Note to readers: This is the sixth in a series of blogs I am delighted to be writing for Harmony: The WomenArts Partnership Project. They will appear biweekly on the WomenArts site (when you get there, scroll down for a list of blog installments), and I will also reproduce each one here.
This installment of the Harmony Project Blog introduces two final activist artists who shared their wisdom on collaborating with organizations. Without a foundation of trust, partnership can’t work. How do you establish that firm grounding for a collaboration? It takes time, they say, and openness to learning.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: Ask questions, find resource people, and learn how to enter, build, and exit community.
Urban Bush Women is dance company dedicated to bringing “untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance…from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community.” In addition to their performances, they engage in extensive community- based programming, encouraging cultural activity as an integral part of community life.
Artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar described a key long-term partnership. In the early 1990s, UBW prepared for a New Orleans residency (a collaboration with community-based organizations who brought them to New Orleans to support community cultural development) by “going around and talking to people, asking who should we be talking to. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond kept coming up over and over again, and that becomes one of the things that you start to notice.”
At a culminating debriefing for UBW’s New Orleans residency, their People’s Institute partners said, “one of the things that we thought you did the best was how you entered the community. You didn’t come in saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and who’s gonna join us?’ or ‘We know. We’re the experts from New York.’ You came in with a respectful listening process.”
That was the seed of UBW’s “Entering, Building and Exiting Community” community workshop, offered both as a freestanding course and as part of its popular annual Summer Leadership Institute, a 10-day intensive connecting “dance professionals and community-based artists in a learning experience to leverage the arts as a vehicle for social activism and civic engagement and to strengthen the national network of community arts practitioners.”
Ever since, some of the People’s Institute’s core questions have become central to UBW’s way of working. They ask “how does internalized racial inferiority or superiority—inferiority for people of color and superiority for white people—how does it show up in your work? How does it show up in how you organize? Are you aware of it when it shows up, and how do you address it? Those questions make us go deeper and deeper. It changes our dialogue, and it changes how we think about things.”
Also, Jawole explained, early on, People’s Institute leaders said that to understand their work, UBW members should take one of their trainings. “Now,” said Jawole, “when someone wants to work with UBW, we use that same model: ‘Well why don’t you come to our institute so you can see who we are and how we work?’ Then we’ve got a dialogue, so that you really understand what our methodology is.”
After nearly 20 years of collaboration, UBW and the People’s Institute “have been in partnership in talking about how culture very much needs to be tied into any initiatives around community organizing. It’s one of the things that they now emphasize. And that’s not only part of the mission, but part of their commitment to work with cultural organizations. There’s been an impact both on them and on us from the work that we’re doing together.”
Rene Yung: Art is a very special process to build civic engagement, but be prepared for hard work.
Rene Yung has led a wide variety of participatory arts projects, many of them large in scale. For instance, Chinese Whispers is site-specific community-storytelling project about contemporary folk memories of the Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and settlements on the American frontier; Our Oakland is an integrated public art project to beautify the new East Oakland Community Library and create a new platform for community storytelling there.
She has also exhibited work in more conventional artforms and venues, but explains that collaborative work “is the area that I’m most interested in as an artist. The challenges of getting organizations to even consider art as a part of what they get involved in—that art can somehow actually be a constructive new part of their toolkit—is very hard. But once you get that trust—or at least the initial gamble, like “Okay, we’ll try it out,”—it is so much more powerful than the experiences I have had working within the framework of the artworld. In open-ended civic engagement, the framework is about the process and the mutual goals. Art becomes a very special process to reach those goals.”
I asked Rene to situate herself on the spectrum of artists who, at one end, are invited to collaborate, and at the other, act as cultural entrepreneurs, initiating collaborations. She’s done both, but “increasingly, I’ve been on the entrepreneurial side, because of the things I’m interested in. Like “Chinese Whispers” is not something that an organization would think of, so I have to find a network or quilt of organizations for whom this will have relevance. The entrepreneurial part of it is really hard, but also really interesting.”
Forming those relationships, she stresses, involves the artist in learning and extending herself, in finding the right champions. “You simply have to do your footwork and find out about them, because if you go there and it’s about you, there’s no reason they should be interested. Part of the footwork is to see what kind of common ground there might be that might not seem immediately apparent. And capacity is constantly the biggest challenge. People could really like the idea, but they just don’t have the bandwidth to do something different unless somebody really is sparked by your idea or someone in a higher position has the vision to understand what you’re bringing to them, and to commit to that chance.”
“You have to get lucky too,” Rene said. “I had an excellent working relationship with an organization for years. They had this fabulous woman director. She retired, and there was no one there in a position of authority who wanted to bother. The exact same organization, different leaders.”
Next time, advice from the Harmony Project interviewees on achieving clarity and accountability in working relationships.