Rebecca Mwase asked new ACSJN Leadership Team member Margo Miller, Executive Director of Appalachian Community Fund to have a quick chat with Chief Policy Wonk of the U.S. Department of Arts & Culture, Arlene Goldbard. They had a robust discussion about artistic expression, reactivity, focus and long term strategy. We are sharing the juiciest bits with you. Check out this snippet and let us know what questions it sparked for you.
USE OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION
AG: Do you find people are more interested in integrating artistic expression and collective creativity into the organizing work they’re doing these days?
MM: The people that I’m closest connected to do. The biggest and most recent successful action the Appalachian Community Fund had that demonstrates that was around the “Hands off Appalachia” campaign. The main celebrity of the campaign was this big oversized puppet who was created in a community workshop. The group also organized and strengthened their community during Sunday dinners.
PICK ONE HOT BURNING SOCIAL ISSUE
AG: A friend and I both had the experience of someone saying, “If you’re not working on X, you’re not really an activist,” or you’re not really a revolutionary. Somebody said that to me about climate crisis; someone said this to my friend about Palestine. We started counting examples of people saying this one thing is claiming the high ground and if you’re not paying attention to it, you’re not real.
I’ve thought about this a lot. In terms of creating a more loving and just world, never can there be one issue. We need a thousand flowers perspective where we say, “you pick that corner, I’ll pick this corner, we’ll all be working on it, we’ll meet here.”
It also made me realize that what really matters to me is not so much which specific issue is expressed as the underlying need and desire to do whatever allows people to be more aware, self-aware, reflective, and conscious in what they’re doing. It feels like the reptile brain is so often in control. There are so many people pissing each other off. It feels like the biggest challenge to being a conscious activist in this time is to have an awareness of how we are all susceptible to reactivity, how things can push our buttons. It’s a challenge to decode information: what is really being said here? What’s really underneath it? To look at the solutions that are being offered for our approval and question “is that everything? Are there other things we’re missing because of our blind spots?”
MM: Tying this back into the work of foundations, I too believe that you can’t focus on one thing. That’s not how the world and communities work. You have to look at everything holistically. If you just focus on education, what about the economy? If you just focus on health, what about the environment? I was asked by one funder “Why doesn’t your foundation focus on one thing as an initiative…focus in on something that you can measure.”
That’s not how grassroots social change works! It starts on the ground. If we as a foundation say oh well, based on this “Blah Blah”, we’re going to focus on entrepreneurial development only, then we’re going to leave so much out. That’s one of my gripes, how people expect and try to force us to focus in on one thing, especially in this work.
AG: The key to that is exactly what you said: let’s pick this because we can measure it. That is crazy, is it not? What a criterion!
MM: It is crazy, and so for me, I’m really interested in the evaluation arm of ACSJN. So many times, people ask “What are you deliverables? What’s the return on this investment?” I want to find a way to be very articulate in talking about the work that we do and be able to translate that into a language those folk understand. I want to find a way of evaluating and our telling stories in ways that people who want to see the “measurable” can see that change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like the kids that go out and plant seeds and the next day asks, “do you have trees yet?” We just planted the seeds!
AG: Also, we’re very, very impatient. Like the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, it’s got to be a long term project because the goal is culture shift in which people recognize the true public interest in culture, the way that culture is the crucible for social change. We need a national conversation about cultural democracy. Like, it’s clear with this economy and unemployment levels, we should have a new Works Progress Administration (WPA) in this country. But no one in Congress is going to take the risk of carrying that. The grassroots conversation has to happen first. Then there’s a possibility of making it happen. That’s a long-term strategy, starting a national conversation and contributing to it and hoping that it gets really robust. You plant those seeds, but you’re not going to see the trees for a while, like you said.
Margo is a DJ, poet, avid crafter, cultural activist, creative strategist, documentarian, and most recently added, a Texas Holdem player. She believes art is a powerful tool for organizing and uniting communities, not to mention an essential part of life. She is currently, after serving three years as development director, the executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund. The Appalachian Community Fund (ACF) encourages and supports grassroots social change in Central Appalachia. ACF works to build a sustainable base of resources to support community-led organizations seeking to overcome and address the underlying causes of poverty and oppression in the region. In her role as executive director, she is committed to building the donor and fund base of ACF to ensure that the legacy of social justice organizing is carried forth with all the richness and courage that are the hallmarks of the region.
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Find her blog, talks, and writings at www.arlenegoldbard.com. Her two newest books on art’s public purpose—The Wave and The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future were published in spring 2013. Prior books include New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, Community, Culture and Globalization, an anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been widely published. She has addressed academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe and provided advice to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers. She serves as Chief Policy Wonk of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (www.usdac.us) and President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org) She was named a 2015 Purpose Prize Fellow for her work with the USDAC.
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