[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]
On March 3, AREA Chicago organized Intersections: A Brunch Table, hosted at Access Living. Panelists represented a range of very different cultural, artistic and organizing projects, with distinct languages, organizational forms and goals. However, we felt there were commonalities that cut across these differences. All of these projects in some way emerged from situated or specific engagements, and developed versions of what we could call “local knowledges”, while at the same time animating a vision of systemic social and cultural dynamics. The panelists represented, to us, practitioners that had deep roots in specific issues or communities, and at the same time they tended to exceed the limits of how communities, practices or publics typically define themselves. There was a capacity to trespass that challenges us to reconsider familiar categories: organizing, aesthetics, institution, media, culture, place. In the invitation to participate in this panel/discussion, we asked a series of specific questions about knowledge, practices and tools that emerge when projects exceed themselves, cross over into other territory or are interrogated from new directions. Following are excerpts and fragments from this discussion.
From the event description:
The upcoming issue of AREA Chicago is an exploration of intersections in social justice and cultural work. This round table is a discussion about the specific ways in which various forms of engagement intersect. We also hope to consider intersections that are unintentional or accidental: to reflect upon moments when we are suddenly faced with the unfamiliar, an apparent contradiction, an issue or strategy that falls outside of the path we have defined for ourselves. Please join us for an open discussion about the systemic nature of the injustices we struggle against and the concrete approaches and tools we employ throughout those struggles. Participants will be asked to reflect on the rewards and challenges of bridging and expanding their own practices
I am a staff attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which is an advocacy group. We work to alleviate poverty mostly through legislative methods. I’m in the health care unit so I’m really glad that we talked about the 2.7 million dollars in cuts [from the Medicaid budget], which is really daunting. That’s one of the things that I’m working on. I am also working on the Affordable Care Act implementation, and others in the State of Illinois.
I am here representing Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Warrior Writers project, which are two organizations that intersect internally for us. IVAW is moving from being an activist organization to being an advocacy organization around veterans rights and ending the wars. We mostly work around mental healthcare access for veterans. Currently, we have a campaign, Operation Recovery, to stop the re-deployment of traumatized troops, to raise awareness about the mental health concerns of service members and the military’s inability or unwillingness to address those issues. The Warrior Writers project grew out of this work, as a healing tool for the people who are organizing these campaigns in IVAW.
Celia Weiss Bambara:
I am the co-director of an African-based contemporary dance company. My husband is from Burkina Faso and I have done work in Haiti, Central Africa and West Africa. We moved to Chicago from L.A. Our two-person dance company works on long term projects, which are solo and duo work that engages our specific realities: immigration and racism. We realized that within Chicago, our organization, a husband and wife couple, has had to develop platforms to share our work.
I am executive director of Street Level Youth Media, a 17 year-old community-based media arts organization that works with young people ages 8-22. We teach youth multimedia art forms ranging from video production, digital music production, graphic art design, photography to promote self-expression, community and social change. As a way to bridge my interactions with young people I talk about my experiences as a young person growing up with media. I take out a typewriter, they look at it as a foreign machine, and they are fascinated with this foreign machine and what comes out of it. I talk about remembering music videos when they came out and how I was fascinated as a high school student when Madonna was using media. It is interesting to use media as an inter-generational tool to talk about things that we care about.
I am a resident director with the Albany Park Theater Project. We are a community-based youth theater company. We create original plays out of people’s real life stories that we collect. We gather in the Albany Park neighborhood, which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the United States. We have a lot of bridges inside the company. We are currently in the middle of a new production called Homeland, a celebration and an exploration of the immigrant rights movement in Chicago and the United States, also a people’s history of the immigrant rights struggle.
I am with Fresh Moves, a mobile grocery store. We bring fresh produce to communities that don’t have access. Right now, we specifically target communities on the west side of Chicago, in the north Lawndale and the Austin areas. CTA sold us a bus for one dollar and we converted it and turned it into a grocery store.
I am from the Austin community. I work with communities all over the city against foreclosure and eviction, and I think that’s one of the biggest issues going on in the city right now.
