Safer DIY Spaces has been trying to preserve infrastructure and hold space for community organizing since 2012. Part of the work is trying to buy buildings and part is trying to get orgs eligible to apply for grants. The event that was taking place at Ghost Ship the night of the fire had asked to use Omni Commons (which is up to code) as a venue, but they were rejected because the city had already tried to shut Omni down three times and Omni was worried about noise complaints from the neighbors and how long the show would go.
“There’s a law in Oakland that says it’s illegal to dance after 1 AM. This is why people are refused special event permits. These kinds of bureaucratic conditions are part of the reason people hold events in informal spaces, in improvised spaces, in homes and so on.”
DIY Safer Spaces includes a number of architects and artists from different communities in Oakland. Their number one priority is legalization. The city will often shut down spaces out of alleged safety concerns, but this ends up pushing the evicted into even unsafer conditions. “I have had several inspectors tell me that people are safer being homeless and living in tents than in the building that needed $5,000 worth of safety improvements.” Contrary to what these inspectors are saying, Oakland’s homeless encampments have a reputation, and it’s not for safety. These encampments are often also evicted because they are reported to be unsafe or unsanitary. There have also been a number of fires at these encampments. https://www.eastbayexpress.com/SevenDays/archives/2018/09/11/fire-at-the-village-homeless-camp-in-east-oakland-displaces-37
“We must preserve low-income, accessible, affordable spaces for people to pursue cultural production.” Safer DIY Spaces focuses on live/work spaces in particular, sometimes referred to as “mixed use”. “We’ve helped well over 100 buildings [that were served eviction notices]. That’s over 700,000 square feet of space preserved.” Though city inspectors use safety concerns as an excuse to evict low-income artists living in live/work spaces, historical research shows that building codes and fire codes are not about preserving life safety, they are about property rights. Also, codes are selectively enforced against marginal buildings (populated by marginal people in marginal parts of town). Rule enforcers assume that if you are living in a non-compliant building, you can and should move into a compliant building. If you can’t afford to… well, that’s not their problem.
Safer DIY Spaces is the only org in the Bay that provides this kind of hands-on technical assistance: representing tenants (and sometimes building owners) when they have to deal with the city, helping people get their buildings to comply with local codes, and ultimately (ideally) purchasing the buildings for themselves.
“Right after Ghost Ship, I was getting about 30 messages an hour from people I didn’t know. That was the scale and degree of concern.” David is referring here to other people who were worried about getting shut down and wanted to get their buildings into compliance.
“Nobody I’ve ever met wants to live in a building that’s not safe.” This should be obvious, but there was a surprising amount of victim-blaming happening in Oakland after the fire. Some people seemed to be misguided into believing that young people “like” danger, when in reality it’s high rents that have pushed people and parties into unsafe spaces.
Part of the problem is that people in low-income communities doesn’t have access to architects who can help explain how their buildings could be made safe/brought into compliance affordably. This is one of the ways Safer DIY Spaces can help.
Peacock Rebellion is based out of the Liberate 23rd Ave building. They bring together queer and trans people of color to produce comedy, dance, and storytelling events based on themes such as the nonprofit industrial complex, healing, and fighting displacement. They utilize these cultural events to build community power, and try to mobilize and their audience and community members to fight for queer and trans people of color, particularly trans women and trans femmes of color. For example, when Peacock performer Davia Spain was arrested for defending herself, Peacock worked with TGI Justice Project to get her out of jail and have the charges dropped.
Part of Peacock’s work involves staying connected to people that have been pushed out of Oakland and trying to enable them to return. While many orgs focus on fighting displacement, few work on actually bringing people back. Peacock’s STAY festival exclusively featured queer and trans artists of color who were born and raised in the Oakland area. With fewer and fewer Oakland natives able to remain in the Bay every day, giving visibility to artists born and raised here who are still here is an important part of fighting displacement. Peacock also holds free rapid response healing clinics in response to community crises such as the Pulse shooting and the 2016 election.
Liberate 23rd Ave houses The Bikery, where community members can build bikes for free and then keep them. Liberating Ourselves locally is a maker space based out of the same building. Liberate 23rd Ave also houses Oakland SOL, a queer and trans people of color food justice collective, which is also part of the 8 affordable housing units in the building. SOL has hosted many drag shows, parties, dance and musical performances.
“Our communities are always in crisis. Trauma is happening every day in our communities, but so is art and creation.”
After Ghost Ship, Liberate 23rd Ave was visited by workers from the City of Oakland and constantly under threat of being shut down. Their landlord eventually said “I can’t do this anymore. I need to sell it in 90 days, but I want you all to buy it.” Peacock and its neighbor organizations were able to mobilize 600 people and raise $90,000 in 8 weeks, which was enough for the deposit. The fundraising campaign attracted a lot of media attention, which helped warm city officials to the cause. Peacock partnered with Oakland Community Land trust and now Liberate 23rd Ave owns not only their building, but also the land under it in perpetuity. This helped save 8 affordable housing units, 4 cultural spaces, and a community garden.
