Who Will Carry the Work Forward?

An intergenerational conversation at the State of the Nation festival and a tribute to Nayo Watkins.

By Caron Atlas, R. Lena Richardson, and Carlton Turner

"I soon discovered that the struggle that we had chosen to engage was not going to be straightened out in three to five weeks, three to five months, three to five years. Indeed I had joined a struggle that was going to take at least one lifetime."

"...It’s not that the work I’ve done has been so great—but it has been a road. It has been a road to hope and how do I leave that to others? How does that not get lost?"

Nayo Barbara Malcolm Watkins (1939-2008) was a poet, essayist, playwright, arts consultant, and cultural organizer in North Carolina, where she lived, and throughout the South. For over 40 years she worked with nonprofit organizations with a focus on arts as tools in community empowerment and social transformation.

Carlton Turner is executive director of Alternate ROOTS and artistic director and cofounder, along with his brother Maurice Turner, of M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction), performing a blend of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry, and soul music.

Note: We had hoped that Nayo Watkins would participate in a Bridge Conversation, but her tragic death in January 2008 made that impossible. However, earlier that fall she facilitated an intergenerational conversation at the State of the Nation Arts and Performance Festival, and this was a Bridge Conversation if there ever was one. We include portions here as a tribute to Nayo. In this conversation she asked how the work she and others were doing would be sustained, given the long arc of social change. It is clear that Nayo’s work lives on in many ways—and we are pleased to have this opportunity to further share her wisdom. We also want to acknowledge all the participants in this conversation for their honesty, passion, and willingness to listen to and learn from one another. (Caron Atlas)

“She is still everywhere, telling the children who they are and who it was that came before to make a way for them. It is her mission. Well, as for me, as long as she is ‘taking care’, and we are singing those songs, beating the drums, speaking our orations, reading our poems, painting our pictures, making meringues, planting flowers, and strutting our stuff, I will believe that somehow, no matter what they throw at us, we’re gon’ make it over. Yeah, we’re gonna make it.”
—From Miz Culchure Lady by Nayo Watkins


In many ways I feel there are many more people more qualified to introduce the work of Sister Nayo Watkins. She was working the community arts scene long before I was even a bright spot in my father’s eye. But the fact that she meant so much to so many people qualifies me to honor her spirit and keep her name alive. I and countless other cultural organizers stand on her shoulders, many unknowingly. She was, is, and always will be a force to be reckoned with.

Nayo completed her work in this realm. Her children, both the ones that she gave birth to and the countless ones she helped navigate the wretched seas of an intolerable unjust system, are a testament to that. Nayo’s presence continues to provide energy to those that knew her. Her words lift up an astonishingly simple, commonsensical way of honoring community. Not ‘community’ as the buzzword it has become throughout the nonprofit world over the past couple of decades. Nayo was about real COMMUNITY. The way that she would value artistic work was not by the number of people that came to see it, but the number of people that were able to use it in a tangible way to create a better life.

The following conversation comes from Nayo’s last visit to Mississippi and the last time that I saw her in person before her passing. It was part of the State of the Nation Art and Performance Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, in October of 2007. This festival is an annual gathering organized by M.U.G.A.B.E.E. of Raymond, Mississippi, and ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro of New Orleans, Louisiana. The hallmark of this annual festival is its community forums.

This particular forum was a joint venture organized by Alternate ROOTS and the Arts & Democracy Project. Nayo Watkins gracefully facilitated the two days of discussion. We began the session by looking at the work of a number of cultural organizers living and working in communities throughout the Southeast. The artists provided a framework to consider how we use art as a common reference point for communities to think critically about manifesting progressive social change. All of the artists that presented were under 40 years of age, and it was quite fitting that Nayo was yet again the guiding force for these young voices.

During our discussions we found ourselves questioning the role of institutions. Veteran organizers John O’Neal, Owen Brooks, Hollis Watkins, Okolo Rashid and even Nayo herself asked questions about the continuation and legacy of the work. How does the work continue to live on after its driving force is no longer there? During this conversation a real generational divide existed in the room. On one hand, you had young people challenging the rigid nature of institutions as well as the overall 501(c)(3) model as a means to create real impact and social change in this country. On the other hand, you had elders making a case for institutions to carry on the work and legacy of past generations. As facilitator, Nayo navigated the room with grace and generosity, creating space for all voices to be heard. No, we didn’t find all the answers, but we heard from all sides and walked away with a deeper understanding of the issues.