I work at Access Living. I’ve been here for a long time and worked on a lot of issues. An organization we started is called Disabled Americans Want Work Now. We are fighting for jobs for people with disabilities that normally don’t get jobs. I think society has a lot of biases about disabled people having jobs. Poverty issues are something we work on a lot here. Many of our clients are impoverished. We service the whole City of Chicago and we do a lot of different things in terms of youth activities, housing activism, and enforcement of laws.
I am director of organizing at the Southwest Youth Collaborative. Our work deals with the unfair and inhumane conditions that young people are being forced to live with inside the [Cook County] Juvenile Detention Center. We are looking at the lack of health and recreation for young people that are detained. We are working on shutting down the detention center, and looking at the disproportionate amount of black and brown young people in detention. Our second campaign is education rights. The graduation rate in Chicago overall is 58%, and the rate for black and brown people is much less. We consider the underlying causes, the root causes, what are the systematic issues that are leading to this? We understand that it is not an individual choice, it is a systematic force that pushes young people out of schools.
Examples of practices or tools you have developed to successfully activate potential for intersecting with other communities, projects or organizations
We have the luxury of an amazing producing and artistic director that is very savvy on how to get funding and how to get other organizations to support us, which means that we can spend a year making a production. That means that we can go out and come back with the interviews that we do. We can analyze them and get the issues that are important, the language that is important. In the process of making a play such as the one we have currently finished, which is about the immigration struggle, the ensemble members have the opportunity to explore these issues and talk to people and become involved with these stories, and identify themselves with these stories. As a result of this amazing process, many of the ensemble members have become active in the movement themselves. Everyone in the company is a lot more aware of what being undocumented is like. Even if they are not undocumented, there is a lot of solidarity, and a lot of eagerness to change the world. It is amazing what has happened. I think it is a question of resources many times, we have so many ideas, we want to do so many things, but it is hard to put things out there if you don’t have resources to do it. When I think about the beauty we have created, and I look at schools where there is a lot of potential but there are no resources. If they had the resources we have, they would be creating this beauty. Teachers would be able to take their students out there, to have this kind of freedom and go deep into issues that need to be talked about.
We address different issues in the work that we do with food access. The primary issue is criminalization in our communities, the high rates of incarceration, and how state violence intersects in the work and the lives of our people and our communities. So we get that, we get that there is hyper criminalization in the community, high rates of people being criminalized. In one of our communities in Lawndale, 70% of black men between the ages of 18 and 40 have been incarcerated or are faced with the system. We understand that it is incredibly difficult to so-called “re-enter” the society, as though society was welcoming to begin with, but that’s another discussion. So getting second chances, employment, housing, there are so many ways that life is so different for people who are formerly incarcerated. Understanding that, we try and place an emphasis on job creation, hiring folks from the community who were formerly incarcerated. It is not a solution but it may at least be a demonstration.
I am here representing Communities United Against Foreclosures and Evictions, but I also work with an organization called Power Pack, a group of mothers and grandmothers who got together in Chicago over 15 years ago to fight the issues of the Chicago Public Schools. We are working on issues right now. One is recess, the second one is restorative justice, the third one is early learning and stepping out of poverty. We work on all those issues and we have been working on these issues for over ten years. What we did find out and when I joined the foreclosures and evictions campaign is that all of this works together. In every community this is happening, so we realized that if we can stick with one community, but also bring together people in different communities, we could work better. If you’re working on restorative justice in the schools, it’s the same communities being foreclosed upon; if you’re working on stepping out of poverty, everybody that’s in these neighborhoods are in poverty as well. That’s the thing about intersection-it’s knowing who you are working with.
A bit of background on the projects that I’m doing-I am writing a report that is going to go to state agencies in charge of implementing part of the Affordable Care Act. In these agencies, there are people called navigators who will be signing up particular populations for Medicaid when it expands to everyone that is 133% below the poverty level. It is a huge expansion and it’s very exciting, but it is such a diverse group of people that when I was charged with creating this document, I had to go and find people that I could work with. I have worked with organizations such as the AIDS foundation and Heartland Foundation with immigration issues, just to learn and to ask these organizations, “What do your clients need?” so I can tell someone else. We need to come at it all together. Our population is extremely diverse, but these are the people that we need to care about. The Poverty Law Center has a pretty good reputation when we put these documents together. I am just consolidating everybody else’s knowledge on this topic. I am pulling from every other organization in the City of Chicago to put together a really good report on what these populations need to get decent health care.
