The Role of Art in Social Justice: A Speech at the UN Headquarters

Our Strong Hands Make Music

Today I want to share the audio of a speech by author and teaching artist Renée Watson, on the topic of social justice arts education. Recently, Watson (whose work teaching about Hurricane Katrina has been featured on this site) was asked to give the keynote speech at the International Symposium of Cultural Diplomacy at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

In her speech, which at times reads like an extended poem, Watson challenges listeners to understand the difficulty and complexity of social justice arts education. Social justice education, she explains, is about more than just addressing controversial topics.

“Along with a comprehensive arts curriculum, teaching for social justice requires a willingness to ask difficult questions; an openness to want to learn about someone else’s perspective; it is widening the canon of arts and including a diverse roster of artists; it is bringing what is going on outside of the classroom inside; it is about paying attention to the world and creating art that responds to what is happening.”

It is a beautiful and inspiring 22 minute speech, which I can’t recommend highly enough. For more from Watson, you can visit her blog, Art is for Action.



An Interview with Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Patty Berne and Leroy Moore, two of the co-founders of Sins Invalid, a Bay-Area organization that “incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Leroy is also the founder of Krip Hop Nation. They shared their own journeys to this work, the story of Sins, and their philosophies around arts, disability justice, and intersecting oppression.

CO: I was hoping you could start by introducing yourselves and telling me a little bit about how you got into this work.

Ralph Dickinson, Leroy Franklin Moore Jr. and seeley quest in a 2011 performance. Copyright Richard Downing

Leroy: I was born with cerebral palsy. I grew up on the east coast, and moved to the west coast in ’91, where I have been involved with activism around disability, poverty, and stuff like that. I met Patty through doing poetry, and we’ve been friends ever since. At one point Patty and I were discussing our art, and we both recognized that there was very little cultural work being done around being people of color and being disabled.

Patty: I was born in San Francisco and became involved in the Bay Area community organizing/political activist community. I did a lot of work with Latin American liberation movements as well as southern African liberation movements and violence against women in the US, particularly against women of color. As Leroy was saying, we started talking about how rare it is to meet people of color in disability rights organizing, and on the converse to see people who hold their disability as a political identity taking part in organizing amongst communities of color.

CO: So then you founded Sins Invalid?

Patty: We started Sins in 2006 with four of us. Leroy and co-founder Todd Herman had a video out at the time called Forbidden Acts, and I had just put out a small, untitled erotica video, and we were like, “We should have a venue for this, where would we not just be the token other. Where would that be?” And then we thought, “Oh, our own venue!” So the four of us friends decided to start Sins. And Paul, there was just so much traction. As far as we can tell, there’s nothing else that centers disability and sexuality, held within a disability justice framework, that is led by the people who are most impacted. People wanted to get involved in organizing, and wanted to see their work on stage, and this was a place where the framework and the politics were centered around our experiences.

CO: When you say traction, what was the kind of response you got?

Patty: On the first call to artists, a bunch of people we knew were interested. And the show sold out the first night. Five years down the line, our performances still sell out. We consistently get people saying that they haven’t seen anything like this, and that they feel a sense of community and home here. One person asked us once, “Who do you think is the best audience for Sins Invalid?” Well, somebody that lives in a body, somebody who’s alive. If we’re embodied, at the end of the day we’re struggling with what that means. Our intention is to acknowledge and magnify the beauty of our bodies and of our communities. Leroy and I both come from an advocacy background where you’re always fighting, fighting against oppression. That only takes you so far. We want to create a place where the vision isn’t just against oppression but for who we are, where it’s a given that we are beautiful, where it’s a given that we’re powerful, that we are amazing people because that’s the nature of being a person.

CO: How would you describe the kind of performances that you put on?

Leroy: Our performances open people up to see that people of color with disabilities, people who are queer and trans, can bring their whole bodies to a piece, and can bring their whole history to the performance.

Patty: Every year there is a different theme, with multiple artists. There might be a dozen pieces in the show but all of them are interacting with the central theme. In 2011 the theme was Knotting Stories across Time and Geography. We had a time machine in the lobby recording video podcasts, and within the performance itself there was a lot of historical referencing, including a piece on Carrie Buck, the first landmark case around eugenics sterilizations in the US. In 2012, the plan is to have the world premier of our Sins Invalid film, and then afterwards we’ll have performers from the people featured in the film.

