Walking the Talk and Talking the Walk

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 these moments of solidarity and transformation were more than just short moments in time?
What does it look like when we embrace a future of creative possibility and reject a future paralyzed in fear?

People’s Potlucks, a series of artist-led conversations and meals about interdependence, took place across New York City this past summer, carrying on the legacy of Sekou Sundiata’s America Project.

The Arts & Democracy Project hosted a People’s Potluck in Brooklyn, facilitated by playwright and director Talvin Wilks. Drawing on several historical declarations, Talvin asked, “What are we are willing to declare, stand up for up for, and commit to over time?”

Our Potluck included a wonderfully diverse group of people working in the arts, education, human rights, social work, housing, economic development, international development, and more. We spoke about personal accountability and systems change, taking care of neighbors and movement building, equity and the tensions between America’s civic ideals and civic practice.

The series of Potlucks (created by MAPP International Productions in collaboration with Samita Sinha and Create Collective) culminated on September 15 at the celebratory WeDaPeoples Cabaret at Harlem Stage.

Standing up and making a declaration is empowering; it also makes you want to act. Declaration became part of the launch of el Puente’s Green Light District, “a ten-year initiative for the community of the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to speak up and exercise their right to self –determination.” The district draws together the community “to transform Williamsburg from one of the most historically challenged communities in the country to a more equitable, healthy and sustainable place to live.”

At the launch, young people and old declared their commitment to creating a better future in a better neighborhood. The Greenlight District is part of NOCD-NY, a new citywide alliance of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts. NOCD-NY had its own launch in August bringing together a unique alliance of artists, activists, creative manufacturers and policymakers committed to revitalizing the city from the neighborhood up.

Community members are also making their voices heard through New York’s new Participatory Budgeting process. While participatory budgeting happens all over the world, NYC is only the second U.S. city (after Chicago) to try it out.

Arts & Democracy is part of it in the four districts in New York City where it is happening–encouraging artists to come to the table and organizing a call for videos asking, “How would you spend $1 million to support your neighborhood?” The neighborhood assemblies are extraordinary spaces of grassroots democracy in action.

Arts & Democracy’s new publication, Bridge Conversations, People Who Live and Work in Multiple Worlds, also describes transformational spaces, those that exist in the intersections of generations, cultures, sectors, and geographies.

Some people describe their work as bridging, others as tunneling, shape shifting, or squatting, but, as Roberto Bedoya describes it, these spaces are creative responses to the fault lines of our civic infrastructure. And since this book has come out with its descriptions of generative spaces, a new one is now transforming New York’s Liberty Plaza.

These are just a few examples of imagining, declaring, shaping, being, and becoming the future. There are many more. Creating a better world is a contagious act.

this blog was originally written as part of Animating Democracy's Blog Salon