It takes two years to create a piece, a dance. The first piece we did in Chicago was my husband’s project. It was called “Ninga” (The Face), it was about his reaction to the immigrant experience. We decided to create a live-work space in Wicker Park and create community around our work, which is experimental. The base of what we do is African, so that means long term apprenticeships in traditional dance forms (we are talking 15 years), creating awareness of the fact that there are many, many ways of making dance, not just ballet which is predominantly European. These are culturally based practices and they deserve respect in different ways. Within the context of this live-work space, we tried to cultivate a living community of dance artists and movers. As a result we curated monthly, we invited folks to our home to share and publicize their work. This was incredibly successful. We got people to talk from all over the city. People don’t go to see each others’ work in Chicago, they don’t consider it art. There’s a real classification, we talk about racism, we talk about culturalism, all those things play out in terms of who gets funding and who doesn’t; this was a way for us not only to share our work but also to create space for artists to respect other people’s work. We did get people to dialogue, to talk about their processes: how they are making their work, how they are sharing it, and how they are funding it. It was also not successful in the sense that we lost the space because we were doing that sort of work. The same communities we had hoped to intersect in some ways, rejected it. This has caused us to create, in a sense, an institute. We go different places and hold a workshop and do X Y and Z. So it was successful, but also a very Chicago experience as we are learning.
We work with black and brown folks and we have two partner organizations, IMAN and AAAN. What we have been learning is that you can’t form multicultural spaces without first having spaces where folks can affirm their own identity. A lot of times we just want to get everybody in a room and assume that because we are dealing with the same issues, that we all come from the same place, and we got here in the same way. So we like to create situations where people have a space to talk about how this issue affects them as a group, but then also be able to come back to a space where we are able to challenge each other, in particular with black and brown young folks. Also, there is a lot of conversation that those groups have to have with each other, that can’t necessarily happen in a safe way. This multicultural space is a place to figure out what it is that this country has done to them as people
Many of the veterans that work with us in Iraq Veterans Against the War are also working in other organizations. We are just tapping into their strengths and having them be that bridge for other organizations, taking our message to them and their messages to us, so we can understand how all of these issues are interconnected. But that also creates the challenge of using people up beyond their capacity, which is at times a lot of work to be done, and it takes a lot of heart and passion. Giving that much is often very daunting and draining. One of the things we try to do when we get together with Iraq Veterans is we try to first become present in the room with each other, really trying to acknowledge how we all got there, those differences, so then we can begin the work of connecting with each other first, so that we can build healthy communities … Some of our work intersects with disability issues, housing rights and the work around juvenile justice. We look at something called the poverty draft. Here in Chicago, we have talked to folks who have joined the military, and we ask them why they joined, some people join for the patriotic aspect, and some others join because they were about to go to jail and this was their other option. The judge said you can go to jail for two years or join the military for four, or because they come from a poor family that cannot afford to send them to college, or they have no way out of a poor area where they have no access. The military is often an option out of that. Trying to build a bridge to organizations that talk about the root causes is a good thing, because we can withdraw our consent…
I can talk about parallels in addition to intersections. I think about people getting out of prisons and reintegrating people. There is a similarity with getting people out of nursing homes, and I am not only thinking of people who are older; there are younger people put into nursing homes and they don’t know why. It is similar to being put into a prison, but detained in a nursing home. We have to help people who want to escape. We have to develop a consciousness that it’s not OK to be put in a nursing home. It may be a safe environment, but it’s not freedom, it’s not independence, it’s not being integrated in society. We have to empower the individual to find the resources: accessible, affordable integrated housing, not segregated housing. Access and affordability go hand-in-hand for many people with disabilities, there is not accessible housing everywhere in the community, they tend to be in places where people can’t afford to live, so issues of poverty are big. Once we get people out, and people are living in the community, they are trying to survive with health care benefits that are very shaky nowadays, the austerity programs that we have are reducing access and making life more difficult. In terms of education, children with disabilities in particular are segregated, and may come out of schools being unable to read, yet they are getting a high school diploma. There is so much illiteracy going on in our society. If you don’t have basic resources-health care, housing, education-how do you go out there and struggle for a job? So many of us are marginalized. I think about immigrants too, people don’t come here expecting to have a disability, and then all of a sudden they are doing a dangerous job, and they may be undocumented, and they have an accident at work. They are afraid of what the employer will do. They can have an accident at home, an illness-what happens to that immigrant? These intersections are tremendous.