CO: Can you tell me about this film?

Leroy: The film is a documentary of Sins Invalid and our politics, with performance footage and interviews with artists from the show. We are still working on it but we hopefully will be done with it soon.

Patty: We launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the documentary — for color correction, music, distribution. This project is as unique as they come.

Where did the name Sins Invalid came from?

Patty: The full name is Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility. It is a play on words in multiple ways. First, the fact that people with disabilities were called invalids. And also the eugenics-derived idea a person being “invalid,” taking up social and political and economic space and not contributing. Which is bullshit. The only invalid concept is that anybody is disposable and dispensable. “Sin” means without, but also many of us have been told that our disabilities are somehow a reflection of our mothers doing wrong, or that “the sins of the father are carried out on the son.” But there are lots of ways of being in the world. Bodies are complicated, and beautiful in that complexity. The idea is that disabilities are somehow outside the natural order of things. But nothing is going wrong when you’re body’s behaving differently. Is it outside of the norm? Sure. Is it convenient? Not always. But what’s oppressive is the systematic exclusion, marginalization, and violence we experience, not the fact that we have complex bodies.

CO: From your experience, what is the role of cultural workers in movements for justice?

Leroy: I like that question. I think there is no separation of art and activism or art and movements, they must go hand in hand.

Patty: Sometimes people think of cultural activism as the soft front of a movement, but we think that’s not accurate. I firmly believe that capitalism is winning because it has stolen the political imagination. We need to take that political imagination back. Obviously we have to engage the conditions, we have to address oppression, but that’s not the end of our vision. As cultural workers it’s our responsibility to hold a broader vision of what it means to be a woman of color, what it means to be a person with a disability, what it means to be a man who has cerebral palsy. Our vision has to be greater that what we can access from the dominant culture.

Book Review: Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett
University of Illinois Press, $25.00

I’ve been working on an edited volume about the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking the opportunity to check out recent books on the topic. One of the more rich and intriguing tomes I have come across is Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives. The book brings together scholars and educators — along with incarcerated poets and visual artists — to illuminate the workings of the prison-industrial complex and share strategies for confronting it.

The book is split in two parts. The first — Diagnosing the Crisis — is dedicated to understanding the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the web of government and for-profit institutions that monitor, control, discipline, and incarcerate millions of US residents. This country, Hartnet argues, has become a “punishing democracy,” a system in which “punishment has become a driving force in contemporary American life” (p. 6).

The chapters span an impressively wide range, illuminating multiple facets of the PIC. Erica Meiners uncovers the economic underpinnings of the PIC, and the ways that surveillance and control are privatizing public space. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers a compelling and disturbing account of how our domestic police force has been increasingly drawing on military tools, strategies, and metaphors since the Vietnam war. Rose Braz and Myesha Williams outline the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased policing of schools, while other pieces look at stereotypes in media, and the “war on drugs.”

The second half of the book — Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives — offers a series of stories about on-the-ground work being done to engage with, shift, and challenge the PIC. I would hesitate to call them “solutions,” given the daunting task they take on, but they certainly offer practical actions that real people are taking, and begin to paint a picture of a different world — one in which we see the humanity of everyone, and truly question the ways that we engage with one another and the conflicts that arise between people.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, the arts play a very large role in this section of the book. It begins with Buzz Alexander, writing about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. This program — which I was a part of in college — runs theater and writing workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and public schools, as well as an annual visual art show. Alexander gives a bold yet humble account, offering a taste of the messiness and the promise of this work, to which he has given so many years. Robin Sohnen shares the work of the Each One Reach One program, which does playwriting and tutoring in prisons, and Jonathan Shailor recounts his experiences doing Shakespeare in prisons. While each of these programs has a different focus, pedagogy, and theory of change, together they demonstrate the potential of artistic programming to build humanizing relationships between those inside and outside of the prison system; to help individuals develop and grow; to spread awareness of the oppressions of the system and of the humanity of the incarcerated; and to begin much-needed dialogue about the future of our democracy.