The backstory is that during the course of the three-day festival Nayo spent the night in the hospital. No one knew but her family because Nayo facilitated the daily forums, was present at the nightly performances, and even stayed up with us on the last night of the festival at the local poetry spot until 2 a.m.

This is Nayo in her truest form, beauty as nature intended. Her work and legacy continues to manifest through those she touched.

NAYO WATKINS: People will often ask you: ‘What do you do?’ How can you get your mouth open to say what you do? Because it’s about a journey. And it’s about all kinds of things that happen within that journey that contribute to the whole thing. It’s not about defining what I do. It’s so broad that you can’t put it in a box.

I started off as a single parent with a whole bunch of babies, trying to figure out how I was gonna make it. And everything grew out of that.

But what I want to get to is that when we were talking about this gathering, I brought up the fact that I knew a lot of people in Mississippi who would not be able to identify with the term ‘cultural organizing’ because that’s not how they necessarily think of themselves. You know, they are doing the work in community. And they are using culture and they are organizing, but that’s not necessarily how they think about their work. They are doing what’s in front of them to be done.

When we were doing the American Festival Project in Mississippi, what these people who are in all kinds of communities, in all kinds of situations who are using culture, art, history, organizing, all of the tools that they can — (a younger man comes in and gives her a kiss) “Hey, babes”—to save their communities, to heal the wound, to save the children who are getting pregnant, shooting up, because they don’t know their history. The people—mostly women, but men too—are culture ladies, Miz Culchure Ladies. And I wrote an article about Miz Culchure Lady for the American Festival Project magazine.

And there were some really wonderful people who were part of that project, who sort of fit that bill. I remember one—Helen Taylor up in Starkville. And Helen definitely used the arts, but she ran a daycare center. She did food and housing for people who were in need. And I was after Helen to get us a picture for the American Festival Project magazine, and Helen had been promising, and Helen had been promising. And I called Helen up one time and said, “Helen, we really need it.” And she said, “Nayo, honey, I’m dealing with this woman down the street, the house burned down, she got five little kids, her husband done run off, she ain’t got nothing, and I ain’t done about your picture!” It was about the reality. You can’t put her in any box called cultural organizing, but she was the ultimate cultural organizer.

Ever since the Southeast Social Forum, this issue has been there for me. That whole idea of another South is possible. Another U.S. is possible. Another world is possible. And I think: Do we really believe that something else is possible?

You know somebody brought up that to bring about change in that Jena Six situation, it might be necessary to call a boycott. Which might mean boycotting Louisiana, including New Orleans. And where New Orleans is at now, that’s like (makes a hitting sound), but if we overlay that with “Do we really believe another world is possible?” If we really believe another world is possible, then we can’t get frightened by, you know, the world will fall apart if an economic boycott of Louisiana happened. I am talking about our response to anything that says there is prime sacrifice, risk, and being really, really willing to climb out on the limbs of faith.

NICK SLIE: Based on what I heard at the U.S. Social Forum and some other places, I don’t believe. Because what I saw and what I continue to see, is a lot of individuals who have a stake in leading. They have some sort of identity about running organizations and running movements, and I’ve seen it happen a number of times and I think we can observe it in the New Orleans landscape, that when it came down to what was best for some organizations, it came down to power struggles between people.

I think a lot of times I hear people from the movement, the Civil Rights Movement, hanging onto this rhetoric of 40 years ago that is no longer applicable for what the problems are now. And the tendency is for us to believe that there is some pristine time when everything worked, and what we don’t hear enough is that it didn’t work. And I have to say personally that when I look at the movement or whatever it is that we are doing, most of the time I don’t believe. So, all I do is hold on to a small community around me, that I feel like I can affect change with. But I throw that out there, based on all of the evidence we see, what would make us believe?

