Volume 5: If community engaged art making is transformational, what are the moral and ethical dimensions of the work?

Chapter 6: "come to this work naked..."

Alice Lovelace

Wild Caufht_Phto_Alice 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.

Chapter 5: Clear Intentions


Wild Photo Erik  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. 

Chapter 4: "by any means necessary"


The work we choose to do as creative community builders assumes that art is not only an aesthetic product, but in fact a vehicle for change, growth, and healing.  It is easy to loose sight of the responsibility we have to the process and the long-term outcomes of effective community engagement.  We so often are forced to create rigid timelines and structures for our creative engagements. Community-engaged art making sometimes falls victim to own organizational goals or funding limitations.  We the people in the process, in the art, witnessing the art are the ones who are affected by these constraints. 

I have been working for years with a dynamic duo of sisters who call themselves Angela's Pulse. One a choreographer and the other a director, they have dedicated themselves to a project called Blood Dazzler for almost 5 years.  Blood Dazzler investigates the sociopolitical fire storm left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina through poetry, dance, and multi media.  Operating on little to no money or an umbrella nonprofit organization, I have witnessed their forced fiscal creativity become an asset to the art, the artists, activists and Katrina survivors.  With a honed focus on the project and its community impact, the project has morphed and evolved organically in response to the community it seeks to engage.  So, what becomes clear is the responsibility to people by way of the art.  Blood Dazzler becomes more than a physical, theatrical, poetic collaboration.  Navigating the racial and socioeconomic repercussions of Katrina, Blood Dazzler has expanded into a movement, a community of Dazzlers, a vehicle for dialogue, growth, resurrection, and healing.

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Chapter 3: Hands Are Handy

Wild_phto_Milenko Milenko Matanovic

On the most basic level, art is about joining ideas and actions, minds and hands.  Insights come from both sides.  Some insights come from intuition and make their gradual ‘descent’ into concepts and then, gradually, into realization.  Other insights are born in action and make their journey in the opposite direction, eventually ‘ascending’ into new insights and wisdom. 

The way things are, we favor the descending mode almost exclusively: intuition gives birth to concepts that, in turn, energizes emotions. Eventually, at the very end of the process, hands follow as obedient servants to this hierarchy of commands.  Whole societies are structured around this order, as well as business and movements, while the wisdom of the hand is put aside. 

I’ve earned a new appreciation for the ‘ascending’ principle where hands inform passion and ideas and concepts.  Important insights are born when hands are engaged. In my work with communities, after people talk, we ask them to do something with their hands to sort things out. We place large sheets of paper on the tables, put markers in people’s hands, and ask them to sketch out the concepts they discussed.  And conversations become more informing and productive.  Concepts are clarified sooner.  Agreements are negotiated faster.  People become better problem solvers when the experience and wisdom of their hands compliment their minds.

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Chapter 2: 5 Why's

Maryo Ewell

Wild_Phto_Maryo It's so easy to lose sight of big ideas, when we are grappling with scores of e mails that need answering and details that keep cropping up and little fires that need quenching.  You go to sleep at night thinking, "Ha! I answered 60 e mails today and revised two budget forms" because these, at least, are concrete things that you can measure.  But however comforting, it is false progress.

I took a community development class long ago. Bernie Jones, the professor, said to us: "If you are going to mess with human beings' lives, you must first be very, very clear about why you want to do so.  Affecting, influencing, people and their situations is volatile, often dangerous.  You must not dare to try and do that without a framework of personal, ethical clarity."

So we had to partner with a classmate and ask, "Why do you want to do community development work?" After your partner answered, you asked “Why” again, probing the answer a little.  And then again.  And again.  By the time you answered the fourth or fifth “Why,” you were talking about things so deep in your soul, so essential to the reason of your existence, that you found yourself talking about concepts like god or love or something else that you believed, with every fiber of your being, to be at the root of life. Very deep, emotional stuff.

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Chapter I: "...how can you take it away?"

Wtc Photo 06
In the spring of 1984 I was running a workshop for 15 aspiring songwriters at the California Medical Facility, otherwise known as Vacaville Prison. The class had been truly inspiring. We were only four weeks into it, and a dozen amazing songs had already been penned. One morning, as I was unpacking my things, one of the more prolific tunesmiths named Joe approached me looking uncharacteristically sad and  vulnerable. “You know Mr. Cleveland,” he said, “I almost didn’t make it this time.” I answered smiling, “Well Joe, you’re on a roll here, so I’m glad you did.” He moved closer. “No man,” he spat out, I’m saying I almost didn’t make it.” 

I realized then, that Joe was not just doing the prison “okidoke.” I motioned him over to the corner of the room and looked him straight on. “OK, Joe,” I said, “What’s going on?” He slumped back against the grey wall, looking down at his feet. His voice was heavy, like someone talking through pain. “I’ve been real low lately. Every morning for the past week I’ve been waking up thinking about whether I can handle one more day in this hole. This morning, the feeling was awful bad, know what I mean? But then, I got to thinking about these songs, so I decided to give it another go.”  

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