Many months ago, when we joined with the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission to plan the USDAC’s first national convening, CULTURE/SHIFT 2016, we chose dates closely following on the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. No one had a clue what the outcome might be (or even who would be the candidates), but we knew that whatever came, it would be a good time to be together.
That turned out to be a huge understatement. As USDAC Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz said in his opening night talk:
Now is a time to be together and however you are arriving in this moment, you are welcome. We welcome those who are grieving, those who are hurting, those who are fired up, those who are searching for that fire. We welcome your uncertainty, we welcome your rage, your courage, and your hope. We welcome your anger and we welcome your love. We welcome your big hearts, and your audacious imagination. We welcome your ancestors, we welcome your laughter, your tears, your dreams. We welcome your paradoxes, your vulnerability, your care, and your questions. We welcome all of you, and all of you. Because we need all of us more than ever.
Two hundred people joined together in St. Louis, about half from the region and others from far and wide: California, New York, Florida, South Dakota, Washington, Texas, and just about every state in between. There were students and elders, artists and activists of every cultural heritage, race, orientation, medium, and approach. What could the members of such a varied group have in common? In his opening plenary, Adam quoted historian, theologian, social justice activist Dr. Vincent Harding: “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” Many participants had never met before, but even so, CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 was like a reunion from an imagined and yearned-for future shaped by creativity, love, and justice.
Perhaps the title of Carlton Turner’s Friday morning plenary says it best: “Art, Truth, and Healing: Practicing Radical Love.” “I start with the art,” Carlton said, “it’s the entry-point to all our understanding. It’s how we make meaning of time and space. It’s how we interpret the vast spectrum of experiences that make up the human condition….But even before the art is created, there has to be an intention. So that’s where we will start, with the intention.”
There was pain and fear in the aftermath of 11/9, to be sure. Participants shared experiences back home of people living in fear of deportation, compulsory registration, or internment. No one knows what a Trump administration will bring, but creative resistance to all attempts to limit human rights, including the right the culture, was the watchword of the weekend. The clear and immediate priority is defending the vulnerable and threatened and standing with those on the front lines of attack.
By the time USDAC Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard stood to deliver closing remarks at the final plenary launching Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform, a moment of true synchronicity had emerged. As she said,
You’ve heard people talk about love a lot here at CULTURE/SHIFT: Adam Horowitz in his opening plenary, Carlton Turner in yesterday's plenary. We did not orchestrate this beforehand. I did not know what either Adam or Carlton planned to say. Speaking for myself, love is a word I use in public contexts with that same slight reservation Che Guevara expressed. More than once, I’ve written something about cultural democracy and been told that the piece is good, but if I want to be taken seriously, I need to choose a different word than “love.”
Right now, coming off the recent election, with hate looming so large in campaign rhetoric, I see no alternative. The antidote to despair is to glimpse the world we are trying to help into being, to glimpse the beauty and meaning emerging from the gifts of artists of social imagination and to know what is possible. The antidote to hate is love as the always-brilliant James Baldwin defined it in The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Our task now is to live into that love so that everyone we meet understands that though we are many, we are one.
CULTURE/SHIFT won’t be a one-off. We are working to raise resources for a biennial national convening, with regional CULTURE/SHIFTs in the in-between years. And as we plan for more face-to-face gatherings, we’ll continue to support Citizen Artists through National Actions such as the 2017 People’s State of the Union 2017 (stay tuned for the a Citizen Artist Salon coming up on December 6th). On 1 January, our first four Regional Envoys go to work, supporting local organizing in multi-state regions.
Take a look at some of the amazing sessions captured on video, and it will become immediately evident that standing with those most threatened in no way precludes mobilizing skills and resources to focus on visionary local work pointing the way to cultural democracy. In coming days and weeks, we’ll be sending out more information on how to get involved. For now, here’s a list of videos available on Facebook:
- Opening Ceremony — Remarks from Felicia Shaw, Roseann Weiss, and Adam Horowitz, followed by an introduction to St. Louis in the words of its poets.
- Opening Plenary: Art, Truth, and Healing: Practicing Radical Love — Carlton Turner calls on us to practice radical love, love in the service of truth and justice.
- Creative Strategies for Resisting Displacement — Betty Yu, Dave Loewenstein, Anyka Barber, moderated by Amanda Colón-Smith. Across the country, gentrification and displacement are threatening the cultural and social fabric of towns and cities, large and small. Experienced artist-organizers explore creative strategies for fending off inequitable development, preserving community cultural life, and resisting displacement.
- Cultural Rights — Mervyn L. Tano. The right to culture is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN's Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity, well-being and rights of the world's indigenous peoples. But will it be honored? What would it take to make this more than words on paper?
- Art and Hope in Rural America — Mervyn L. Tano, Dudley Cocke lead an exploration of the national place-based movement for rural self-development, in which artists and cultural workers play leadership roles.
- Music, Action, and Social Imagination — Sebastian Ruth, in a presentation that includes music and discussion, leads an exploration of foundational ideas from Maxine Greene and John Dewey, and practical applications from the work of Community MusicWorks.
- Plenary: Standing Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform — Arlene Goldbard, Adam Horowitz, Yolanda Wisher et al. What will it take to shift from a consumer to a creator culture, from a policy based on privilege to a cultural democracy? The answer has to start with a national conversation, then move on to local, regional, and national experiments in policy change.
- Equity in Cultural Funding — Carlton Turner. People of color, women, and communities grounded in non-Eurocentric cultures receive far less of public and private cultural funding than white counterparts. This session places this current moment in the context of a historic continuum of inequity to build insight and capacity to make change.
- Public Art and Public Memory — Judy Baca with Dave Loewenstein and Lily Yeh. What is the public artist’s role and responsibility in excavating community memory and amplifying the voices of people grounded in that place? Whose memories, whose voices matter in this moment? An audiovisual presentation that sets the stage for a practical discussion kicked off by a panel of public artists.
- Cultivating the Network: Skill-building and support for people working at the intersection of arts and community — Liz Pund, Bill Cleveland, Gina Martinez, Terry Artis. This session explores the various definitions of this work, the landscape of available training options, and the lasting impacts of sustained training programs such as St. Louis’s own Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute.
- Artists and City Government: Elected, Embedded, and Unauthorized — Bryan Walsh, Beth Grossman, Rebeca Rad, Josh Adam Ramos, moderated by Jack Becker. What happens when an artist chooses to work in or with city government? Three distinct perspectives from a St. Louis artist who occupies elected office, two Public Artists in Residence with the City of New York, and one Bay Area artist who has made surprising inroads with city government, from the outside.
- Cultural Planning — Roberto Bedoya offers a fresh take on cultural planning, focusing on belonging. What are deep powerful and equitable ways to engage people as a foundation for policy and action?