Staying In It With You


An Intergenerational Conversation by Ron Ragin and Judi Jennings about grantmaking, artmaking, and meaning making.

A 2020 Bridge Conversation by Ron Ragin and Judi Jennings

"The honesty of showing up as my full self, the availability to build relationships outside of that grantmaking transaction, deepened the work, made it more satisfying–one of the joys of being a local or regional funder, I’d say."
"Like Octavia Butler wrote in Parable of the Sower, all that you touch you change, all that you change, changes you. I believe we must bring that level of intentionality to everything we do, everywhere we do it. All of it matters. Every utterance, every emotion matters."


Ron Ragin: I write, sing, compose, and make interdisciplinary performances that integrate sound, text, and movement. My creative interests include music of the African Diaspora, embodied ancestral memory, improvisational creative processes, liberation aesthetics, and the development and maintenance of spiritual technologies. I grew up in Perry, Georgia and received my earliest musical training at the Saint James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. My work has received support from Alternate ROOTS, MAP Fund, New England Foundation for the Arts, and Theatre Communications Group, among others. As a researcher, coach, and strategist, I partner with artists, nonprofit organizations, and grantmakers, drawing on my creative/production practices as well as decade-long work in (cultural) philanthropy as a researcher and program officer. I make home in New Orleans. 

Judi Jennings: I write about the impact of parental incarceration on children's health in my community, the power of art to change our local criminal legal system, and why people should pay attention to the judges they elect. Things that I think about a lot include understanding my role as an elder in the youth-led uprisings of our time, how to show people in my community the deeply embedded cultural roots of racism and injustice in ways they can see it, and how my 18th century research fits into all this. I earned a Ph.D. in 18th century British History, worked at Appalshop and directed a Kentucky-based arts foundation for 16 years. In "retirement," I direct The Special Project, creating weekly art activities in the visitors lobby of our local jail, and coordinate Louisville Family Justice Advocates, creating art, building knowledge, and changing local criminal legal policies & practices.  

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Two Unlikely Grantmakers Become Friends

Ron Ragin: The first time we really got to hang out and start to know each other was at a retreat at Penn Center on St. Helena Island in South Carolina in January 2011. We’d interacted at Grantmakers in the Arts’ Art and Social Justice Preconferences in years prior, but being back South and during that retreat, that’s where we connected. You and Tim Dorsey, then at the Open Society Foundations, had called together a bunch of grantmakers who were interested in deepening the field’s support for work at the intersections of art, culture, and social justice. It was such an amazing group of people, and I was SO YOUNG! I was honored to be in that space. 

Judi Jennings:  Yes, we first crossed paths at the annual Social Justice Preconferences originated by Claudine Brown. You organized a preconference in San Francisco that I remember well for the great artists and the food trucks! When Claudine left Nathan Cummings Foundation, she passed the preconference torch to Tim and me. Tim knew Maura Bairley as a great facilitator, and he had the idea of a retreat at Penn Center to chart our way forward, as arts and culture grantmakers who cared about justice. 

Being at Penn Center was such an intense experience. The Center is on the eastern edge of South Carolina, where ships carrying enslaved Africans first came ashore. I kept asking myself, what does it mean to be a white ally in the very presence of black enslavement?  At the same time, I felt myself coming together with you across these deep and painful historical differences through the southern culture that spawned us–gospel music, “being polite,” especially to elders, carrying our families with us always. Both of us were unlikely funders, strongly committed to the power of art and social justice and also uncomfortable as arts and culture "philanthropists" and always feeling responsible and accountable to "our people." 

One night, I remember so clearly, we were all eating dinner together. You sang, and your voice went straight into my heart.

Ragin: It’s lovely to hear you recount your experience of my singing. I love singing in all spaces, but it’s rare to share song with folks in foundation land; that’s a loss I think. Bringing my voice and my vocal practice to all of my work is part of accountability, which was always a big concern for me when I was working in philanthropy. I was able to develop an accountability practice in part because I was always a practicing artist while I was a grantmaker, which created some tensions for sure. I remember getting some early advice from a funder colleague, who told me that I should put my artistic practice on hiatus while I was a program officer to avoid potential conflicts of interest, to at least avoid performing at local nonprofit presenting and producing organizations. I understood her caution, and I took it to heart in that I never approached organizations about presenting or producing my work. I really couldn’t get paid, since the Hewlett Foundation funded so much of the performing arts ecosystem in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But staying active as a peer artist and collaborator kept me honest. I got feedback about the Hewlett Foundation–positive and negative–all the time; and I learned how to receive it, with some grace, I hope. I was in as authentic a relationship as I could be with many Bay Area artists and cultural workers, particularly those who shared my concern with justice. We were part of communities that continue to be marginalized and extracted from: Black folks, queer and trans folks, working class and poor folks. The honesty of showing up as my full self, the availability to build relationships outside of that grantmaking transaction, deepened the work, made it more satisfying–one of the joys of being a local or regional funder, I’d say. I’m curious if any of that reflection on accountability resonates with you during your time at the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

It felt important to bring my perspective, given that I had the opportunity to do so. There was nobody I knew who had my intersecting experiences or identities and who was working as a program officer in philanthropy at the time. I was a twenty‑four-year-old, Black, gay, queer man from a rural place in the South. It was lonely. There was certainly no one in the building at the Hewlett Foundation who shared those intersecting identities and experiences with me.

Jennings: I can really see how that would be lonely. And the age thing really matters.  I am realizing that even more, looking back now. I was 63 years old when you and I started becoming friends. By then, it was pretty obvious to me how some younger people like hanging out with elders and some don’t. You always seem really comfortable with intergenerational conversations and friendships, and I love that! 

