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Do No Harm

This is the first of three previously published pieces dealing with the moral and ethical dimensions of community arts work. Given the extraordinary challenges we are facing on Planet Covid, and the rising response of cultural activists, we thought they were worth revisiting.

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.”

I was totally thrown. Joe is talking life and death, and I’m fumbling with a jumbled pile of chord books and rhyming dictionaries. I muttered something about how that seemed like a good decision, while I grappled with I how I could respond responsibly to Joe’s desperate anguish. Then he said, “If you don’t mind, I got one question for you.” I had an idea of what was coming. I took a deep breath and nodded. Joe leaned in very close, and asked, “I just want to know when you are thinking of leaving?”

Over the years I’ve been the recipient of more than a few of these intensely focusing head slap moments. These are times when I am reminded that art-making that is transformational carries enormous responsibilities. Early on, they caught me by surprise--- but no longer. Its an obvious, but often ignored aspect of community art practice; If you are stimulating these creative capacities to heal, or nurture, or give voice, you are bringing potent forces into people’s lives. If your arts-based work is truly capable of provoking “systemic” change, you are introducing potent alchemy into the hearts of often-vulnerable communities. Because we live in a society that so trivializes the arts and creativity, the serious implications of Joe’s questions are easily dismissed. But it’s staring us in the face. Put simply, he is just asking, “If art-making is giving me a reason to live, how can you take it away.”

I know a number of community arts veterans who have had these kinds of experiences. But the field is growing, and many who are new to the work are unaware of the level and depth of responsibility that comes with the territory. There are many reasons for this; lack of training, a historic tolerance, even encouragement for quick-hit, unaccountable practice, and certainly, the absence of forums for a sustained ethical discourse.

But these shortcomings are no excuse. There is a significant level of moral and ethical accountability that is inherent to community-based art-making that cannot be avoided.

So, lets not!

(Artwork: Portrait Abstractions, Adrian Trent Woudstra, used by permission of the William James Association)

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