Here are a few more of my favorite quotes from Devi Peacock’s presentation:
“Everyone in the community, we consider to be an artist and a culture maker.”
“We need relationships that can outlast oppression.”
The After Ghost Ship panel was organized by Claudia Leung, outgoing senior program associate at the San Francisco Arts Commission. She began the panel by giving a shout out to Nadia Elokdah (Deputy Director at Grantmakers in the Arts) for all her hard work moving the conference at the last minute. The conference was originally set to take place at the Oakland Marriott, but since Marriott workers are on strike nation-wide, the conference had to be moved at the eleventh hour. Claudia then introduced the panelists: Katherin Canton of Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and Emerging Arts Professionals SF/Bay Area, David Keenan of DIY Safer Spaces, Devi Peacock of Peacock Rebellion and the Liberate 23rd Ave Collective, Eric Arnold of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition and Black Arts Movement District Community Development Corporation and moderator, journalist Chris Zaldua.
Eric Arnold spoke first and gave a presentation called “How did we get here?” which attempted to sum up to last 20 years of gentrification in Oakland. He provided a lot of important background information for the discussion, so I’m going to take some time recapping his presentation.
In 1999, then Oakland mayor Jerry Brown (now California’s governor) instituted an initiative called 10K with the goal of bringing 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland. Between 2000 and 2015, Oakland’s population rose by about 44,000 but only 1,000 units of “affordable housing” were built. (According to Eric, affordable housing is defined on a federal level as where a resident/tenant does not have to spend more than 30% of their income on rent. For some reason, in Oakland, even housing where you are spending up to 60% of your income on rent is considered “affordable.”) The housing built as part of the 10k initiative was all market rate.
In 2006, the recession hit Oakland and hit its Black homeowners, who have been targeting for predatory lending and sub-prime mortgage loans, particularly hard. The same year, Oakland Art Murmur started as a DIY arts and culture initiative. “The Oakland renaissance has been driven by arts and culture.” In 2012, Jerry Brown (now governor) eliminated the state redevelopment agency, which decimated the funding available for affordable housing subsidies and arts organizations, particularly funding available for visual arts projects like anti-blight murals. Also in 2012, the Urban Strategies Council reported that African-Americans were leaving Oakland at a higher rate than any other demographic, a trend which has continued to this day.
From 2012 to 2015, the rents in Oakland increased 76%, the most of any city in the US. In 2013, Oakland was named one of America’s top art places. Oakland starts to become a destination for the arts, but at the same time, artists are being pushed out at an alarming rent due to rising rents and the shortage of affordable housing. In 2013, Art Murmur morphs into First Fridays and begins to draw tens of thousands of attendees, increasing Oakland cultural cache as a place to be and a place for the arts.
In 2014, Oakland amended the existing public art ordinance to mandate contributions from private developers. In 2015, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition formed, started by Anyka Barber of Betti Ono Gallery and Katherin Canton.
More coming soon.
I had the privilege of attending GIA’s Preconference After Ghost Ship: Supporting Artist-led Solutions to Equitable and Accessible Space Development on Sunday, October 21. While I am not an Oakland native, I have been living here ten years and feel increasingly protective of the city. Living in a rapidly gentrifying city makes you weary of change and suspicious of newcomers. At first, I didn’t really understand why GIA chose Oakland as the site for this conference on “Race, Space, and Place.” Oakland really is a unique place; unique because of its diversity, radical political history, and extremely high concentration of artists. What lessons could Oakland teach other cities when there’s no-one-size-fits-all approach to stopping displacement?
It makes sense to study Oakland when you are looking for solutions to displacement because we’ve been dealing with it for such a long time. Gentrification and displacement often feel too big to stop, so it was encouraging to see a variety of people with experience at putting practical solutions into place. I think one of the greatest strengths of this panel, curated by Claudia Leung, was that it featured subject matter experts on several different approaches to stemming gentrification, on the larger policy level of community benefits agreements and pushing an equity focus in city cultural planning, and on the more micro levels of buying buildings and getting them to comply with city codes.
GIA Program Manager Sherylynn Sealy began the panel by acknowledging that it was taking place on the occupied, unceded land of the Ohlone people. She then introduced keynote speaker Ashara Ekundayo, who helped set the tone for the preconference. Here are a few things Ekundayo said that particularly stuck out to me:
- “I invite us to take our presence here very seriously”
I interpreted this as her cautioning people to be conscious of the way they take up space, both as non-Ohlone people on Ohlone land, and as non-Oaklanders in a city where many of long-time Black and brown working-class residents are being pushed out to make room for whiter, wealthier new residents.
- “I wonder is it possible for us to have love and greed occupy the same space.”
