Charlene Martinez: Curating Possibility and Cultural Organizing at Oregon State University

I think I learned this from USDAC: when people are able to speak their voices into a space, whether it be an event or an activity, the sooner people are able to do that the more they then feel invested in the process and in other people. There’s something about that that’s really important and special.

                                                                                                Charlene Martinez

A people-powered department has to engage people where they are and mostly when they are juggling many responsibilities. Working with allies in higher education is a natural: students are learning to navigate and negotiate multiple identities; faculty members are teaching and counseling students many areas touching on culture, whether in arts programs, community development, social work, history, education, or other academic specialties. How—and why—do you make space in a crowded institutional framework for the USDAC?

Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard spoke with Charlene Martinez, Associate Director of Integrated Learning for Social Change at Oregon State University’s Office of Diversity & Cultural Engagement, and a member of the USDAC’s third cohort of Cultural Agents. At OSU and elsewhere, Charlene has been remarkably successful in integrating elements of the USDAC such as Story Circles, a simple, powerful dialogue method that has been the centerpiece of National Actions such as the People’s State of the Union; and Imaginings, art-infused community dialogues toward a shared and inclusive future vision.

Arlene Goldbard: How did you get involved in the USDAC?

Charlene Martinez: I found information on some listserv about #DareToImagine (a USDAC National Action in October 2015). Around the same time I saw the call for Cultural Agent applications. [NOTE: In 2014-2016, the USDAC selected three cohorts of Cultural Agents to take part in a national learning community and host an Imagining in their communities.] After I became coordinator for the Arts and Social Justice Living Learning Community [an on-campus residential program], I started doing my own research on what was out there in terms of arts and justice work. So the impetus was really that I didn’t know enough. I wanted to be part of a learning community. I wanted to do well by my students. And that’s why I signed up to be a Cultural Agent.

I started reading more on the website. I loved the principles; loved all of the values; loved the ideas and the actions. But at that time I actually didn’t know what I was applying for! I thought it was a governmental agency, even though it says everywhere that it’s a people-powered department.

I think the interview sold me: meeting Yolanda Wisher and Adam Horowitz online and hearing more about what the USDAC was right at the same time I was learning about my own work. There were so many possibilities and so many connections with the work I was trying to do on campus.

Arlene: Say more about that.

Charlene: The biweekly USDAC online learning calls for Cultural Agents were one thing that not only inspired me to do more work in this area, they actually helped retain me here at Corvallis, at Oregon State. I came in seeking a community. I didn’t know how to activate my own skill sets here that I had brought from California. I didn’t know how to relate to my peers here.

The process not only supported my ideas of cultural organizing but helped me relate better to the people here. It gave me greater hope through what I was seeing from Cultural Agents all over the nation. I’ve learned so much from every individual and the way that they showed up, and I am truly grateful for that.

One of the things that I shared with a lot of Cultural Agents was that there wasn’t a competition of ideas. Universities like to do things a very particular way; innovations aren’t always welcome. So being in a community filled with people who are either artists or have an art base, they automatically live and breathe that. To be part of that culture and part of that community felt really rich to me, warm and exciting.

The USDAC helped me realized that maybe the outreach that I was doing was too small. Maybe I needed to try things on with other colleagues that I had never tried it on with before. And then it started to work. I started to see things ignite in different ways.

Arlene: Unlike many Cultural Agents, you didn’t come to it from a primary art practice. The USDAC isn’t just for artists by any means, but I’m interested in how we bridge between artists and others. How was that?

Charlene: It was a little intimidating at first to not have an art discipline I was coming with. But I learned that one of my aspects and strengths was in curating—not curating in a traditional sense, but with ideas or with people. I hadn’t known the terms, I didn’t know the players, but I’ve been doing the work, right? I’ve been facilitating the artists that come in. I’ve been doing the cultural organizing. I just didn’t have the terms for it.

Arlene: That’s something we’ve heard a lot. I keep thinking there might be a key in your experience to this larger question of how we get people interested in culture as a container or a crucible for organizing who just who may not be oriented that way.