STEPHANIE MCKEE: I struggle identifying what is the movement. For me, it’s a little bit more clear when I think about my parents’ time, and I am constantly wrestling with what was different then than what’s going on now. It’s very clear to me that Black folk were very clear on what the injustices were. And it was out there and so it was simple, or relatively simple, during that time. Now we have so many different things, as opposed to one. Gay and lesbian rights. Human rights. It is so spread out. So, how do we mobilize? How do we say we are all in the movement together? And there’s the question: Are we willing to sacrifice? What are we actually willing to do without? It is a different time, and in lots of ways, I think our generation doesn’t get it.

OWEN BROOKS: But that’s not necessarily true … because none of us individually can speak for that generation, for your generation. And I think we really need to understand or try to ferret out, what are the differences today? You see, that’s why you need to look back at history. You know some of these conservative folks say, you’re too rooted in the past, right? But there are always lessons to be learned from history, all right? For one thing, I can say that when I was your age, the world was very small, OK? And it was hard for me to see over the backyard fence, much less see where my folk came from. And my folk came from the West Indies. And I had to go and live there for two years just to learn what was wrong with that part of the world that related to us in the United States. And I may be saying things that you all already know and have already studied, but I am hearing what I heard 40 years ago—in this room today. One difference was it carried me over to another level of understanding. I didn’t have a global view 40 years ago. I had to acquire it. You have moved very quickly into a global view.

I remember after a pace of involvement in the movement, I threw up my hands and said these folk in this country cannot do it by themselves. Ain’t no way in the world. America is not going to change in and of itself. But America must sustain the need to change among whatever cadre can evolve from age to age.

So, you haven’t got the time to indulge yourself in confusion because you are only going to be here for a very short time, all right? My day is almost up. But I don’t ever want to stop hearing progress.

And looking at Jena, it’s appalling. It’s just a tragedy that we have fixed it that so many of our folk have a capability to move stuff, but are not moved by a Jena. That’s a tragedy. And that’s what makes me come into this arena and say to you I’ve failed in so many areas. And so many folks that I lived and worked with made so many mistakes. Don’t make the same ones that we made. You have the opportunity to look at the world through a different set of eyes than we had. You can move stuff if you stay on course. You will need to rearticulate a vision that was articulated for you 40 years ago. OK, rearticulate it! But you have the opportunity to move the movement. The movement never stops. It has valleys and peaks. And we are maybe in a valley, but you have the opportunity to recharge ‘cause the mess this world is in is going to keep giving you the opportunity to recharge. Don’t waste time with self-examination. We did that. We wasted a whole lot of time in the movement 40 years ago, arguing amongst ourselves about direction, about White folks, about these conservative Black people, what we gonna do. That reality is there, and it’s time for you to already accept it, understand it, and move on.

CARLTON TURNER: So, I think part of exactly what Brother Brooks is saying is that if you look at the visions that Stephanie is laying out, you got gay rights, human rights, you got all of these different things, and most of them are about what we are fighting against. But that articulation of that new vision, of another world is possible, has to start with talking about what we stand for and the things that we want to create, that we have not been traditionally good about articulating.

Are we trying to replace the power structure of the United States with people who look and think like us? Or are we trying to create a whole new spectrum of how we live in the communities and societies that we support? Because if we are just talking about electing Obama for president, that doesn’t change the situation that we are in. So, how do we think about a new way of organizing ourselves around a vision of what we want and it being completely different than what we live in?

WATKINS: I remember during the year that Jesse Jackson was running for a nomination for president, there was an argument going through the country,… and it was whether Jesse was a strategy or a goal. Obama or Hillary or whatever cannot be a goal, but it can be a strategy if we are identifying a long-term goal that is about substantial, radical change.

It is important that we see the steps as being strategies. It’s also important—this is something that Myles Horton (founder of the Highlander Center) taught me—he was talking about his work with communists and he said, “There’s no such thing as integration. I’m not integrating with communist people. It’s intersecting. We can meet at intersections and do some work together, and the next day we are going in different directions, but we’ll meet at another intersection.” There are people who are going to approach the long-term struggle through the gay-and-lesbian movement, through education, through women’s rights, through immigrant rights, because of our individual needs and interests. The long-term goal, then, is to see how struggles intersect, build each other up, the next day going in different directions, but meeting at another intersection. And Myles said when we meet at another intersection and another intersection, we get to understand each other’s work and we respect each other’s work and therefore we strengthen the whole movement. As opposed to having all of these very narrow struggles that make us isolated from other comrades.

