PROTOTYPING CULTURAL DEMOCRACY SERIES Part 2: conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation

By Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

This is the first in a series of blogs profiling the USDAC’s Policy Prototype projects, seven projects across the U.S. receiving micro-grants to document their work related to the proposals in “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

To embody platform point 8, “Adopt a Cultural Impact Study,” in South Carolina, the Charleston Rhizome Collective proposed “conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation.” The project aimed to engage Charleston residents in using “maps as a way to understand where we belong and promote an awareness of our rights to remain here. We are promoting a travel in the past, marking the roads of today with our places of living, worshiping, shopping, learning and public transportation, so that we can learn about our future.”

Starting with young people, teachers, and artists at the James Simons Elementary School, the project developed interactive, map-based “Imagination Stations” (a concept the USDAC piloted in our October 2015 National Action, #DareToImagine) to be installed as part of a five-week exhibit and public program at the City Gallery (run by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs) in the summer of 2017. A free downloadable catalog of the exhibit, including many images and texts, is available here.

 "conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

"conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

The Collective comprises Debra Holt, Gwylene Gallimard, Pamella Gibbs, Jean-Marie Mauclet, and LaSheia Oubre. They are artists, educators, and activists who’ve teamed up to engage the greater Charleston community through art, building awareness and action to address escalating displacement as both the cost of living and local development and zoning policies push many lower-income residents out of longstanding neighborhoods. They’ve been working together for quite a few years. For example, read about early work here, including the “You Comin’” project, documenting first encounters catalyzed by the Collective at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007.

The name conNECKted was chosen in 2014, when the city released a document entitled “Partnership for Prosperity: A Master Plan for the Neck Area of Charleston and North Charleston,” land between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, from the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to I-526. Community meetings were sparsely attended, raising concerns about whose voices were included and whether the real planning agenda was to develop prime real estate, with the Neck’s African American residents displaced as economic collateral damage.

Pamella is a teacher’s assistant at James Simons, so she has a close-up view of the impact of displacement. She noted that there are plenty of schools open on the Charleston peninsula, but because the city is closing a lot of public housing there, quite a few black families are leaving. She poses a question for leadership: “If you said you were for diversity, how can you go from all-black schools to integrated schools to basically all-white schools? When you were wanting integration, you said that you figured out a way to get kids in the school together. Will you do the same thing when you have a majority white population? Will you try to make sure that you keep some of the black kids going to school in the city? That's what I'm interested in.”

Jean-Marie echoed these questions: who is being served by development decisions in Charleston? “About ten years ago,” he said, “I was at a function at Burke High School which was brand new. I was talking to a white gentleman and I said ‘Man, they really made a big effort for that school. That's very nice. And local kids are going to be very well-served.’ And he looked down at me and said, ‘But Jean, who do you think they're building those schools for?’ I thought they were built for the locals but he knew ten years ago that the schools were going to be re-segregated—obviously.”

I asked what led the Collective members to believe art-making would have impact. Jean-Marie clarified the necessary approach: “We realize that as artists we have to be grassroots in order to have any kind of impact. If it's our ego that we're projecting, it's not going to work.”

 "conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

"conNECKted: Imaginings for Truth and Reconciliation" at Charleston's City Gallery, summer 2017

The conNECKted exhibit at the City Gallery validated that understanding with a rich variety of elements including conversations with people who had something to say about the issues (in fact, I took part in one such public discussion via Skype). Debra noted that “People came back two or three times in case they missed something the first time or in case something got them the first time, they wanted to come back and see it again. And a lot of people signed our petitions too.” Gwylene added that people responded enthusiastically to all the other participatory elements too: “All the papers we had, there was something could be written, a petition or a question to answer or the book of grievances, the register of dreams, they were all totally filled up.”