Throughout the book, readers are treated to pieces of poetry from incarcerated men and women, and a stunning set of images from the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. These pieces bring some concreteness to the stories told by the authors above, and connect a reader with not just the idea of prisoners but incarcerated humans in the particular.

The book as a whole, and the scholar-educator-artist-activists within, seek to shift our country from a punishing democracy to an abolition democracy. They are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Drawing on writing by Angela Davis, Hartnett argues that prison abolition is not a negative effort of simply shutting down prisons, but a proactive process of creation — which is perhaps why artistic practice can play such an important role. He says that “shutting down the prison-industrial complex will require nothing less than a revolution — the question is not only how to abolish prisons, but how to reimagine a democracy that does not need such institutions” (p. 4).




Interview: Still Point Theatre Collective founder Lisa Wagner-Carollo

Lisa Wagner-Carollo, Founding Director of Still Point Theatre Collective

Still Point Theatre Collective, based out of Chicago, works to “celebrate our common spirituality, and raise consciousness on issues of peace and justice” through professional shows and workshops. I spoke with Still Point Founding Director Lisa Wagner-Carollo, who shared her thoughts on the organization’s work, and the connections between theater, social justice, and spirituality.

Why don’t you start by telling me a little about Still Point?
We’re a theater company that’s focused on spirituality and social justice. We express that through touring shows focused on those topics, and also we run outreach programs. We work in three different institutions with incarcerated women, helping them to write and perform their own plays. We also have a theater troupe made up of women who have been released from prison, called Sisters Rising. And we do seven theater and writing workshops with adults who are developmentally disabled.

How did you get started?
I had felt I wanted to do this kind of work for a very long time. I wanted to be an actress since I was about five years old. Then when I was about fifteen I had a very deep spiritual experience and thought of going into ministry. Then when I went to college I was very drawn towards social justice. So when I got out of college I knew I wanted to combine those three things: theater, spirituality and social justice.
I had just left a company here in Chicago focused on these issues, and I was asked to tour Haunted by God, my one-person show on Dorothy Day in Europe. I knew I needed some kind of producing entity to be able to put the show up again, so I started Still Point. But even from the very beginning of the company I had an eye on not only doing plays to raise consciousness, but also doing work in our own community. I felt our integrity was at stake; It didn’t make sense to me to raise people’s consciousness but not doing anything ourselves here in Chicago.

I had been doing theater at Esperanza Community Services with adults with developmental disabilities even before Still Point began, so when Still Point started that program was absorbed into the work. Then in 1998 I felt drawn to start a program at the Metropolitan Correctional Center doing theater with incarcerated women. Year by year things have just been growing and blossoming into the full programs that we have now.

How did you pick the name Still Point?
I heard a talk during the time I was starting the company in which this speaker talked about the “still point” in each person where the divine lives that cannot be violated. I was really struck by that. I knew that was what I wanted my focus to be, instead of being burnt out and working too hard. So I named the company Still Point as a reminder. Right now as I say this to you I’m being reminded once again. I always tell people I didn’t want to name the company the “Freaked-Out-And-Burned-Out Theatre Collective” (laughs). But other people may interpret the name differently, and that’s great.

Lisa in her one-woman show “Haunted by God”

What are Still Point’s goals as a company?
I would have to go program by program, really.

All right. What about the goals of the touring shows?
Well, for example, I do a one-person show on the life of Dorothy Day. I believe the goal of that play is to show people what one person can do with her life, and encourage people in their own journeys — and also to hopefully inspire people to want to lift up others, people who are homeless or hungry. I know that that the play has inspired the starting of a couple of catholic worker houses, and to me that’s the ultimate satisfaction.

And the work with incarcerated women? What do you hope comes out of that?
We really hope that these workshops help to build self-esteem in the women, and empower them to see themselves differently. It’s been my experience that most of the incarcerated women I meet were the victims of crime long before they ever committed a crime, and many of them have just tried to survive most of their lives. I hope that our workshops can help the women to get beyond merely surviving, and really give them a sense of thriving: to experience their own creativity.

We always lead up to a performance, and that’s very important because it helps the women to focus on a goal and to achieve that goal. There was a woman who came up to me after a show and said, “Thank you for giving me hope.” She said, “You know, I’ve never achieved anything in my life. Whenever I start something I don’t finish it. I quit. I get scared. But I came to your workshop, I came every week, I was dedicated, I wrote that poem, I got up on stage and performed that poem in front of all those people, and I didn’t fail. Now I really have some hope that when I get out I can go back to school, and accomplish what I want to.”

Then on another level we hope the class builds community, and gives the women an opportunity to relax and laugh and experience something meaningful. One of the classes I’m working with now are just so talented at improvisational theater, and they just crack each other up. They will spend an hour just laughing hysterically at the work that their classmates are doing. And many of them will just look at me and sigh and say, “Oh, I just wait for this all week to come here and to laugh.
Then part of the class is focused on writing and the women just shine through it. They write about things that are important to them and they hear each other and realize how much they have in common, and they can feel less alone.

Our projects with adults with developmental disabilities definitely build self-esteem. But also, for me, doing the theater with adults with disabilities is a justice issue. Many of the adults I meet in that community are gifted artists, but often don’t have a chance to express themselves through the arts. So it’s a justice issue to give them a voice and a forum to express themselves, where they can talk about things that are important to them, and can grow as artists.

In your work, why and how have you made connections between theater and justice?
On a personal note, I knew that I would not be happy or satisfied doing theater that was not focused on social justice. But also, in theater you’re right there, face to face with people. When we do a play at the prison the warden is sitting there watching the show, and the inmates are performing about their lives, and they are face to face. It’s flesh and blood, and often there is a discussion afterwards. I believe that social justice, social change, is not about issues, it’s about people. And in theater people are living and breathing in front of each other, talking, being disturbed by the play and being disturbed by each other. And it’s not always comfortable. But I believe that the theater makes an excellent forum for those kinds of confrontations that hopefully lead to healing and change.

One of the strands of cultural organizing is about embedding organizing in the rituals, values, and visions of different religious traditions. Could you talk about how spirituality plays a role in working for justice in your life and in Still Point?
When I started Still Point I had a vision to combine spirituality with social justice and theater, so for me I couldn’t really separate those three things. But people come here who have no spiritual focus, while other people have a designated path that they are on. We really welcome everyone. That’s the kind of spirituality I wanted to focus on, something that’s a lot more wide open. To be honest, through the last eighteen years of Still Point, without my spirituality I would not have been able to survive. (laughs)

Why is that?
Because it’s so hard. I find that my spiritual focus gives me so much strength and really helps me to be empowered through the day-to-day. There are days where I feel completely drained, yet the spiritual focus helps me to look beyond what’s happening that day — this horrible email I just received or the fact that I have to raise $10,000 dollars — and focus on things that are more eternal.

As far as the workshops, I’ve never had an evangelizing perspective. I heard someone say once that you don’t take Christ to people, you go and discover the Christ that’s already there. When I go to the state prison, many of the women are very focused on their spiritual lives. I don’t come in and say that we are going to talk about god or the divine, but they invariably want to bring their spiritual life to their writing. They bring it, and through bringing in their own spiritual life, they encourage me.

For more on Still Point, visit:

Remembering Václav Havel — Artist/Politician

Vaclav Havel and the slogan that carried him to the Presidency: “Havel to the Castle”

Václav Havel — the playwright who became an organizer who became a president — died today at age 75. The face of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s story expresses the power and the struggle of living on the line between art and politics.

The Velvet Revolution, with its mass protests and non-violent overthrow of a totalitarian regime, resonates deeply with recent events of the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt. Like in Egypt, much of the organizing was led by students, though in Czechoslovakia art students played a noted leading role, with students from the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague making the initial call for a strike that eventually spread across the country. With the communist government in control of mass media outlets, theaters became a central space for open discussion and action. Theater workers went on strike, and the Civic Forum worked out of the Theatre Without a Balustrade, dancers and actors taking on the roles of actual revolutionaries.

And as the face of this movement, a playwright: Vaclav Havel. As totalitarian regimes so often do, the Czech communist government silenced artists whose ideas could be a danger to their control. Havel was banned from doing theater. Already famous for his absurdist plays such as The Garden Party, Havel soon turned his absurdist eye to the dehumanization of the oppressive communist regime, and his work continued to be read and performed underground. In and out of prison, Havel eventually emerged as a leader of the revolution.

After the revolution, Havel brought a theatricality to his roles as President of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. When he was first installed in the castle as President of Czechoslovakia, Havel brought in a set designer and costume designer to light up the castle at night and to refit the guards, while he lined the walls with modern art. At the same time, he struggled to integrate his perspectives with the everyday practicalities of formal politics. I am no Havel scholar, and will refrain from analyzing his successes and failures as a politician.

But I honor his life and the way art and politics are woven through it almost seamlessly, reminding us of their deep, natural relationships. His work and that of his compatriots reminds us how theater can be both a metaphoric and a literal space — with both emotional and concrete resources — for discussion, dissent, and revolution.

National Youth Theatre

My colleague, community artist Angie Tillges, shared with me news of this newest performance by the National Youth Theatre of England. At 55 years old, NYT stakes claim to being the world’s first youth theatre, and trains hundreds of young people every year, while reaching out to thousands more through their programming. On their site they argue “that culture is a perfect platform from which to transform lives and give unique opportunities to young people, who can explore new friendships and know the true meaning of global citizenship.”

Their most recent work entitled Slick takes on questions of environmental degradation, and is performed in the shell of a major redevelopment project. Below are some clips from the performance by an audience member. They also have a production called Our Days of Rage, which sounds fascinating. It explores a history of protest, and is performed in tunnels that have been turned into a performance space.

Profile: Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD)

The clip above is from the most recent live performance piece from the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), an arts organization based in Skid Row that, as they say on their website, “tells the rest of the story, what you don’t hear elsewhere.” I am featuring them in what I hope to be an ongoing series of profiles of groups doing work related to cultural organizing. The information in this post was drawn largely from a profile by Javiera Benavente at the Arts and Democracy Project, and from a report put out by LAPD and the Urban Institute on the cultural assets of Skid Row, as well as from the group’s website.

Founded in 1984 by artist and activist John Malpede as the first theater company in the country to be comprised mainly of homeless and formerly homeless community members. (more…)

Know Yourself, Be Yourself

Last week the young people at Project HIP-HOP in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, took over the Dudley bus station:

I was lucky enough to get involved with Project HIP-HOP (which stands for Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) over the summer. Originally started in order to teach youth of color about the history of the civil other movement, this is one of the few organizations in the area that explicitly names its combination of hip hop culture, art, and activism “cultural organizing.”

This summer the youth trained in movement, theater, writing, and outdoor performance, while bringing along their already developing skills as singers, dancers, poets, emcees, and visual artists. The final show, based on the idea of a flash mob, drew an engaged crowd of both acquaintances and strangers. As the youth explain in the video, the Dudley performance centered on knowing your individual history, and the collective history of your people (in this case largely the African American experience, beginning with the genocide of colonization and enslavement, or Maafa). Along the way, it touched on themes of unity, and art as an alternative to violence.

In carrying these messages to the community, these young people are continuing a long tradition of using hip-hop arts to engage issues of identity and violence, and to seek community transformation. Though hip-hop’s most widely consumed form — rap — is often better known for its glorification of violence, this tradition of positivity has much deeper roots in hip-hop’s history.

For instance, I recently ran across this video for the Stop the Violence Movement, an attempt in the late 1980’s to address similar issues. I remember having this cassette single back in the day. Check out these heavy hitters: From Chuck D to Heavy D…

The Project HIP-HOP youth learn this hip-hop history and draw on it, while bringing in their own more modern sensibilities. At Dudley you could see this perhaps strongest in terms of their dancing. The flash mob combined old-school-style breakdancing with the more recent trend of krumping — not to mention capoeira, a related art form from Brazil that has become intertwined in many places with hip-hop. This is a physical manifestation of both knowing your history, and knowing where you are now — brought together to create a vision of where you want to go.

(On a side note, Press Pass TV, who did the coverage above, is an exciting Boston youth-led media organization, though I don’t know a ton about it.)