Chapter 6: "come to this work naked..."
Erik’s comments resonate with me and mirror my exasperation with young artists wishing to do “community work”. My frustration is rooted in the lack of a common set of definition of the term—in its whole and in its parts.
For me, community art is not about making art, it is about exploring connections between the creative process and community concerns, and it is about building relationships. The art is always a small “a”—a by-product of the process.
I arrived at this definition and my understanding of the work through many years of service and mentoring that began in the early 1970’s on the campus of Washington University under the guidance of the Pan-African Writers Association. The process was intense and exposed me to a broad reading list, research skills, and conversations in respecting the knowledge and structure present within any given community while working to expand that knowledge and link it to deeper community engagement.
When I landed in Atlanta in the mid ‘70’s, I was taken under the wings of Toni Cade Bambara who trained me to understand my responsibilities as an artists and the use of the arts as a means of organizing for social change. Then I discovered Alternate ROOTS and began to work with incredible people like John O’Neal and Nayo Barbara Watkins who taught me to talk less and listen more.
The moral and ethical issues of this work are huge. I remember long hours of discussion among artists at Alternate ROOTS debating “who owns the products that derives from community based work”. After a year of discussions, I was very proud when ROOTS came out on the side of the community. I have done dozens upon dozens of community residencies, which produced wonderful pieces of art and writing, but you will never see my name linked to the products because the products did not belong to me. Another mentor, painter John Riddle, taught me how to accept this when he asked which was more important me gaining recognition or the work being done. I knew it was the process and the work that was of highest importance.
Erik says it all when he speaks to the fact that, “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”. This is something most artist truly believe, that they are exceptional people with so much to teach others. They believe they have power and education and want to share it.
My truth has shown me that it is best to come to this work naked—stripped of your sense of power and exceptionalism. Come understanding that you do not possess anything that does not already exist in the community. Come understanding that if you are lucky, they will teach you something. Come knowing that your job is to ensure that the community recognizes it does not need you—that the work is in their hands and that it is their work, not yours.
However, there is another side to the ethics question. What if you come to a community to work with your ethics in tack and you encounter “community leaders” who want to use you for unethical reasons. I found myself in such a situation in the early ‘90’s and it nearly ended my community-based work.
I entered into an agreement to work with a program in a town in Georgia with a high Latino population. The goals as explained to me by school officials was to design and teach a three week leadership program that would allow 5th graders to enter the middle school with more confidence and with the abilities to help their peers deal with the stress and challenges.
I brought out my best processes of visual and literary arts to build community within the diverse group of students, to build trust, to allow them to tap into their deepest truths and concerns and to communicate with honesty and openness. After two weeks, I was very proud of the way things were moving. The students were growing everyday and freely communicating their “personal story” and their values.
At the end of the final week, I helped clean up the room and left for my car when I remembered I had left books behind. I re-entered the building and approached the classroom when I heard several of the teachers talking. I stopped outside the classroom where I could see and hear them and watched with horror as they went through my student’s personal journals and made notes.
“This looks like a gang sign on the cover, make a note of his name, and let the middle school know to watch him. This poem is interesting, it seems they may be in the country illegally, we should note that.” And on they went, turning my work of liberation into a means of surveillance. I coughed, then entered the room. They looked nervous and mumbled about how great it was that I could draw so much out of the children. I left discouraged and ashamed of my involvement.
It made me reflect on a situation years before when working with women in a prison halfway house and the warden asked me to report if the women wrote anything that might indicate illegal activity or rule breaking. Only the situation with the halfway house was easier to deal with because I knew from the beginning they were unethical and I was able to let it be known I would not be reporting on anyone.
However, this second incident, because of its underhandedness and the way organizers lied to me taught me that I had to worry about more than just my ethics. It taught me to ask many more questions of people who sought to hire me, especially when asked to work with vulnerable populations. I gave myself permission to say no, even when the project was promising and paid well. I wonder how many young artists who see this work as a job as opposed to a calling will be able to say no and walk away, even when they come to see the unethical ways their work can be exploited by those in power.