and is associated with: the Studio Museum in Harlem; Crescendo Cultural at the National Museum of Mexican Art; the Western States Arts Federation Emerging Leaders of Color network; the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture Leadership Institute; the Creative Facilitation Gathering design team at the Academy for the Love of Learning; apprenticed under chef Zarela Martinez; grant panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts; and served on local community boards.

Gabrielle received her B.A. in Art and Art History from Pomona College and a certificate from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business Executive Program for Non-Profit Leaders. She is a proud Latina, wife, and mother of a Chinese-Chicanx child, currently living in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Tiffany Bradley is the part-time Chief of Implementation, helping with systems and social media to ensure that all of the USDAC’s moving parts work together. Her career reflects her lifelong love of the arts across disciplines and cultures. She is the founder of Colored Criticism, a media platform for cultural heritage stories. Her focus is intersectional, interpersonal, and interdisciplinary. Tiffany has worked in audience development at Race Forward, Americans for the Arts, and Fractured Atlas. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Colorlines, Racialicious, and the Americans for the Arts blog. As a Fulbright scholar in Museum Studies, she worked with a variety of nonprofits in Israel and Palestine. She has studied at the American University in Cairo, the University of Haifa, and Al Quds University. Tiffany holds a B.A. in Africana Studies from Brown University.

"Since my first encounter with the USDAC,” said Tiffany, “I've known this group was committed to equity. I'm looking forward to connecting Citizen Artists across the country through social media, in-person events, and more!"

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The USDAC is thrilled to be in a consulting relationship this year with Minister of Abundance Ericka Taylor, a writer, facilitator, and consultant based out of Washington, DC who has been helping us explore and develop systems that individual donors, foundations, and other funders can use to support the people-powered department’s work.

Born and raised in Nashville, TN, Ericka has spent the bulk of the last 20 years working for social justice organizations. Her career has spanned community organizing, philanthropy, and fundraising. She earned her BA in English from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in fiction, from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. She has served as a member of the Board of Directors or Steering Committees of the National Organizers Alliance, Progressive Technology Project, Youth Education Alliance, and the National Priorities Project and is currently a board member of the Western States Center, and La Clínica del Pueblo.


Why consult with the USDAC? “When I was growing up,” Ericka explained, “my dad was a photographer and painter, while my mom sang, my sister drew, and I wrote. There was never a question about the value of the arts. As an adult, I've maintained strong links to cultural work, but the social and economic justice fields I found myself in often didn't incorporate the arts. The USDAC's commitment to arts, culture, and justice made it clear that these were my people and this was work I could enthusiastically support.”

Welcome new OOI members Gabrielle, Tiffany, and Ericka!

Please join us in expressing heartfelt gratitude to our colleagues whose USDAC tenures are ending.

Mo Manklang, who has been USDAC Chief of Making Things Happen since late 2016—and has made so many things happen, from organizational systems to social media to our website redo—has been loving her work in Philadelphia as Communications Director with the U.S. Federation of Worker Coops so much, she’s made it full-time! This isn’t goodbye, because we hope and trust Mo will stay active and engaged as a Citizen Artist. Feel free to stay in touch with Mo at, and follow her on Twitter @momanklang.

A year of piloting our Regional Envoy model— three individuals reaching out on behalf of the USDAC in multi-state regions—taught us that we need more firmly established central infrastructure to scale sufficient resources into organizing and engagement at the regional level. Envoys Devon Kelley-Yurdin in the northeast; Yvette Hyater-Adams in the southeast, and Katherin Canton on the west coast have assisted local cultural organizing, offered workshops and trainings, researched local cultural development needs, and connected people to USDAC National Actions, all the while learning and growing together. We are grateful for their creativity, commitment, and critical contributions to the USDAC over the last year as we piloted something new. Their experience will be invaluable to our incoming Minister of Collaboration and Activation, and we look forward to connecting regularly with these powerful Citizen Artists.

You can too! Find Devon at, via email at, or on Instagram @moodhair. Reach Yvette at or by phone at (904) 372-3771. And find Katherin via LinkedIn:  or on Twitter @streetscapes_KC .

Thank you Mo, Devon, Yvette, and Katherin! May the next steps on your path lead exactly where you want to go!

The Kudzu Project: Cultural Organizing Spreads!

