Holding Space for Self-Care: The Decatur Imagining

Decatur is the seat of DeKalb County, Georgia, part of the Atlanta metro area. The population of 19,000 is about one-fifth African American and otherwise mainly white. Clicking around the city website presents a picture of someplace that’s a little bit country (a flock of sheep is brought in to graze in Decatur Cemetery each summer, keeping down the invasive plants) and a little bit progressive (the City Commission endorsed a late-June vigil for the nine people killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, saying, “We will take this tragedy in Charleston and mourn for it, learn from it, and commit to being better people because of it, speaking out against racism and working to be a community that is welcoming and equitable for all”).

Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Decatur-based Cultural Agent Mattice Haynes about her Imagining (one of fifteen across the U.S. this summer and fall) held at Decatur ArtHouse on 6 June. 

Arlene Goldbard: Your Imagining was intended specifically for creative workers. How did that idea come to you and how did it play out?

Mattice Haynes: Denise Brown, who came on as my partner, is a young designer who is interested in social change and design. It was her idea! There is a high level of burnout working in social change and activism. Many of us are good at caring for other people but not caring for ourselves. We’re good at listening to other people but not always listening within. That’s been part of my own journey the last couple of years. It’s been important to me to support creatives and changemakers in sustaining and nurturing themselves as they do their work.

Arlene: Did it feel like engaging them with their own creative imaginations was a form of self-communication or self-contact?

Mattice: It felt important to hold a space for them. So often folks are either directly or indirectly holding space for others. It’s more rare to have these these explorations to creatively express. So yes, it felt like a form of self-caring. The feeling that everyone expressed afterwards was that everyone felt welcomed, they felt safe, they felt like they could bring their full selves. I think they felt they didn’t have to hold others as much: they were being held. 

Arlene: What are some of the ways you created this context for them?

Mattice: We had a good location. I’m really grateful to the Decatur ArtHouse. The owner there, as soon as I told her about this she got really excited and came on board. It was a beautiful open space with lots of art and art-related activities taking place. We had a creative nametag-making station with lots of art supplies. And so in the beginning, everyone was engaging their own creativity right as they walked into the space. People coming into a space like that often expect to stay in their heads even if it’s an art space. Having to dive right in and do something with your hands was helpful. 

Local artist Lennie Mowris  had a station there and was talking to folks about her work. There was a station for children to draw and color. At another station, folks could engage by identifying their power word. It was really simple and really intriguing. My friend Denise created strips of paper with different words written in white crayon. If you take watercolor and brush over it, the word is revealed. She had written out words with a power theme; people really enjoyed that. This was all as people were walking into the space.

Arlene: And how did you structure that?

Mattice: We used a World Cafe format. [Note: this is a form of small-group dialogue where participants sit around tables for three or more successive 20-minute conversation rounds, then change tables.] We started with a welcome that was an invitation in the form of live art by local artist Mike Molina and it was just incredible. He had us circle up. We did some movement to get the body moving. He did a piece that called in ancestors and other folks who influence, support, inspire, our continuing creative power. That was an unexpected piece for folks and set the tone for people who are really tapping into their own power and recognizing that. 

Then we did a little bit of intro of what we were going to do, introducing the World Cafe and moving people into their first round. We did three rounds of small group conversation at tables along with art-making, so people were not only having a conversation but also using art materials to express their response to the question. It was about creative power and creative expression and how you’re using it in the world. The final conversation was around the vision for 2034: what they would like to see when arts and culture is really at the center and we’re using our creative power to transform our communities.

Arlene: You’re an experienced facilitator of group processes and engagement processes. Your website describes you as a “creative, inclusive meeting designer and facilitator.” I’m wondering: because of the infusion of art-making into the Imagining, were there parts of this you hadn’t tried in a group setting before? 

Mattice: World Cafe invites people to draw or doodle on the table, so that’s always an element. But we did take it a step further by putting art supplies on the table. They did draw or doodle and they could also make things with the materials. That seemed to work well.

Arlene: That’s sort of magical, isn’t it? How if you’re doing something with your hands it releases your mouth somehow to be able to say whatever is arising?

Mattice: Yes, absolutely. I liked how people engaged around that. 

Arlene: So what surfaced in their visions of the future?

Mattice: A lot of people wanted to see more spaces like the one that we had created there, that they had helped create. There was a lot of talk about the diversity that was in the room. I think people had a lot of appreciation for that. Particularly the intergenerational component, people seemed to be really excited about that. We had children as young as nine and folks up into their sixties and there was real interaction between the different ages. For some it was their first time in a diverse space, with people coming together and thinking about the future and creating together, working across what may seem like divisions. And then there were also specific things they would like to see in communities, like community gardens, for example. There was some talk about a future with less class-based inequities. People really went broad in terms of all the things that they would like to see from changes in how we educate our children to finally ending homelessness. 

Arlene: That vision of inclusion and equality and belonging is so powerful. I’d say that across the various Imaginings, that’s the number one characteristic that everybody everywhere says of the future. That is poignant at this moment in our cultural history.

Mattice: My life’s work is centered around this. It was a good reminder that some people are in very different settings on a daily basis and cannot or don’t feel like they can be their full selves there. They may not have that kind of diversity in their team or office or organization, may not be able to work across those differences without hierarchies. It’s a good reminder for me of how important the work is. 

Arlene: Also an interesting reminder that there’s no substitute for experiencing something on your own. You can talk about it all day but it’s being there that gives people the feeling. 

Mattice: Yes. A young poet closed us out. Her name is Paris Stroud and she’s the state champion for Poetry Out Loud. She recited beautiful poetry and told her own story, how she found this passion for poetry just a couple years ago in high school and how it opened up the world for her. People were touched to have her be a part of our program.