Stockton Imagining: drawing together

On June 13th, Stockton, CA, was the site of one of the fifteen Imaginings across the U.S. this summer and fall. Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Stockton-based Cultural Agent Natalie Crue. Stockton is a remarkably diverse blue-collar city of 300,000 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, surrounded by agricultural land and the waterways of the Delta region. This year, Stockton was honored as an All-America City by the National Civic League; a few years ago, Forbes Magazine called it one of “America’s most miserable.” 

Arlene Goldbard: Give us a little of the Stockton context for the Imagining.

Natalie Crue: This city has been in a state of disrepair for years. When people hear about Stockton that’s all they talk about: gang violence, political corruption, and all these other social ills that plague our community. I think people are just sick of it. Yeah we can get more police, yeah we can get body cams, yeah we can pump money into putting a Band-Aid on the situation, but people are eager to really do something. And some people don’t know what or how, so this is the opportunity for people to come together and really discuss how and when and why and how to implement.

Arlene: I think your Imagining took place in kind of an unusual venue.

Natalie: Yeah, we hosted the Imagining at a venue called Café Coop. It’s basically a collaborative co-working space for nonprofits, entrepreneurs, technology companies and creatives. Meeting Esperanza, the executive director there, for the first time and talking to her about what we are trying to do at the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture—she was really gung ho about it, whereas a lot of other venues were like “we don’t understand, what’s this arts and cultural stuff?” But Esperanza got it within seconds. It was only natural that we explore how we could use the venue to bring everyone in, to host the imagining.

Arlene: What was your intention with the Imagining? What did you set out to learn or accomplish?

Natalie: As a Cultural Agent, you have these ideas in your head that you want to bring people together and use the Imagining as a catalyst for social change in the community. But through the planning process and the actual Imagining, my perception of why I was there shifted a bit. I realized that we can come together and talk about creative strategies, but what we really need is to draw people together. That was something that doesn’t really happen here. I’ve rarely seen so many divergent groups in the city in one space at one time, and I realized the importance of that. Not just creatives, not just tech folks, not just people that are starting their own businesses, but people from the community, people from organizations, people from City Council. I also learned that while we have a lot of interesting things going on here, it’s necessary to push the envelope as well and to take creative risks as we do at the USDAC. 

Arlene: What are the obstacles or characteristics of local culture that makes it so hard for people to come together across those lines? What’s going on?

Natalie: I think it’s ideologies. We have on one hand what I like to call “traditionalists.” People that are into traditional art, traditional models of doing organizing work, or people that have formed organizations utilizing traditional models. And then you have other people that are creatively thinking outside the box but are often pushed to the margins in cultural work here in the city. That’s caused a huge rift, not only in separation of groups, but also access to funding and other resources. 

We had to be aware of that in language, for instance. People can easily get lost in language, especially when you’re well-versed in this cultural space. I know people get lost in my language: “What are you talking about?” “What are “marginalized communities?” So we would have to reframe a lot of what people were saying just to open up the access so everybody understands each other. 

Arlene: So what was notable or surprising about how that played out at the Imagining?

Natalie: The joke around here is that Stocktonians are professional complainers. Knowing this, our co-facilitators Ryan Camero, Matthew Blacconiere and I developed a section of the forum where we talked about solutions. In that piece the youth really stepped up and voiced their opinions—I was surprised because usually they’re shut out of the spaces where they could actively talk and say whatever they want—one of them was like, “We should do a teen festival.” And then a few of them agreed. They generated a lot of interesting ideas. 

Afterwards, my colleague Ray and I were talking to different youth. They were talking about having venues and different spaces and the projects they were working on, how they needed more resources to do X,Y, and Z. They had tons of ideas within that short period of time. Afterwards they were willing to engage even more, telling us about more of the things in their heads.

The young people were from an organization called With Our Words, run by Aaron and Tama Brisbane. They performed slam poetry twice during the event, two poems at the beginning and two at the end. Their energy and the words that they shared—it was just so incredibly powerful. What they had to say gave me the fuel to go that whole entire event. Being there and really going for it and putting their all into their work and having the courage to perform in a space where at other points in time they weren’t even invited. Even if they were in silence, more powerful than what they had to say is the statement that they were willing to cast all of that aside and go for it. I live for that moment. 

Arlene: Any last things to share?

Natalie: After the Imagining a lot of people were beginning to understand, yeah, we have all these different projects and groups working on X, Y, and Z, but it’s just as important to come together in the same space, even if we’re not collaborating, just having discussions around arts and culture. Going forward I want to move the conversation even further and start talking about how to develop a cultural policy agenda in the city. 

We really need to take the arts in a different direction. I think having a USDAC Field Office will propel things in that direction, especially for an arts center or these bigger types of projects people said were needed at the Imagining. We need some backing that’s not necessarily going to come from traditional organizations. So I think utilizing a Field Office as a base to spearhead these projects and create more youth activity, and also plug people into what we’re doing nationally and regionally—a lot of people are interested in what that looks like.

I want to say thank you to everybody who came. It was an incredible experience and I think we have to continue the momentum and work in tandem to really develop, further develop, the cultural sector here.