This encapsulates what is happening in Oakland right now so well and so simply. We have a lot of people that love The Town and are fighting to keep it a place where people of color and low-income people can live. But we also have massive greed on the part of developers, politicians, business owners and landlords, who see the new residents as more profitable than the old ones, and don’t seem to mind seeing old (Black, brown, immigrant, working-class) Oakland swept away.
Ashara then shared a five-minute passage from James Baldwin’s speech “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here is a quote from Baldwin that stood out to me.
- It does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, in the way that sand has some function. It is impersonal.”
Here Baldwin is speaking of the poet’s higher purpose, to tell the truth, as only a poet can, even to those who do not want to hear it, regardless of what dangers it might bring upon the poet herself. The reason this passage stood out to me it because I think it does matter what happens to us, and I think we need to be conscious of who is using us. I feel that Baldwin was implying an argument that I have heard before, that the artist’s role is to serve as a conduit between the human and the divine. While having a higher purpose may drive many artists, in the context of a conversation about gentrification, there are other ways artists are used, and I think it is important to reflect on these and acknowledge them. I don’t claim to fully comprehend the role that artists play in gentrification, but I do see that they are often one of the first waves. That once a critical mass of artists moves into a neighborhood that was previously deemed unsafe, people with money follow. As a class of renters, artists serve as a buffer between the rich and the poor. How can we resist being used as people who make “unsafe” neighborhoods “safe” for people with money to move into, often causing the rents to rise so much that we ourselves are pushed out?
More coming soon.
I got up at 6:00 AM on the final day of the conference to attend a 7:30 AM session (ouch!) on Impact Investing in the Creative Economy. For most of us in the room, impacting investing was a newer concept. We were eager to learn about the diversity of resources available to build and sustain art-making endeavors through both philanthropic and investment opportunities.
I’d spent the previous day in a session at the Betti Ono Gallery organized by Alexa Hall (program fellow, Performing Arts, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) focused on Oakland Arts Collectives: Resource sharing and innovation. The panel included creative entrepreneurs who run incubators for artists and the community in Oakland. These business owners/executive directors spoke of Oakland as a hub for homegrown locals, and a space that welcomes newcomers, artists that have been displaced from other cities. From creating co-working spaces at that center creativity and technology to running and arts center featuring artist work and community programs, one panelist commented, “I am an artist whose practice is curation. A reminder to be unapologetically Black with joy,” and, “Oakland’s arts ecology is spiritual. It’s an undertone that we don’t always speak to” but is a central element to how they show up and engage. They do this as non-profit organizations, and as hybrid model LLC and Certified B Corporations.
Panelists shared that such hybrid models can provide the ability to be nimble – allowing for revenue generation, and, in the case of having a non-profit wing, opportunities for resources that support education and community programming, offering a clear need for maintaining philanthropic partnerships.
For example, Betti Ono Gallery (BOG) presents artist work and provides a creative and safe space for community. They’ve led youth-centered engagement projects dealing with structural violence, facilitated by organizers and teaching artists to address trauma and build collective power focused on community narratives. BOG does the work of cultural organizing by “embedding artists in movement building efforts through rapid response efforts that address acute issues and inform ongoing opportunity in cultural space.” This has led to The Fire Next Time: A Call & Response, a year-long arts, culture, and community engagement initiative launching on that is “part cultural think tank + exhibition + instigation.”
But, there are also challenges with making enough money to do more than pay the lease and keep the lights on.
Impact Hub Oakland (IHO) co-working space is an arts incubator. To get started, they raised close to $150K from over 1100 donors internationally. The majority of donors were Oakland residents – a testament to both local community support, and the need for accessible cultural spaces like IHO that offer innovative opportunities within the city. While support is strong, and affordable rental fees cover the bills, no equity is being built.
It behooves the sector to take a closer look at the work being implemented in these spaces, and respond in kind to the knowledge and expertise of creative and community-minded leaders and entrepreneurs like Anyka Barber (Founder/Owner, Betti Ono Gallery), Ashara Ekundayo (CEO & curator, AECreative and Ashara Ekundayo Gallery) and Anna Schniederman(executive director, The Flight Deck & Ragged Wing Ensemble) who offer the following:
- “Put the money directly in the hands of artists.”
- “To the philanthropic organizations funding this work: Do some internal work around racism, power, white privilege so that you can see the barriers you erect and maintain that keep artists out through application practices and selection committees.”
- “Read up on the history of the Non-profit industrial complex.”
- “Consider cultural rapid response funds and initiatives – understand what movement building looks like and embed that into what you fund. We need this type of funding to take more risks so that we can be more responsive, test out ideas, and have more permission for those ideas to be generative in shapes that we might not expect.”
- “Be aware of who you are not funding, beyond who is in your portfolio. What are people doing who are not being funded by you – learn about them, and have that inform what you do, and don’t do.”