Note: In November, Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Margo Smith, of Charlottesville, Virginia. As a Citizen Artist, Margo originated The Kudzu Project, a guerrilla knitting project. Kudzu is a fast-growing perennial vine introduced to the U.S. from Japan more than 150 years ago. In the southern U.S., it’s not uncommon to see entire landscapes covered in kudzu; in fact, the vine can cover trees so completely that they die from light deprivation. Participants in this project followed patterns to create knitted kudzu leaves and vines that were assembled into a blanket to be draped over Confederate statues. Read on to learn how a work of art created for a USDAC National Action inspired the project and where it is headed.

Arlene Goldbard: How did The Kudzu Project come to be?

Margo Smith: Around the time of the violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017, some people I'm friends with on Facebook in the arts community posted Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide. The little image that came up with it was by Dave Loewenstein.

Arlene: Yes, Dave originally created a series of “Defunct Monuments” postcards for our national action #RevolutionofValues (click the link and scroll down to see them) last April. They show the Wall Street bull (materialism), a tank (militarism), and a Confederate statue (racism), all completely overgrown with a green vine. We thought they’d be useful for people who were contemplating artistic response to the marches in Charlottesville and their aftermath.

 Created by Dave Loewenstein for  #RevolutionOfValues 2017 .

Created by Dave Loewenstein for #RevolutionOfValues 2017.

Margo: That image stuck in my mind. I'm a knitter and even before August 11th and 12th, I’d been thinking, is there some kind of knitting intervention we could do with the Confederate statues? I was driving to work one day and it just all of a sudden hit me. The image popped in my mind. I thought we could realize the vision that this artist had of vine-covered statues. And then I thought, “Kudzu, oh my God, it's got to be kudzu because that is just so Southern!”

It flooded in my mind, all of these ideas. Call it The Kudzu Project and get people to knit the leaves and put all this Kudzu together in a way that we could blanket a statue. Before I even had any partners or participants, I just thought to grab the social media for The Kudzu Project. I don't think I slept for two nights because I was so energized by the idea. Then I went and got some advice from some people who I knew did guerrilla knitting.

I shared the idea with a few people close to me. Not everybody liked it at first. Partly I think because of the Confederate statues, the idea that well, they're not all bad, you know? I had ancestors who fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War and on the Union side as well. After August 11th and 12th, I went to a meeting that was held over at the University of Virginia where we discussed Art Became the Oxygen, a kind of brain-storming session about how artists could respond.

[Note: This discussion followed the USDAC’s Citizen Artist Salon on artistic response; folks in Charlottesville tuned in, then had their own planning meeting. You can enter your name here to access the Salon recording and do the same!]

I alluded to the idea just briefly in the meeting, but I didn't explain it yet because I wasn't sure just how it was going to happen. A guerrilla knitter advised me to try to keep the idea a secret; that would be part of its impact. I did a little bit of knitting to figure out how to make a kudzu leaf and came up with a pattern. I circulated that through my own knitting network. I went the yarn stores and asked them to help circulate it, but just among people we knew so that there wouldn't be any risk of it being made public prematurely.

Arlene: When did you cover the first statue?

Margo: The first one we did for practice at the cemetery at the University of Virginia. It's a Confederate cemetery. We figured it was about the same size as the statue in front of the courthouse but it's not such a public space. We thought we could get it up and get it off without drawing a lot of attention. We tried that the weekend before we actually launched The Kudzu Project. It gave us an idea of how it would fit on the statue and how we could hang it and that we needed to add a little bit more Kudzu in various places. It went really well.

 Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Arlene: And then the Albemarle County Courthouse on November 9, 2017?

Margo: Yes. We went in the very early hours of the morning to the Confederate soldier statue in front of the courthouse. There was nobody about. It was raining, so putting it up was a little difficult. The rain made it heavier. Then—this is the part where I really learned a big lesson—we left very briefly. We were waiting for it to get light enough to take photos. When we got back someone had already taken it down. We should have secured it on the statue, wrapped it around the rifle or something.

We put it up on November 9th because that was the day that Christopher Cantwell—who's been called by the press “the crying Nazi”—he was having his preliminary hearing at the Albemarle County Courthouse. That courthouse is right in the heart of Charlottesville, just blocks away from where the Unite the Right rally was supposed to be held. I thought it would be good to send a message because the statues were the starting point for the KKK and Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville. There might be press there and it might be an opportunity to show a community response. I was also hopeful that the people at the courthouse would have their hands full and maybe not be able to do anything about it straightaway, so it would be seen by more people. We figured it would be taken down and we might not even get it back.

