CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 Recap: Welcoming Each Other Home

At the USDAC National Cabinet meeting that preceded CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 (the people-powered department’s second national convening), a Cabinet member remarked that we have uncanny timing. The prior CULTURE/SHIFT took place just ten days following the 2016 Presidential election; and though few of us foresaw the outcome, all were grateful to be welcomed into a supportive community of people from many places who shared a commitment to culture as a path to equity, justice, and love. This time, when we gathered on November 1st in Albuquerque for CULTURE/SHIFT 2018, another election was just a few days away, and in a moment marked by intense organizing and mingled hope and fear, the mood of the body politic was divided.

On opening night, we stood together in the chill air of Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza to witness a beautiful acknowledgement of ancestors offered in song and blessing by Kansas Begaye (Diné) and Nicolle Gonzalez (Diné), to hear welcomes from the City’s Mayor Tim Keller and Hakim Bellamy, Deputy Director of the Cultural Services Department, CULTURE/SHIFT’s host partner. USDAC Minister of Activation and Collaboration and an Albuquerque native, Gabrielle Uballez, reminded the hundreds assembled there that

We are people who place our gifts at the service of community, equity, and social change.

We are more powerful than we think.

We are change.

And at a time marked by voter suppression, troops massing along the border, and violence directed at so many communities, Gabrielle said,

This weekend, as CULTURE/SHIFT-ers and USDAC Citizen Artists, we are that diverse, inclusive, beautiful group of people who is figuring out how we use our gifts in creativity, arts and culture to live together.

I invite you to take this energy and vision we collectively create this weekend back home with you into your homes, schools, neighborhoods, cities, states, and regions so we can show up as our whole selves to make U.S. who we really are and who we really want to be. Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!

Once again, we’d been welcomed into a true community, and the mood shifted. A path opened at our feet, marked by farolitos (sometimes called luminarias), small candles protected from the wind by paper bags. Carrying them, we wound our way into the convention center for a performance especially created for the occasion by The EKCO POETS— Maiyah King, Valerie Martinez, Michelle Otero, and Mónica Sánchez. And CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 had begun!

 Participants process from Civic Plaza to the Convention Center for the welcome ceremony

Participants process from Civic Plaza to the Convention Center for the welcome ceremony

It was a full and rich three days, sold out with nearly 400 participants from the Southwest and around the U.S. taking part in more than 50 workshops, two plenaries, opening and closing ceremonies, and a culminating dance party. You can find a list of all the sessions here. Many of them were recorded on audio or video: scroll down on this page for a complete list. The Facebook album can be found here and there’s a great selection of photos on our website here.

CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 was infused with ancestral invocation and healing, participatory song, pop-up play, tools for making change on a neighborhood, city, and state-wide level, policy deep dives, movement and embodiment, calls to action, delicious food, cultural strategy, radical imagination, deep connection and listening, and raw honesty about both the grief and fear and the hope and possibility of these times.

With so much to choose from, it’s hard to know what could capture the spirit of CULTURE/SHIFT for those unable to attend, other than to say it was all ages, cultures, faiths, genders, abilities, all learning, all belonging, all engaging, all the time.

“This Moment: A Community Plenary,” the opening session on Friday morning, November 2nd, expressed it well.

You can watch the entire plenary on Facebook video here. After an acknowledgment of Tewa lands by Daryl Lucero of Isleta Pueblo and welcomes by Shelle Sanchez, Director of Albuquerque’s Department of Cultural Services and by USDAC Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz, one by one, six powerful Citizen Artists offered us five minutes each of deep sharing, and in between each pair of offerings, we turned to our neighbors to share our responses.

Frederick “Wood” Delahoussaye, Artistic Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, welcomed us home with a powerful short video originally created for New Orleans homecoming after Katrina, now replayed every August 29th. Then Wood spoke to us of an idea of home that encompasses everyone. “This weekend,” Wood said, “I want to offer you a chance to come home….Who you love, how you love, if you’re done with love, consider this space to come home. Take a moment, turn to your neighbor, and say ‘Welcome home.’” He was followed by Candace Kita, Cultural Work Manager of the Portland, Oregon-based Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, welcoming us to bring all we are by sharing one of her own loves that isn’t always welcome wherever she goes: astrology. “I wanted to talk about astrology as an unconventional medium that moves us toward a lot of the same goals we have for cultural work: building connection, creating new narratives for understanding ourselves and the world, and healing in this divisive political moment.”

After an interlude of dialogue in pairs, Daniel Banks, Catalytic Agent on the USDAC National Cabinet and Co-Director of DNAWORKS, led us in breathing together and spoke about how so much that is being validated by science reinforces what many artists working in community know about the workings of our brains and breath to create connection, nourish creativity, generate empathy, and hold space for healing. “Breathing allows us to learn new things. In theater, our breathing is synchronized. Theater creates spaces of heightened understanding …[s]cientifically speaking, theater heals people and saves lives.”

After another dialogue interlude, Lulani Arquette, Catalyst for Native Creative Potential on the USDAC National Cabinet and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, shared that her ancestors were kahuna kalaiwa'a (master canoe carvers) and her great-uncles paddled with Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku. Providing context for “I Ku Mau Mau,” a powerful Native Hawaiian chant she taught, she explained that it embodies the values of persistence and community embedded in the communal search for the right tree and the massive participatory process of bringing it home and turning it into a canoe.

Tannia Esparza, Executive Director of the Albuquerque-based Young Women United, “a reproductive justice coalition led by and for women of color,” came next, sharing her experience in organizing successful community-wide rejection of a ballot measure that would have eliminated abortion care. “We took it out of the polarizing narrative of pro-life and pro-choice, and flipped the script…to make it about people’s decisions, whether or not we agreed with abortion access itself.”

The topic for our third dialogue looked to the future: What seeds are you planting now that you hope to see grow and nourish future generations? Many people rose from the audience to share what they had heard, said, and felt. Visual artist Beverly Naidus, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts, University of Washington – Tacoma, said, “It’s extraordinary to feel that you’re part of a national, maybe international group of insiders, rather than being an outsider, and to feel that you are resonating with the room in so many different ways. I thank you all for being here. I have so much gratitude.”

 Charon Hribar of the Poor People’s Campaign leads the closing song of “This Moment: A Community Plenary”

Charon Hribar of the Poor People’s Campaign leads the closing song of “This Moment: A Community Plenary”

Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz offered a closing that ended this way: “May we continue conjuring futures different from the ones the powers-that-be would have us believe are the only ones possible. And may we vote on Tuesday!”