- “We need more cultural space initiatives, public infrastructure support. If artists and cultural producers can’t afford to be here/live here, then the art is not here, neither is the opportunity to leverage arts and culture to engage and support community.”
So, where can funders and artists alike learn more about impact investing and the creative economy? Laura Callanan, founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab describes how investors are “unleashing more capital to entrepreneurs to scale and maintain their ideas.”
There’s a staggering $8.7 trillion dollars in socially responsible impact investing compared to $435 billion in philanthropic investing, 5% of which goes to the arts. How can the creative sector partner with and tap into these resources in ways that center and drive social enterprise work in order to deepen impact that is sustainable and thrives?
Upstart’s newly released report, HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Impact Investing in the Creative Economy, looks at more than 100 funds with $60 billion of aggregate assets that have been investing in the creative economy over the past 5 years. These include conventional, socially responsible, and impact funds focused on ethical fashion, sustainable food, social impact media, other creative businesses and creative places. Key learnings include how the creative economy offers impact value, commercial viability and innovative edge; how a creativity lens correlates with diversity, equity, inclusion; and how a creativity lens is relevant in both developed and developing markets.
Get to know the creative entrepreneurs leading the way, and the foundations and investors providing ethical opportunities in support of their work.
My first GIA conference is over, and I am so glad for the opportunity to be part of this one, focused on Race, Space, and Place, taking place in my adopted hometown of Oakland, California.
Overwhelmingly, what I’ve taken away is a sense of optimism and excitement at the new discovery (for me) of such a vibrant and dynamic world of arts and culture strategists, funders, creators, workers, wonks, and change agents committed to social justice. I’ve been poring over Oakland’s Cultural Development Plan in my spare time since the conference, and found its guiding vision to be so profound: Equity is the driving force. Culture is the frame. Belonging is the goal.
I’m someone who comes from the school of leading with racial justice—explicit, centered, in the forefront. It was fascinating to listen to the thoughtful discussion between panelists Randy Engstrom and Vanessa Whang, and the audience, during the Cultural Equity session about the interaction between racial equity and cultural equity. No one dismissed the importance of leading with race, and it was clear that people understood from experience doing this work, that race without fail drops off the table unless it is explicit and centered. Yet, there was also acknowledgement that the racial frame doesn’t get to everything we are either. And that culture can encompass race, as well as who we are as women, transgender people, how we parent, how we live and love. I can’t put it better than this quote from the Oakland Cultural Plan: “Reaching well beyond the confines of the arts and artmaking, culture is the embodiment of forms of knowledge and wisdom people have gained through their different lived experiences of how to survive and thrive.”
With my policy strategist hat on, I see one set of tools from the conference falling into the bucket of “Culture and arts as a robust vehicle for building a just and equitable city.” This includes wealth-building for marginalized communities, workforce development, housing and anti-displacement initiatives, youth development and education, and more. Some of the ideas and examples I heard in this category:
- The Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), an innovative property acquisition, low-income financing, and long-term leasing model to stabilize arts and cultural organizations and develop their economic assets.
- Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture’s efforts to partner with philanthropy and the school district to restore arts curriculum to every public school in the city.
- Los Angeles County’s funded recommendations to develop creative workforce development pipelines through paid arts internships for community college students, high school students arts employment and learning opportunities, and creative workforce development centers linking students and mature workers, especially from marginalized communities, to training and opportunities in creative industries.
With another hat on—let’s call it my “emergent strategist” hat—I’m loving the relational, visionary, and spiritual elements that threaded through the conference (or at least the sessions and conversations I was drawn to). I finally read Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy on a long flight recently, and it sits on my desk now, much-dog eared, it’s wisdom still waiting to be digested and absorbed. No surprise then, that the first session I went to was “Transformation in Action: Embodying Emergent Strategies,” organized by Sage Crump. Sage offered a grounding exercise based on Adrienne’s advocacy for passion, longing, and pleasure as a powerful source of motivation and a driving force for making change.
What do you long for, what is your vision for the arts and cultural ecosystem you want?
It only took a minute of sitting in silence for me to conjure an image of my three-year-old son, growing up in this ecosystem we are blessed to have in Oakland, despite its many challenges and hard realities, teetering on a balance beam amidst the city’s tensions and inequities. I long for him to stay at his ethnically diverse, Spanish-immersion preschool where they will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos soon. I long to enroll him in Shaolin Life and BoomShake as soon as he’s old enough, and to immerse him in all his heritages as well as see him and his generation remix and create new solutions, new dreams.
From the brilliant john powell’s lunchtime plenary, I’m reminded that, “We’re spiritual animals, and the spiritual part is transmitted through culture.” I’ve heard him say this in years before, but it finally clicked along with the late Grace Lee Bogg’s insistence that we work for evolution, not just revolution. Culture, the story of the bigger “We,” is how we move forward as a civilization, and evolve as people. Besides his philosophy, I was also struck by john’s story of growing up in Detroit in the pre and early Motown days. Not only did he live through—all in his youth—America’s concept of colored, negro, and Black, he also shared the memory of a time when Detroit only had two hours of radio time a day for Black music…just as Motown was coming on the scene, to transform the landscape of the American and world music industry.
