This is the second in a two-part series based on interviews with two founding Cultural Agents in the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (where I hold the title of Chief Policy Wonk). (To stay current on everything this great project is doing, enlist as a Citizen Artist: it’s fun and free.)
Jess Solomon in Washington, DC, and Dave Loewenstein in Lawrence, KS, are the first two USDAC Cultural Agents to open Field Offices, USDAC outposts that serve as focal points for local cultural organizing and connecting-points for participation in National Actions. (See part one of this series to learn why they started Field Offices and what they’ve been up to ever since.)
One of the USDAC’s foundational ideas is that the local and national feed and support each other. For example, through local Imaginings, communities generate visions of the futures they desire, and those help to shape policy and program ideas emerging from the National Cabinet. Those can then be tested at the community level, with local experiences making national policy stronger, and vice versa. In this model, policy is rooted in lived local knowledge, not abstract ideas or expert credentials.
Obviously, this works best with a strong local network. Imaginings are part of that, and so are National Actions like the People’s State of The Union, with thousands of community members across the nation taking part. The network of Field Offices is just starting to add a layer, with Dave and Jess showing the way. They’ve already learned a great deal about how to engage people, how to self-organize, and what not to do, and they are happy to share.
When we spoke last month, I asked them what drew people in their communities to the USDAC.
The USDAC’s tone of serious play has been key. “It’s really accessible,” Jess explained, “the idea of collective imagination, everybody is an artist, we need to be creative about social change. These are themes that people can easily plug into. The playfulness and the very deliberate seriousness about the kind of world we want to see are really compelling.” Speaking personally, she said, “The USDAC has definitely expanded the work that I was already doing and has given me legitimacy to be able to show up to a hearing and be ridiculous! People see it in a different way, which has created opportunity for me to be in spaces in a different way, to bring out the larger issues at play.”
Dave laughed: “The Grays never would have showed up if the USDAC hadn’t been there. That wouldn’t have happened.” The Grays were a cadre of drably dressed demonstrators who invaded the Lawrence farmer’s market one morning last June, urging people to boycott the upcoming Imagining. Shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, we all love the status quo!” and bearing signs saying things like “Imagining? Hoping? Dreaming? Look where they got Dorothy and her pals,” the performers created quite a stir—and as hoped, had a paradoxical effect, attracting people to the Imagining.
Connection to a national movement was also critical for Dave. When they formed the Lawrence Field Office last September, he told me “we were already organizing, trying to figure out what form we would take. For us here, the Field Office fit as close to perfectly as you could imagine, because I was able to bring to the group this opportunity that was going to connect them more to the national movement. That is for us essential, connections to a larger movement, to folks like Jess, to other practitioners, to other ideas. It was the thing that was going to help sustain it for us in Lawrence.”
Jess agreed, and her advice on that question is being put into practice right now, as we plan to connect with Field Offices through video calls: “In retrospect it would have been great if once we had officially signed the charter we had some Zoom hangout with national folks and the D.C. Field Office. It’s a different level of engagement to hear the national folks talk about the work: then it’s not just me facilitating a visioning around what you want to be—maybe I’m not even a part of that conversation.”
One of the main challenges has been building local leadership teams. For both Jess and Dave, this has been an organic process. “There are definitely people who have been present, excited, and eager since the very beginning,” Jess said. “In many ways I’ve said, ‘I want you to take a leadership role.’ They have in their own way, but it hasn’t been a formal, ‘I know I can go to you for X.’ I’m excited to affirm again for those people who have been around that they can really play to their strengths. I also want to invite people who may have just heard about us, who have a lot of energy and want to get involved. That’s a process that I’m still trying to figure out, how you engage new people and support the ongoing awesomeness of folks who have been around for a while.”
“When we were getting fifteen names to sign the Field Office charter,” Dave explained, “the folks that we got were in a pretty narrow band of our community here in Lawrence. It’s always been a tension: how to bring in new folks after that initial excitement and Imagining, while at the same time we’re trying to build what we have here. The work that we’ve been doing has seemed so important in the moment that a lot of extending it out—bringing in new voices, new perspectives, new parts of even our own small community—has been tabled. The group that came together, they don’t all know each other but they all are within the same networks. To extend that out and overlap with other networks is a challenge with the capacity we have.”
Jess agreed. “A challenge for me has been articulating a vision beyond my network and connecting the local work to what’s happened nationally so that they’re not two separate things. The folks who signed the founding document, even if they aren’t all at events they’re still pretty active in the digital realm. But we’re having a meeting tomorrow about a potential opportunity. There will be people in the room who have never come to a meeting. So how do we keep engaging new people, what’s the umbrella?”
I closed the interview by asking Dave and Jess if starting Field Offices had been worth it.
“Yes,” said Jess. “I think about how much I’ve grown personally and have clarified my personal values and vision around art and culture as a tool, as a connector. So is it worth it? Yes. I want to be even more deliberate as we approach the one-year anniversary of the first Imagining.”
“Here in Lawrence, definitely,” Dave told me. “It’s been a solace to me personally in a difficult time. It’s given us a structure to work within and some level of support. Although we’re always looking for more connection. Seeing you folks on Zoom is one thing, but my immediate thought was get all the Cultural Agents and all the organizational support staff here in Lawrence for a big parade and then a weekend of action. But yeah, definitely worth it. We met yesterday and it’s as live now as it was six or eight months ago.”
Who else? The sadly late always great B.B. King, “I Pity The Fool.”
PBS made B.B. King’s 1983 debut on “Austin City Limits” available to stream the night after he passed. It is a thrilling experience, a consummate artist in full command of two instruments, voice and guitar. You can still see it here.