This plenary ended with a rousing song led by Charon Hribar, Co-Director of Cultural Arts for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, who was joined onstage by a group of Citizen Artists who’d taken part in the previous evening’s “Happiest Hour of People’s Songs,” co-led by Charon and Santa Fe artist Alysha Shaw. Charon taught a new call-and response song written at a Poor People’s Campaign gathering by Minnesotan Ruth MacKenzie. Here are the first and last verses of “Goin’ On”:

There’s a racial justice movement goin’ on, goin’ on

Put your ear to the ground, feel the power movin’ around

There’s a racial justice movement goin’ on

There’s a cultural revolution goin’ on, goin’ on

Put your ear to the ground, feel the power movin’ around

There’s a cultural revolution goin’ on, goin’ on

Our gratitude to all who planned, prepared, presented, brought their hearts, souls, and minds to the convening, and together, welcomed each other home to CULTURE/SHIFT 2018! May all that you gave be returned to you a hundredfold!

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 8: Art-Powered Places in Philadelphia, PA

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the final installment 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.”

Lisa Jo Epstein applied for a one-time Policy Prototype micro-grant as the leader of Just Act, a theatre-based catalyst for healing change and activism with the mission of build a just world. The work is rooted in the principles of Theatre of the Oppressed and other arts-based methods to ignite critical thinking and unite community members for collective action.(Read more on their Facebook page.)

The original idea was to integrate arts-based approaches into the Philadelphia Planning Commission's Vision 2035 NW Philly planning process, building on a “successful multi-generational, resident-driven story and theatre-based pilot project we created with and for Germantown United Community Development Corporation.” The proposed project would once again bring together local residents “who were trained in generative listening, story-circles, community-driven story analysis, and Just Act's performance "gift-back" technique, and who facilitated community events,” acting as a kind of bridge between planners and the community, using stories and documentation to let planners know what Germantown residents want.

The proposal was inspired by Platform point 6: “Integrate community cultural development and the work of artists into all social programs affecting culture.” As Lisa Jo’s proposal noted, Just Act would be “incorporating our art skills and experience into a community development process that normally shies away from intensive community in-reach. Community developers have told me that they don't have the time to get involved in 'that kind of thing'—let alone creative strategies for engaging residents,” a problem that will be familiar to many who work in community-based arts and culture.

 A participant in Southwest CDC’s Art Powered Places Vision Tree Session

A participant in Southwest CDC’s Art Powered Places Vision Tree Session

An underlying aim of Just Act’s Policy Prototype project was to “use the arts to hold CDCs and City Planning accountable to residents,” working to ensure that decisions affecting a neighborhood were shaped by residents. Like all of the projects in the Policy Prototype series, the idea was to offer a model, in this case for planning commissions and community development folks in Philadelphia and beyond to integrate arts-based planning methods into their ongoing practice.

As Art-Powered Places evolved, the project shifted from its original location to encompass more territory. The resulting partnership with the Philadelphia Association of CDCs (PACDC) was created to “introduce creative placemaking to four Philadelphia Neighborhood Advisory Committees (NAC) through a hands-on, arts-based curriculum. The participating NACs were: Brewerytown/Sharswood, Hispanic Association of Contractors & Enterprises (HACE), Mt. Vernon Manor, and Southwest CDC.” Just Act conducted four art-based training and technical assistance sessions at each site—for example, using theater exercises to elicit imagination—allowing “each community action group to develop their own, unique understanding of their neighborhood’s needs, and then begin to plan possible future projects of their own imagination to transform where they live into places of equity and wholeness.”

When we spoke, Lisa Jo explained that the timing was key. The communities “had just elected a body of people to serve as the constituents of the NAC and we came in at the right moment because we were able to provide a process of how a collaborative group builds their capacity to enhance their skills. Everything was rooted in sustaining the changes that were identified by community members, because equity is the place where we begin. It’s paramount that to assure equity in any creative placemaking project we attend to the people architecture first. We were able to rejuvenate people within their place through creative means, allowing them to uncover their relationships to the place and to each other before attending to any bigger, larger projects.”

Lisa Jo explained that this introduction to art-based strategies had already spread beyond the four original NACs:

For example, Mark Harrell, who was the neighborhood advisory committee coordinator for Southwest CDC, is working with Just Act to integrate arts-based strategies into a big project that HUD and the Philadelphia Housing Authority are doing in Southwest Philly, building a new mixed-income housing development. Because our work transformed their meetings into self-revealing visioning opportunities for the residents to see and identify and experience the power of we, he would like to bring us into the organizing group that is being formed, to be an integral element of the community planning for that project.

I asked Lisa Jo to share something about the ah-ha moments that inspired people who’d been involved in conventional planning approaches to move towards arts-based approaches.

Well, the framework honored in a tangible and visible way the people who were in the room and how they were connected to their place. It led them to new insights into their roles as individuals in relationship to the collective. Our country socializes individuality and not a sense of compatibility and collectivity. So this was an opportunity for them to discover themselves in relationship to themselves and each other. It was a process of engagement that none of the NAC coordinators had ever experienced and they all loved it.

They were sad that we were not able to get the funding to continue it. We only had four sessions at each NAC. There's a lot of trust-building and understanding and embracing the complexity of each group and then utilizing arts-based techniques to respond to emergent needs. They had all risen to a place of readiness, honoring their differences while embracing their shared experiences. It’s hard to have been put on pause because the resident relationships and knowledge and community awareness were really on the upswing.

Here’s how it was put by one of the NAC coordinators. Stasia Monteiro, NAC Program Director for HACE CDC, said that Art-Powered Places

[A]llowed softness in a world where it’s hard to be vulnerable, for in it, we were able to be vulnerable and come to understand our world. The space we created in this process allowed people to reveal their earnest observations of the neighborhood and its people and has given us more deeply relevant knowledge of the challenges we face as we work to grow wellness in our communities.”

In Brewerytown/Sharswood, Lisa Jo explained, people

[M]et at a police athletic center building that has been disinvested from but is brimming with abundance in terms of the people there. One community elder coined the term “the power of we” because they all love the place and sense of place is connected to people, process, and place. So how do memories of the place create a sense of self through people’s individual meaning-making but also the group-level community experience, social identity and self-identity.

From every neighborhood we heard things like “I love this place,” and simultaneously a sense of loss about how the neighborhood has changed. In terms of place, what is the attachment? What is it about the physical space that supports this bond? We heard a lot about neighborhoods supporting community ties; people identified physical sites that supported health and well-being. All together this revealed their sense of place. Using arts-based strategies with primarily non-artists affords the opportunity for them to see that they are creators, that they can make the invisible visible and really embrace the power of their imagination. By increasing awareness of their voices and missing voices and the social isolation that they may have experienced, there was a shift from NIMBY to NIOBY— not in my backyard to not in our backyard.