TURNER: The whole notion of institutionalizing is part of the problem. The fact that we are not creating structures that really evolve around a set of values and visions and thinking that we can create an institution like Alternate ROOTS in 1976 and that the same foundation that it was built on in ‘76 is going to be valid in 2007. A few years ago I made my first visit to Whitesburg, and Dudley Cocke (director of Roadside Theater) cooked a dinner, and we sat around the table. And he said, “Well, you know, ROOTS was supposed to be around for five years and then die and then whatever resurfaced from those ashes became whatever we need to be moving towards.” It’s 32 years later. I hear people saying, well, the organization wants to survive and I say, no, people want to continue doing the work. But we don’t need to sit here and think that if ROOTS is not there that the work won’t get done. And so it becomes a thing about what does the institution need and how does trying to sustain an institution actually drain our ability to do the real work.


CARON ATLAS: There are some pretty strong arguments for having institutions, and especially institutions run by people of color, and longstanding institutions, and institutions that are not the conventional kind. I just want to put that out there so we don’t totally discredit that. I think the problem is that a lot of these institutions become rigid and aren’t living institutions. But I’ve heard very compelling arguments about building power in communities, about the importance of having a place that you own, that people feel is a safe place to come to, that has been around long enough that people can trust it and challenge it. And I know a lot of institutions aren’t that. But if everything comes together around leadership and is always shifting, I think it can be hard to build power. I’m working in Brooklyn in gentrifying neighborhoods, and a lot of people there are saying if we had our own organizations here that we own, we wouldn’t be thrown out of this neighborhood now, our culture wouldn’t be discredited. We could claim our culture and represent it as an institution in the neighborhood.

TURNER: I just want to say a lot of that is built on trying to contrast institutions. You know what I am saying? So, you build an institution in order to fight against another institution. What I am talking about—and I am not disagreeing about the need for institutions because I think where we’re at you may need to establish institutions to fight against those—but what I am talking about is a dynamic and a change in the way that you think about your community to where power is based on value and it’s something that everybody holds so it’s not that you feel like you need to build this to combat those folks over there because you all share the same values.

SLIE: Over the summer I realized—Bruce (France) and I were talking about it—I don’t want to be an organization. I didn’t get into this to want to be an organization. We created an organization because nobody else around us was helping us to do our work and we had a vision of what we wanted to do, so we were like, okay, let’s pick a name and an organization. At this point, I feel like we know enough people—does it make sense for us to join forces with a bunch of other people and create more of a collective organization, a shared-power organization? Or does it make sense for our little organizations to keep doing what we are doing into the future? Because I do not see the merit of simply having a two-person organization where you have no life because you are overworked, you have two jobs, you’re writing for these grants, and you have these little projects.

BRUCE FRANCE: I think part of it is I only have so many hours in the day. I only have so many things that I can involve myself with in a year, in my lifetime, and so I have to ask myself the question. Yes, I think what we are doing is valuable. And I’ve seen the results of it with people and how it helps move folks. But I start to wonder—I almost want to give it to somebody else. Like great, go run with that, because I had this other idea that I want to go run with.

JOHN O’NEAL: The thing that I am thinking about right now is the discussion about institutionalizing certain aspects of the work. And the impression I left that part of the discussion with is that the prevailing sentiment in the room is that institutionalization is of necessity a bad thing. And I realized that was a very brief discussion of a very, very big subject. But I want to tell a little story.

When I was 22 years old and decided to come south to work in the movement, I viewed it as an interruption in my plans to go to New York and learn about theater and how to become a participant in the institution of theater. I was going to New York because that’s where the U.S. headquarters of that institution exists. And my plan was to stay for three to five years. I was shocked when I got south and I found that most people who had come to work in the movement—who were students, I was just graduating—had come to stay for three to five weeks, three-five months at the outside—they were going to get everything straight and then go on with their lives. I soon discovered that the struggle that we had chosen to engage was not going to be straightened out in three to five weeks, three to five months, three to five years. Indeed, I had joined a struggle that was going to take at least one lifetime. Normal lifetime, because lifetimes were being cut short there by all kinds of means. So, I made a decision then that this would be my life’s work.