Arlene: Wow, that would have been a loss! A lot went into creating the kudzu blanket, didn’t it?

Margo: Yes, people from all over did this knitting and sent it in—a lot of local people and then people as far away as Philadelphia. Hundreds, probably thousands of hours of knitting all told. We got photos of the installation. But when we went back, there was just this one single strand of Kudzu hanging from the rifle. It's kind of pathetic but we got a picture of that too. Then I went home and I wrote up the press release, including the fact that it was taken down. [Note: You can find links to press coverage here.]

Even though the idea started with me, there was a group of us figuring out how to do the installation and actually assembling the project. We ended up sewing all this knitted Kudzu and vines onto netting to get the drape you want but still be able to see the statue underneath. A few people helped in such an enormous way, but don't want their names out there.

Arlene: Say a little more about guerrilla knitting. What is it?

Margo: Guerrilla knitting is the unauthorized installation of knitted projects in a public setting. I wasn't aware of it until a few years back, even before I started knitting, when I saw some knitted tree trunks in Melbourne, Australia. I thought they're charming, they're fascinating, wonderful. I guess my first experience with this kind of political knitting and protest was the pussy hat project for the Women’s March last January. I put out on social media that I’d knit pussy hats for the next four people who tell me they want them. I ended up knitting seven pussy hats.

Arlene: And the future?

Margo: I'm interested in future projects like this where we can make a statement and do things collectively that'll be really impactful because of the number of people that they involve and the number of people that they reach. It can be a big visual sign of resistance or support.

I haven't heard from anybody yet who wants to do a Kudzu installation in their community. A lot of people here want to be a part of it going forward. I want to propose this to Charlottesville City Council, to see if they would allow us to cover one or both of the equestrian statues with kudzu. That would be a larger project that would involve more people and put it out there as an authorized project. So it wouldn't be a guerrilla knitting project so much; it would be an authorized art installation involving people from here and those elsewhere who might want to send in their kudzu in solidarity with the people of Charlottesville.

I don't know whether or not that's even possible. I do know the city council was entertaining ideas for ways to cover the statues other than the black plastic bags that are on them now which just look like giant garbage bags. So we'll see. Because we still have the original Kudzu Project blanket, we are hoping to deploy it again.

I'd love to see The Kudzu Project have more use in other communities too. If there are people reading this who might be using art in an activist way and have an idea, get in touch! Just write to

Arlene: You might want to have that as one of your website’s menu items, right? “Invite The Kudzu Project to blanket your objectionable statues.”

Implicit in what you're saying is the threshold here is different than other kinds of activism because you do something that gives you pleasure and that you have skill at and that you enjoy and is pretty benign—knitting. But then you get to deploy it in a way that can awaken awareness and interest other people in the issues. That seems really fun and effective and important. I just love that you did this. Thanks for talking with us!

Note: for the latest from The Kudzu Project, check out this story on a “flash installation” of kudzu at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA, a small town 40 miles west of Charlottesville.

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2018 People’s State of the Union: Prepare to Share Your Stories!

“I was visiting my mother for tea when the cable repair man came. Our small talk somehow led to immigrants, and we learned quickly he was not fond of them. He dove with both feet into racist statements, partly out of ignorance and being misinformed, but mostly out of fear. He thought he was safe saying these things in front of us, because we were white. We couldn’t possibly be immigrants. 
He was wrong. I decided to tread lightly, planting seeds of doubt in his mind. I spoke calmly with him, getting him to agree with me on basic things, then applying them to immigrants. This destroyed his argument, and I could often see looks of confusion on his face as he found himself struggling to determine which of the two contradictory beliefs he held were true. Speaking to my mother in our native tongue, then pointing out that she was not a citizen seemed to shock him. How could that beautiful blonde be something as terrible as an immigrant? Are immigrants really that terrible? In the end, I informed him that the only non-immigrants are Native Americans. He clearly forgot about them.”

            “Cable Man,” a story from the #PSOTU2017 Story Portal (Check it out: you will find hundreds of stories from people of many ages, races, cultures, locations, genders, and orientations throughout the U.S.)

