The current shifts in the cultural sector toward social and racial equity have resulted in policy changes, developments in institutional language, funding structures, and a social momentum aimed at addressing inequality and systems of oppression. But these changes are not happening in a vacuum. We are in a moment of the resurgence of activism in the United States through groups like #Blacklivesmatter, DREAMERs, and the renaissance of activism happening on college campuses.
I am reminded of Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx “Subtlety”, this work that was so brilliantly critiquing racism. It was literally a monument —a giant sphinx with the head of “mammy,” naked and exposed, made entirely of sugar and molasses in the old Domino sugar factory in gentrifying Brooklyn. It was pushing the needle of commentary on the history of slavery as it related to the sugar trade and the vulnerability of black women’s bodies and on and on. Yet, I found myself in a room full of people with art history degrees who said it was perfectly valid for people to pose in sexually suggestive poses with it, lick it, and post it to Instagram. It was like they had no idea of the racist history Walker was engaging or how contemporary audiences were complicit in it.
As an arts administrator, I have sought out a variety of frameworks for thinking across cultural differences in order to foster a community of inclusion and engagement. While much of this research has been aimed at audience development and I feel in no-way that I have yet grasped an expertise in these areas. I have aimed to create a practice of approaching this work with an incisive mind, open heart and fearless gratitude when thinking of the challenges and extreme polarities we as a society are facing today. In the readings for this week I realized to what degree this research can also have impact in the classroom and I hope to bring these practices with me into the classroom.
A reading which was particularly inspiring was From Safe to Brave Spaces by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens for the ways it helped foster dialogue through reframing ground rules I have read and often felt put more onus on long time silenced and marginalized voices had to continue to interpret what was being expressed by those that herald more privilege. It provided me with language tools I can instill into classrooms that continue to focus on finding and expressing authenticity through respect, civility, and owning your intentions, as well as your impact.
John C Maxwell notes that “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” Statements uplifted such as these too often place unrealistic expectations on instructors and leaders to offer “answers”. Instead I seek to offer complications, make gestures, and pose questions that lead to a more complex understanding of how inclusion should be carried out in cultural institutions and classrooms. This dialogue is rooted in the belief that this conversation is part of a continuum, and we are merely presenting a moment in that continuum.
We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. When we allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking; it’s imperative to also value listening to, and holding each other up, particularly the voices of those who are affected by systems of oppression. We can then take comfort in the fact that no single one of us knows everything, but together we hold immense knowledge, immense creativity, and immense potential.