Are You Ready? Cultural Agents’ Learning Community

Note: The USDAC’s Call for Cultural Agents inspired this reflection. Find it here and apply by November 20th.

I recently took part in a workshop co-led by Daniel Banks (who serves as Catalytic Agent on the USDAC’s National Cabinet) and Adam McKinney. The two together make up DNAWORKS.

In one exercise, small groups selected one of a long list of words that come up in conversations about equity, then proceeded to dive into its origins, the ways it is used (and possibly misused), its many facets of meaning.

Our little group chose “community,” which gave us plenty of scope for overlaps and contradictions. When does a group attain the status of community and why? We looked at geography, values, identity, and other grounds for forming—or feeling—an affiliation bearing that name. I cited my favorite observation on the subject from Raymond Williams, that “community” has only positive meanings—which can have a kind of negative effect: it’s easy to sanitize something by appending “community.” “Defense community” and “intelligence community” sound a lot cuddlier than “war industries” or “espionage operatives,” don’t they?

But that doesn’t negate the concept and the many ways “community” is used to lean into a sense of belonging and equality the word implies. USDAC Cultural Agents, for instance, take part in a learning community through video calls, elists, and other modes of communication at a distance. They learn from each other and from Cabinet members and other USDAC folks who have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. That shared learning, which includes reflecting together on the work we do, is a big part of why we call the USDAC “action research,” why we see it as learning by doing. We know that knowledge must be grounded in practice, and for practice to become knowledge, we must explore and reflect on it.

Sound interesting? Until November 20th, the USDAC is accepting applications to serve as a volunteer Cultural Agent; you can apply online.

 From the Great Southeastern Imagining of 2014

From the Great Southeastern Imagining of 2014

Later on in the workshop, participants paired up and listened deeply while each in turn shared a question we were afraid to ask. A lot of great ones were put up on a wallsheet. One person talked about a desire to go deeper: is it okay to ask whether people have questioned their methods, rather than feeling that what they are doing works well enough and simply repeating it? He asked himself this all the time: how much impact do I want make, and is the way I’m going about it the best way to achieve that?

Asking yourself this kind of question is good, but asking each other is going to yield more information. One thing I love about the USDAC is seeing people come to grips with questions like these in a supportive environment where everyone has something to learn and to teach.

I thought again about our small group’s conversation on the definition of “community.” Among the growing number of community-based artists (who go by many different labels), I see two ways the word is deployed. One seems analogous to electrical power: the artist plugs into “the community” just as a power cord plugs into an outlet. There’s some type of connection, representation, interaction, but it’s not so much about asking questions as applying the answers you already know. The work can be good, but does it invite and challenge people to go deeper?

In the other model, people think of community almost as a verb. Like democracy and freedom, it is never complete but always becoming. Activist artists and others who take part see themselves as partners, as collaborators, in weaving the cultural and social fabric that can contain all of the hopes and fears, skills and needs, and ways of being that create the deep belonging we call cultural citizenship.

Interested in going deeper? Here’s a link to information and an application to serve as a volunteer Cultural Agent; you can apply online Until November 20th.