Since then, I’ve come to understand that it may be three to five lifetimes of work in the lifetime of an average human being. And that these problems are not problems of the South but problems of the way the whole Western culture is structured and built. Now some of those problems can be attacked in a meaningful way in a short time. But most of them cannot be. And with the things that take a long time to deal with, it’s essential to have institutions. Otherwise each new generation of work is going to start all over and reinvent the wheels, even as the institutions that we oppose are rolling forward with a certain consistency. As hard as we work on these short-term goals, we get further behind if we fail to have an overarching, long-term view that has substance.

And so I just hope we think through real carefully what our designs are going to be to get at that long-term work because I believe—the world in which our grandchildren are growing up in is far worse than the world that I grew up in. The problems that they will have to confront and solve are more difficult by far. Some things have to be attacked as institutional issues. We have a long row to hoe, a long road to travel to even to get to the field where our work lies. If we don’t do it, all we are doing is making it worse for those grandchildren.

WATKINS: I am taking home more questions than answers. And some of the main questions have to do with institutionalization. And not just because I am not sure exactly what we mean by institutionalization. It seems to me that it can take several different forms.

We sit here just a couple of blocks from some of the most important cultural organizing that I have done in my life. Farish Street. You go down here a couple of blocks and you run into Farish Street and, especially during the days of segregation, that was one of the two hubs of Black business and Black culture in Jackson, Mississippi. At a time when some of us grasped the idea that concentration of culture was beginning to fly away from us, and asking how do we preserve it, how do we celebrate it, we came up with the Farish Street festival. Essentially, it was two days a year that we’d do this big festival on Farish Street and we’d present artists that were current in Jackson and in Mississippi. But we’d also find ways to celebrate the past.

There was a club called Birdland—some of the great jazz musicians had played at Birdland. And there were several Black businesses. Dr. Harmon’s where you could find the latest pharmaceutical stuff, but also you could find some witchcraft stuff. And also the federal building—it was a big struggle in Jackson to get that named after a Black man. In Jackson, Mississippi, at that time, that was kind of like “oooh, what?!” But it was named after a Black man. And there was the Alamo Theater, which was at one time the only movie house in town that Black folks could go to.

What I tried to do with the Farish Street festival was to build in something that was educational and also inspiring in terms of what we might do with a street that was our street. And further down there was a school—Smith Robertson, the first Black school—and Richard Wright attended that school, as did one of my children. How do you preserve that history, use that history in organizing people? And you had the power structure here that was interested in injecting drugs in that area. And that went up to the highest level of leadership. And the struggle of people like Mrs. Collins, whose family owned a funeral home there. The struggle of Black people to maintain small businesses, to have some sort of economic leverage, to have some sort of power base from which they could do certain things that they thought were important in the community.

So, what I tried to do with the festival—as opposed to, “Hey come out, let’s whoop and holler and leave the streets dirty”—was to support that kind of history and also to hear the voices of those people, like Dr. Harmon, who had the best hot tamales that I ever tasted. He still got ‘em. Is he still down there?

SOMEONE: Let’s go get some…(laughter)

WATKINS: The best tamales I ever had. And to hear those people’s voices and what their aspirations were and what their struggles were and to put it in print and to feature them and you could have time on the air and so forth. I remember during the end of that time feeling that there was so much of that that was misunderstood. I remember wondering did people understand the difference between ‘Heidy-heidy ho, let’s have a good time’ and an event that had high visibility that was already trying to point to the issues that the community was facing. And I remember feeling very clearly, “Who will pick up this work, who will understand what this work was? Who will carry this work forward?” And at this stage of my life, that’s one of my—it’s not that the work I’ve done has been so great—but it has been a road. It has been a road to hope and how do I leave that to others? How does that not get lost?

additional participants quoted in this article

Caron Atlas, director of the Arts & Democracy Project

Owen Brooks, research historian at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson, Mississippi, and a Mississippi Freedom Movement veteran

Bruce France, co-founder and co-artistic director of Mondo Bizarro

Stephanie McKee, a New Orleans-based performer, choreographer, and educator, founder of Moving Stories

John O’Neal, emeritus artistic director of Junebug Productions in New Orleans, Louisiana

Nick Slie cofounder and co-artistic director of Mondo Bizarro

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008