The Kudzu Project: Cultural Organizing Spreads!

Note: In November, Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Margo Smith, of Charlottesville, Virginia. As a Citizen Artist, Margo originated The Kudzu Project, a guerrilla knitting project. Kudzu is a fast-growing perennial vine introduced to the U.S. from Japan more than 150 years ago. In the southern U.S., it’s not uncommon to see entire landscapes covered in kudzu; in fact, the vine can cover trees so completely that they die from light deprivation. Participants in this project followed patterns to create knitted kudzu leaves and vines that were assembled into a blanket to be draped over Confederate statues. Read on to learn how a work of art created for a USDAC National Action inspired the project and where it is headed.

Arlene Goldbard: How did The Kudzu Project come to be?

Margo Smith: Around the time of the violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017, some people I'm friends with on Facebook in the arts community posted Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide. The little image that came up with it was by Dave Loewenstein.

Arlene: Yes, Dave originally created a series of “Defunct Monuments” postcards for our national action #RevolutionofValues (click the link and scroll down to see them) last April. They show the Wall Street bull (materialism), a tank (militarism), and a Confederate statue (racism), all completely overgrown with a green vine. We thought they’d be useful for people who were contemplating artistic response to the marches in Charlottesville and their aftermath.

Created by Dave Loewenstein for  #RevolutionOfValues 2017 .

Created by Dave Loewenstein for #RevolutionOfValues 2017.

Margo: That image stuck in my mind. I'm a knitter and even before August 11th and 12th, I’d been thinking, is there some kind of knitting intervention we could do with the Confederate statues? I was driving to work one day and it just all of a sudden hit me. The image popped in my mind. I thought we could realize the vision that this artist had of vine-covered statues. And then I thought, “Kudzu, oh my God, it's got to be kudzu because that is just so Southern!”

It flooded in my mind, all of these ideas. Call it The Kudzu Project and get people to knit the leaves and put all this Kudzu together in a way that we could blanket a statue. Before I even had any partners or participants, I just thought to grab the social media for The Kudzu Project. I don't think I slept for two nights because I was so energized by the idea. Then I went and got some advice from some people who I knew did guerrilla knitting.

I shared the idea with a few people close to me. Not everybody liked it at first. Partly I think because of the Confederate statues, the idea that well, they're not all bad, you know? I had ancestors who fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War and on the Union side as well. After August 11th and 12th, I went to a meeting that was held over at the University of Virginia where we discussed Art Became the Oxygen, a kind of brain-storming session about how artists could respond.

[Note: This discussion followed the USDAC’s Citizen Artist Salon on artistic response; folks in Charlottesville tuned in, then had their own planning meeting. You can enter your name here to access the Salon recording and do the same!]

I alluded to the idea just briefly in the meeting, but I didn't explain it yet because I wasn't sure just how it was going to happen. A guerrilla knitter advised me to try to keep the idea a secret; that would be part of its impact. I did a little bit of knitting to figure out how to make a kudzu leaf and came up with a pattern. I circulated that through my own knitting network. I went the yarn stores and asked them to help circulate it, but just among people we knew so that there wouldn't be any risk of it being made public prematurely.

Arlene: When did you cover the first statue?

Margo: The first one we did for practice at the cemetery at the University of Virginia. It's a Confederate cemetery. We figured it was about the same size as the statue in front of the courthouse but it's not such a public space. We thought we could get it up and get it off without drawing a lot of attention. We tried that the weekend before we actually launched The Kudzu Project. It gave us an idea of how it would fit on the statue and how we could hang it and that we needed to add a little bit more Kudzu in various places. It went really well.

Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Arlene: And then the Albemarle County Courthouse on November 9, 2017?

Margo: Yes. We went in the very early hours of the morning to the Confederate soldier statue in front of the courthouse. There was nobody about. It was raining, so putting it up was a little difficult. The rain made it heavier. Then—this is the part where I really learned a big lesson—we left very briefly. We were waiting for it to get light enough to take photos. When we got back someone had already taken it down. We should have secured it on the statue, wrapped it around the rifle or something.

We put it up on November 9th because that was the day that Christopher Cantwell—who's been called by the press “the crying Nazi”—he was having his preliminary hearing at the Albemarle County Courthouse. That courthouse is right in the heart of Charlottesville, just blocks away from where the Unite the Right rally was supposed to be held. I thought it would be good to send a message because the statues were the starting point for the KKK and Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville. There might be press there and it might be an opportunity to show a community response. I was also hopeful that the people at the courthouse would have their hands full and maybe not be able to do anything about it straightaway, so it would be seen by more people. We figured it would be taken down and we might not even get it back.