It’s People’s State of the Union (PSOTU) time again! The USDAC is inviting folks across the U.S. to host Story Circles between 25 January and 4 February 2018. In this fourth year of the people-powered department’s annual civic ritual and story-sharing project, we hope that you will join the 350 communities that took part in previous years. Host your own Story Circle or upload your individual story directly to the Story Portal, which will launch on January 25th, 2018, so stay tuned!

A Story Circle event can be a few friends sharing stories across a kitchen table or a hundred people gathered in a public setting, perhaps meeting for the first time. Absolutely everything you need to know to host an event can be found in the free, downloadable #PSOTU2018 Toolkit. Just scroll down on this page and enter your email to download. You’ll also get access to the PSOTU2018 Public Folder, full of great stuff such as social media buttons, model press information, customizable flyers like those illustrating this blog, and even a lesson plan!

For #PSOTU2018, tellers are invited to share first-person stories in response to three main prompts:

  • Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the state of our union. 
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging—or the opposite—to this nation or your community. 
  • Share a story of an experience that gave you hope in the past year. 
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Prompts can also be tailored to a specific community or issue. For example, net neutrality is in jeopardy right now, with proposals being floated that would change an open internet to one with different levels of access conditioned on being able to pay. If you’re part of a community that cares about access, one of your prompts might be “Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the state of free speech in the U.S.”

Other topics are full of energy right now too, for example:

  • Women’s safety from sexual assault and harassment. What if your Story Circle used the following prompt? “Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the safety and rights of women in the U.S.”
  • The rights of Muslims and other religious minorities to full cultural citizenship and belonging. Share a story about a time you felt that true belonging—or the opposite—was extended to religious minorities in this nation or your community. 

Every year, we hear from many participants that Story Circles offer a powerful and simple way to connect people, even those who seem to have little in common. In a Story Circle everyone gets equal uninterrupted time to share a first-person story, usually two or three minutes apiece. Listeners give each teller undivided attention, allowing a breath after each story for it to settle. Those factors often have a large impact in equalizing participation; contrast this to a free-for-all where the loudest or most powerful person hogs the space. After everyone has shared a story, the members of each Circle reflect on what has been revealed by the body of stories.

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Why is the simple invitation to sit in circles, share stories, and listen fully so powerful? Based on the hundreds of Story Circles we’ve seen, two main answers come to mind.

It can be a rare and delicious experience to receive full attention, to inhabit the space to tell a story without fearing interruption or contradiction. Too often, people are texting while you talk, or waiting for you to stop so their turn can start, or looking over your shoulder for someone they’d rather engage. The full attention and permission of a Story Circle offer an easy antidote.

The PSOTU motto says it all: “Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” We tend to defer so much to those deemed experts, privileging official findings, numbers, professional jargon. Most public conversations generate tons of opinion, and opinion can always be contested. Who wants to be in a shouting-match? But stories are different. When you start with, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me” and tell an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end, each storyteller’s truth emerges to stand alongside the rest. When the group reflects on what has been learned, the richness and power can be surprising.

What if you just can’t host a Story Circle this year? No worries! When #PSOTU2018 launches on January 25th, we’ll provide a link to the Story Portal where you can share your individual story including text, video, and/or images. Your story will take its place amidst hundreds of first-person accounts that help us all know the state of union, connect to the way we want it to be, and recognize that we are not alone. We can’t wait to read your story! 

Citizen Artist Salon: Art Became the Oxygen

Citizen Artist Salon: Art Became the Oxygen

On August 3, the USDAC released Art Became The Oxygen: An Artist Response Guide, a free, downloadable 74-page guide to arts-based work responding to disaster or other community-wide emergency— this Salon featured amazing artist-activists sharing experience and advice from their own work. 

Honor Native Land: Steps Toward Truth and Justice

In early October, the USDAC released Honor Native Land: A Guide And Call To Acknowledgment, a free, downloadable Guide created in partnership with Native allies and organizations. It offers context about the practice of opening events by acknowledging the traditional inhabitants of the place, gives step-by-step instructions for how to begin wherever you are, and provides tips for moving beyond acknowledgment into action. If you haven’t already downloaded your Guide, visit the web page to access it along with customizable posters acknowledging Indigenous lands, and a short video featuring Native artists and activists.