 The NAC team in Brewerytown/Sharswood and their Network Map

The NAC team in Brewerytown/Sharswood and their Network Map

The project’s hope was to influence the entire local planning sector, but not everyone was willing to engage. “Although they expressed interest in the idea of the original project, Philadelphia city planners dropped the ball,” Lisa Jo told me, “ But PACDC had previously supported creative placemaking projects in their programming so they welcomed ours as it offered a deeper dive. PACDC just put out their annual magazine and it's focus is on art, equity, and place in relation to community development. They’re working to leverage the momentum that we began, enabling us to complete the pilot with the original four and then facilitate the entire model with four new ones. And the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations, who funded PACDC to hire us, are really impressed, seeing this as the future the work needs, building sustainability within CDC communities, primarily lower-income neighborhoods that have been sorely disinvested because of systematic oppression.”

We sought to bring people together across sectors not just for dialogue and expression but to grow new kinds of partnerships, shift both the CDCs and the artists in the neighborhood out of their silos to recognize that they have knowledge and insight when coming together about seemingly impractical challenges, that they are the solutionaries for change.

When the aim is to change people’s idea of what works, documentation can be critical: how do you share an experience the direct participants found transformative with people who weren’t there to experience it? Lisa Jo explained the challenge:

I was able to bring a photographer two times but it’s got to be somebody who's sensitive to community organizing because we're growing the capacity of residents to steward the community's values even as they're figuring out what they value. We have a tiny bit of video from one of the events because one of the participants is a filmmaker. But the tech part is something that continues to challenge as we continue to try to find also the right language for cross-sector partners to understand what we do.

I asked Lisa Jo for advice on building relationships with CDCs to open the door to arts-based work.

It helps that I was the artist who was behind Chester Made and that became quite successful, although we haven't been part of it since the first year. It’s like a dating game, a courtship that has to happen. We've been building a partnership with the CDCs for over a year and they still don’t have the money to scale it up. And it’s hard because we're not a big theater company. But it's really exciting when I listen to the heads of the CDCs and NACs speak on behalf of Arts-Powered Places, to have them be the ones putting the arts-based work on the table and not me as the artist. It's an acknowledgment that this is a tool they want to move forward with.

Lisa Jo’s final tip for Citizen Artists who want to undertake this type of work is to work with a participatory evaluator, someone who understands the essential role of multiple voices and stakeholders in assessing a community-based project. She’s been working on project evaluations with Mary Elizabeth Semerod since 2015, and notes that the Art-Powered Places “plan was a result of our in-depth conversations about neighborhood resilience and what it takes to define a path with the partners, how you build a framework and path work for change. I can't overestimate the impact of that collaboration on this project.”

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 7: Remember2019, Memory and Reflection on Mass Lynching in Phillips County, AR

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the sixth 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.”

The proposal submitted for a one-off USDAC Policy Prototype micro-grant by Ashley Teague, Artistic Director of Notch Theatre Company, focused on the critical issue of commemorative justice (as did the STICK + MOVE project featured earlier in this series). Partnering with Mauricio Salgado, co-founder of Artists Striving to End Poverty and Arielle Julia Brown, founder of The Love Balm Project, Remember2019  lives in South Phillips Country Arkansas where in “1919 arguably the largest mass lynching in American history, took the lives of more than 230 African Americans in less than 72 hours….,”

Remember2019 was developed in response to Bryan Stevenson’s (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative) call to action when he said, “Formalizing a space for memory, reflection, and grieving can help our communities recover from this traumatic history of mass violence.”

In the Remember2019 proposal, Ashley wrote:  

As we approach the centennial of the massacre in South Phillips County, our goal is to partner with individuals and organizations throughout the region to create a theatre event that unearths this erased and contentious history and considers how it has affected the communities past and present. Furthermore, we will raise Dr. Martin Luther King’s timely question—where do we go from here?— tour the play during the 2019 centennial year, organize an annual residency that will continue after the theater event, offering local artists opportunities to create their own self-determined work around issues of  memory, reflection, belonging, and cultural citizenship."

Three Platform points were referenced:

  • Point 2. Support A Culture of Justice and Equity

  • Point 3. Redeem Democracy with Creativity

  • Point 5. Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship

The work touched on all three, but as Ashley explained when we spoke, “we ended up doing more work towards point five, investing in belonging in cultural citizenship. That's where this long-term artist residency came from, working with community-based centers to reuse abandoned or underused spaces and some of our focus with the young people.”

“We believe that culture influences policy,” Ashley wrote in her proposal. “Therefore, it is our responsibility to reframe our cultural narrative so that it inspires just policies. This project begins by recognizing a history that was intentionally devalued and disposed of in order to entrench a normative white supremacist culture. In order to do that, this project will embody equity and participation by prioritizing the leadership, stories, and talents of community members that have been historically ignored. Our model is flexible, scale-able and nimble enough to adapt to the specific context and goals of the community, while still based in well-researched frameworks and proven methodologies.”

 Healing the Land Ceremony in Elaine, AR, October 30, 2017

Healing the Land Ceremony in Elaine, AR, October 30, 2017

Remember 2019 is a long-term project, as Ashley explained when I interviewed Mauricio and herself:

The big picture is that we're producing six residencies over six years. The first two are trailblazed by Remember2019, beginning with a blues event featuring local musicians using their music to synthesize personal stories and testimony with the rich history of the blues in the Delta. The next residency is the original, full-length play featuring community testimony and community and professional actors on stage. Then the next four will be determined by local artists. We are part of funding those residencies and getting a group of local folks together to take on those residencies past our involvement in the community, creating a long-term artist residency in the neighborhood.

“Another way of thinking about this long-term project, Mauricio added, “is that we are supporting local efforts to build an ecosystem of art spaces and work. At the moment there are a couple of spaces where folks engage in visual or performing arts—aside from churches, I think there are only two. There are local artists like Kyle Miller at the Delta Cultural Center who are hoping to build out a community of art spaces and art makers and that's what we're trying to do. How else do we build that ecosystem but by creating opportunities for performance and for sharing?”

Ashley agreed. “In this community there are a lot of vacant spaces that used to be for commerce. One part of our conversation is if there is a way to repurpose these as creative spaces. Is there a way to take on these underused or unused spaces in the blues festival performance and also in other residencies moving forward?”

The team’s time on the ground in South Phillips County was revealing and catalytic, as Ashley explained:

During the two months we were in South Phillips County we found ourselves wondering, “Where are the young people?” There’s nowhere to hang out. There's no public space  to let loose and relax and see friends other than going to church. How can we create space for that? How can we provide food and entertainment and make a space where people can just hang out and commune?

 A major goal is to create and perform in 2019 a play grounded in the experiences and voices of local people who have been affected by the massacre of 1919. Mauricio explained:

All of our work, both the story-sharing institute as well as the current blues festival, has conversation at its core. We are interested in reflecting on the story-sharing practices that remember that moment in time and how that has been affected and where that has been channeled. There's some research at the institute that the blues changed in response to the red summer of 1919, for instance. So all of that's in the mix of thinking about the dream for the play next year.

