In June and July I was fortunate to attend ROOTS Fest National Learning Exchange in West Baltimore, the Rural Cultural Roundtable in St Paul, and the freeDimensional retreat on Wasan Island in Canada. While diverse in focus  - urban and rural, grassroots and global - the three events were all grounded in the power of place, culture and creative agency. Collectively they made me reflect on how we can take active roles in creating communities that reflect our values.

At ROOTS I was moved by the actions taken by West Baltimore neighborhood leaders whose community-the entire 400 block of every street-was torn apart by the "Highway to Nowhere." Having experienced one of the worst examples of urban renewal in the 40s, they are determined to have a proactive voice now that the highway is being removed and light rail is taking its place. John Haley and Joyce Smith described how community associations have formed a coalition and are mentoring young leaders. They believe that constituents should have a strong voice in planning and redevelopment efforts and that policymakers should be accountable to the communities that they impact. Planners and designers now report to the communities every three months. ROOTS Fest, appropriately subtitled "Many Communities One Voice", created a potent bridge to reconnect the community.

Jeremy Frey Porcupine Basket

At the Rural Cultural Roundtable we heard about how diverse communities embrace arts, culture, and media to define themselves and make positive change. Indian Basketmakers join together in the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance to ensure the ownership and survival of their culture. Young adults in the grassroots Stay Project in Central Appalachia build diverse communities with meaningful jobs so they can stay in their home communities to realize their dreams. Artists such as George Marks return to hometowns, such as Arnaudville, LA and catalyze cultural economies with shared benefits.

As Erik Takeshita noted, all of the examples presented were of people "being proactive and taking the matter into their own hands."

I continue to think about questions raised during the roundtable including:

  • Why do things happen in certain places? (Peter Pennekamp)
  • If we are going to make deep shifts how can we reveal an alternative compelling vision that reflects our own voices, histories, and own place? (jessika maria ross)
  • In reference to the dichotomy of arts/culture: How can we live in one world, not in two? (Lori Pourier)
  • How do we broaden the definition of economy to include households, sustainability, and the environment? (David O'Fallen)
  • How might we expand the idea of rural membership to include those who, as part of the rural diaspora, can also claim a stake in a place? (Matthew Fluherty)
  • How do we set an equity agenda around cultural rights? (Amalia Deloney)

At the freeDimensional retreat, I learned about how international colleagues are fighting for the rights of artists and cultural workers to speak truth to power. When we focused on cultural rights, I appreciated the connection between this discussion and our Rural Roundtable, and noted how rarely we explicitly address these critical rights in the United States. As we shared knowledge, I took note of Arshia Sattar's caution about top down and imposed training programs, recommending instead that we use plurals to invoke diverse ways of knowing and multiple modes of action. Wasan Island is an inspiring and transformative place. And one of the deepest lessons I learned was from our Mayan colleague Rosa María del Carmen Chávez Juárez whose protocol of ceremony recognized and respected these ancestral lands of the First Nations of Canada, and asked permission to gather on them.