Interview: Ebony Noelle Golden, Betty’s Daugher Arts Collaborative (Part 1)

This month I had the pleasure of chatting with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Golden works with cultural, political, and educational organizations to help them develop community-based cultural strategies aimed at justice and liberation. Golden is also at the heart of defining the modern field of cultural organizing, and helped to develop the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center. We ended up talking for an hour and a half, and she got deep. She spoke at length about the inspiration she received from her mother; the similarities between studying poetry and studying culture; the professionalization of cultural organizing; and the necessity of embedding organizing in cultural expression and community wellness.

Rather than edit out too much, I’ve split the interview into two posts. This first post features Golden discussing her life trajectory and current work. The next will focus on her thoughts on the definition and field of cultural organizing. I began by asking her where she came from originally.

There are lots of ways in which I could describe where I come from but ultimately I entered the work through my family. I had  a mother who was a shining example of how to be accountable in community. I grew up in a working class African American and Mexican community on the south side of Houston, Texas, the oldest of four. Growing up, I saw very concrete images of my mother, Betty, doing work that involved lots of kids from the community, lots of art, physical fitness, and education.

What kind of things did your mother do?

My mother retired as a professor in educational psychology, but when I was a child she was a social worker and she started a not-for-profit called the Ebony Foundation that provided lot of opportunities for young people, mostly in the city. Then she went back to school and got a Masters and an Ed.D. Her dissertation was all about the need for experiential education for youth. Later, she started working in educational policy and changing the way youth-centered organizations were working. So, growing up, I saw lots of different examples of this kind of work, from very grassroots and local to very academic and macro, and everything in between.

“Studying poetry is really about studying culture. Poetry is a portal to understanding people’s lived experiences.”

I got my undergraduate degree from Texas A&M, where I studied writing and history and art and theater. But every summer my internships brought me back home to work with community arts groups. That community work deepened once I graduated and moved to DC. I went to American university and studied poetry in an MFA program. That experience was really profound. Studying poetry is really about studying culture. It’s about studying language, and how people relate to each other, and how people relate to their surroundings. Poetry is a portal to understanding people’s lived experiences. Through poetry you can learn about culture, you can learn about what’s important to people, what people are passionate about, and what people want to change.

But poetry got very boring in terms of sitting down and writing poems. So, very soon after I started my MFA, I needed to find a way to be creative in community, because that’s where I come from. And of course I have my mother in my ear talking about, “How is this going to do anything beyond something for you and your family?” I’m part of a community that believes that art and culture should have real, tangible applications in community. What happens? What improves? What changes because you spoke this poem? That’s a lot of weight to put on a poem, but that’s the intention: to be able to move something with the art.

I began finding community spaces for poetry, performance, and sharing progressive ideas. That was the most important part of my MFA process. I learned that however I was going to use this poetry thing that I was learning, it would have to be in a collective kind of a way. That’s also how I see my work right now: It’s about the ensemble approach. That’s why Betty’s Daughter is a collaborative. I see the organizations I work with as collaborators, not as clients. We are all helping to continue this story of what it means to work towards justice and progressive social change. In some ways I feel like I’m in “applied poetics.”

How did you move from that to founding BDAC?

“We are all helping to continue this story of what it means to work towards justice and progressive social change.”

After I finished the MFA I moved to Durham, NC and taught public school and worked as a visiting professor. I then went to NYU for a PhD in performance studies. But I decided I didn’t wan a PHD, so I finished up a Masters degree and went to find a job. The economy was tanking at the time, but career counseling at NYU helped my find some contract work, freelancing in the field of arts, culture, and community education. Then it began to snowball. When the money started to gel, and my clients didn’t want to write these checks out to me — they were like, “You don’t have a business bank account?” — I realized I needed to formalize this thing.

What kind of partners do you have?

Currently my collaborators include the Laundromat Project, the National Black Theater, the Highlander Research and Education Center, Spirit House down in Durham, Alternate Roots, and ArtSpot Productions. I do a range of things, and subcontract folks to help move pieces of work. One of my most recent clients is the New York Public Library. They asked me to come in and create a community arts and environmental education service learning project for 16- to 24-year-olds, and I basically had to hire a staff. Some collaborations are more extensive, some of them are more creative, some of them are more administrative, some are a combination. But whether I’m directing a play, writing a curriculum, or designing a community and cultural effort, folks typically want to work with me because they know that I am gonna help them stay accountable to community.

I have a longstanding relationship with the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander is one of the institutions that I went to in order to learn, and then a partnership was created. One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to write a cultural organizing curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute. It has been around for a number of years and I was a part of the initial residencies under the leadership of Tufara Muhammad, who is one of my mentors and teachers. They also have a program called Seeds of Fire, which is a youth cultural organizing camp, and I’ve been on the faculty for that for the last five years. Most recently I’ve been a part of a team of people that have been doing these southern-wide convenings in which we are talking to people in communities about what they need. It’s basically a participatory research and asset mapping process. We’ve been able to gather a lot of information about what the needs are in terms of cultural organizing campaigns, political campaigns, and efforts in the south. All of that will be compiled into a document and shared publicly.

Continued next post…