Ashley explained that the playwright, Clos Sirah, “has gone several times to the community for interviewing and story-gathering, including one time when we were all there together for weeks. We've been having meetings with our community partners—community-based organizations, community-based centers in the area—as we shape what that play will be to make sure we're getting community feedback at every stage. Ultimately it will be a performance that is inspired by and based on community testimony and will involve community in the making and performance. One idea is that it may travel around the community so that part of the experience is really being present in the space, really being aware of generations stacked up on this land and here we are now as a community moving through our space together.”

 Team photo, July 2018 Staged Reading of  Scapegoat  by playwright Christina Ham in Helena, AR

Team photo, July 2018 Staged Reading of Scapegoat by playwright Christina Ham in Helena, AR

Mauricio noted the nuances and controversies that commemorative justice projects can entail.  “The Elaine Memorial Foundation is putting up a memorial and there are a series of events that are being organized for next October. And so how are we doing something that adds to that conversation? That puts up against it? That isn't just the same thing? How is our work refracting, reflecting on, reckoning with the conversation that is already happening in light of the memorial that's being created?

The past is always in dialogue with the present in such work. “Something we heard often from our partners and from folks we'd meet in the community,” Mauricio told me, is ‘We're not just what happened in 1919. We're a lot more than that, and who's interested in that? It seems like folks are only interested in the hype around that one moment. How do we broaden our understanding of that story so that we can tell that side of ourselves too?’ That's only possible if there are several conversations happening simultaneously that can use the events of a hundred years ago as a jumping-off point.”

Ashley and Mauricio explained that their team has been in conversation with all kinds of local groups, from Waves of Prayer to the Delta Community Center to the Boys and Girls Club, local educators, social service organizations, and beyond.

What binds our work and theirs is a desire to have this story told on a national level, to give voice to these stories, and understanding that art and theater is the way to do that. People tell us “We're trying to move our community forward and we need this story to get out and we need attention to come here. We need jobs to come here. We need work to come here,” and the understanding is growing that theater as a vehicle for storytelling can serve those purposes as well.

This type of long-term relationship-building grounded in art calls on Citizen Artists to be open to sharing their gifts in a spirit of flexibility and generosity. For instance, Mauricio noted that he’d been helping folks from the Delta Cultural Center write a grant proposal for an after-school music academy, and the person he was working with

…says to me, “I feel funny. I don't know what this has to do with your work.” And I said “Listen, Kyle, we are in for the long game of supporting the development of the arts in the area. So helping you write this grant is also my work.” We are showing up as much as we can for the community and the community's needs, checking at the door our own particular agendas or even our own abilities. In that way I think this project will continue to morph. We will continue to produce these events, and that will be a centerpiece of our work. But also a whole lot of other things, because it’s going to take participating in many things.

Remember2019 has received funding from Alternate ROOTS, the Highlander Research and Education Center, The MAP Fund, and the Network of Ensemble Theaters to support this long-term cultural development in the service of commemorative justice.

In fact, a keystone event made possible with this funding is coming right up: in Marvell, Arkansas on 29 September 2018 and Elaine, Arkansas on 2 October:

Remember2019 Collective members Carlos Sirah and Mauricio Salgado are collaborating with James “Gone for Good” Morgan, Marcus “Mookie” Cartwright, and Vera White to present Black ‘n da Blues: Stories and Songs from the Arkansas Delta. The event is free to the public and will include a reception with food.

In Black ‘n da Blues, Phillips County musicians explore the relationship between legacies of race and artistic expression – locally, nationally and beyond. The event is being produced in partnership with The Delta Cultural Center, The Elaine Legacy Center and The Boys, Girls, Adults, Community Development Center (BGACDC).

Major events like these emerge from a fabric of community dialogue and story-sharing. For example, Remember2019 Collective members Arielle Julia Brown and Carlos Sirah convened a two-day story-sharing institute on 18 and 19 June, inviting local people to share “freedom songs, delta blues traditions, oral histories, meal centered oral traditions, story circles, testimonies, gossip, folklore, interviews and more,” culminating in a Juneteenth Freedom Celebration in a local park.

Specific activities also emerge from a convergence of interests in which the artists’ desire for commemorative justice—for their work mattering to people and serving as a vehicle for everyone’s liberation—connects with local desires and aspirations. Mauricio recalls being asked by a community leader

"What's your investment in the work?" She would question us whenever we would say “We’re here for you.” Towards the end of our last time together, she heard us start to say “We're here because we want. We want." She says, “I only trust people who are here 100% for themselves because how do I know that you're committed unless you too realize there's something here for you?" That’s the level of commitment we’re being asked.

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 6: Migrant Stories and Rights, Inside Out

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the fifth 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.”

“Playback Theatre” is a type of interactive improvisational theater work that has attracted practitioners around the world (learn more here). It is often used in group work to address conflicts and spur dialogue. In her Policy Prototype proposal, Heidi Winters Vogel described a series of storytelling events in communities of migrant workers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, places where the residents were often unaware of the extent of their legal rights and the groups that exist to pursue them. This partnership between Inside Out Playback Theatre at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA (where Heidi taught theater for many years; she’s now at Wabash College in Indiana) and the Legal Aid Justice Center of Charlottesville, VA, yielded a Participatory Theatre with Migrant Workers Toolkit the Justice Center plans to share with other groups serving migrant workers.

Heidi’s proposal connected to Platform point 6: “Integrate community cultural development and the work of artists into all social programs affecting culture.”

Our partner agency, Legal Aid Justice Center, is building capacity in the migrant worker communities for resistance to exploitation. The most persistent barrier the Center encounters is the workers' fear of seeking help. Inside Out Playback Theatre storytelling events provide a way for camp residents to share their stories and connect with Legal Aid representatives in a welcoming and safe atmosphere. Inside Out provides bilingual entertainment honoring the cultures and stories of the people laboring to feed the United States.

Or, as the Toolkit put it in a bullet-list of essential preparation:

  • Recognize audience members’ vulnerability. Some in the audience are documented and some are not but all are working at the pleasure of the American companies. They are one injury, complaint or reputation as a troublemaker away from deportation or worse.

  • Accepting giving up control of the stories offered to the audience to build trust. Playback Theatre is in service to the stories and the needs (often unrecognized by company members) present. Also, serving the storytellers, not the goals of the partner organizations.

The prototype project had already completed its first stage when Heidi applied for the Policy Prototype micro-grant. Inside Out company members spent several days on the Eastern Shore early in Legal Aid's outreach to summer agricultural workers, hosting bilingual storytelling events at two migrant camps and one trailer park—mostly Spanish-English but also Haitian Creole-English. Legal Aid found that residents were more willing to engage after these events, and definitely eager to have more theater experiences.

 Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Heidi stressed the vulnerability of migrant workers and thus the challenge of offering help. “For obvious reasons their positions are tenuous. They serve at the mercy of the large tomato-canning companies that work out there. A white person coming in and asking to work with them and asking questions about their time there and what difficulties they experience, they're reticent to share. When we asked them to share their stories by coming in to do teatro with them, it became a completely different environment.  When we came back a second year it was even better because people remembered and invited their friends, so there was an even larger turnout. It really built on the work that they were doing."

The Toolkit evolved “primarily based on our second year,” Heidi told me. “We did four events in the course of a week, one each day. We talk in the Toolkit about developing a new form of community story. We found the first year that when we were in groups that were primarily men, one person would say, ‘I had this experience,’ and somebody else would jump in and say, ‘I had this experience.’ They wanted to share together. They didn't want to go deeply into a single story. We talked about that and came up with a solution which was different than we normally do, saying ‘let's all contribute to a community story.’ That was particularly effective the second year.”

She described the situation the project encountered on Virginia’s Eastern Shore:

We primarily worked in two different kinds of locations. There are a couple of trailer parks where families would live and whole families would come. The other locations would be barracks where they would be housing the workers, primarily men but some women as well. This past year there were more Creole-speaking people from Haiti, though Spanish speakers were still the majority. As the current administration limits the amount of Central Americans coming into the country, more Haitians have taken advantage of the work. We don't have as much language capacity in Haitian Creole, so that is something we would like to improve.

I asked if key themes emerged from the stories. “It was unexpected,” Heidi explained, “how little people would talk about the pain of leaving family but the joy of providing for their family, sending money home, how important it was to them to be doing something to contribute to the well-being of their family. And I was surprised. I expected the privation they felt from having to be away from their family or the stories of difficult crossings, and while those things emerged, they were outweighed, at least in terms of our storytelling, by the idea that they were able to be productive, that they were able to do something very positive.”

 Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Inside Out Playback Theatre performance with migrant workers, Eastern Shore Virginia, summer 2017

Openness to engaging with Legal Aid changed markedly.

Legal Aid felt that they were able to connect with some individuals more deeply. A couple of people notified them that they had an accident and they had short-term need for some aid. They were able to meet those needs which then led to more people being able to trust them not just in terms of “I need this” but “I want to share this with you” or “this other person is needing something.” So it became more communal. Leaders emerged from the different groups that were willing to meet with Legal Aid representatives and strategize how to make things better. At the end of the season, they had a big gathering mostly led by members of the migrant worker groups stepping up and taking leadership as opposed to the Legal Aid people. Legal Aid people told us that ‘the best thing about Playback was that it created a different atmosphere, more cultural and festive, to engage with people than just the approach of talking about problems. We saw the need for communal experiences to build trust with migrant workers.”

 “The families are close-knit,” Heidi explained, “so there was a lot of celebration of the children’s achievement. And their food, lots of stories about what somebody had made and what they had contributed to a group meal and a celebration that emerged from that. It was so inspiring, that sense of community, because the food was something both the Creole-speaking group and the Spanish-speaking group shared. They talked about coming together to share each other's food, and they'd be like, "Oh, I want to try that."

For others contemplating similar projects, Heidi stressed having an ally in the organization you want as a partner. “It took us having someone that understood Playback deeply, that was a member of Legal Aid, to make that initial event happen. It is difficult for such organizations to imagine how this theater work could be helpful, so I don't know how to advise a group in approaching them except to say if you have someone that has a connection, that can speak to it, that personal link was very important. Now we wouldn't need it because we've demonstrated the importance to them but at first, that was vital.”

One challenge that Citizen Artists often encounter is conveying the value of arts-based organizing to those who haven’t experienced it directly. In the case of this Prototype Project, a member of the Inside Out company had moved to Charlottesville to work with Legal Aid, creating an organic connection. I asked how the company would start to build such a relationship in the absence of a natural ally.

We've done a number of free events where we've invited different organizational leadership in the area. Legal Aid would’ve been a little more of a stretch because there’s not an office here. But that’s how we've gotten into the schools. That’s how we've gotten into other organizations in this area, by inviting them to come and experience it themselves. If the connections can be made the results were so incredibly profound—far more even than I expected them to be as a true believer in theatrical interventions. Even if it’s a friend of a friend, finding those community connections is the way. I wish I had a magic bullet, but I don't know what it is except talking to people and giving lots of demos. See it work, I’ve become an even bigger believer in the way we can build communities with this work.

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 5: Belonging Bandwagon: A Performance Art-Driven Dialogue for Culture’s Sake

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the fourth 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.”

Cristina Cabeza Kinney’s Policy Prototype proposal called for a “Belonging Bandwagon” project in Crestone, a tiny town in southern Colorado best-known for the large number of Buddhist, Hindu, and other spiritual centers in the area. Speaking to Platform point 5—Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship and Platform point 8—Adopt a Cultural Impact Study—Cristina highlighted the challenges of collaboration between Crestone, a municipality of around 150 residents, home to the commercial district serving the whole area including the much larger adjacent Baca Grande subdivision with about 2000 residents, managed by a homeowner’s association.

In her proposal, Cristina explained that cultural organizing in these communities means going directly to the people: “As a Planning Commissioner, I know no one wants to go to meetings and hardly anyone does. So, we go to where they are: Saturday market, the cafe, the plaza, poetry readings, theatre productions, meetings, the school. Develop the culture by engaging it.”

Partnering with the theatrical group Company of Players, Crestone Town Board of Trustees, Crestone Creative District, Awakening The Phoenix, and Blue Earth Design, engage it they did—with a spirit of wildly performative fun. Cristina and other core Belonging Bandwagon team members took on the role of time-traveling “exploradoras” embodying an aspect of cultural inquiry: Juana Azurduy, a Bolivian guerilla leader (Cristina Cabeza-Kinney), Harriet the Falconer (Kelly Hosner Crowley) and the poet Sappho (Allison Wonderland), all three characters previously featured in the Company of Players production Herstories).

 A sketch for the belonging bandwagon, a movable repository for stories, resources for making things, and printed information.

A sketch for the belonging bandwagon, a movable repository for stories, resources for making things, and printed information.

In the performance, audience members learned that the three explorers “fell down through the Charter Portal as we were summoned to Crestone by local story weavers…. As we prepared to travel back up through the portal, while shaking our heads and waving our farewells, we discovered the portal was shut to us. Anti-gravity aerodynamic lift interference with spacetime tessering entanglement, apparently...obviously. Just then a grand voice boomed saying, ‘To find your way through, you must work to include, discover the clues and fill the bandwagon with home.’” Clues came in the form of interactions with locals and a set of keys that magically appeared, each unlocking a different aspect of belonging.