I work at the intersection of multiple institutional interests. One of the challenges overall in social justice work is the question of how you keep the movement going, how do you fund social justice? We talk about challenges and successes at the same time and I can’t really separate these things. In my everyday life I think wow, because we are still around, and I am able to bring people together in a new space and keep out energies alive, that is a success. At the same time it is really for me about strategies for intersection and how you really pinpoint what you want to do. In the context of the our programs and projects, it comes down to: are we working with a particular school and what’s happening in that school and those young people? I can also go at a much larger level, thinking about schools, what’s happening with the new administration, what initiatives are happening, and how can we intersect with this larger system. You always find ways to weave yourself into these multiple contexts. Thinking organizationally, how do I keep a $700,000 budget going, and it means people’s jobs and their ability to keep social justice work going. I am working at the intersections of the nonprofit industrial complex and working with foundations, and I have to think about how I teach corporate representatives to buy into what we do. There are a lot of contradictions, but we work through those. There are intersections that we need to negotiate in order to think about how we want to sustain what we do. Thinking very short term: what can I do with this particular project? If it is a large and more long-term project, as in building an institution, you are really grappling with a different set of questions.
Challenges in bridging and working across issues, communities and so on.
The Warrior Writers started as a project where Iraq veterans got together and shared stories, to use writing as an expressive tool. It is a nonprofit organization, and it has grown nationally. All over the United States it looks different, depending upon the needs of the individuals there and the individuals using it. Here in Chicago it has been for me an access point, a point at which I could connect with IVAW and talk with others. I never considered myself an anti-war person, after all I joined the military. It is those contradictions that happen internally within our organization that are very difficult to overcome with servicemen in social justice work refusing to deploy, refusing to follow unjust orders, unlawful orders… In those writing workshops, there is a lot of self realization, a lot of growth. For me personally, it has been a growing opportunity and it has helped me overcome some communication barriers. It is really difficult to for veterans to talk with folks who have never been in the military, to express to them, this is how I feel. We have a vet that is going through an internal conflict who is now anti-war, and an anti-war activist, and doing social justice work around that point, that internal struggle becomes much more difficult to communicate to the larger community, even if it is another anti-war group made up of nonveterans. There is still that communication barrier. Warrior Writers have created a residency at a Mess Hall in Rogers Park, we did some workshops with veterans to create a safe space to express ourselves. We had a second day during the week where the workshop included loved ones, supporters, or community members that had no connection to anti-war movements or veterans specifically, just so we were able to sit together and create this dialogue that took us way beyond our own personal experiences. I found that to be really challenging at first, because the vets were hesitant to share their story, and the community members were hesitant because they felt they had no stories. But when we broke down communication barriers, we all had similar stories whether they came from trauma during war, or trauma from being incarcerated as a youth, or trauma from being deported, all of those things are interconnected, and we were really able to shine through after eight weeks of working together to really connect and understand how these issues are one in the same. That was a really powerful time for us.
We are engaging on an aesthetic level, and it’s really an experimental aesthetic level. It’s aesthetics that aren’t necessarily native to this country, so there’s a lot of translation going on. The current project we are working on right now is about those issues of translation and what it means to be doing this kind of work. If we had been doing this kind of work in West Africa, most companies are two people, or three people and that’s how you keep the work touring. Here, essentially what we are doing is not native to this country. So here, while I may be a Jewish woman doing this work here, and my husband is West African, the work itself, what we are doing, is a bridge. We live in a multiply translated world, So our current work is about those issues of translation and what we have to work through when we don’t understand each other. And when that communication breaks down, what do you do, to find a point of unison. How do you work through that? So it’s called right now, ”I am in-between two.”