Ultimately, john powell helped me see how the dots connect—whether one is working on artmaking and cultural creation or organizing grassroots campaigns. He said this:
Analysis is not the same as communication.
Communication is not the same as narrative. (And good narrative feeds the soul.)
Which is not the same as organizing. An organization is about power.
We need alignment of all of these, to create change that is about equity, but goes beyond equity to create for everyone a world of belonging.
Today’s post focuses primarily on young people and the arts, and artists, with a little bit of, well, everything that’s inspiring me.
First, I want to take a moment to share some sage advice I received at breakfast as I was making choices about what sessions to attend. There’s not always congruence between what I should attend based on the work I do, and what I may want to attend. In the end, I decide to lean into inspiration, trusting what moves me. I thank Dr. Anh Thang Dao-Shah (Senior Racial Equity and Policy Analyst, San Francisco Arts Commission) for reminding me to:
Next, shout out to this morning’s Idea Lab artists! Meklit, Michael Morgan, and Sean Dorsey. They powered a morning filled with music and storytelling, centering stories of cultural migration and representation, and transgender inclusion. They remind us of the power of music as cultural activism and identity – a conduit for choreography and movement building.
I caught a couple of quotes from the many gems that were dropped, and have added a few reflections in my own words to encapsulate what was shared:
- Imagination is the difference between life and death.
- Intersectionality matters always, and in all ways (note: The average life span of a Black trans woman is 35 years.)
- Nothing about us without us. “Fund projects that are authentically by trans artists and communities.”
- “White folks – do the work of dismantling White Supremacy Culture and racism.” This is what I like to call, get your cousins!
- “When we make space for other artists, we make space for ourselves.”
Inspired by the Idea Lab, I leave the circus tent (see previous blog entry for context if you’re not sure what I’m talking about), plug in my headphones, and listen to my daily dose of Democracy Now headlines, which infuriates and fuels. It’s the second cup of Joe that keeps me going. That’s when I stumble into my first session of the day. Any guesses as to where I’ve chosen to spend the morning? I’ll give you a hint:
You walk in, there’s soul music, laughter, and immediate engagement. Chairs are set-up in a circle. The facilitator’s create space for group introductions and mingling activities. There’s an acknowledgement that there are no young people in the room, which is problematic. These are the attributes of a welcoming environment.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the Creative Youth Development (CYD) session.
If you don’t know much about CYD, check out the website for more information on the partnership, collective impact effort, and the national action blueprint which has three priority areas: Visibility and Impact, Field Building and Funding, and. This session, entitled Building Pathways to Equitable Funding for Creative Youth Development, focuses on the third.
Building off of best practice evaluation and outcome frameworks like the Boston Youth Evaluation Project, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, CYD programs support creative engagement and artistic development, foster connections and relationships and take place in community arts organizations, cultural institutions, schools and more. CYD programs invest in young people’s leadership, and create real opportunities to shape and inform the programs that they are a part of.
In a landscape analysis of 993 programs, the CYD partnership has learned that most focus on depth, not breadth, have budgets averaging $393K annually, center holistic practices, work with small groups of students, boast high retention rates, and receive most of their money through federal grants supporting non-arts specific areas that their programs address (e.g., housing, health, juvenile justice).
The challenge has been shoring up sustainable resources. Federal dollars have been more open to the idea of using arts to drive other outcomes, like homelessness, etc. Private philanthropic resources are scarcer for CYD programs.
Darren Isom (executive director, Memphis Music Initiative) stresses the importance of providing funders an onramp to this work: Who should you be talking to? How can we share best practice examples of funders supporting this work? How do we promote authentic youth-centered stories, and support research to communities and funders?
Session participants respond with the following barriers to funding CYD work:
- Foundations do not have a strong learning agenda, which means that there’s less openness to risk-taking
- Public agencies requiring 501c3 status
Ashley Hare (executive director of Phonetic Spit) adds that, “young people are blurring the lines of what it means to be an artist and activist in their own communities. We are listening to them.” How will funders do the same?
Let’s also be better at engaging a youth-centered and intergenerational approach across all of the issues and topics within arts and culture. How are young people actually engaged in leadership and decision-making? How does CYD serve as a conduit for integrating young people and youth culture into the arts and cultural efforts that aim to advance environmental, democratic, immigration justice and equity advocacy efforts?
• • •
Last, but certainly not least, was the powerful lunch presentations by Favianna Rodriguez, Boots Riley and W. Kamau Bell. (See the dope picture at the top of this post!)
