Report from ROOTS Week: The Intersection of Arts and Social Justice

USDAC’s Chief Weaver of Social Fabric Jess Solomon took part in ROOTS Week, the Annual Meeting and Artists’ Retreat sponsored by Alternate ROOTS, “a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together.” What draws Jess to ROOTS? In her own words:

Those of us working at intersection of arts and social justice are shape-shifters, artists, organizers, and bridge-builders, drawing from a well of tools, histories and methodologies to transform, heal, preserve the communities, institutions, and people we are connected to.

It is important to share space together.

There’s so much potential when we spend time with colleagues who are doing similar work, specifically in our geographic region. We identify resources and share best practices that allow for amplified, more sustainable work. We provide each other opportunities for reflection, spiritual connection, and rejuvenation by just showing up. We mentor, are mentored, clean our vessels and sharpen our saws to go back to spaces we organize and create in, replenished and better equipped.

Alternate ROOTS’ annual gathering has been a touchstone in my development as a cultural worker based in the U.S. South and as a human being.

Dance break, ROOTS.

Dance break, ROOTS.

In this interview with Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard, the Baltimore-based artist-activist shares a few illuminating scenes from ROOTS week. 

Arlene Goldbard: ROOTS has a long history as an organization supporting the creation and presentation of art rooted in a particular community of place, tradition, or spirit. The website calls for social and economic justice and the dismantling of all forms of oppression. The theme of this year’s ROOTS Week was “Call for Transformation.” Tell us a little about how that was expressed. 

Jess Solomon: This year was the second in a three year call to action. Alternate ROOTS is harnessing the power of our collectivity through an interrogation of Aesthetics (2014), Transformation (2015), and Emergence/Organizing(2016). There are things about ROOTS Week that stood out for me that I hope to incorporate into my practice. One of those things is ROOTS’ investment in the visual arts. Through the physical space and content, the visual arts highlighted issues of cultural and racial equity.

What also stood out for me was the intention of honoring indigenous communities, from a call to ancestors to sharing a history of the land. The spectrum of the visual arts also included indigenous artists. It was phenomenal and reminded me that there are always opportunities to incorporate the histories of place and space into our work. I believe it is also our responsibility to channel that energy in a deliberate way that leads to action and also leaves people feeling whole. 

A film called Always in Season was screened. The filmmaker is Jacqueline Olive. It has been in development for a long time. She’s been looking into the history of lynchings in the United States but also connecting it to present experience, specifically Black Lives Matter. We have data that shows black people are being killed by police every 28 hours. Since the film has been in production, she’s already included new stories of young people who have been lynched. At the screening, there was a lot of emotion and hurt and need to feel connected to people and a need to find ways to heal and a need to learn more, depending on where people were in their own evolution. 

It came to me that when we create we have to always be mindful of what impact we want and how we support people who went through difficult experiences, especially if they can be triggering. I was really fortunate and glad to be able to watch that with people I know and care about. I couldn’t imagine experiencing that in a movie theater.

Arlene: The keynotes looked really interesting. 

Jess: This year we had three keynote speakers to talk about environmental justice, immigration, and Black Lives Matter all in the frame of culturalequity. We don’t usually hear about cultural equity in terms of immigration or environmental justice. I learned a lot about how cultural equity is like the salt in the stew: it impacts everything. 

Colette Pichon Battle from the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy has been working in the Gulf since Katrina. Her first project was to get the folks of her community reconnected after they were displaced and since then, she’s been organizing. She wasn’t really invested in using arts as a tool but has come to a place where she realizes that art is a tool to take this work to the next level. It was really powerful to hear her say that.

Jeff Chang gave a talk about immigration. He encouraged us to look at the word migration; how migration is about ownership of our bodies and immigration is about legal ownership over bodies. He told a story about a time Martin Luther King was on a flight that got redirected. He had to wait in the restaurant. His colleagues were all white and in the restaurant there were different places for black and white to sit. He went to the back and recognized the different aesthetic quality which taught him who he was to those people. So Jeff’s conversation was about aesthetics and how that plays out in the ways that people are treated. Then he tagged that to immigration and migration and linked the history of racial equity and how that came back to immigration. It was really powerful. 

In the third keynote, Emery Wright from Project South talked about his movement work over the years and how he’s learned from young people. He shared who he’s been influenced by, and that reminded me how important it is to know your lineage. Who are your teachers? 

Arlene: What else stood out?

Jess: It was great to see USDAC folks collaborate within a ROOTS network. Cultural Agents Denise Johnson and Jayeesha Dutta were there, along with National Cabinet members Carlton Turner (Minister of Creative Southern Strategies) and Caron Atlas (Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts). And I’m sure there were other Citizen Artists that I don’t even know who were in the room: we’re everywhere and all of our work is connected and that’s a great thing.

Arlene: I interviewed Carlton last year for a project about training for community-based arts work. He said that bringing people into contact across experiences and generations sets up a sort of informal mentorship. You meet up with somebody who knows things that you want to know and you have a conversation, and if there’s something in it where both of you want to go deeper, you maintain the connection. But it starts face-to-face, not in one of these arrangements where mentors are assigned, but when there’s some organic opportunity for that relationship to be formed.

Jess: Yes, in-person is really important. I know we are still trying to figure that out for USDAC, but if we get the resources I hope there will be some kind of convening.

Arlene: Absolutely! I can’t wait!