Juana told the audience that “we discovered that the common theme in all of these key clues is STORY!  We then wondered what are the actual stories of culture and belonging of the people who live in this village of Crestone? And this is what has brought us here today to be with you!” After collecting stories from audience members, the trio invited everyone into Story Circles to help design the Belonging Bandwagon, a multi-purpose wooden structure on wheels; to populate the Crestone-Baca Sense of Belonging Book, one of many artifacts the Bandwagon would hold;  and to consider ideas such as the Policy on Belonging and Cultural Impact Study, putting humanity into policy.

Cristina expressed the hope that the Policy on Belonging could speak to all community members. “What I love about the Policy on Belonging,” she said, “is that it's this universal thing to hold it all in. Some of the spiritual centers have supported the project, and I can see them adopting a Policy on Belonging. So it's gaining some traction.”

The Crestone-Baca Belonging Bandwagon was conceived as a repository for all the explorers had learned, all the stories community members had shared, and the sense of home beginning to take shape and expand. “That's really what it’s about,” Cristina told me, “people sharing the history, sharing their point-of-view, and putting it on the Bandwagon so we can have that as a cultural artifact for future generations as a motivation.”

The team made a wonderful short video that begins with the initial performance at the community’s annual Fourth of July parade. It sums up the exploradoras’ learning: “The trio discovered that our sense of belonging is strong, yet our sense of democracy is splintered, which contributes to a pestering dis-belonging and a lingering mistrust.”

 Sappho, Harriet The Falcolner, and Juana Azurduy exploring with the people of Crestone-Baca.

Sappho, Harriet The Falcolner, and Juana Azurduy exploring with the people of Crestone-Baca.

The physical setting is part of the challenge. Saguache County encompasses quite a bit of land—more than 3,000 square miles—but the population density is low, with only 6,000 or so residents. There’s a progressive community of mostly relative newcomers; a longstanding agricultural community; and the fact that countywide, close to half the residents are Latinx, but demographics in the subdivision do not reflect that, especially considering that many of the dwellings are vacation homes occupied only part of the year. A further obstacle to engaging people in policy conversations was a pervasive skepticism about government. “Mistrust was the elephant in the room that needed to be addressed,” Cristina explained. “Listening was really important when engaging with the community. Going to different groups really showed us that sense of mistrust, because everything was fine when it was all about art, but when we grounded it in actual policy change, it all came up.”

Responding to mistrust of public policy caused the project to slow its pace a bit. “I wanted to listen to the resistance,” Cristina explained. “Instead of fighting the resistance, just allowing it to be what it was. We needed to go back to ground zero and really start with value. We're coming from every direction on the planet to live in this place, mostly with no roots of ancestral belonging, and we need to start at square one, which is our values. And luckily the USDAC's values that we've been working with this year, it's great we have that.”

After the performative phase of the project, the team showed the video to the Town of Crestone leadership, presenting 25 letters of interest from local folks who wanted more engagement in community and belonging, and offered the Cultural Impact Study as a model Crestone might adopt. They also began conversations about bringing the same issues and policies to the Baca Grande Property Owners’ Association, where two members of the core team live.

Cristina emphasized that projects like these are emergent, not following a precise blueprint. “You need to pay attention to where it wants to lead, where it wants to go, to really cultivate the listening and be comfortable with being uncomfortable or at least tolerant of being uncomfortable.” Starting out, she had an idea of how it would go. But, “there was such an influx of so many people wanting to meet in groups. They just popped up everywhere. A lot of the year I was just trying to keep that perspective of taking it all in and letting it play out. So we didn't have to prod too much, we didn't have to really go into much community organizing. It really popped this year with Trump becoming the President.”

Crestone was one of the first communities to become a USDAC outpost. Holding a successful Story Circle event for the People’s State of the Union had introduced people to arts-based participatory methods of civic engagement, and that helped to involve people in the Belonging Bandwagon project. “The Story Circles are really important,” said Cristina. “We had great feedback after the People's State of the Union. I want to do more Story Circles around belonging. I would love to host a series with first listening together and then having a Story Circle afterwards.”

Offering advice for others who want to explore similar policy territory, Cristina urged people to consider using a performative frame as Crestone did. “The performance art piece has a lot of potential to engage from a neutral, outside point-of-view and really have fun with exploring. As a pilot project, that's a really important piece. Of course, every individual community will interpret that in their own way and have to listen to their own community, but this idea of explorers from another space and time coming and unearthing what's happening in a community is really beautiful. They left our community a gift, with the ball in the community's court after the performance. Where's the community going to take it from there?”

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world if you have a project that promotes one of more of the Platform points, so call on us.


by Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the third 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.”

When Free Egunfemi proposed the STICK + MOVE project for one of the USDAC’s Policy Prototype micro-grants, she explained that the title refers to the “quick, nimble installation of breathtakingly illustrated wheatpaste collages to beautify the boarded-up windows and doors of the city's vacant properties…, inspiring communities by seeing people who look like them artfully represented in their neighborhoods with stunning visuals that correspond with fascinating lost historical narratives from the bygone era.” Speaking to Platform point 5— Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship—Free, founder of Untold RVA and more recently, the Richmond, VA, USDAC Outpost, characterized this work as an alternative to expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive traditional monuments:

Untold RVA taps into the power of public history and public art via creative placemaking, tactical urbanism, public (street) art, public media, community design and archival activism as an innovative and cost-effective alternative.

Collaborating with media-maker Kelley Libby, Untold RVA set up Storefront Studio in a corner of the Six Points Innovation Center (6PIC, a “youth-led, youth-centered” space for creativity, collaboration, and social justice). Free and Kelley had worked together through Localore, an initiative of the Association for Independents in Radio; scroll down to episode nine on this page to see the resulting video, “May It Be So,” Free’s story of commemorating ancestors as portrayed by Kelley in 2016. Kelley has since moved on to work in public radio. Free renamed the space Untold RVA in January 2018.

Honoring ancestors interred during slavery times without proper burial has been a through-line in Free’s work for years, as this 2015 account attests. The memorial altar built on the African Ancestral Burial Ground site in Shockoe Bottom is an example of what Free calls “commemorative justice,” a powerful label for public arts and organizing work that corrects a biased record, one that often suppresses the stories of people of color and working people in favor of a whitewashed “great man” history. It’s hard work, subject to the same pressures that called it into being, as Free explained: “What Untold RVA is all about is being able to combat the erasure of important narratives within the commemorative landscape; and the fact that I'm combating erasure means that I'm susceptible to modern-day erasure of what I'm doing, including those who vandalize our installations.”

 Untold RVA’s 11:11 Portal Project, an installation “dedicated to our community's Honored Ancestors whose achievements in Richmond continue to inspire us from the invisible realm of The Beloved Unseen.”

Untold RVA’s 11:11 Portal Project, an installation “dedicated to our community's Honored Ancestors whose achievements in Richmond continue to inspire us from the invisible realm of The Beloved Unseen.”