Some critical take-aways:
Cultural cachet don’t necessarily pay the bills. “You might be seen or known in the world for your work, but that don’t mean that you’re not still struggling to make ends meet.”
When we talk about supporting women and people of color in the arts, it comes to housing, supporting some basic needs. Why not have more low-income housing for artists? There are artists who would have made it but are not being supported in those [basic] ways.
If we want to invest in arts why not “fund regular standard of living things” such as
- Low income housing
- Daycare with arts centers
- Specific funding for people who want to connect their art to movements they care about, as an emergent strategy
We must have a critique of capitalism. “We talk about the culture of poverty and point to [Black] music as evidential of this, rather than explain it as a condition of capitalism. We blame it on the culture of the oppressed.”
“We need to support the communities and their art.”
“We need to expand how art can be in the world and find ways to bring in new people who are being frozen out by traditional ways of art-making. Funders can help to create space for you to learn how to disrespect your genre (e.g., people know you as a rapper, and now you’re making a film, etc.) We must encourage that.”
Well, I’m not actually in Oakland at the moment but am writing this blog from the International House Library on the University of California, Berkeley campus where I’m staying as a guest in the Ambassador Suite. That’s right, friends. I went to the 2018 GIA Conference in Oakland and ended up reliving my college days at a school I would love to have attended.
My first visit to UC Berkley was in 2011, accompanying the Seattle Youth Speaks team to Brave New Voices, the annual youth international poetry slam competition – a monumental event filled with creative expression, arts, education, civic discourse and social justice pedagogy. During that trip, I witnessed Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense speak on campus to an eager intergenerational crowd of students, artists and community.
I am here again today because I stand in solidarity with Bay Area Marriot hotel workers who are striking for economic-related issues. I am here because when GIA reorganizes its conference venues to support attendees in not crossing the picket line, I am reminded of the role that arts and culture have in movements for social change.
When I walk the streets of downtown Oakland to attend various conference sessions, I think of Angela Davis who wrote about art on the frontlines, cultural organizing at the intersection of art and activism – people’s art as she deemed it, as exemplified by struggles for Black liberation which have always been steeped in musical, artistic, and cultural narratives.
This year’s conference theme of “Race, Space, and Place” is alive in Oakland, reflected by a city rich with roots in movement building, and the beauty and complexity of many cultures. When john a. powell opens his keynote with, “Welcome to Wakanda!” you know what time it is. And, when he closes with an homage to Richard Pryor’s skit lamenting the stolen dreams of a brother who’s been incarcerated, you feel the call to action.
Oakland pride fills the air this morning. From Joyce Lee who blesses the stage with spoken word magick, to Mayor Libby Schaaf who speaks with authenticity about the role of art in cities and Oakland’s fierce pride in its diversity, and the generationally influential Roberto Bedoya, a central leader in advancing Oakland’s first cultural plan in thirty years, entitled Belonging in Oakland: A Cultural Development Plan. The culture of this community’s passion is palpable in its love for justice, art, and the people.
As a culture worker for the City of Seattle, I appreciate the marching orders from Oakland’s municipal leader, “We, as government must take more risks, be more creative, evolve, be iterative, and not work alone.”
So, all college reminiscing aside, I am grateful to be in a community of artists, funders, and cultural organizations who are thrust into this moment of inconvenience so that we can critically analyze and interrogate power in the work we do every single day in this field, and for many of us, in our daily lives. Did I mention that the morning plenaries are taking place under a big top? Seriously. An actual circus tent. It’s kinda fly. And, hella Oakland.
Here are some of the essential themes that have risen to the surface for me today which lie at the intersection of storytelling grounded in personal and cultural narratives and solidarity through intercultural leadership and organizational ally ship –
- The personal is cultural and political
- We must center the cultural narratives of artists of color, Indigenous and undocumented artists, our community groups and organizations
- Storytelling as more than outreach, but a re-writing of what dominant narratives claim through the assertion of Black and Brown knowledge and lived histories
- The acts of resistance by oppressed communities that serve as a guide towards liberation
- The land and built environment hold knowledge and stories to ground and teach us
- There is hope, a seasoned well of optimism that runs deep and true and is dependent on a culture of real belonging. We are all not the same.
- Intersectionality – “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single issue lives.” (Audre Lorde)
- Artists as the integrative element to address and solve issues related to the environment, immigration, democracy, and equity
Favianna Rodriguez of Culture Strike hosts a conversation with undocumented artists, activists, organizers, and culture workers that centers the stories and creative strategies of those working to advance culture and the rights of immigrant and refugee communities. This begins with a profoundly insightful and critical narrative of the immigrant rights struggle within the context of the late 20thand early 21stcenturies, weaving in case studies of cultural, youth-led and intergenerational activism as models of resistance. We are in the Betti Ono Gallery – a multi-use arts space run by curator extraordinaire Anyka Barber. The juxtaposition of African/Carribean influenced art in the space that features Black female figures adorned with ancestral jewelry and markings, reminds me that the past and present collide. As do our stories.