Arlene: Wow, that would have been a loss! A lot went into creating the kudzu blanket, didn’t it?

Margo: Yes, people from all over did this knitting and sent it in—a lot of local people and then people as far away as Philadelphia. Hundreds, probably thousands of hours of knitting all told. We got photos of the installation. But when we went back, there was just this one single strand of Kudzu hanging from the rifle. It's kind of pathetic but we got a picture of that too. Then I went home and I wrote up the press release, including the fact that it was taken down. [Note: You can find links to press coverage here.]

Even though the idea started with me, there was a group of us figuring out how to do the installation and actually assembling the project. We ended up sewing all this knitted Kudzu and vines onto netting to get the drape you want but still be able to see the statue underneath. A few people helped in such an enormous way, but don't want their names out there.

Arlene: Say a little more about guerrilla knitting. What is it?

Margo: Guerrilla knitting is the unauthorized installation of knitted projects in a public setting. I wasn't aware of it until a few years back, even before I started knitting, when I saw some knitted tree trunks in Melbourne, Australia. I thought they're charming, they're fascinating, wonderful. I guess my first experience with this kind of political knitting and protest was the pussy hat project for the Women’s March last January. I put out on social media that I’d knit pussy hats for the next four people who tell me they want them. I ended up knitting seven pussy hats.

Arlene: And the future?

Margo: I'm interested in future projects like this where we can make a statement and do things collectively that'll be really impactful because of the number of people that they involve and the number of people that they reach. It can be a big visual sign of resistance or support.

I haven't heard from anybody yet who wants to do a Kudzu installation in their community. A lot of people here want to be a part of it going forward. I want to propose this to Charlottesville City Council, to see if they would allow us to cover one or both of the equestrian statues with kudzu. That would be a larger project that would involve more people and put it out there as an authorized project. So it wouldn't be a guerrilla knitting project so much; it would be an authorized art installation involving people from here and those elsewhere who might want to send in their kudzu in solidarity with the people of Charlottesville.

I don't know whether or not that's even possible. I do know the city council was entertaining ideas for ways to cover the statues other than the black plastic bags that are on them now which just look like giant garbage bags. So we'll see. Because we still have the original Kudzu Project blanket, we are hoping to deploy it again.

I'd love to see The Kudzu Project have more use in other communities too. If there are people reading this who might be using art in an activist way and have an idea, get in touch! Just write to

Arlene: You might want to have that as one of your website’s menu items, right? “Invite The Kudzu Project to blanket your objectionable statues.”

Implicit in what you're saying is the threshold here is different than other kinds of activism because you do something that gives you pleasure and that you have skill at and that you enjoy and is pretty benign—knitting. But then you get to deploy it in a way that can awaken awareness and interest other people in the issues. That seems really fun and effective and important. I just love that you did this. Thanks for talking with us!

Note: for the latest from The Kudzu Project, check out this story on a “flash installation” of kudzu at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA, a small town 40 miles west of Charlottesville.

Kudzu high school 12-19-17.jpg

2018 People’s State of the Union: Prepare to Share Your Stories!

“I was visiting my mother for tea when the cable repair man came. Our small talk somehow led to immigrants, and we learned quickly he was not fond of them. He dove with both feet into racist statements, partly out of ignorance and being misinformed, but mostly out of fear. He thought he was safe saying these things in front of us, because we were white. We couldn’t possibly be immigrants. 
He was wrong. I decided to tread lightly, planting seeds of doubt in his mind. I spoke calmly with him, getting him to agree with me on basic things, then applying them to immigrants. This destroyed his argument, and I could often see looks of confusion on his face as he found himself struggling to determine which of the two contradictory beliefs he held were true. Speaking to my mother in our native tongue, then pointing out that she was not a citizen seemed to shock him. How could that beautiful blonde be something as terrible as an immigrant? Are immigrants really that terrible? In the end, I informed him that the only non-immigrants are Native Americans. He clearly forgot about them.”

            “Cable Man,” a story from the #PSOTU2017 Story Portal (Check it out: you will find hundreds of stories from people of many ages, races, cultures, locations, genders, and orientations throughout the U.S.)

It’s People’s State of the Union (PSOTU) time again! The USDAC is inviting folks across the U.S. to host Story Circles between 25 January and 4 February 2018. In this fourth year of the people-powered department’s annual civic ritual and story-sharing project, we hope that you will join the 350 communities that took part in previous years. Host your own Story Circle or upload your individual story directly to the Story Portal, which will launch on January 25th, 2018, so stay tuned!

