Last night I had the good fortune to see a fantastic show—Robert Farid Karimi’s “Self (The Remix)” at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. During the post-show talkback session, Robert shared a recent story of doing a school residency when a young girl in a hijab mentioned to him that her father thought the U.S. shouldn’t have killed Osama Bin Laden. Robert, a Guatemalan/Iranian-American who had been bullied on the playground during the Iranian hostage crisis, quickly pulled the girl aside, encouraged her to share with him but away from others and suggested she be careful, lest she become the victim of the kind of bullying Robert had experienced as a child.
This is the rub and a good illustration of the kinds of challenges inherent to working with the community. While we encourage people to have voice and a sense of agency, we must also recognize that there is may be a time and a place for everything. It illustrates that there can be unintended consequences of our work—be it a young girl unwittingly tempting bullies or the gentrification of neighborhoods by making them cool, hip, and often expensive, arts districts.
It has been said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I truly believe in the power of art and culture to transform lives. If it has that power and if we, as community-based artists are helping to unleash that power within people, we must also accept that we have a great responsibility.
I appreciate Maryo’s “5-why” inquiry. This type of self-inquiry is critical prior to doing community work and cannot be understated. If we are to wield such great power, we must be clear about our motivations and our intentions. What is driving me to do this work? Is this about me/us or is this about the people in the community? What are we seeking to do? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Community-based work is fundamentally different from working in a studio. When doing studio work, the medium may be clay, paint, music, movement, writing or spoken word. However, when doing community-based work the medium is, well, the community. It’s other people. We are seeking to affect people and their lives. While we aspire to have a positive influence, we must recognize the potential that this might not always be the case.
Many times people enter community-based work with a desire to help fix things. While this impetus may not be inherently bad, it assumes there must be a “need” that requires “fixing.” Furthermore, people may assume that s/he has the answers—along with education, credentials, resources, or other positional authority to prove it.
This is exacerbated when the would-be-helpers are not from or of the community, yet s/he makes assumptions about the communities “needs” and “deficiencies” and does not take the time to understand the community’s history, assets, hopes, dreams and desires. The “helper” may also not take into consideration the temporal nature of their engagement—the fact that while they may be here today, they could be gone tomorrow.
To be effective and responsible community-based artists, we must be clear about our intentions and why we are doing this work. We must take the time to understand the people and communities where we are working. We must acknowledge and be constantly cognizant that we are “outsiders” and will, most likely, leave. While we can promote and help unleash incredible power within people and communities, we must help them to use that power and voice responsibly in ways that do not put them in harm’s way. In short, we must do no harm and always try to leave the world a better place because we existed.