Acknowledgment by itself is a small gesture. It becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationship and informed action, as an opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights, a step toward equitable relationship and reconciliation. On October 17, the #HonorNativeLand campaign was featured on Native America Calling, broadcasting on over 70 public, community, and tribal radio stations in the United States and in Canada. Listen to the recording featuring USDAC Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz, Mary Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota) of Racing Magpie, the artist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee/Yakama), Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida) and Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Nation Lakota) of Indigenous Directions to learn more about the practice of acknowledgment and what it means.

 Keith BraveHeart's poster for #HonorNativeland

Keith BraveHeart's poster for #HonorNativeland

As part of the broadcast, some recorded acknowledgments were shared. Here is Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, introducing scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of numerous books including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, at an event in Santa Fe, NM, sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. (Find that recording here.)

Hau Mitakuyapi. Nape Cuzayapi. Cante Waste. I greet each one of you as a relative, with a handshake, and an open heart and mind. As a Lakota person who is a guest in this place, I’d like to recognize the land belonging to the original people. This place is known to the Tewa-speaking people in their language as Kua'p'o-oge, “the white shell water place.” Here, a sacred hot spring existed, a Pueblo holy site, that Spanish settlers destroyed to erect the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. But Pueblo people remember this is their land and so must we.

Seventy-five organizations have already signed the USDAC’s pledge to make acknowledgment a regular practice:

As a step toward honoring the truth and achieving healing and reconciliation, our organization commits to open all public events and gatherings with a statement acknowledging the traditional Native lands on which we stand. Such statements become truly meaningful when coupled with authentic relationships and sustained commitment. We therefore commit to move beyond words into programs and actions that fully embody a commitment to Indigenous rights and cultural equity.

Signers include a range of local and national nonprofits, arts organizations, and education institutions, such as: the New Economy Coalition, Women of Color in the Arts, Arts in a Changing America, ArtWell, Barefoot Artists, Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles, Arts in a Changing America, The Field, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, The Natural History Museum, Peñasco Theatre Collective, and Alverno College International & Intercultural Center.

Imagine cultural venues, classrooms, conference settings, places of worship, sports stadiums, and town halls acknowledging traditional lands. Millions would be exposed—many for the first time—to the names of the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of the place they stand, inspiring them to ongoing awareness and action. Join us in sparking this movement by urging organizations you take part in to take the pledge now!

Jamie Blosser, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Art Institute, shared her experience of acknowledgment, which sprang from the realization that this is everyone’s responsibility, not just Indigenous people’s:

The Santa Fe Art Institute is new to this process, which I see as ongoing. We began the practice of acknowledgment after a couple of our Indigenous Canadian artists in residence approached me, asking why we were not acknowledging traditional territories at public events. They said the practice was now considered protocol at all Canadian events, but it was an entirely new concept to me at the time. I realized that—although my work prior to SFAI was primarily focused on affordable housing and cultural sustainability with Native American communities—I had always respectfully relied on my Indigenous friends and colleagues to set the tone and carry out acknowledgments. As this was all being discussed during the wintry protests at Standing Rock, with all of the world bearing witness to the courageous water protectors, it felt urgent to take on, both from a personal and institutional perspective. 
Although we are seeking more guidance to make sure that our acknowledgment is appropriate, we are kept on track with this process by people who have approached me to say that SFAI doing this is affirming for and important to them. This kind of feedback has helped me to realize we need to make it more of an institutional imperative. I feel it sets a beautiful tone of reconciliation that we all need. 
I am in such gratitude for the patience and kindness shown by my Indigenous friends and colleagues as this practice unfolds for SFAI, and as we make mistakes as we step into it. I ask for ongoing assistance, feedback, and collaboration to ensure it is a meaningful practice moving forward.
 Bryan Parker's poster for #HonorNative Land

Bryan Parker's poster for #HonorNative Land

Sometimes actually doing something unfamiliar opens new pathways to understanding. Bay Area artist Cynthia Tom shared her experience of acknowledgment:

