Leadership Development

Profile: The Genki Spark

Genki Spark Taiko Drumming I recently had the chance to speak to Karen Young and Payal Sharma at The Genki Spark, a Boston-based group doing cultural organizing with Asian women. I learned how Japanese drumming can be a source of personal empowerment and political action.

The Genki Spark works to develop Asian women as artists and community leaders who can give voice to the challenges facing Asian-American communities, while celebrating the communities’ deep cultural strengths. The organization was founded by artist and organizer Karen Young in 2010. Intergenerational and Pan-Asian in its membership, The Genki Spark is made up of a core performance ensemble that puts on an impressive array of performances, workshops, and talks around the country.

The organization’s work is based in the Japanese art of Taiko drumming. Taiko, an art form with a long history in Japan, was brought to the US during the 1960’s — specifically to San Francisco. So American Taiko grew up in the context of burgeoning Asian American activism, in a hotbed of radical youth organizing. Taiko became a medium for political and cultural activism — a way for Japanese-Americans to build a powerful cultural identity, and give voice to relevant community issues such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. While drawing inspirations from other strands of Taiko history, The Genki Spark is directly rooted in this tradition. In fact, Genki founder Karen Young’s relatives, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, were trailblazers in Taiko-based activism in San Jose. (For more on American Taiko, check out this article by Hideyo Konagaya).

Karen sees Taiko as a valuable way to foster individual empowerment, particularly for Asian women who face dual gender- and ethnicity-based expectations of subservience and gentleness. In addition to its history as a form of activism, and its cultural resonance, Taiko performance is imbued with physical strength. As Konagaya writes of taiko players, called sansei, they “physically acted out their resistance against inequality and injustice in American society and against their own passivity and weakness through actions such as whirling sticks over their heads, shouting, jumping, turning, and pounding on taiko.” As Karen tells me, the very act of hitting a Taiko drum with a huge stick can be an empowering experience for women, and seeing such performances can challenge audience members’ stereotypes of Asian women.

Like many cultural organizing groups, The Genki Spark has multiple goals. Perhaps foremost among its goals is the personal transformation of its members. It supports women developing not only as artists, but as leaders, with the skills, confidence, and sense of cultural efficacy to take action in the community. These leaders, in turn, advocate for the value of all cultures while modeling cultural pride — as Karen puts it, “we hope to model what it looks like to proudly claim your whole self in a society that wants us to assimilate and be the same.”

The Genki Spark is part of a broader movement to challenge stereotypes of Asian women, and to address issues affecting Asian-American communities. The group supports many grassroots social justice efforts, and is often invited to perform at rallies and other political events. In addition, The Genki Spark is part of the national Taiko community and has goals for the art form. At a time when Taiko is being appropriated by US pop culture (including Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, and Mitsubishi), The Genki Spark keeps alive the tradition of Taiko as a medium for political and cultural expression.

I cannot do justice to their performance in words, so please take a few minutes to watch the video below.

Building Community Cultural Leadership

Ask any community organizer what their job is really about, and they will tell you that more important than protesting, or changing government policies, or even improving local conditions is the work of leadership development. Organizers work closely with local community members to develop public speaking and advocacy skills, increase confidence, and build relationships, among other capacities. A more “leader-full” community is a stronger community.

Snowflake

Three Models of Leadership

In some progressive circles, the word “leadership” is almost a curse. Reacting against the well-known dangers of hierarchy, groups like Occupy Wall Street seek to be “leaderless.” But the vision of leadership offered by community organizing is not of the “great man” variety. Instead, it is a kind of leadership that long-time organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz refers to as a “snowflake” — a web of interdependent leaders who support others in becoming leaders. For Ganz, the difference between this kind of leadership, and the more oppressive kind, is the difference between leadership as a position, and leadership as a practice:

We’re approaching leadership as a practice, not leadership as a position…It’s about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty.

Community organizing develops leaders who can mobilize people to confront and build political power. But we also need cultural leaders who can accept the responsibility for enabling others to think differently, to dream bigger, to develop new identities. Cultural leaders who can move us towards new aesthetics and new stories about ourselves. Developing such leaders should be the job of cultural organizing.

The term “cultural leader” is often used to refer to artists and other creative individuals whose work has had wide influence. This kind of leadership, based in individual expression, can be very powerful. Bob Dylan was this kind of cultural leader, and his work inspired many in the social movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. But in many ways this model reflects the “great man” model of leadership that has been so thoroughly critiqued in the world of social movements.

The kind of cultural leader I am talking about here is of a different sort, and might better be described as a community cultural leader. This kind of leader is rooted in community relationships, and their task is not only to produce work with meaning, but to enable others to take part and develop their own creative voices. Their task is to challenge others to work collaboratively towards new ideas, identities, and aesthetics. Dr. Toby Jenkins, who teaches a course on cultural leadership, defines it this way:

Cultural leadership is creative leadership. It utilizes the arts and various other assessable forms of creative public scholarship and open community spaces to educate and raise awareness.  Cultural leaders are rooted in the community and committed to social justice. They are raw leaders with thick skin, unflinching determination, and a love for people that allows them to take the blows that may come even from the communities that they seek to help. They are social change agents and social servants. They understand that a leader is first a servant.

This vision of cultural leadership can move us away from a celebration of celebrity, and towards a more grassroots strategy for cultural change.