Kelley’s subsequent media project continued the exploration of buried history with UnMonumental. Each installment of this weekly radio series showed how community-driven local stories can challenge false history narratives, profiling Richmond residents including musicians, librarians and nonprofit leaders. The series’ logo was an image of the base of a fallen monument.

For the STICK + MOVE project, Free was able to buy software that turned the wheatpaste posters of under-recognized historic figures into interactive artworks. “With that software,” Free told me, “I was able to then upload up to 4,000 individual entries into a database which is accessible online by a person calling 804-277-8116.” People enter a numeric code that appears on one of the posters, and that allows them to access a relevant story. Enter 91# and you’ll hear James Gannon, a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and journalist for Al Jezeera, who visited Richmond in April as part of his coverage of work to see statues of his ancestor and other pro-slavery figures removed.

Last summer, in the first Keepers of the Light installation, STICK + MOVE wheatpaste posters illustrated by Barry O'Keefe were installed on the base of light poles in the area where a statue of Maggie Lena Walker was inaugurated before a crowd of 20,000. (Enter code #20 at 804-277-8116 to hear more.) Free described the impact of that project:

I found that STICK + MOVE works in a way that even a $1,000,000 statue—that took 20 years to get up, plenty of advocacy and fights out the wazoo, finally makes it to right in the middle of Broad Street in the middle of the city—can’t. There was no way for the information to get to the people about why she should be regarded as a celebrated businesswoman or celebrated mother. She was the very first female bank president in the United States and she was also black and she's from Richmond, Virginia.

With that project I got the support of the University of Richmond and their Race and Racism Archive. They had five students that were assigned specifically to Untold RVA. We set up a database with metadata. We put the installations at the bottom of the light posts. They stayed up for about a week and then suddenly the City came and power-washed them off.

But in the end, I wasn't really concerned. I noticed that once it got up and into social media, you can't power-wash social media. It was already in the National Parks Service’s press release. It was from their invitation that I translated the six phrases that were carved in the statue into something that would expand the narrative. It was already in the City press release that went all over the nation to announce the unveiling. But it was a little disappointing that they power-washed it without saying to me “Hey, what's up?”

Smaller STICK + MOVE installations were then created and posted at eye-level on light poles, and happily, those have stayed up. The project has become known and valued, says Free:

It's been an incremental progress for me to be recognized as a historian, a people's historian specifically, so that institutions began to engage. In large part because of me being able to reference being a Policy Prototype with the USDAC I began to get calls by universities across the country, especially locally. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the Valentine, a museum specifically for Richmond commemoration; and then a brand-new architectural marvel, the Institute for Contemporary Art; the Dance Department and the Arc of Racial Justice Institute at the University of Richmond. It's like three or four times out of every week I'm somewhere talking about STICK + MOVE, talking about commemorative justice.

 A wheatpaste installation from STICK + MOVE.

A wheatpaste installation from STICK + MOVE.

Free has advice for those who want to try a similar project in their own community:

Play your cards close to your chest and really make strategic alliances because it's easy to undermine people who are not attached to institutions and to neutralize these things, especially in cities where there's a lot of contention about the commemorative landscape. It really helps to be able to have an academic institution to partner with. If you have archival activists involved in your project then no one could ever refute the information that you're conveying with the hidden history. Get a memorandum of agreement with partners—they normally don't have to be run up the pole to their deans or anything. It can be the department chairs that do them on their own because they're not legally binding. It really is just speaking through the collaboration that they're asking for you to facilitate within their department. But it's still on letterhead, and it supports the establishment of that work, enabling that independent subject-matter expert to stand firm in what they know with their partners and their allies, to use that leverage.

Free reports that people “are just blown away by the ingenuity of utilizing crowd-sourced narration for these hidden historical gems. They really are excited about the opportunity to narrate one themselves.” Whenever she makes a presentation or leads a tour, she invites participants to use their cell phones to narrate and record one of her pre-written scripts about untold Richmond history. When the voiceovers are emailed to Free, she uploads them to her server and assigns each one a unique numerical code. All scripts include the same ending: “May this Untold RVA street art installation inspire generations. Power to the people! May it be so."

Untold RVA is a multidimensional project, with Untold Tours, Field Notes from the Front Line, COMMUNIVERSITY, and Untold Media all under its umbrella. The Untold RVA project unfolding right now, is “Gabriel Week,” 27 August-2 September 2018, “a citywide celebration of black innovation and commemorative justice inspired by Gabriel, Richmond’s own young warrior for black freedom.” (Gabriel Prosser, also known as General Gabriel, was the leader of a revolt by enslaved in Richmond in 1800.) Gabriel Week comprises a slew of events, parties, community design workshops, film screenings, a day in the park, even a history-based game, all in collaboration with many community and institutional partners. Richmond's mayor issued a proclamation for Gabriel Week: you can see it read on Facebook.

The Richmond commemorative justice agenda is large and long-term. Free explained that “Virginia generates seven billion dollars annually in heritage tourism! This is just heritage tourism, not whitewater rafting or anything else. And that's not even including the area in the capital city where all of the enslavement, dungeons, and auction blocks—there's 54 of them in Richmond that are unmarked that I've been marking. Seven billion dollars, and none of that is pointing to a tourism economy connected to enslavement and black history in the capital city. I recognize that there is a huge opportunity to be able to make sure that the people's voice gets in place within that and that it enables the descendant community to tell its own story. I’m doing all of this to hold space for that.”

And the work is being recognized. Untold RVA is part of the grant Richmond recently received in the Cities of Service City Hall AmeriCorps VISTA Love Your Block competition.

 Free Egunfemi was named to the AIR Honor Roll for  Localore  programming about the work of Untold RVA.

Free Egunfemi was named to the AIR Honor Roll for Localore programming about the work of Untold RVA.

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world, so call on us.

PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 3: BeCville: Arts-based Participatory Budgeting

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the second 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.”

Speaking to three different platform points, Matthew Slaats—an artist, producer, Creative Director of PauseLab, and PhD candidate in Civic innovation at the University of Virginia—submitted a Policy Prototype proposal for BeCville. The Charlottesville, VA-based proposal focused on “an arts-based participatory budgeting project that pairs artists and community members together to use the arts as a means to make neighborhood investments based on resident needs.” The proposal explained the relevance of all three platform points:

Platform point 2: Support a culture of Justice and Equity. BeCville is focusing its work on engaging youth, people of color, and low-income neighborhoods that are rich with culture, yet need further investment and support for greater presence.

Platform point 3: Redeem Democracy with Creativity. BeCville is inspired by the international Participatory Budgeting initiative. This not only puts public funds in the hands of residents, but improves civic education to further spur residents’ ability to participate.