A Story Circle event can be a few friends sharing stories across a kitchen table or a hundred people gathered in a public setting, perhaps meeting for the first time. Absolutely everything you need to know to host an event can be found in the free, downloadable #PSOTU2018 Toolkit. Just scroll down on this page and enter your email to download. You’ll also get access to the PSOTU2018 Public Folder, full of great stuff such as social media buttons, model press information, customizable flyers like those illustrating this blog, and even a lesson plan!

For #PSOTU2018, tellers are invited to share first-person stories in response to three main prompts:

  • Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the state of our union. 
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging—or the opposite—to this nation or your community. 
  • Share a story of an experience that gave you hope in the past year. 
We the people jetsonarama 11-7-17.jpg

Prompts can also be tailored to a specific community or issue. For example, net neutrality is in jeopardy right now, with proposals being floated that would change an open internet to one with different levels of access conditioned on being able to pay. If you’re part of a community that cares about access, one of your prompts might be “Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the state of free speech in the U.S.”

Other topics are full of energy right now too, for example:

  • Women’s safety from sexual assault and harassment. What if your Story Circle used the following prompt? “Share a story about an experience that gave you insight into the safety and rights of women in the U.S.”
  • The rights of Muslims and other religious minorities to full cultural citizenship and belonging. Share a story about a time you felt that true belonging—or the opposite—was extended to religious minorities in this nation or your community. 

Every year, we hear from many participants that Story Circles offer a powerful and simple way to connect people, even those who seem to have little in common. In a Story Circle everyone gets equal uninterrupted time to share a first-person story, usually two or three minutes apiece. Listeners give each teller undivided attention, allowing a breath after each story for it to settle. Those factors often have a large impact in equalizing participation; contrast this to a free-for-all where the loudest or most powerful person hogs the space. After everyone has shared a story, the members of each Circle reflect on what has been revealed by the body of stories.

We the people Favianna horizontal 11-1-17.jpg

Why is the simple invitation to sit in circles, share stories, and listen fully so powerful? Based on the hundreds of Story Circles we’ve seen, two main answers come to mind.

It can be a rare and delicious experience to receive full attention, to inhabit the space to tell a story without fearing interruption or contradiction. Too often, people are texting while you talk, or waiting for you to stop so their turn can start, or looking over your shoulder for someone they’d rather engage. The full attention and permission of a Story Circle offer an easy antidote.

The PSOTU motto says it all: “Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” We tend to defer so much to those deemed experts, privileging official findings, numbers, professional jargon. Most public conversations generate tons of opinion, and opinion can always be contested. Who wants to be in a shouting-match? But stories are different. When you start with, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me” and tell an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end, each storyteller’s truth emerges to stand alongside the rest. When the group reflects on what has been learned, the richness and power can be surprising.

What if you just can’t host a Story Circle this year? No worries! When #PSOTU2018 launches on January 25th, we’ll provide a link to the Story Portal where you can share your individual story including text, video, and/or images. Your story will take its place amidst hundreds of first-person accounts that help us all know the state of union, connect to the way we want it to be, and recognize that we are not alone. We can’t wait to read your story! 

Honor Native Land: Steps Toward Truth and Justice

In early October, the USDAC released Honor Native Land: A Guide And Call To Acknowledgment, a free, downloadable Guide created in partnership with Native allies and organizations. It offers context about the practice of opening events by acknowledging the traditional inhabitants of the place, gives step-by-step instructions for how to begin wherever you are, and provides tips for moving beyond acknowledgment into action. If you haven’t already downloaded your Guide, visit the web page to access it along with customizable posters acknowledging Indigenous lands, and a short video featuring Native artists and activists.

Acknowledgment by itself is a small gesture. It becomes meaningful when coupled with authentic relationship and informed action, as an opening to greater public consciousness of Native sovereignty and cultural rights, a step toward equitable relationship and reconciliation. On October 17, the #HonorNativeLand campaign was featured on Native America Calling, broadcasting on over 70 public, community, and tribal radio stations in the United States and in Canada. Listen to the recording featuring USDAC Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz, Mary Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota) of Racing Magpie, the artist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee/Yakama), Ty Defoe (Ojibwe/Oneida) and Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Nation Lakota) of Indigenous Directions to learn more about the practice of acknowledgment and what it means.

Keith BraveHeart's poster for #HonorNativeland

Keith BraveHeart's poster for #HonorNativeland

As part of the broadcast, some recorded acknowledgments were shared. Here is Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, introducing scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of numerous books including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, at an event in Santa Fe, NM, sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. (Find that recording here.)