There were three petitions: one to support removal of a billboard leaking over a house in the neighborhood, one to ask for a monument to Robert Smalls (an historic figure you'll read more about below), and the third connected directly with the USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform, asking

How would Charleston be different if new construction and development projects, rezoning decisions, and "Creative Placemaking" interventions had to pass a Cultural Impact Study (CIS)—analogous to an Environmental Impact Study-before approval? Right now, when authorities consider whether to approve such initiatives, they think about money (who profits?) and environmental impact (will endangered species habitat be negatively affected? Is there potential pollution?).

Sign this petition to say that Charleston should adopt a CULTURAL IMPACT STUDY requirement, assessing potential negative impact on social and cultural fabric. How will the proposed development affect the meeting-places, sites of public memory, embedded history and meanings people have invested to make their neighborhoods vibrant and welcoming? What about the rights of existing residents to remain in their neighborhood if they wish? Every community should be authorized to access, study and act on these too. Whether the potential impact is gentrification and displacement or outright destruction of existing cultural fabric, the purpose of a CIS is to help public officials make informed decisions. If they find negative impact, a CIS would equip authorities to disallow proposed projects or require amelioration before things can proceed.

Sign this petition to say you have a right to a say in Charleston's future: Culture counts, History counts, People count—YOU count!

As the official press release stated, “the goal here is to realize that, in this era of displacement and denial of history and culture, ‘Belonging’ is the key to empowerment and transformation, the cornerstone of our present and future realities.” Petitions have been delivered to key city officials, and the Collective is exploring other ways to make Cultural Impact and Belonging official policy in Charleston.

Petitions were just one participatory element of the project. For example, they brought pre-printed cards to Marion Square in downtown Charleston and asked people to write a note to the mayor, then sent one to the mayor each day for a hundred days. “That was our introduction into the City,” said Pamella, “because they wanted to know who's this group they've never heard of sending a letter to the mayor once a day.” A wallpaper of all the postcards was created and presented to the mayor six months later as a reminder.

Serendipity was powerful in a project open to emergence. Auzheal Oubre, the brother of Collective member LaSheia, was in the gallery space during installation. He pointed out that buried under nearby shrubbery was a memorial for Robert Smalls, who escaped from slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship and went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives after the Civil War. Making the memorial visible became part of the project, as did 96-year-old Samuel Joyner’s account of Charleston’s Mosquito Fleet of small fishing boats. “It was heartwarming,” LaSheia said. “Mr. Joyner came, and when he saw the replica of the boat and the video of himself, he just cried. It was beautiful watching him listen to his own voice and his own story.” Among the generations of Joyners who visited the exhibit was Samuel Joyner’s son Jermaine, who had been an elementary school student of LaSheia’s and was now principal of the school where she works. “That's Charleston,” said Pamella.

The Collective’s work has gained power and resources since last summer’s project, receiving an award of $300,000 from ArtPlace America for conNECKtedTOO, a plan to create “a solidarity hub and network linking Tiny Neighborhood Businesses to cumulate buying and selling power, engage residents in decisions over business ownership, loans, job training, hiring practices, wholesale prices, schooling and housing.”

Gwylene described the underlying idea: “Each tiny business belongs to different communities, the communities of the businesses who look alike, the communities that live on the same block, the community of businesses that are held by only senior people and so on.” Jean-Marie added, “Take a corner or a little part of a street which has two, three, four, five businesses and you cluster everything. You work with that group as a cluster more than as individual businesses. Like it might be more representational of that little neighborhood rather than the business by itself.” 

Continuity and synchronicity are seen as key to the Collective’s work to enlarge belonging and equity, as Jean-Marie explains: “Everything seems to be getting stronger because we have this stream that's flowing, and all the information, all the work, all the effort that Gwylene and I and then all the people that started working with us, they're all going into the same river and we create this big stream. It's this vision that's pushing us forward which is really gaining a lot of momentum.”

If you’d like to explore bringing a Cultural Impact Study or the Policy on Belonging to your community, please feel free to contact us at hello@usdac.us.