Something Else is Possible
Introduction to the Bridge Conversations
By Caron Atlas
"We wanted to identify the values and the vision for organizing that is facilitative and transformative."
In one of the Bridge Conversations that follow, artist Pepón Osorio quotes his mother as saying, “I just want to live in a fair world, FAIR.” I’m not always sure about what it takes to get us to that fair world, but I do know that some of the most powerful change happens in the intersections of generations, cultures, sectors, and geographies. Collected here are stories about these intersections and the people who make them. They are strategic artists and creative organizers, activist anthropologists and poetic politicians, loving family members. All are engaged in the deeply creative act of believing that something else is possible. They are bridges with deep foundations and squatters who bring their communities with them. They may not always be visible (or even want to be visible), but they see in the plural and listen with curiosity and compassion.
When the Art & Democracy Project started in 2005 we talked to artists and activists across the country about their work for social justice and what was needed for it to succeed. We wanted to identify the values and the vision for organizing that is facilitative and transformative. We asked a diverse group of bridge people to talk with one another. We weren’t sure if anyone would respond; after all, we had asked some of the busiest people we know. To our surprise, everyone we asked agreed, and others, learning about the project, wanted to be included. These conversations gave a group of action-oriented people a moment to take a breath and reflect with someone they admired.
In some cases we suggested the pairings; in others, participants chose. One person in each conversation documented it, and the format of this documentation was left open to participants. As a result, some of the conversations are presented in essay format, others in the form of the conversation, and still others as a mixture of these two approaches. Some are interviews; others are dialogues.
While we started by focusing primarily on people’s work, we soon found that the journey to an integrated perspective includes people’s personal lives—how they grow up, how they connect cultures and worldviews, and how they balance their personal life and work. “Bringing your full self to your work” became a complementary, and at times, painful theme. For some people having an integrated life is the continuation of a long tradition; for others it is the start of something new.
Immediately the participants complicated our initial premise of “bridging” in wonderful ways. Some people embraced the term but made it richer by focusing on the bridge itself, and not just what it was connecting. This happened in my conversation with Ken Wilson (the pilot conversation). When I worked with Ken on an arts and culture session for the Environmental Grantmakers retreat, he had inspired our colleagues to take creative risks while I bumped into boundaries. I wanted to learn how he connected culture and ecology so gracefully, so I asked if we could talk about bridging. He immediately complicated the inquiry:
“Let’s get squarely into the topic, and not live in a bifurcated world. In other words, instead of thinking of a world in which topics are siloed, with occasional linking bridges, let’s move to a world where we recognize that the richest things happen in the connections.”
Others preferred to use completely different terms: tunneling, shape-shifting, squatting, weaving, trespassing, and edgewalking, to name a few, and draw on their particular meanings, histories, and contexts. Many of them evoked concepts and images of the spaces at the intersection and “in between.” For example, amalia deloney speaks of the Nahuatl term nepantla that “the space in the middle is actually a space, a place in and of itself. It’s not a place going to anything. It is a place to be and become all at once.” Jeremy Liu describes the interstitial spaces between two types of environments or ecologies, rich in diversity and often having the most species. Ken Wilson describes the river as a life force that unites people rather than dividing them, and Brad Lander shares Marcel Mauss’s image of being on a train platform with 600 other people around you, and appreciating the 600 particular consciousnesses and very different experiences of that exact same moment.
The conversations consider who is making the connections and the nature of the bridging. In “Organic and Traditional Bridging,” Francisco Guajardo distinguishes between those who bridge through institutions and those who connect through the “organic reservoir of knowledge they possess.” Both are represented in the collection, and as Guajardo notes, some, like his organization, the Llano Grande Center, are both. “Miz Culchure Lady,” Helen Taylor, is an organic bridge in Mississippi. She runs a daycare center, incorporates the arts, and finds housing for people in need, often at the same time. So is Tufara Waller Muhammad, who in “Planning the Revolution over Collards,” describes her discomfort with being singled out to share her experience and separate her knowledge from the community in which it is grounded.
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On the institutional side, “Breaking out of a Bifurcated World” considers questions of power and privilege within philanthropy and how to most effectively bridge institutional resources and communities. This conversation engages the paradox many funders face when the practices and structures of philanthropy disconnect them “from their cultures, their grantees, and their full selves.” Tia Oros Peters, who cosponsored this conversation, asks what may be lost in bridging. While our focus in this collection is on people who make their connections with integrity, can the act of bridging sometimes require too much of a compromise of one’s values and beliefs?
Roberto Bedoya says, “I feed the people who do the imagining,” his institution’s response to “the fault lines of our civic infrastructure.” Providing an infrastructure of their own, the Blue Mountain Center, Highlander Research and Education Center, Pratt Center for Community Development, Junebug Productions, Tamejavi Festival, Seventh Generation Fund, and Center for Cultural Understanding and Change (to name but a few) create spaces where people can come together, make change, and learn from one another. They recognize that, as Alaka Wali puts it, “art is part of the very fabric of humanity.”
“Who will carry this work forward?” The essays in this book were written from 2008 to 2011. Many transitions—births, deaths, new jobs, and new communities—happened over this time, making the question asked by Nayo Watkins just months before her own passing particularly significant. This book begins to answer the question in its conversations across generations and connections built on respect. Michelle Miller writes, “Dee Davis’s longtime work building bridges between arts and activism made me the cultural activist that I am today. I don’t mean his work contributed to some vague larger whole that impacted me, or that in the midst of becoming an activist I ran across it and liked it. I mean it made me.” Paula Allen describes how traditional Native languages are being preserved and shared on digital recorders: “To think that I can put a recording of, say, my great-gram singing onto my daughter’s iPod, to make that kind of connection between generations, is powerful.” And Isao Fujimoto’s Japanese-Welsh-Irish son Basho is “taking the consciousness of all of our heritage … and working with that to create something new.”
I’m writing this introduction on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, an appropriate time to think about connection and transformation. In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit describes the extraordinary communities that come together in response to disaster and how these ephemeral moments in time can enable us to improvise more meaningful lives in a more egalitarian society. What if they were more than just short moments in time? The conversations in this book offer an answer: the purposeful connections and sustained transformations that are possible at the heart of our everyday lives.