Hau Mitakuyapi. Nape Cuzayapi. Cante Waste. I greet each one of you as a relative, with a handshake, and an open heart and mind. As a Lakota person who is a guest in this place, I’d like to recognize the land belonging to the original people. This place is known to the Tewa-speaking people in their language as Kua'p'o-oge, “the white shell water place.” Here, a sacred hot spring existed, a Pueblo holy site, that Spanish settlers destroyed to erect the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. But Pueblo people remember this is their land and so must we.

Seventy-five organizations have already signed the USDAC’s pledge to make acknowledgment a regular practice:

As a step toward honoring the truth and achieving healing and reconciliation, our organization commits to open all public events and gatherings with a statement acknowledging the traditional Native lands on which we stand. Such statements become truly meaningful when coupled with authentic relationships and sustained commitment. We therefore commit to move beyond words into programs and actions that fully embody a commitment to Indigenous rights and cultural equity.

Signers include a range of local and national nonprofits, arts organizations, and education institutions, such as: the New Economy Coalition, Women of Color in the Arts, Arts in a Changing America, ArtWell, Barefoot Artists, Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles, Arts in a Changing America, The Field, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, The Natural History Museum, Peñasco Theatre Collective, and Alverno College International & Intercultural Center.

Imagine cultural venues, classrooms, conference settings, places of worship, sports stadiums, and town halls acknowledging traditional lands. Millions would be exposed—many for the first time—to the names of the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of the place they stand, inspiring them to ongoing awareness and action. Join us in sparking this movement by urging organizations you take part in to take the pledge now!

Jamie Blosser, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Art Institute, shared her experience of acknowledgment, which sprang from the realization that this is everyone’s responsibility, not just Indigenous people’s:

The Santa Fe Art Institute is new to this process, which I see as ongoing. We began the practice of acknowledgment after a couple of our Indigenous Canadian artists in residence approached me, asking why we were not acknowledging traditional territories at public events. They said the practice was now considered protocol at all Canadian events, but it was an entirely new concept to me at the time. I realized that—although my work prior to SFAI was primarily focused on affordable housing and cultural sustainability with Native American communities—I had always respectfully relied on my Indigenous friends and colleagues to set the tone and carry out acknowledgments. As this was all being discussed during the wintry protests at Standing Rock, with all of the world bearing witness to the courageous water protectors, it felt urgent to take on, both from a personal and institutional perspective. 
Although we are seeking more guidance to make sure that our acknowledgment is appropriate, we are kept on track with this process by people who have approached me to say that SFAI doing this is affirming for and important to them. This kind of feedback has helped me to realize we need to make it more of an institutional imperative. I feel it sets a beautiful tone of reconciliation that we all need. 
I am in such gratitude for the patience and kindness shown by my Indigenous friends and colleagues as this practice unfolds for SFAI, and as we make mistakes as we step into it. I ask for ongoing assistance, feedback, and collaboration to ensure it is a meaningful practice moving forward.
Bryan Parker's poster for #HonorNative Land

Bryan Parker's poster for #HonorNative Land

Sometimes actually doing something unfamiliar opens new pathways to understanding. Bay Area artist Cynthia Tom shared her experience of acknowledgment:

I am particularly tied into the Asian American arts communities in the Bay Area. I announced the acknowledgment project and mentioned the Coast Miwok Native people at the opening of “Hungry Ghost” (see A Place of Her Own), an exhibit that recently opened at Gallery Route One in Pt. Reyes, California. Much of what I curate has to do with helping artists heal by creating thought-provoking shows that provide a platform to share stories of ancestral, familial, gender, and cultural trauma. This includes historical references to colonization, forced migration, discrimination, violence, and the effects on long-term family patterns of trauma. I do this to help women artists and the community heal, increase consciousness around their own dysfunctional patterns and releasing them to move towards new ways of thinking; and to wake up the communities that surround us, to instill compassion, grow passion around various issues and civic engagement and a call to action.  
The “Hungry Ghost” art exhibition brings up all these issues for the artists. If we are going to bring up colonization, I thought, how could we not address the deepest colonization of Indigenous land, closest to home? I always ensure we practice gratitude verbally and with print signage for each show, expressing thanks for our venue host, sponsors, donors, volunteers, artists, etc. I am excited to add #HonorNativeLand. 