When I inquire about the nature of cross-racial solidarity, and how it shows up in creative and cultural organizing work, panelists respond with examples of collaboration and coalition building across various communities of color impacted by U.S. anti-immigration policies. Working alongside Undocu-Black Network and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration are just a couple of examples. It is also noted that there are problematic things within and across our (POC and undocumented) communities – that anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Blackness is real in many spaces, even as there is strong evidence of QTPOC (Queer and Trans POC, pronounced q-tee-pac) inclusion and leadership in our communities and collaborations. We scratch the surface of this critical topic, but our stories tell us we have much further to go.
Participants also pose questions about the role of philanthropy in supporting undocumented communities:
“How is philanthropy being responsive to the dangers faced by undocumented artists everyday as they are on the front lines? Do funders have a plan to support and defend undocu-creatives monetarily and legally? How do we support Latinx artists that have been deported? What kind of less traditional partnerships exist, and how are funders supporting these more informal and impactful networks?”
I’m reminded that what we do within and across communities and through institutions is about relationships. As Carlos Garcia (Senior Philanthropic Advisor, San Francisco Foundation) reminds us in a session entitled “Intersectionality: Building momentum and moving forward together on arts, environment, and equity” that “it’s okay being uncomfortable in the room if you’re comfortable with the people in the room.” Trust is key. And, critical conversations are not the answer, but essential to the process.
Sitting here in the second half of the day at the preconference session for “Culture at the Intersection of Race, Space, and Place,” my overriding takeaway is about the transformative power of the arts.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
It seems like everywhere you turn these days in the social justice/progressive nonprofit world, the catch phrase is “transformative not transactional change.” As I mentioned in my first post, I’m a local government staffer by day, and our bureaucracies and elected offices specialize in transactional exchanges—here’s some money for a program, here are some services, here’s a policy change even… but transformative change, what the heck do you mean by that? (I imagine myself raising the topic of transformational change with a city council aide or a county agency head and the raised eyebrow or blank look at best before we get down to business discussing that, you got it, transactional thing we’re trying to get done.)
Yet the reason this catch phrase has caught on, and is more than a catch phrase, is because I think many of us recognize the truth of the need for deep shifts in how our institutions, norms and practices operate in reproducing and maintaining inequity, injustice, and exclusion. Which brings me to this theme of reimagining the role of the arts and artists in social movements.
Earlier this morning, Favianna Rodriguez, an Oakland-born and bred gem, spoke about how social justice spaces tend to privilege action, often in a “fight back” mode against something. Reactive action, even if it’s focused on prevention, well-planned, and proactively undertaken. (This is the space in which I primarily work.) Artists on the other hand, “work in the realm of ideas, in the space of yes not no,” as Favianna put it.
To elaborate on this, I think of the work of Octavia Butler, opening up the imaginative capacities we need to contend with where our society’s fissures take us in the not-so-distant future. This isn’t about playing some music to open up a conference, providing the lunchtime entertainment, and making some posters. It’s about arts and culture as intellectual work and a strategic lens as well as a social value for the world we want to live in, to fight for. It’s about an integration of arts into social movements, recognizing that without culture, we can’t change politics—an insight at the heart of the national organization Culture Strike that Favianna helped to found along with my ColorLines compadre Jeff Chang and others.
Maybe all this is common knowledge for the GIA audience. For me and many of us who are not in the arts and culture sphere, it’s still a bit mind-blowing.
Two exciting initiatives/ideas that I took away from the afternoon discussion that build on the theme of the “yes”:
“Radical Imagination for Social Justice”—F. Javier Torres-Campos of the Surdna Foundation shared an example of how social justice funders and practitioners start to operationalize getting out of the fightback mode and “getting clear collectively as communities about what justice looks like and what it is we want to build.” The initiative moves money into the hands of artists to imagine and build justice in real time. Not only does this change the emotional and tangible space in communities, but it incubates ideas – a rapid r&d for experimentation and innovation to capture learnings and move what works to implementation and scale.
The other is what Tracie Hall of Joyce Foundation spoke to, the idea of the “artist as problem solver” and shifting funding models to reflect that understanding. What if instead of phalanxes of graduate students from policy and planning schools doing textbook assignments, we turned our focus and support to creative people from and of the communities who are working in real time to address needs and aspirations in their neighborhoods? This calls to mind our local example of the 23rd Avenue building in Oakland, where people-of-color led social justice organizations, including the queer and trans arts group Peacock Rebellion, who shared tenancy of the space, organized to take it off the market and turn it into a community land trust.
Organizing and building power for arts and culture ultimately must also include the infrastructure, resources and capacity for artists and culture makers to sustain themselves and their work. In a world where only 4 percent of all arts funding goes to organizations serving communities of color, this means prioritizing racial equity-based funding in arts philanthropy.