 OSU Imagining 2016

OSU Imagining 2016

Charlene: Language and concepts from the USDAC helped me change my framework. Instead of offering a class that was a survey of arts activism it turned into “Where is your agency? What do you care about?” We move through the world in this culture. Not in a politic necessarily, but in a culture, and we all have culture. When I heard the USDAC principles—everyone has a right to culture, everyone has a voice—it’s all the same things I’ve done in my work in higher education, but higher ed wouldn’t approach it that way. It would be all about others coming to learn about this program, not how do I activate everyone to teach where they are and wherever they’ve entered in this conversation—whether that’s around blackness, for example, or food and class.

Arlene: I understand you’ve used Story Circles in many ways on campus since you encountered them in the USDAC.

Charlene: I began using the  Story Circles tool with People’s State of the Union 2016. I started with the class I was teaching for that quarter, an arts and social justice class. We tried on the PSOTU as one of the first assignments. I created a flyer and did the groundwork of organizing students to get other people to come to the Story Circle. The focus of that program was around the experiences of being racialized and/or being a first-generation college student.

We only had around ten people come to that. But what was awesome was we trained the facilitators who ended up being the participants of that day and that’s what kick-started a lot of different, interesting Story Circle happenings. Two students who were in that class decided to take the Story Circles platform and create their own projects. One student was an Ethnic Studies major, the other an Art major.  They became inspired by the process.  So within that ten-week class period they then brought together their own communities, the Chicanx/Latinx, and Hmong students, and found they had so much more in common than they thought. They told stories of immigration and assimilation. It became this snowball thing: wow, this model really works, and it’s kind of like inter-group dialogue, but it doesn’t need to be as prolonged or sustained. Story Circles have consistently helped us slow down; helped us build with each other; helped us see the commonalities and really listen for the places that we’re very different.

I’ve taken Story Circles now on the road to many different places. One of them was Promise, an Oregon State internship program, a pipeline program for historically underrepresented students to learn about civic professionalism through summer internships. The president of the university usually comes in and does a talk to the students, then there’s a short Q&A period and it’s over. Many of the students are juniors and seniors. They’ve been around at OSU for a while. They wanted something different. So we changed the format to a Story Circle session. President Ed Ray, along with a visiting guest from the Federal University of Abeokuta, Nigeria, Fehintola Nike Onifade, rotated through two cycles of different circles of students telling their stories about inclusion and exclusion at OSU. That broke down a lot of the power dynamic and barriers.

 OSU Imagining 2016

OSU Imagining 2016

Arlene: What advice would you have for other people who are working in higher ed?

Charlene: Story Circles can be one of the keys to the door but people still have to walk through. What do we create together based on that? First year students of the arts justice community here along with the cultural center leaders planned a series of open mics after the Story Circles. They were really engaged in getting the right people there and figuring out what messages to communicate. They ended up doing some great poetry. One open mic was right before election; one was right after. Both had completely different energies because one was in the Women’s Center and one was in the Asian and Pacific Islander Cultural Center. A lot of the artwork came from the Story Circles we did in class. It was so powerful for the students to be able to express themselves during this really intense period. They’re also in a place of identity exploration—gender identity, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, all of those things—and not feeling like this country can really hold them. And here they are carving out a space to say no, we’re going to build this container for myself and other people who feel this way. Since then, student leaders I work with have presented about Story Circles at a students of color conference. It’s gaining traction.

It’s important to dig deeper into figuring out how we can be organizers, not just producers of student leadership or programs. The language I would like to share with others is that these moments can be critical sites for intervention to shift culture. And to not be afraid of the pushback that you will receive, because you will receive it.

Imaginings have been like that for us too. For the MLK, Jr. holiday in January, the campus celebration week ended with an Imagining. It was also Inauguration Day. That was so powerful: this group of people—I don’t know if they were inspired by the Imagining I did as a Cultural Agent or not, but these things are iterative. Once we get the flavor and people get inspired by it, then they just take it on and do what they need to do for their own communities or for their own programs. It was institutional, the Office of Institutional Diversity helped put the MLK week events on with a committee, ending on inauguration day with an Imagining. That is so powerful for me.

Arlene: And for us. Many thanks for all you do!