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein of the Lawrence, Kansas, USDAC Field Office described how acknowledgment led to a group of Kansans holding a much larger picture of the place they were living:

A couple years ago, I helped organize The Kansas People's History Project which aims to shine a light on lesser known stories about people and events from the state's past. When I went around Kansas giving presentations about how folks could get involved, I always started with a slide of a map of the state. 
I said that the project was straightforward: just choose a person or event from Kansas that you feel needs more attention, write a brief narrative and illustrate it however you like.
And then I would pause...
Wait, I said, I need to clarify, because of course Kansas wasn't always Kansas. Before it became a state, it was part of the Kansas Territory. So, to be more accurate we'll call this The Kansas and Kansas Territory People's History Project.
Except, before Kansas was the Kansas Territory, it was part of Louisiana, so to be more inclusive we'll use the title, The Kansas, Kansas Territory and Louisiana People's History Project. Whew.
But before Kansas was Louisiana it was (and still is) the home of the Shawnee, Ioway, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kansa, Sac and Fox, Wichita, Osage, Delaware and many other Indigenous peoples.
In other words, when you think about it, this shouldn't be called The Kansas People's History Project. It should be called The Shawnee, Ioway, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kansa, Osage, Sac and Fox, Wichita, Delaware, Kansas, Kansas Territory and Louisiana People's History Project. 

Acknowledgment of ancestral lands is a small step, yes. But the truth has a way of expanding to fill the available space. If you aren’t already living into the truth embedded in the land you’re standing on, join us in taking the first steps by downloading the Guide, using the posters, and taking the pledge. You can find them all here.

NEW VIDEO: Highlights from CULTURE/SHIFT 2016

CULTURE/SHIFT was a national convening about Community Arts, Cultural Policy & Social Justice, held in St. Louis, Missouri in November 2016.

The event brought together some of the nation’s most creative thinkers and practitioners in a spirit of serious play and inclusivity.

Immediately following the presidential election, CULTURE/SHIFT 2016 generated and amplified creative strategies for change, bringing art to the heart of social justice and community. Through a rich mix of hands-on workshops, performances, interactive art-making, and public talks and actions, we explored how artists and allies can organize for full cultural citizenship. 

Read our recap with links to plenary and workshop recordings and to more details about the convening. 

Katrina, Sandy, and Now Harvey: How Can Art Help?

The National Hurricane Center has a penchant for friendly sounding hurricane names, but instead of generating smiles, the natural and by-now familiar responses are fear and compassion. This morning’s Washington Post predicts that more than 30,000 people from Houston and other towns in the region hit by Hurricane Harvey will be forced into temporary shelters as recovery gets underway. Our hearts go out to the people of Texas.

Immediate support is critical right now. Here are a few links people in our network have shared:

Another Gulf Is Possible: Collaborative for a Just Transition in the Gulf. 

Circle of Health International: assisting mothers and children affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Coalition for the Homeless, Houston. 

Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies.

Houston Food Bank.

Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund.

How can art help?

Citizen Artists across the U.S. have first-person experiences and wise counsel to share with their counterparts in Texas and those in other regions who are asking this question. USDAC folks on the ground in New Orleans and New York during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy know that important questions need to be asked again, and that humane, creative responses are possible. How will survivors in temporary shelters be treated—and how should they be? Who will hear their stories and help them tell the world what they wish others to know? How can creative action help build resiliency and community in the aftermath of such a shock?

These and other key questions are covered in Art Became The Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide, the USDAC’s free, downloadable resource for natural and civil emergencies, filled with inspiration, advice, and wisdom from artists and activists who know firsthand what they are talking about.

We invite you to read the Guide, and to view tomorrow’s Artistic Response Citizen Artist Salon featuring Carole Bebelle, Co-founder and Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, a co-director of Called to Walls and a visual artist based in Vermillion, South Dakota. You can join live online at 3 pm PDT/4 pm MDT/5 pm CDT/6 pm EDT on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 or wait and watch the recording later this week. (See our blog for tips on organizing a viewing party that can help local folks work together in artistic response.)

Here are just a few of the Guide's excerpts on storm-driven artistic response projects. The Guide contains many more details and links:

Evacuateer is a group that recruits, trains, and manages 500 evacuation volunteers called Evacuteers who assist with New Orleans’ public evacuation plan. They prepare and register evacuees, ensuring their ability to evacuate safely and with dignity.

Evacuspots mark the pick-up locations for the New Orleans City-Assisted Evacuation. Designed by public artist Doug Kornfeld, these 16 14-foot high stainless steel statues are created to withstand 200 years of wear and tear.

Alive in Truth was an all-volunteer project to record life histories of people from the New Orleans region who were affected “by Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods created by levee failure. Our mission is to document individual lives, restore community bonds, and to uphold the voices, culture, rights, and history of New Orleanians.” It was founded by Austin, TX-based writer, social justice activist, and educator Abe Louise Young, working with a large team of interviewers who captured stories. Each story link takes the visitor to a complete transcript with images.