The comment about the aesthetics reminded me of another challenge that we face as a youth theater ensemble. When we tell people that we are a youth theater company, the picture that people have in mind and the aesthetics they have in their mind, I am not really sure. Some people come to our play dragged by other people. Some people actually assume that we don’t have tickets when they come to a play because how is a youth theater going to be sold out? Those are assumptions that people make about our theater. That is a really big challenge that we have had to overcome, but fortunately the level of aesthetic that we have been able to achieve has kept bringing people to our theater, so now we don’t have to advertise our plays because word spreads, and we are almost always sold out.
The challenge that I/we have is bridging communities and bridging identities. We are heavily colonized in so many ways. The challenge is that we are disconnected from our indigenous selves, and that relates to the work that I do specifically thinking about food, and how our food has been so heavily colonized, and that how we eat has everything to do with how heavily colonized we are. How we relate to each other has everything to do with how heavily colonized we are. Those are the issues. And so we look for ways that we can think about how we were, how we are, indigenously. Talking about healthy food and healthy produce, as African descendants we come from land, we come from healthy food, it is our legacy. That narrative has been completely eradicated in so many different ways. We have gotten disconnected from that narrative. One of my friends called me bougie because I liked to eat healthy. I said, “Are you kidding me?”. Somebody else said, “That’s white people stuff”, and so those are some things that are so disconnected, and there are so many reasons why. A lot of that is by design, so breaking all of that down is extraordinarily challenging, because it is considered somebody else’s type of eating. And I am having to correct that narrative because it’s false. We are a land based people. We eat whole foods. We know this. It is still a huge challenge and so I am inspired by all of your work, and I am going to ask you again for help in thinking about creative ways to bridge our selves. Our whole selves. It is critical to our survival. I can talk about why we do what we do, it is because the rates of diabetes and heart disease are astronomical, especially in the areas without healthy produce. So what do we do about that? How do we get back to our indigenous selves and what are the ways we can do that?
speaking of art, we gotta realize that African Americans have poetry in the community to express their thought. In the work that we do, our biggest obstacle is the government. The government is our biggest obstacle because in anything we want to do, they want to be the mind controllers of us. So our biggest obstacle is the government, and getting policies to the government to do what the people want, because they don’t do what the people want, they do what they want. The same thing goes for the city government, the city mayor. Everybody does what they want to do, and they never listen to the people. And so the people all have to get together, in all walks of life, all living in poverty and go down there and fight. We don’t just sit here in Chicago, we go down to Springfield. We need more people going down to Springfield, standing up for what is going on in our state. If we do that, we will come out a lot better than just sitting around and not being heard. We go down there to find out what bills are being presented so we can fight them. You know last year they had this bill, you wouldn’t believe it, put your picture on your LINK card. What do you mean, put your picture on your LINK card? And that person whose picture is on the card is the only person who can go to the store and buy food. What if the mother can’t go to the store and buy food? You know what I’m saying? So we have to speak up as people and say, look, this is not what we asked for, you work for us. The government works for us.
Transforming this society into the society that I hear many people talking about, a society that works within communities on local levels, is a big challenge when you live in a society that tends to be run by the powerful elite. How do we think about constructing political systems that really serve our needs? How do we think about the influence of money and power and how do we fight that? I think everyone knows that we are living in a time where the statistics are more unequal income-wise than ever before. How do we wrestle back to something that is more egalitarian? How do we get people to understand equality? We have the Nato/G8 summit coming up in Chicago and that is going to be a fun and interesting time in Chicago, a challenging time. How do we work at these different systemic levels? I think the thing that is really encouraging here is people’s work through art, writing, culture and dance. We try to do that here as well because it is so empowering.