At the end of the first day of the preconference, I find myself thinking about a conversation I had with Elena Serrano of the Eastside Arts Alliance here in Oakland. She recalled countless community meetings in the San Antonio and other East Oakland neighborhoods, where residents usually are bombarded by dire statistics about the state of their community, the lack of resources and what look like insurmountable challenges of generational poverty and disinvestment. I’ve been to many of these meetings, and sadly, have coordinated many of them like this.
At the end of one session, as community members were asked to do “dot voting” for the solutions they wanted, people kept putting their dots on the idea of a cultural center – the birth of the Eastside Arts Alliance. As Elena put it, “It was the only positive thing. Everything else was what was wrong, and this was a celebration.”
The preconference session on “Culture at the Intersection of Race, Space and Place” has my worlds colliding this Sunday morning in downtown Oakland.
In the spirit of storytelling—as panelists Roberto Bedoya and Favianna Rodriguez modeled—I am both a longtime Oakland resident, a current local government employee (in the county public health department), and a prior chronicler of race, space and place as a journalist at ColorLines.com.
As an Oakland renter and mom raising my family in this place of struggle and possibility, I am deeply compelled by the idea how the arts can help to create a “civic narrative of belonging,” in the words of Oakland cultural affairs manager Roberto Bedoya—because every day I am thinking about my triracial son and his classmates’ belonginess in the Oakland we know, and that is becoming harder by the day to stay in.
As a public health policy professional, I am intrigued that our local government “siblings” in the arts and cultural sector are thinking and strategizing in some very similar veins as we do in public health. Basically, arts and cultural equity can operate like a set of values and strategies that act as a through-line for equity and social justice across city and county planning and policies in every arena—much as we strive to do in health equity.
Some exciting examples of this:
- Kristin Sakoda of Los Angeles County shared how they turned their “County Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative” into an 18-month process involving deep community involvement that led to 13 actionable recommendations to the county supervisors for equitable access to arts and culture for all residents.
- Randy Engstrom of Seattle spoke to the experience of their office in partnering with the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to work at the intersection of arts and policy. As Randy put it, racial equity in governance initiatives must be about a platform for proactive strategy, not just legal compliance with anti-discrimination directives. Through the arts commission’s leadership in racial justice, Seattle’s mayor has tapped them to run three sub-cabinets and a department of 43 staff is able to help drive 40 percent of the mayor’s policy agenda.
- Kenya Merritt, Chicago’s chief small business officer, shared strategies for innovation in grantmaking that address systemic inequities excluding many artists and small businesses along race and socioeconomic lines. These include providing supportive services and technical assistance to applicants to meet guidelines, to aligning values and goals across funders to leverage grantmaking outcomes for greater impact.
The small group discussions and report back yielded a deep dive into analysis of the political and economic landscape of cities, and the role of the arts and culture in corroborating or resisting the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. As someone put it powerfully, “In many of our cities, there is a real estate crisis—everything we do is addressing or not addressing that reality.”
Strategies and ideas coming out of this discussion were incredibly smart, creative and thoughtful. I might be borrowing some of them to take back to my shop in public health, by the way:
- Embedding artists and cultural strategists throughout city and county agencies, including in elected officials’ offices.
- Allocating project resources for documentation so that others can find models and scale up this work across the country.
- Need for cross-sector collaboration with other government offices (hello Public Health)
- Flipping the dynamic so that culture is not just a tool of other priorities, but how does housing support cultural equity? How does workforce development support cultural equity?
Some concluding thoughts to wrap up what I’ve heard so far…
To be a powerful influencer of other “social determinants” of cultural equity (to use public health language) coming from a discipline perceived to be outside of housing, land use planning, economic development, etc.—equity practitioners in other fields need to be grounded in and great at what we do, and strong and organized among our own base. Be really good at grantmaking and support services that work for your constituents. Take care of artists, organize them to build power and coordination in contributing to frontline struggles for equity. Build and nurture an infrastructure/ ecosystem for resourcing.
Finally, what are indicators of belonging? This is a very poignant question for me, and I’ll be reflecting on it in my own life and work here. The group discussion covered public expression as a powerful indicator of belonging—whether that be marches, pop-ups, food gatherings, and other claiming of public spaces. Out of the box sources of belonging and community, whether that be communities at the dog park or the barbershop. Restoration of dignity as a part of belonging. These are all resonant questions for us in Oakland as we struggle with a homelessness emergency, and the grip of a region-wide housing crisis. It takes me back to a thought I’ve heard voiced several times now through GIA. Why culture and the arts during this (fill in the blank) crisis? We need to keep a roof over people’s heads, we need more jobs, more access to health services, food, and education. So why? Because arts and culture give people hope. As I’ve been learning more and more lately, arts and culture are where oppressed people create our hopes and dreams for the future—the way we survive. More on this in my next post.