Flood Stories, Too. This 2013 play by the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble tells the story of the flood of 2011 caused by Tropical Storm Lee, in community members’ own voices. The production was a collaboration between BTE, the Bloomsburg University Players, and the Bloomsburg Bicentennial Choir. The script was based on hundreds of stories gathered from local residents via interviews and Story Circles; it incorporated original songs by Van Wagner and Paul Loomis. The staging resembled a church: seventy performers—children to elders, including some who’d lost their homes to the flood and many who’d taken part in cleanup efforts—were arrayed onstage on risers, the back rows of folding chairs holding Choir members, the other performers filling the front rows. Playwright Gerald Stropnicky, an emeritus BTE member, described the ultra-open casting philosophy: “a terrific cast of community volunteer actors joined the effort; the door was open to any and all willing to participate. No auditions, and no one would be turned away.” The box-office policy mirrored the casting: admission was on a pay-as-you-wish basis.

Photo posted by Vivian Demuth   on   Sandy Storyline

Photo posted by Vivian Demuth on Sandy Storyline

Sandy Storyline is widely admired as a rich repository of first-person stories relating to the experience of Hurricane Sandy, not just the immediate emergency of being displaced or injured, but also accounts of how the experience affected lives for years afterwards. The project was conceived and co-directed by Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo, working in collaboration with a large team and many sponsors and supporters.

The site puts it concisely:

By engaging people in sharing their own experiences and visions, Sandy Storyline is building a community-generated narrative of the storm and its aftermath that seeks to build a more just and sustainable future. Sandy Storyline features audio, video, photography and text stories — contributed by residents, citizen journalists, and professional producers–that are shared through an immersive web documentary and interactive exhibitions.

Park Slope Armory. Caron Atlas, Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts on the USDAC National Cabinet, lives in Brooklyn. She was deeply engaged in volunteering at the Park Slope Armory evacuation shelter following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

In a Summer 2013 GIA Reader article, she described what happened and offered advice for future artistic response. At the invitation of a city council member, Caron, who directs Arts & Democracy, joining with artists and cultural organizations from the neighborhood and across the city,

created a wellness center in a corner of the armory drill floor, with programs that included arts and culture, exercise, massage, religious services, a Veterans Day commemoration, an election-watching party, film screenings, therapy dogs, AA meetings, and stress relief. In essence, the wellness center became the living room of the armory—a place where the residents could come to talk, reflect, create, build community, and even enjoy themselves. It served the staff and volunteers as well.

The article portrays in vivid detail the ways that many different artists—a jazz musician, a dancer, actors and others—interacted with shelter residents, becoming essential to the humane functioning of the facility and to the dignity, respect, and humanity of the residents. Comfort and care were important, but just as much, the work was to cultivate people’s agency to act and to advocate for those in the shelters.

Please share the Guide, take part in the Salon on August 29 or watch the video afterwards. Watch this space for more information about the USDAC’s Artistic Response work to come. Please feel free to get in touch with your own questions and stories about artistic response: 

#ArtResponds: Use Your Gifts for Awareness and Action in Charlottesville and Beyond

This past weekend in Charlottesville, VA, Nazis and their allies marched for white supremacy and Heather Heyer, one of the legions of human rights advocates who came out to oppose them lost her life to a terrorist who plowed his car into a crowd. Protest—along with care and consolation and building resilience—is one of the three aims of artistic response to civil or natural disaster in Art Became The Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide; just enter your email to join a thousand others who’ve downloaded the this free 74-page Guide in the last week, and learn more about the models, methods, ethics, and awareness needed for effective artistic response.

Last week we wrote about the Guide as a whole. This week, our focus is on art that protests injustice, calling people to awareness and action. The USDAC is built on the principle that human rights are cultural rights are foundational human birthrights. Watch this Indivisible guide for solidarity events. Donate to the Solidarity C’ville anti-racist legal fund, Black Lives Matter C’ville, or other organizations that stand for equity, justice, and cultural democracy.

Once you download the Guide, be sure to join us at 3 pm PDT/4 pm MDT/5 pm CDT/6 pm EDT on Tuesday, 29 August 2017 for an Artistic Response Citizen Artist Salon featuring Carole Bebelle, Co-founder and Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, a co-director of Called to Walls and a visual artist based in Vermillion, South Dakota. Just enter your email to sign up and you’ll receive a link to take part in this online video conversation.

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein's vision of a monument to racism vanquished.  See all three images in the series here .

Cultural Agent Dave Loewenstein's vision of a monument to racism vanquished. See all three images in the series here.

What can Artistic Response do in moments such as these? As we say in the Guide,

As a vehicle of protest, artistic response can share the realities of those most directly affected by emergencies, countering cover-stories and distant analyses. It can reach people emotionally and somatically, as well as intellectually, adding impact. It can generate images, sounds, and other experiences that build awareness and lodge in memory, affecting future actions. It can illustrate what is broken and offer powerful images of healing and possibility.