I am particularly tied into the Asian American arts communities in the Bay Area. I announced the acknowledgment project and mentioned the Coast Miwok Native people at the opening of “Hungry Ghost” (see A Place of Her Own), an exhibit that recently opened at Gallery Route One in Pt. Reyes, California. Much of what I curate has to do with helping artists heal by creating thought-provoking shows that provide a platform to share stories of ancestral, familial, gender, and cultural trauma. This includes historical references to colonization, forced migration, discrimination, violence, and the effects on long-term family patterns of trauma. I do this to help women artists and the community heal, increase consciousness around their own dysfunctional patterns and releasing them to move towards new ways of thinking; and to wake up the communities that surround us, to instill compassion, grow passion around various issues and civic engagement and a call to action.  
The “Hungry Ghost” art exhibition brings up all these issues for the artists. If we are going to bring up colonization, I thought, how could we not address the deepest colonization of Indigenous land, closest to home? I always ensure we practice gratitude verbally and with print signage for each show, expressing thanks for our venue host, sponsors, donors, volunteers, artists, etc. I am excited to add #HonorNativeLand. 

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein of the Lawrence, Kansas, USDAC Field Office described how acknowledgment led to a group of Kansans holding a much larger picture of the place they were living:

A couple years ago, I helped organize The Kansas People's History Project which aims to shine a light on lesser known stories about people and events from the state's past. When I went around Kansas giving presentations about how folks could get involved, I always started with a slide of a map of the state. 
I said that the project was straightforward: just choose a person or event from Kansas that you feel needs more attention, write a brief narrative and illustrate it however you like.
And then I would pause...
Wait, I said, I need to clarify, because of course Kansas wasn't always Kansas. Before it became a state, it was part of the Kansas Territory. So, to be more accurate we'll call this The Kansas and Kansas Territory People's History Project.
Except, before Kansas was the Kansas Territory, it was part of Louisiana, so to be more inclusive we'll use the title, The Kansas, Kansas Territory and Louisiana People's History Project. Whew.
But before Kansas was Louisiana it was (and still is) the home of the Shawnee, Ioway, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kansa, Sac and Fox, Wichita, Osage, Delaware and many other Indigenous peoples.
In other words, when you think about it, this shouldn't be called The Kansas People's History Project. It should be called The Shawnee, Ioway, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kansa, Osage, Sac and Fox, Wichita, Delaware, Kansas, Kansas Territory and Louisiana People's History Project. 

Acknowledgment of ancestral lands is a small step, yes. But the truth has a way of expanding to fill the available space. If you aren’t already living into the truth embedded in the land you’re standing on, join us in taking the first steps by downloading the Guide, using the posters, and taking the pledge. You can find them all here.

NEW VIDEO: Highlights from CULTURE/SHIFT 2016

CULTURE/SHIFT was a national convening about Community Arts, Cultural Policy & Social Justice, held in St. Louis, Missouri in November 2016.

The event brought together some of the nation’s most creative thinkers and practitioners in a spirit of serious play and inclusivity.

Immediately following the presidential election, CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 generated and amplified creative strategies for change, bringing art to the heart of social justice and community. Through a rich mix of hands-on workshops, performances, interactive art-making, and public talks and actions, we explored how artists and allies can organize for full cultural citizenship. 

Read our recap with links to plenary and workshop recordings and to more details about the convening. 

Katrina, Sandy, and Now Harvey: How Can Art Help?

The National Hurricane Center has a penchant for friendly sounding hurricane names, but instead of generating smiles, the natural and by-now familiar responses are fear and compassion. This morning’s Washington Post predicts that more than 30,000 people from Houston and other towns in the region hit by Hurricane Harvey will be forced into temporary shelters as recovery gets underway. Our hearts go out to the people of Texas.

Immediate support is critical right now. Here are a few links people in our network have shared:

Another Gulf Is Possible: Collaborative for a Just Transition in the Gulf. 

Circle of Health International: assisting mothers and children affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Coalition for the Homeless, Houston. 

Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies.

Houston Food Bank.

Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund.

How can art help?

Citizen Artists across the U.S. have first-person experiences and wise counsel to share with their counterparts in Texas and those in other regions who are asking this question. USDAC folks on the ground in New Orleans and New York during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy know that important questions need to be asked again, and that humane, creative responses are possible. How will survivors in temporary shelters be treated—and how should they be? Who will hear their stories and help them tell the world what they wish others to know? How can creative action help build resiliency and community in the aftermath of such a shock?

These and other key questions are covered in Art Became The Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide, the USDAC’s free, downloadable resource for natural and civil emergencies, filled with inspiration, advice, and wisdom from artists and activists who know firsthand what they are talking about.