Platform point 5: Invest in Belonging and Cultural Citizenship. BeCville creates a mechanism to push back against modes of urban redevelopment that are exclusive and gentrify our neighborhoods. We are placing our investment in community needs and assets to further strengthen the social fabric, all the while building the ability of residents to have a place at the table in all decision-making processes.

Across the U.S., “participatory budgeting” projects are spreading, offering community members a meaningful opportunity to state their own priorities as part of the process of allocating public funds. Artists have played significant roles in local participatory budgeting, notably the Arts & Democracy Project in New York, a USDAC Affiliate. To have participatory budgeting, you need a public entity willing to open the budgeting process to ordinary community members. In the case of BeCville, this first project was supported by matching funds from a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant with the City of Charlottesville, and also the Thomas Jefferson Planning District. As Matthew explained to me, “the project originated as a relationship between the Bridge (a residency project), the Piedmont Arts Council, and the City,” but things changed. After Matthew moved on from the Bridge he continued to oversee the project; and in September 2017, the Piedmont Arts Council closed its doors after 38 years.

Initially the project went door to door to engage residents about community needs.  This was followed by a call for projects that responded to those needs, attracting a slew of ideas and 16 complete proposals. BeCville then conducted a community voting process that garnered 300-plus participants out of about 3,000 residents. In spring 2017, community members who live where the Belmont, Ridge St. and Fifeville neighborhoods converge selected four projects to receive $18,500 in funding (projects are described at greater length on the BeCville site). Two were implemented:

South 1st Garden, supporting a series of creative events and programs based in a new community garden, using the arts to engage local residents.

Memorial to the Unknown, a project to design a memorial to those buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, but whose graves are now unmarked.

Hope remains that the others will be implemented in future, but the demise of the Arts Council and the challenges of getting community-based initiatives through City bureaucracy meant they were postponed. Matthew hopes they can pursue them in the next round:

Imagine Cherry Street with Cherry Trees, a project to plant cherry trees along Cherry and Elliot Avenues to connect the neighborhoods, culminating in a community celebration.

Luminarea, a project to place solar-powered LEDs on power poles along S. 6th St., featuring words collected by residents to address safety and traffic concerns.

I asked Matthew to share something revealed by the final selections from among the 16 proposals. “The neighborhood we're working in,” he told me, “is the last neighborhood in Charlottesville that is under-served, under-realized—which is all a lot of code words for targeted for gentrification. They did a master planning process that focused on economics, and didn't engage the question of what assets and resources were already there. Like many cities, always looking forward and not really understanding what’s present. Our whole project was about trying to find those resources and understand them, and then provide some infrastructure to realize them. The projects that got selected—the garden and especially the monument—those are really rooted in the community, coming from people who were working there or lived there. I was happy about that.”

Becville whurk small.jpg

Matthew explained that BeCville invested a huge amount of energy in engaging community members. “We reached a lot of people and got the word out to the point where I was walking through this one neighborhood one night and these guys came around the corner and they were like, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I'm handing out these cards and we're trying to get you guys engaged in this project.’ And they knew all about it already. They were "Oh, we’ve seen them.’ We saturated the neighborhood!”

The South 1st Garden project was spearheaded by Janet Mitchel. “There are many nights where we'd sit out on her front porch and talk. And to see the excitement—to see how she was not only rallying kids to get engaged in the project, which they're working on still now, but her engagement beyond her immediate neighborhood was expansive. She waves everybody down and talks to everybody. BeCville expanded her ability to connect with others; it was exciting to hear her talk about how she walked through a different neighborhood and engaged people. BeCville was an opportunity to think about how you activate and give agency to people in a way that they can really run with it. Janet’s resourcefulness, her dedication, she didn't hold back. She would give ballots to people and say, ‘Fill this out now. Vote for me, and then you need to vote for these other people.’ Her ability to do that and to engage the community was really amazing.”

But community engagement is only one-half of the equation, Matthew learned. “In the work that I'm doing now, the next process, I'm really trying to build up and provide infrastructure both at the neighborhood level and within the City, building larger understanding of what's going on and some better buy-in. I'm engaging in a bigger conversation around participatory budgeting around the country. It's not just about handing out money, then seeing projects happen. It's about building capacity in neighborhoods. That's what's exciting.”

The Policy Prototype project helped to clarify the work ahead, Matthew explained. “On the community side you have to build the visibility and understanding of how an idea functions and how it becomes reality, but then at the City level you have to open up the possibility of listening and letting go of some of their power so that real relationship can happen. It's a lot easier to walk into a neighborhood and do a quick survey and then walk out saying, ‘Oh, we know everything now.’”

It also clarified Matthew’s own understanding of his role: “For a long time, pursing a series of creative placemaking projects, I always thought of myself as an intermediary, trying to negotiate or connect these two sides. More and more I see myself as an artist. My role as an artist is to creatively think about those relationships and how they come together.”

Matthew shared a gratifying moment. “On a really warm afternoon,  all the artists that had submitted proposals were sitting out under the sun. I was trying to be very honest and forthright about how BeCville would move forward, how it was an experiment, no guarantees. And there was this moment where the artists were just like, ‘Hey, we're dedicated to this. We believe in this. We know we might not win.’ They were so thoughtful not only about their projects but really caring about how the community would respond to them, how they would connect with them. That was an amazing moment. To me, that's the core of it, to shift this conversation from artists producing, ego preceding them, to really thinking what are the needs of the community and how do they align their practice with those needs and be thoughtful about that?”

 Memorial to the Unknown at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA

Memorial to the Unknown at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA

Matthew is hopeful of more City buy-in following the success of the first BeCville participatory budgeting process. “After August (the August 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville), the city’s been traumatized,” he told me. “I went to a City Council meeting and signed up for a three-minute speaking slot. I shared the successes of the BeCville project and asked, ‘Could we think about doing something on a larger scale?’ I didn’t expect anything, but one of the Council members got up and said, ‘Hey, we should do this.’ Then another one seconded that and it started a conversation. Now there are other people starting to talk about it, so it's not just me anymore."

“At a meeting with the new Mayor and Vice Mayor, I advocated for a citywide process, asking them to set aside one percent of the City budget, about $1.7 million to do this. That was whittled down to doing a $100,000 neighborhood-based process, which was allocated in the latest budget. It will be a single neighborhood, focused on building capacity within that neighborhood and engaging other residents to invest directly in the community’s vision. The overarching goal is to create the desire and the interest in this type of process so that it becomes an important part of the culture of Charlottesville. My hope is that a broad group of people agree, and we continue to build momentum so that it keeps growing over time.”

If you’d like to explore bringing any points in Standing for Cultural Democracy to life in your community, please feel free to contact us at While Policy Prototype micro-grants were a one-time thing, we can still offer technical assistance and help share information with the wider world, so call on us.

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:

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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