Here are just a few of the Guide excerpts on protest-focused artistic response projects:

The Mirror Casket. De Andrea Nichols designed The Mirror Casket, a coffin faced entirely in mirrored glass, “to challenge on-lookers to question, empathize, and reflect on their own roles in remediating the crisis of countless deaths that young men of color experience in the United States at the hands of police and community violence.” The Mirror Casket was carried in many demonstrations before it became part of the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Here’s how De’s website describes the project:

The Mirror Casket is a visual structure, performance, and call to action for justice in the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Created by a team of seven community artists and organizers, the mirrored casket responds to a Ferguson resident’s call for “a work of art that evokes more empathy into this circumstance” following the burning of a Michael Brown memorial on September 23, 2014.

With an aim to evoke reflection and empathy for the deaths of young people of color who have lost their lives unjustly in the United States and worldwide, The Mirror Casket was performed as part of a “Funeral Procession of Justice” during the Ferguson October protests. As community members carried it from the site of Michael Brown’s death to the police department of the community, its mirrors challenged viewers to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor. The Mirror Casket has since been used throughout related protests and marches.

Marching with The Mirror Casket.

Marching with The Mirror Casket.

#Icantkeepquiet: Every issue that encroaches on community and individual well-being stimulates protest art. Consider the song #icantkeepquiet, emerging from the Women’s Marches in January 2017. Los Angeles musician MILCK wrote the song and taught it online to a group of women who came together to perform it first during the demonstration on the streets of Washington, DC. It went viral on YouTube. The site makes sheet music and guide recordings freely available and collects stories of speaking out in the face of repression.

#WRITERSRESIST. Writers gathered in 100 events across the globe on January 15, 2017, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., under the banner of #WRITERSRESIST, asserting their commitment to free, just, and compassionate democracy in the face of official actions that shake these commitments.

I Hear A Voice. In the summer of 2016, students in the Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project summer school program created a song in tribute to Philando Castile, who was killed by police just days before. The track weaves snippets of news soundtrack, spoken word, and choral singing with instrumental music.

Social Emergency Response Centers. The Design Studio for Social Intervention has been experimenting with SERCs (Social Emergency Response Centers)…. You can see images and video describing the prototype center DS4SI piloted in 2016 in Dorchester, the largest and most diverse neighborhood of Boston. Their website says “Our goal is for communities to be able to self-organize SERCs whenever they feel like they need them. We imagine a people-led public infrastructure sweeping the country!” They encourage people to pop up SERC’s in all kinds of venues: “youth programs, art galleries, health centers, colleges, community organizing programs, etc.”

Please share the Guide, tell people about the Salon, and watch this space for more information about the USDAC’s Artistic Response work to come.

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!

2017 People’s State of the Union: “Stories Need to Be Told”

by Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk

“Torhala, a senior at Roosevelt High School who is Muslim, spoke about a time during the presidential campaign when she and her mother were driving in the metro. A car pulled up and its passengers yelled ‘Make America Great Again,’ she said, and then told them to ‘go back to where we came from.’”

“’I was fearful that people would spit on me again, that people would laugh at me when I speak English, and that people would tell me to leave again on a boat,’ Nguyen said. ‘But deep in my heart I know that we are a great country and we are inclusive.’”

            Rizan Torhala and Vinh Nguyen, quoted in the Des Moines Register

For this year’s People’s State of the Union (PSOTU), most Story Circles took place between 27 January and 5 February. There were hundreds of events around the nation, from a few friends sharing stories across a kitchen table to dozens gathered in a public setting, perhaps meeting for the first time. In this third iteration of the USDAC’s annual civic ritual, tellers were invited to share first-person stories in response to three main prompts:

  • Share a story about something you have experienced that gave you insight into the state of our union.
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging—or the opposite—to this nation.
  • Share a story about a time you broke through a barrier to connect with someone different from yourself or with whom you disagreed.

Anyone who wished was invited to upload a story to the PSOTU 2017 Story Portal. Check it out: you will find hundreds of stories from people of many ages, races, locations, genders and orientations throughout the U.S.

In Des Moines, Iowa, the event happened on February 20th. USDAC Cultural Agent writer, and musician Emmett Phillips and allies gathered folks in a club space called Noce, offered for community use on a Monday, its dark night. Organizing started when Emmett met with Carmen Lampe Zeitler, the long-serving former director of Children and Family Urban Movement (CFUM), where he works with youth as Program Coordinator. 

