One of our great American leaders, Congressman John Lewis, has been celebrated in the news quite a bit recently. It is the 48th anniversary of the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL. The march was led by a young John Lewis—his skull was fractured, and for that sacrifice an enormous gain for civil rights and for voting rights was realized.
Congressman John Lewis is also a great arts leader. For years he has personally led the fight for fair tax treatment of artists. Many times over the last several decades, he has brought his powerful story of how the arts and the Civil Rights Movement were invaluable allies to Americans for the Arts gatherings.
He has pointed out that the arts—from folk or gospel or classical music performed in jails or the streets or in concert halls, to the visual arts in portrayals of the struggle through posters and placards—were a key to motivation and hope as the Civil Rights Movement progressed. We all honored him last week as he, Vice President Joe Biden, and others reenacted that famous bridge crossing.
During the State of the Union Address, President Obama highlighted the civil rights of the broad face of America when he honored the battles and sacrifice at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. And during this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama honored the transformative power of the arts and arts education for everyone when she said, “[The arts] are especially important for young people. Every day they engage in the arts, they learn to open their imaginations and dream just a little bigger and to strive everyday to reach those dreams.”
This diversity, this broad face of America where everyone gets to dream just a little bigger, is our strength—for the arts, for our communities and for our nation. And yet the ability for this diversity to flourish is fragile, paid for by cracked skulls and deep battle scars. And the gains for diversity are always at risk. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently called the lack of arts education in America’s poorer communities a civil rights issue in our country.
With immigration reform at the forefront of political life and the ongoing discussion about equity in our workplaces and military, I was pleased to participate in a recent gathering in Detroit called SphinxCon, which took a look at diversity in our lives and in the arts. It couldn’t have come at a more important time in our national consciousness.
Regardless of specific demographic numbers or predicted change, every community right now holds within itself an extraordinary amount of difference, diversity, and smaller sub-communities that make up the whole. And we are more fortunate for it. In the 21st century, a multiversity of lifestyles, beliefs, values, practices, and ethnicities are already thriving in our communities. But we must as a society do a better job of celebrating what exists now along with maximizing the benefits of the changes to come.
The leaders gathered in Detroit argued that the arts are the best tool we have in our arsenal for connecting, bridging, and creating understanding between, and even within, all these communities.
Today’s America is filled with people from different backgrounds engaging in very different forms of expression, and one role of the arts is to become a point of connection, of communication and of listening, of participating in the lives of our fellow community members.
Maria Rosario Jackson of the Kresge Foundation spoke about “cultural kitchens;” places where, in her words, “members of geographic communities or communities of interest gather to be generative—to use their imagination, to make and experience art that nourishes, provokes and inspires…they take many forms. They can be art centers, community-based organizations, ethnic specific cultural organizations, mutual aid societies and, sometimes, churches, and even commercial entities. What they have in common is that they are beacons for collective creative activity.”
Good work abounds. The New Detroit Coalition has recognized the need for conversations about race in Detroit, but they are taking a multi-pronged approach that includes prioritizing the need to “positively impact socio-cultural and institutional practices.” New Detroit is setting a great example of how the arts can and should be involved in conversations and should be used to help communicate and bridge the comprehension gaps that sometimes seem insurmountable.
The Houston Arts Alliance and Texas Commission on the Arts are taking another step through such programs as Celebrate Houston!, which takes as its starting point the multiplicity of cultural experience in the city, and sets that up as a celebration as opposed to a problem that should be solved. Here, the arts are a sharing mechanism—an acknowledgment that although they may take different forms, we are all connected through our shared sense of creativity and imagination.
The arts serve as an important bridge for understanding our similarities as well as our differences, and this work in Houston serves as an excellent reminder of the vibrancy diversity brings to our lives.
Creative arts leaders today, particularly leaders of nonprofit arts organizations which are given organizational benefits like tax exempt status in return for giving back a public benefit, do an important job when paying attention to the broadest face of America in that public.
They must pay attention to diversity reflected in operations like boards, staff, audience, program, and policy. And our community leaders and cultural investors must enthusiastically celebrate and strongly support the breadth of difference that is already America.
Our president has called for it. The folks at SphinxCon expanded on it. And our friend John Lewis sacrificed for it.
(Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on the HuffPost Arts & Culture blog on March 11, 2013.)