Question from audience:
Can any of you cite an example where an intersection organizationally working with other groups or sharing other perspectives created something new for your organization and your mission? Where you really started to do something different that wasn’t there before?
We have a group of girls with disabilities that are called the Empowered Fifis-Because of the collaboration with some of the media projects, Beyond Media and others, they put together a video of the experience of young girls with disabilities. The Fifis have all gotten older now, they formed another group they called Divas. The work kept growing but is was largely because of the collaborations with media projects, and progressive people and other young people finally looking at young people with disabilities and saying, “Wow this an issue that’s never talked about.”
Question from audience
How do we make this real? We’ve been having this conversation for a very long time-what in Chicago is preventing these intersections from becoming actualized and strategic alliances being built?
One of the major problems is that people get wrapped up in the problem that is most present at that time, it is hard to imagine having enough time and energy to work on a problem that is not so focused or immediate. I see this even with Triton in Chicago, that charity group downstate. It is the same problem but people aren’t coming to your door and asking about hospitals in Champaign, people are coming to your door and asking about hospitals here. So that’s what you’re focused on and people have a hard time banding together and going from the individual level, from this is the immediate problem you’re focusing on to what can be solved through decent state legislation or things that will address all the factors together
Chicago has a deep history in organizing. I love Rules for Radicals and some of the other books Saul Alinski has written, he has been successful in creating change. But also, Alinski organizing is mainly single issue and identifying self-interest. The other thing we forget about Alinski, is that he talks about the need for building alliances. That’s something we tend to forget mainly because of lack of resources, we have our own target issues that we want to resolve that are the most important to us and our community. How do we have enough time and energy to get young people to do this great work and see the intersections? I have gotten to the issue where people think I am too old school. Does that mean my age is not important anymore or what? The way I look at things is not important? Its good to learn from young people. We need to share our experiences. Sometimes young people feel older folks think they know it all, and we shouldn’t be that way, but at the same time there are things younger folks can learn from older folks. We need to share and educate one another, and forums like these can bring generations together which is very important as well.
Question from the audience
My name is Henry Williams and I am with Access Living. I am 62 years old and I can remember the same thing, when I was 16 or 17 years old, back in the late 50s, early 60s with the same stage, you people are the same people! The same identical thing! It’s amazing! But what I also wanted to say is that you must keep trying but never allow corporate structure money to stop you, sometimes you have to step over the line and say whether it be hell or high water, I am going on anyway! …
I hear you when you say these are conversations that were happening in the ‘60s. I think that one thing that always comes to mind is revolution versus reform. When a young person comes into our space and says I got arrested, our immediate response isn’t that we have to tear the system down and the system is the reason. Our immediate response is asking how do we advocate for you now, and our second response is how do we shut down the detention center as a policy change. This country was built on a very unjust system, sometimes reform movements look transformative and revolutionary, but always continue to be reform. The system was built to adapt to change… How do we build institutions so we can continue to remember what this conversation looked like in the ‘60s and ‘70s, instead of continually recreating, which is what we do? How do we do reform work with revolutionary minds is always a question for us.
I am pretty happy that we are still having this conversation. The other thing that I wanted to say is that I have only been living in Chicago for two years. I am from Puerto Rico. I have lived there my entire life, before coming here and getting this job in this amazing theater company. Chicago is not that different from Puerto Rico in terms of building movements. I think that it is systemic. It happens in many other ways. I know that Chicago has its particularities because it is a very segregated city. You can see the racism very strongly, but I don’t think it is totally specific to Chicago. I think that it is something that is wide and the only way to keep on fighting it is to keep telling our stories and listening to the stories of everybody else, and then telling those stories and learning, and then trying to make that into something that we can all learn from and take action.
I think of all of us as the actual bridges, and so I think yes, reform rather than revolution is something to keep in mind but I think that another core piece of that is just thinking what you want to invest your energies, emotional, how many hours, some of these really specific, practical things that you need to think about and then bridge. The actual partners, the actual people you want to engage with. The real visceral experiences and connectors that make people understand the more intellectual conversations. I think a lot of these smaller pieces play into the larger questions we are all grappling with.