Sunday, January 29, 2017

"Activate Equity": energy, fresh directions for equity in the arts

Rajeeyah Finnie-Myers,
Project Manager, Field Leadership Fund,
welcomes Activate Equity participants
at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
(photo: Eva Yaa Asantewaa) 

How are we? 
We are here! 
-- Goussy Célestin

Sarita Covington (above)
and members of B3W Performance Group (below)
 in Forgiveness Part 1: Forgiving the Personal
by Emily Berry
(photos: Kerville Jack)

This is New York City in 2017, and yet here we are still asking the question, How can we create a more equitable arts sector? And asking. And asking. And asking some more.

The latest inquiry was launched yesterday by The Field, a nonprofit organization that has served the performance and media arts for three decades.
The Field is committed to empowering artists and cultural workers of all identities to achieve their visions.  We provide strategic services to thousands of performing and media artists and companies in New York City and beyond. We foster creative exploration, steward innovative management strategies, and are delighted to help artists reach their fullest potential. Freedom of expression and the rights of all peoples will be honored and respected via our programs, services, staffing and policies.
-- from Mission & History, The Field
Activate Equity: Insights, Inspirations & Connections, hosted by Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, brought together artists, arts administrators, community-oriented arts activists, educators and many for whom those roles overlap. They gathered for a full day of activities addressing concerns that, while predating this time of white supremacist rule in our nation, have only grown in urgency.

Morning events offered inspiration from artists currently enrolled in the 16-month Field Leadership Fund Fellowship program--Haitian-American music and dance artist Goussy Célestin; B3W Performance Group with choreographer Emily Berry; and Eric Lockley, an actor, writer and producer with a strong focus on POC community health issues. A stirring keynote address was given by novelist Renée Watson (founder of I, Too, Arts Collective) who successfully campaigned to raise funds to lease Langston Hughes's Harlem brownstone for programs serving emerging writers. Watson reminded the audience of the risk of feeling isolated and hopeless at moments of crisis and struggle.

"We are not in this fight alone. Thinking you're alone in this work is self-destructive," she said and used the example of her #LangstonLegacy campaign which met its 30-day deadline, raising the necessary $150,000 to sign the lease. "Change," she told us, "is dirty, hard, grueling work. Still, we must plant. We must put in," and have the kind of faith in seeds that farmers have. She reminded us of Assata Shakur's charge:
It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

The morning continued with a choice of workshops:

JACK Be Nimble: Choosing Collaborative Governance for Organizational Agility and Radical Process, facilitated by DeeArah Wright and Alec Duffy, examined their process of moving their Brooklyn arts venue JACK "from an organization with a strong hierarchy to one that strongly values collaboration and accountability."

I participated in Art Power: Owning our Capacity to Disrupt Racism, facilitated by Rachel DeGuzman, president and CEO of 21st Century Arts. Inspired by DeGuzman's study of D.W. Griffith's racist feature film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th (2016), this workshop mobilized participants to identify cultural artifacts that stereotype and endanger people of color and, conversely, identify art that highlights the real truths and strengths of people and communities of color.

DeGuzman's workshop, though brief, was remarkably effective. It left me feeling exhilarated. The walls of our meeting room, decorated by colorful Post-it® notes with each of our contributions, gave visual evidence of the abundance of positive, progressive artistry originating in and available to communities of color. In contrast, the negative Post-its seemed puny. Reflecting on this difference, we then each declared and committed to personal strategies for disrupting racism and fostering more equity through our work. These were also abundant in number, specific and actionable.

For my part, I committed to continuing the work I'm already doing but with renewed drive for using opportunities in writing, editing, teaching, coaching, mentoring and curating to create new space and resources for artists of color and people dedicated to anti-racism and equity. DeGuzman encouraged us to find check-in buddies to act as sounding boards and keep us on track with these commitments. I hope, as you read this, you will also keep me posted with your suggestions.

After lunch break, the group reconvened for interactive movement exercises facilitated by Wilfredo Hernandez, Program Manager for The Field. The group then collaborated on data and ideas to contribute to the city's CreateNYC cultural plan which examines issues of access and inclusion; social and economic impact of the arts; affordability of living, working and presentation space for artists; educational strategies and neighborhood development issues. The day ended with a networking reception.

Many, if not all, of the people who attended Activate Equity are already deep into the work of anti-racism, equity and social justice in the arts and society. Someday, I want to walk into one of these events and be blown away to see people from a much wider range of the dance and arts communities of my city, resourceful people who are curious, interested, ready to learn, ready to contribute whatever they can. If you're reading this, know that you're an essential part of our city and of the world we're trying to shape. Each of you have something special to share in this work. We all need one another.

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