The Field recently hosted ACTIVATE EQUITY, a day-long event focused on exploring how we can create a more equitable arts sector in New York City. The event on January 28, 2017 featured a workshop called ART POWER, created and facilitated by FLF Manager Fellow & CEO/President of 21st Century Arts Rachel DeGuzman. Here are Rachel's thoughts about the workshop, as well as links to resources developed that day.
When I consider the negative impacts of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation as a contemporary woman living in the 21st century, I do have to use my imagination but it is not a completely abstract exercise. I can visualize my great-grandfather, John E. Eubanks Sr., a “colored” detective on the police force during the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre when he defied orders and led hundreds, if not thousands of black people to the safety of the Free Bridge.
Did those white mobs, including some police officers and national guardsmen, consider The Birth of a Nation justification or even motivation when they murdered countless black men and women, setting some on fire as they fled in terror down the bloody streets of East St. Louis?
I can imagine the post-traumatic anxiety that my great-grandmother Belle must have suffered. The despair that came from knowing the middle-class life she and her husband led, a sepia version of the 20th century American dream, could not protect them from homegrown terrorism fueled by racial animus. She divorced her husband when he refused to join her and follow Marcus Garvey to Liberia. Their split-up was an ongoing source of family division and great pain for my grandmother all her 95 years of life.
Whatever its artistic merits, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had great power, art power- way beyond its impact on my grandmother’s family.
President Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House and then endorsed the film. It was an artistic piece of fictional propaganda that masqueraded as fact, which was possible because as Frederick Douglass once said, “We have an aristocracy of skin (which bestows) the high privilege of insulting a colored man with the most perfect impunity.”
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had a devastating effect on racism and race relations in the 20th century and, if we are honest, it still does over 100 years since it premiered on February 8, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, California.
The Art Power: Owning our Capacity to Disrupt Racism workshop’s goal was to activate participants power as culture workers to disrupt racism. We utilized The Birth of a Nation as a springboard to connect with our individual and collective powers to contribute to a more equitable cultural landscape in New York City and beyond.
After considering the powerful impact of The Birth of a Nation via an excerpt of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, I asked the more than 20 workshop participants to consider other art and cultural archetypes that have supported racism and structures of white oppression. They were asked to write as many responses as time allowed and post those responses on the negative impact wall. There were more than 40 responses that ranged from instances of cultural appropriation, racial pornography, stereotypes, whitewashing to Disney. (For a complete list of responses, please see the “Racist Art Link” pdf in our shared Google Drive)
In sharing the myriad of negative art and cultural archetypes the participants validated as a group that they exist and are harmful. This is helpful in a system of white oppression where we’re often told that are perceptions are not accurate or that we are overreacting. Playing the race card. It’s just a cartoon character, right?
The next step on the path to connecting to art power was identifying art and cultural archetypes that contributed to equity and positive expressions of difference in what is still a most (as opposed to post) racial society. It was empowering for participants to note that there were many more positive posts than negative. The responses ranged from contemporary art by Kara Walker, Camille A. Brown and Dada Masilo to communication vehicles like the Codeswitch podcast and Facebook Live to the legacies of social justice giants like Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin. (For a complete list of responses, please see the “Affirming Arts and Archetypes” pdf in our shared Google Drive)
The final task during the hour-long workshop was for participants to focus on their work in art/culture and commit to doing something through their work to disrupt racism. Understanding that change can come from the collective impact of many individual actions, attendees committed to an Activate Equity Manifesto. (For a complete list of responses, please see the “Activate Equity Manifesto Posts” pdf in our shared Google Drive)
One of the best fortunes I ever received on a Facebook App said that your plans won’t work unless you do. There is also a saying about the best-laid plans. So, our final step was to set up workshop buddies who are to check in with each other in March or April for further inspiration and accountability.
I’ll present this workshop again because participants told me it was meaningful to them and because it was such a positive experience for me to go through this exercise with the group, I would classify it as self-care.
For access to the aforementioned documents, please click below:
Rachel Y. DeGuzman is president & CEO of 21st Century Arts, a Rochester, NY based arts consultancy. She is the founder and executive producer of A Call to Action symposiums and the recently launched A Street Light Festival. DeGuzman is an active member at VisitRochester and Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council Tourism/Arts Work Group. Rachel is a program partner of Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University. She serves as an ongoing pro-bono advisor to several local arts and cultural organizations. Rachel writes a community arts blog at democratandchronicle.com and is the host of a weekly radio show, Up Close and Cultural, on WAYO 104.3 FM where she also serves on its leadership team.. Ms. DeGuzman was 1 of 14 national arts professionals selected by Association of Performing Arts Presenters for 2012/2013 Leadership Development Institute - where she spent a year in collective inquiry focused on the theme of Knowing and Connecting Art with Community. Her past positions include director of advancement/external relations at Rochester City Ballet and marketing and publicity manager of Nazareth College Arts Center. She was director of development/communications at The Commission Project and director of development at Garth Fagan Dance. Rachel served on Mayor Warren's Neighborhood: Quality of Life transition focus group; was a grant panelist for Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester and NYSCA/REDC. She was a member of the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester’s Cultural Diversity Initiative Committee. DeGuzman was a past member of William Warfield Scholarship Fund board. http://www.21stcenturyarts.net