We invite you to read the Guide, and to view tomorrow’s Artistic Response Citizen Artist Salon featuring Carole Bebelle, Co-founder and Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, a co-director of Called to Walls and a visual artist based in Vermillion, South Dakota. You can join live online at 3 pm PDT/4 pm MDT/5 pm CDT/6 pm EDT on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 or wait and watch the recording later this week. (See our blog for tips on organizing a viewing party that can help local folks work together in artistic response.)

Here are just a few of the Guide's excerpts on storm-driven artistic response projects. The Guide contains many more details and links:

Evacuateer is a group that recruits, trains, and manages 500 evacuation volunteers called Evacuteers who assist with New Orleans’ public evacuation plan. They prepare and register evacuees, ensuring their ability to evacuate safely and with dignity.

Evacuspots mark the pick-up locations for the New Orleans City-Assisted Evacuation. Designed by public artist Doug Kornfeld, these 16 14-foot high stainless steel statues are created to withstand 200 years of wear and tear.

Alive in Truth was an all-volunteer project to record life histories of people from the New Orleans region who were affected “by Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods created by levee failure. Our mission is to document individual lives, restore community bonds, and to uphold the voices, culture, rights, and history of New Orleanians.” It was founded by Austin, TX-based writer, social justice activist, and educator Abe Louise Young, working with a large team of interviewers who captured stories. Each story link takes the visitor to a complete transcript with images.

Flood Stories, Too. This 2013 play by the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble tells the story of the flood of 2011 caused by Tropical Storm Lee, in community members’ own voices. The production was a collaboration between BTE, the Bloomsburg University Players, and the Bloomsburg Bicentennial Choir. The script was based on hundreds of stories gathered from local residents via interviews and Story Circles; it incorporated original songs by Van Wagner and Paul Loomis. The staging resembled a church: seventy performers—children to elders, including some who’d lost their homes to the flood and many who’d taken part in cleanup efforts—were arrayed onstage on risers, the back rows of folding chairs holding Choir members, the other performers filling the front rows. Playwright Gerald Stropnicky, an emeritus BTE member, described the ultra-open casting philosophy: “a terrific cast of community volunteer actors joined the effort; the door was open to any and all willing to participate. No auditions, and no one would be turned away.” The box-office policy mirrored the casting: admission was on a pay-as-you-wish basis.

  Photo posted by Vivian Demuth   on   Sandy Storyline

Photo posted by Vivian Demuth on Sandy Storyline

Sandy Storyline is widely admired as a rich repository of first-person stories relating to the experience of Hurricane Sandy, not just the immediate emergency of being displaced or injured, but also accounts of how the experience affected lives for years afterwards. The project was conceived and co-directed by Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo, working in collaboration with a large team and many sponsors and supporters.

The site puts it concisely:

By engaging people in sharing their own experiences and visions, Sandy Storyline is building a community-generated narrative of the storm and its aftermath that seeks to build a more just and sustainable future. Sandy Storyline features audio, video, photography and text stories — contributed by residents, citizen journalists, and professional producers–that are shared through an immersive web documentary and interactive exhibitions.

Park Slope Armory. Caron Atlas, Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts on the USDAC National Cabinet, lives in Brooklyn. She was deeply engaged in volunteering at the Park Slope Armory evacuation shelter following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In a Summer 2013 GIA Reader article, she described what happened and offered advice for future artistic response. At the invitation of a city council member, Caron, who directs Arts & Democracy, joining with artists and cultural organizations from the neighborhood and across the city,

created a wellness center in a corner of the armory drill floor, with programs that included arts and culture, exercise, massage, religious services, a Veterans Day commemoration, an election-watching party, film screenings, therapy dogs, AA meetings, and stress relief. In essence, the wellness center became the living room of the armory—a place where the residents could come to talk, reflect, create, build community, and even enjoy themselves. It served the staff and volunteers as well.

The article portrays in vivid detail the ways that many different artists—a jazz musician, a dancer, actors and others—interacted with shelter residents, becoming essential to the humane functioning of the facility and to the dignity, respect, and humanity of the residents. Comfort and care were important, but just as much, the work was to cultivate people’s agency to act and to advocate for those in the shelters.

Please share the Guide, take part in the Salon on August 29 or watch the video afterwards. Watch this space for more information about the USDAC’s Artistic Response work to come. Please feel free to get in touch with your own questions and stories about artistic response: