AS220 Panel: Future Worlds: Call To Action
On Thursday, September 8th, 2016, I attended the panel talk, Future Worlds: Call To Action, which was hosted by the non-profit art organization, AS220, at 115 Empire Street in Providence, Rhode Island.
The thriving, multi-facility, and internationally recognized arts organization held the panel in one of its earlier spaces–the intimate gallery/performance area adjacent to the organization’s restaurant. Shey Rivera, AS220’s Artistic Director, who served as moderator of the panel, welcomed the audience and shared the mission of AS220 as an artist-run organization committed to providing an unjuried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS220 also offers artists opportunities to live, work, exhibit and perform, and envisions a just world where all people can realize their full creative potential, and see the role of the arts as a catalyst for social change.
FutureWorlds: Call To Action panel discussion, was one of a series of events , along with two performances of Afrofuturist Hip-hop Theater at the Pell Chaffee Theater, and an Afrofuturist Ball, which I wish I could have attended. The events stemmed from AS220 Youth’s year-long program curriculum entitled FutureWorlds:Uprising. FutureWorlds:Uprising used the theme of Revolution to create a hip hop theater piece influenced by the recent brutal killings of men, women and young people of color, mostly at the hands of police officers. Hip-hop and Afrofuturism were the art forms used to look at how past history, the current condition of injustice, and an imagined future history influenced by sci-fi and pop, would inform the young people’s creative expression in music, art, digital media and fashion.
AS220 Youth is a creative incubator for at-risk and beyond-risk young people, ages 14-21, and began in 1998, making it the longest-running partnership between a community arts based organization and a juvenile detention facility in the United States. AS220 Youth is dedicated to dismantling the pipeline to prison by empowering beyond-risk and incarcerated youth through arts, culture and professional opportunities. Their mission is to raise a justice league of young leaders who use their experience, influence and creativity to build an alternative future for themselves and their communities.
FutureWorlds Panelists were all local Providence residents. They were Anjel Newmann, AS220 Youth Program Director and program alumni; Je-Shawna C. Wholley, the new Program Coordinator of Brown University’s LGBTQ Center; and Marco A. McWilliams, activist, scholar, and founder/director of the first ever Black Studies program at D.A.R.E. (Direct Action For Rights And Equality).
I have tried to capture this moderated panel in the panelists own words, paraphrasing where my old-fashioned, handwritten notes had gaps, and hope to give here the essence of what was said where words were missing. I thank Shey Rivera for her edits to this text, which helped me refine and capture the wise and highly engaging messages that transpired during the talk.
Shey Rivera opened the panel discussion with the first question: What does it means to have a “safe space” vs. a “brave space” when discussing matters of social justice and activism, with an effort toward building bridges to different communities?
Je-Shawna Wholley: I am not sure we can ever create a safe space in this current culture that we live in, but what we can promise is a place where we can be vulnerable. A brave space is where we can say, “I caused you harm,” or “this caused me harm.” And then, we can take action in that moment. We are all human. We all cause pain, so these moments will happen. I push away from the idea of a safe space, where no harm will happen. I’m a black woman. I can’t be guaranteed that I’ll be safe.”
Anjel Newman: What is the action? When you walk into the AS220 Youth space, the first thing you see is a gigantic commitment statement titled, Hateration Gets No Toleration, on the wall. The statement speaks to the way we want to treat each other, but we don’t ignore issues, we work through them.”
She added, “We have all different kinds of kids here from ages of fourteen to twenty-one. RI Training School teens (from the juvenile ACI), teens in DCYF care, and other beyond risk youth. Because there are so many different kinds of youth, that is how we learn and grow. We say, let’s talk about things, not bury or ignore them.”
Marco McWilliams: The notion of creating a space evokes the idea of a culture. The question is, what is the culture we want for the work we want to do? The idea is that you have to cultivate this culture, and yet that culture is never cultivated by one person, or by a clique, but by the totality of people involved.
Sometimes we have one group not interested in the same objective, and we have to work through that, or we can’t move forward. We have to be careful though, so we’re not hurt by that group. Pausing, and smiling at the audience, Marco continued…don’t worry, we’re gonna talk about love tonight..
Shey Rivera: Allyship is a critical part of the work of socio-political work that needs more attention and education. What does it mean to you?
Je-Shawna: People who consider themselves allies, want to create safe spaces, but you have to take action.
Thoughtfully, Je-Shawna said that she thinks about whether she is being an ally to the communities that she is creating brave spaces for in the work she does with the LGBT community, and in her day-to-day life.
JeShawna asks herself, do I create access for trans women? Do I make room for them? Am I in community with them? Can I say I love a trans woman? I don’t mean in the romantic way, but if I can’t put a face to it, I am not an ally. Allies take action. A person can’t think that, well, I never said this horrible thing, so I’m an ally.
Anjel: One of my observations is that people who want to be allies have to try and stop speaking for communities they want to help. Another thing is, if you’re running an organization in under-served communities, you have to think about how are you creating pathways for those people to lead these organizations. We can organize and run our own things, but we don’t have the access to power.
If we’re serving 100% kids of color, our staff should reflect that, and if the staff is of color, they should be from the neighborhood or similar class situation. Because you might have a person of color working who has no idea of what it’s like to grow up in the area these kids come from.
Marco: Are you my ally, or are you my solidarity partner? Are you rooting for me from the sidelines, or are you using your resources and access to power to move things forward?
An ally helps someone achieve their goals, for how they define them. Black people are trying to be free. We need solidarity partners. When have Black people ever been safe? We’ll be safe when we’re free. The mission is not to be served. The mission is to be free. And, let’s not be afraid of these words. They’re in our vocabulary. You have to figure out where you can get in based on what the community dictates; what it needs. ..I have to say this carefully, but keep it 100..we can’t keep the non-profit industrial complex, we have to transition out of the progress=econometrics way of looking at things.
Shey: In nurturing groups of multicultural youth, what are the challenges in relaying the importance of the issues faced by one specific group in a way that creates bridges of solidarity within the rest of the cultural groups? How do we create bridges of empathy that go beyond identity?
Anjel: This past year the youth at AS220 have experienced an entire year curriculum that included topics of social justice, afro-futurism, talks about Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and with all that has been going on currently, it has been an emotional rollercoaster for the kids and staff, and we felt the need to say something. It’s a revolutionary curriculum on Black lives. We took kids to marches, and other events. Yet, the population of kids we work with is changing. It is now 60% Latino, with some kids identifying as Afro-Latino, where a few years ago there were more kids who were black. So the question becomes how do we address all of our youth collectively and make sure they feel they are a part of the conversation?
Je-Shawna: I did work with the Black Youth Project 100. (www.byp100.org is an activist member-based organization of Black 18-35 year olds, dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people, done through building a collective focused on transformative leadership development, direct action organizing, advocacy and education using a Black queer feminist lens. )
Working with such a diverse group of young Black people—youth of African descent, formerly incarcerated youth, kids from a variety of classes, LGBT youth, young people involved with policy, kids with a variety of interests. We dealt with struggle by finding common language and cause—while the young people had their differences, they all were dedicated to the cause of Black liberation. I think that by getting to know one another, despite the different backgrounds and interests the youth held, that they became committed to one another as individuals, too. The question of what is it that we were trying to accomplish is what tied us together, and allowed us to work through differences.
Doing this work, and always talking about trauma and how we are oppressed can be tiring, so I make sure we also talk about all the beauty we create in this world. I strive to facilitate a sense of community that while still at intersection of oppression, we can talk about what are our desires, and how are we empowering ourselves, and ask myself how can I facilitate resources to this community of people who typically don’t have resources, to get them beyond simply surviving.
Marco: I would just say that history links things together and connects the dots. Our young people need to be the best historians now. We are living in a moment where history is being lost in real time. We’re being erased. History allows you to see patterns and traditions and realize how your current condition connects to things that happened in the past.
Everyone knows the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they know Rosa Parks, from what they’re taught in schools. But no one knows about her fifteen years of political work before the boycott. ..or about the other Black women that worked for the cause, the Black domestic workers. These domestic workers heard what was being talked about in the white homes they worked for. They heard the plans white people made to fight against Black people’s civil rights, and took that information back to the church meetings where Black people were organizing for their rights. White women head-of-households were telling their husbands they had to stop all of this because their domestic workers were coming in late because of their civil rights work. When you miss all of that story, you miss the true beauty of the movement. The movement has also been couched in male-centric terms, but women were leaders here, and in other parts of the world.
Anjel: What is the glue? Love. Hip-hop and hip-hop culture is a common bond for the young people we work with—it’s not the blanket that all of our kids connect with, but 90% of them identify with the culture. If you’re hip-hop, you’re invested in issues of social justice. Thinking about what you just said, Marco, I’m thinking of what Kanye said (in Gorgeous): They rewrite history…I don’t believe in yesterday..
Shey: We say that art reflects the time we live in. How does the link between art and activism appear in the work you are doing? How does storytelling serve as a tool for activism?
Anjel: The goal of the work we are doing with the kids is for them to create a culture that comes from them—music, fashion, art, murals—all of it with the intent to tell a story, to document how they feel at that moment. The music they created this past year has been so radical because of the time we live in, and all that has been happening with the unjust killings in the news. The vibe, sound, beat gets at it—it’s in the art. Even if it’s not in the lyrics, it’s in the vibe. And hip hop, the sharing of one’s story, goes all the way back to West Africa..the Griots…their oral stories were their notes, the way to document their history. We have to document our history because no one is going to do it for us. J Cole in Fire Squad says black culture is being white-washed. If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t have a solid foundation. Your soul is vulnerable.
Shey: Many young people are thinking about larger social issues and participating in the national & global movements of human rights. What do you see is the potential of the younger generations as agents of change?
Anjel: Our kids are light years ahead..they’re so connected. I see an eagerness to learn about issues, and they have the potential to change the world. They have tremendous access to amazing youth programs here in Providence, ..at AS220 we have access to a recording studio with great recording programs and software. We need the adults to provide these spaces to groom, support and mentor our young people for them to be able to create and take on these issues.
Je-Shawna: Young people today are unapologetic about who they are. They are coming out younger. I didn’t have that support, resources, when I was younger. They understand the body politics. There are more possibilities for what they can be. They are also growing up in the middle of a social justice movement, led by young people. They see they can get up and leave school to stand-up for an issue and make a change.
Marco: When you work with young people, children..they remind us what it’s like to be human in an unmediated way. As adults we learn how to interface with society. Children haven’t been messed with yet. As adults, we say, “one day they’re going to lose that innocence.” It’s said with dread.
What if we created spaces where people are loved and supported for their humanity? We don’t have that yet. We need to check in with young folks in order to check in with ourselves. When I spend time with my two-year old niece, and get that feeling, of remembering how it feels to just be, then I can say, “okay, I’m good. I can do this.”
With time for the panel discussion over, Shey summarized the talk, noting key points including: To Marco’s point, there is no revolution without love. There is much power within our youth to effect change, and documenting is essential to taking ownership of our own narratives. A brief Question and Answer session followed the talk.
Question: How do we create Brave Spaces? Do you have guidelines you use for creating a Brave Space?
Answer: (Je-Shawna) I do have guidelines, but I always workshop them with the group I am working with. One guideline is that we still work hard not to cause harm, but if harm comes, we will work through it. We also name who the guidelines are for. We define allyship as action. We acknowledge our own privileges. We look out for who is taking up too much space. We look out for who is socialized to shrink in these spaces, and be sure to give attention to them. We have to come up with these guidelines as a community—do this together.
Q: What about education for non-minority kids who can’t relate to what you’ve been through, and later get into a position of power and won’t understand where others come from?
A: (Anjel) There are not very many white students at AS220, but there are a few. I remember there was one white kid, and everyone like him, but he would throw around the “N” word, and at first we let it go, because we have a philosophy to let some things young people do and say go, and to also put it on the other kids to speak up and call others out for their behavior, instead of the adults doing it. Well, this kid he was saying it a lot, and to get a rise out of others, and so staff had to pull him aside, and explain to him how that was “f’d” up for a lot of reasons. With white kids we work with, we can bring them information, teach them what to do to be an ally. We see them get uncomfortable sometimes when we’re discussing issues, but it’s important for people to talk to their people, to be involved in anti-racist work. When I talk to these people, I want them to be in community to call each other in.
Q: I live in North Kingstown, and want to know what I and others from that area can do, and what other initiatives there are outside of the city were we can help with matters of social justice?
A: (Marco) People, mostly those from marginalized communities, have worked on and we are close to having a Community Safety Act, which speaks to how police work is done. It is not going to fix everything, but it will have some effect on the mechanisms police have in place, and hold them more accountable for their actions. It’s folks of color that have pushed this forward.
What might it have meant if folks from South County had come up…now, I’m assuming, in South County, we are talking about the majority of people there, who are white. What if they came up in their SUV’s…(laughter from audience)…no, because you have SUV’s down in South County!
Woman who posed question: We’re all in this together…
Marco: Are we? I mean on the slave ships coming here, I think I was on the bottom of the ship…(smiling)..but to answer your question..what might it have meant if folks from South County would’ve been part of the marches, part of letter writing to their political representatives?
My Black Studies program at D.A.R.E. is open to the community, and it’s free. It’s open to anyone, but the program is clearly targeting young folks of color.
Marco quotes Haitian scholar, professor, and writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “Naivete is an excuse for those who exercise power, but for those who have power exercised upon them, it’s always a mistake.” I think what you need to do is come to Providence, and meet with this sister right here, Anjel.
Anjel: There are so many great youth organizations in Providence to get involved with aside from AS220—there’s Everett, New Urban Arts, City Arts, Manton Avenue Project, Community MusicWorks. The cultural exchanges between kids from different areas has been great for us too. Youth at AS220 went out to Foster and did a cultural exchange visit with kids there. And it was awesome—some of our kids had never been outside Providence or a rural place like that…(laughing) I was thinking I was going to hit a deer while driving out there..it was different for them, but it was great. But that was a one-time event, so an on-going thing like that would be valuable.
Q: When harm does happen in a Brave Space, how do you work through it?
A: (Je-Shawna) We create an intimate community; a “family” of close friends. I look at, and say, if I ever do anything that harms or hurts you, please tell me. I’m committed to you. If there is interpersonal harm, someone said something that hurts, then I need to set boundaries. If that line is crossed, then I can’t have that person in my community.
Shey thanked the panel, and the audience for their participation. Vatic Kuumba, poet, and Theater Coordinator for AS220 took the stage and inspired by the FutureWorlds project and panel, and a recent interaction on social media having to explain racism to white people who keep rebutting with deflecting questions, like, well, what about black-on-black crime, read his original, and highly moving, poem, How To Wake The Sleep.
He then woke us all up with a true Call To Action. Vatic led a reverse auction where, beginning at $500 and ending at $25, he called on the audience to donate funds that would provide resources for AS220 Youth programming. The lively auction produced many donations. These funds will support the young people who are creating FutureWorlds every time they step in the doors of a brave space like AS220, a place where they are supported and respected for who they are, how they express themselves, and how they in turn learn to lead by example.
I left AS220, as I often do, enriched and deeply inspired by the critical discussion, and the passion and great community work being done by all the panelists and moderator, and most important, with intention to put inspiration into action.
Photo Credits: Individual Panelist Photos courtesy of AS220
Panelist Group Photo: Sam Seidel on Twitter