We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We have a responsibility to those who will come after us.
These simple yet powerful concepts have been echoing in my head the past few days in New Mexico where I participated in a roundtable discussion held at the Institute of American Indian Arts sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, First People’s Fund, and Arts and Democracy Project. The people I met and the stories I heard reinforced the power of the arts – and more importantly culture – in transforming our communities.
Six case studies were presented at the roundtable: KUYI Hopi radio (Hopi Nation), Jikaat Kwaan Heritage Center (Alaska), Penn Center (South Carolina), Tamejavi Festival (Central Valley, California), STAY Project (Appalachia) and Cornerstone Theater (Los Angeles).
Despite the differences in geographic location, populations or medium, these exemplars all shared common elements: they were place-based, holistic approaches that engaged both youth and elders, and, perhaps most importantly, put culture at the center.
Place-based: When in New Mexico, it is obvious that place matters. This is, of course, true everywhere. Place informs who we are, how we act, our thinking, our relationships. Place is more that just a setting, but rather is an active participant that informs what can and should be done.
Holism: Understanding that place matters reflects a common theme of holism. Successful efforts across the country recognize the need for us to re-weave the fabric of our communities. We will not find solutions in the hyper-siloed, scientific approach, but, rather, must return to a more humanistic, holistic approach to building communities.
Ancestors, Elders, and Youth: Another element of this holism is a clear recognition and embrace of our past and our future. At the table, we had examples of groups from Appalachia to LA and from South Carolina to Alaska that embraced and built off of their rich history. Each also engaged both elders and young people in their work, recognizing and cherishing the contributions of all generations.
Culture, not just art: As Carol Bebelle from Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans once said, “Art may be the favorite daughter, but culture is the big mama.” I think the best work being done recognizes that art is just one element of culture. Culture includes artistic work such as carvings, weavings, music, and dance, but it also includes the food, languages, and how we interact with one another – in short, our way of being in the world.
The importance of culture – not just art – is critical. We need to (re)claim and restore cultural traditions, ways-of-being, and forms of knowledge production and dissemination as a precursor to building strong communities.
Whether it is day labors in LA and migrant farm workers in the Central Valley; Native Americans in the Southwest, Alaska, or the Great Plains; African-American descendants of slaves in South Carolina; or rural folks in Appalachia, groups everywhere have unique stories that are specific to that place and people.
The best work comes from embracing the culture of these people and places, when we look for whole solutions – not quick fixes – and when we take the time to understand our past and draw on the legacy of our ancestors and elders and the wisdom of our youth.
We are merely stewards of this moment in time. We have an obligation to our ancestors and a responsibility to future generations to leave things better than we found them.
*Note: Erik’s second Back to the Future post can be found here.