Carmen’s “love and passion for community building and youth empowerment and giving a space for voices to be heard is very evident,” Emmett told me, “so I’ve always had a lot of respect for her. She called me to meet one morning around election season, sensing all the things happening around that time and wanting to do something about it, but not knowing what. She reached out to Don Martinez, the executive director of an organization called Al Exito which works with Hispanic high school youth. And they also reached out to Larry Christianson who is retired and was more than willing to help us plan things out. This is around the time the USDAC was planning PSOTU. By the next meeting we decided that we wanted to do a Story Circle. After everyone knew exactly what it was, they jumped right onboard with it.”

Photo: Kelly McGowan/The Register

Photo: Kelly McGowan/The Register

The Des Moines Story Circles began with Emmett emceeing, young people performing poems, and a handful of individual stories presented onstage before sharing began at small tables all around the room. I asked Emmett why they chose to start out this way. “One, to break the ice for everyone, since it’s kind of a new experience just sharing stories. And two, to make sure that the groups that really needed to be included in the conversation got their perspective out first and foremost. We thought it would empower everyone else to be open with what they’ve been through.”

And the poetry? “I work with an organization called Run DSM that has a program called Movement 515 about the urban arts: poetry, graffiti, hip-hop, photography. I’ve done a hip-hop camp and currently do poetry workshops in the middle school with them. They have a lot of young people that are brought up and empowered and trained and rehearsed with poetry. They understand the power in it, and always do a great job. So I reached out to a couple of their poets to come and bless us. We had three different poetic performances, one for the opening and two to close the show.”

I asked Emmett about success factors. “We had great support from the venue. They were courteous. They were there to help us set things up. So the environment definitely played its part. A lot of the people were there off of respect of the people that invited them. It really helps to have like a team where people would follow them wherever they go because they know it’s going to be something good. Starting with poetry was good: a poem from a young high schooler that was very awake and very appropriate, that hit people in their feelings, the emotional investment that says why we’re even here. And the stories had people in tears. A note we took on ways to make the event better is to have more Kleenex handy.”

This year as in previous years, we’ve heard from many participants that Story Circles offer a powerful and simple way to connect people, even those who seem to have little in common. In a Story Circle everyone gets equal uninterrupted time to share a first-person story, usually two or three minutes apiece. Listeners give each teller undivided attention, allowing a breath after each story for it to settle. Those factors often have a large impact in equalizing participation; contrast this to a free-for-all where the loudest or most powerful person hogs the space. After everyone has shared a story, the members of each Circle reflect on what has been revealed by the body of stories.

In Des Moines, once folks in Story Circles started reflecting, it was hard to stop. “Our intention was to have people break into their groups for a little while, then hear from everyone and then do closing poetry. But people were having too much good topical conversation. I just couldn’t stop that. So we let them continue pretty much until we had to leave. People felt really, really open and connected. The event was two hours—it’s crazy that that wasn’t long enough, you know?”

Emmett and his collaborators sent a follow-up question to everyone who took part. A large portion of the participants responded. Forty-two indicated that they’d like to participate in future Story Circles. No one replied to that question with a “no.” The typical response was what we’ve come to expect from PSOTU participants: “Great start. Loved the conversations. Stories need to be told.”

Why is the simple invitation to sit in circles, share stories, and listen fully so powerful? Based on the hundreds of Story Circles I’ve observed and facilitated, two main answers come to mind. First, it can be a sadly rare and remarkably delicious experience to receive full attention, to inhabit the space to tell a story without fearing interruption or contradiction. Too often, people are texting while you talk, or waiting for your mouth to stop moving so their turn can start, or looking over your shoulder for someone they’d rather engage. But the attention and permission of a Story Circle are an antidote to that.

Second, as we say when each PSOTU launches, “Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” Too much ordinary public discourse is left to those deemed experts. Too much is conducted in a way that privileges certain types of knowledge—official findings, numbers, the jargon of a particular sphere. What tends to emerge is opinion, and opinion can always be contested. In a polarized moment, many people are made anxious or fatigued by the prospect of a shouting-match fueled by conflicting opinions that fail to persuade. But stories are different. When someone’s first words are, “I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me,” when the sentences that follow tell an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end, surprisingly few even try to contradict another’s actual experience. Each storyteller’s truth emerges to stand alongside the rest, and when the group reflects on what has been learned, the richness is often unexpectedly powerful.

You don’t have to wait till PSOTU 2018 to try it out. The USDAC’s next National Action, #RevolutionOfValues, is a day of creative action taking place on April, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s groundbreaking Riverside speech. There are many ways for individuals and groups to take part. Download the free Toolkit and you’ll have access to all kinds of resource, including detailed Story Circle instructions.