In terms of my being accountable as a statewide funder, the population of Kentucky (around 4 million people) is smaller than the Greater San Francisco area, I am pretty sure. I know a lot of people all over the state, and they had no qualms about keeping me honest. My accountability practice, like yours, always centered on claiming my own identity. Mine being working class white, with Appalachian roots, a single woman by choice and a recovering academic. As Executive Director, I was meticulous (not to say obsessed) with making sure the KFW Board, staff, peer panel reviewers, and funded and unfunded applicants were inclusive of all the demographics of our state. 

Ragin: I’d love to hear more about your work in philanthropy in the years before we met.

Jennings: I started working at KFW in 1998. It was a different world for arts and culture philanthropy then. Big national foundations ruled the philanthropic roost; they still do, but not quite as much. There wasn’t much focus on grassroots artists and organizations or “arts and culture” beyond the Western European canon. Yet there were always some people of color and people from low income backgrounds and varied identities and cultures, and we would stand up and say, “Hey we are here, too!”  

All of that really started changing in the mid and late 2000s. Katrina was a huge wake-up call for all kinds of funders, including those in arts and culture. That storm, and Hurricane Sandy, too, ripped the veneer off all kinds of racial, economic and cultural inequalities. After Katrina, more funders started calling for racial and cultural equity and social justice in arts and cultural philanthropy. We found each other and began building trust inside Grantmakers in the Arts through the preconferences, and our numbers grew. 

By 2011-2012,  there were enough of us to form the Art x Culture x Social Justice Network (ACSJN). I became the first Coordinator after I retired from KFW in 2014. I was so happy when you and I became Co-Coordinators, which you shortened to “Co-Cos.”  

Ragin: It was certainly exciting for me. I’m glad that we led with values inside ACSJN. For example, we had an explicit racial justice analysis and knew the importance of working directly with folks doing the work on the ground. Those ACSJN conversations were amazing, in part because it was a space where folks doing grassroots work and those of us in grantmaking were connecting as peers and collaborators, having real-talk conversations and making more robust personal connections. It allowed for a lot of honesty, and I think some real transformation. Not to toot our own horns, but I do think we played a large role in keeping the momentum going that eventually led to GIA’s Racial Equity statement and Board work. You and I were also very values-driven in our work together as Co-Coordinators of ACSJN.

Jennings: Now I know that the ways we grew up, although decades and miles apart, helped make us really good Co-Cos. For example, my working class, single Mom taught me high standards: always (literally meaning with no exceptions) do what you say you will do, to the best of your abilities, in a timely manner. And you always met or exceeded my Mom’s standards in our work together, and more.

Ragin: That’s a really sweet reflection. Thank you! Certainly, my family and upbringing have informed so much of the way I work. My paternal grandfather trained me to think critically and to express my ideas clearly. My dad’s mom taught me the importance of uncompromising excellence in everything I do -- like your mother! My mom taught me humility and how to listen deeply to others. My dad was very politically engaged and taught me to look at structures and systems, especially how race affects society. 

That teaching happened in the container of the small-town Black community in Perry, GA, the town where my paternal line has lived since the mid to late 1800’s. I actually grew up on farm land that my family has been stewarding for six generations now, so I also know what it means to live somewhat rurally. Interdependence was the way things worked. You can’t be transactional in that community. All of these things that my family and community taught me informed my work in philanthropy and continue to inform my work now.

How are we doing the alternative work of dreaming and building beyond what we know?

Jennings:  I would like to know more about your pathway towards becoming an independent artist.

Ragin: It was probably around 2011 that I started feeling the itch to shift my energy and time toward my artistic practice, and to leave full-time salaried work of any kind. I finally made that shift in 2015, when I left my last (philanthropy) job at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. That moment was also when I rotated off being a Co-Coordinator for ACSJN. It was time for me to shift out of focusing on private foundation philanthropy because, even at their best, those institutional power dynamics are often out of values alignment for me. 

I really love Audre Lorde and Black feminist and womanist teachings on difference, and those wisdoms are coming up for me thinking about the moment of my transition. It’s through values-based work and relationship building and trust that we sit with our differences and say, “What you’re doing is beautiful, even if it’s not my path,” or “This dynamic is hard, AND I’m willing to stay in this with you.” I had so many of these thoughts while working in foundation land, at these kinds of institutions. But folks of color and others whose people are on the margins/frontlines often bear the weight of managing and protecting themselves inside of those differences, and sometimes, things just need to shift!

Since that transition, so much has happened. About one year after my transition from full-time work in philanthropy and devoting myself to my creative practices, I had a conversation with a friend about how it was going and what I was learning. As I recounted the year, I had this epiphany: I had only been working in partnership with Black people for the past 12 months. Up to that point, I don’t think I would have ever been able to say that. And I felt SO GOOD, so refreshed, so much lighter. It was an important moment of healing for me. For a decade, I’d been working in these white institutions, dealing with all of the aggressions toward me, as a Black person in those environments, and also doing work of which I was mostly proud. But then I just got tired. There are also folks of color who have adapted to survive and excel in those environments and who too often end up replicating the very white supremacist violences and extractive capitalist practices that we say we’re about dismantling. And they are often enacting these violences on other folks of color. It’s terrible. It took me a year and a good friend asking that question for me to realize how much healthier I was. 

Since 2015, I’ve primarily been working on Vessels, a seven-woman harmonic meditation on the Middle Passage that explores the question, “What does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?” Rebecca Mwase is the visionary behind the work, and she invited me to co-direct it with her. After four years of development, we finally premiered the piece in 2019. It was beautiful, and I’m looking forward to touring it in 2020 and beyond. That piece has been important for me in thinking about what I’m building, contributing to, and who it’s for. Vessels is for Black women. Everyone else is invited to come, respectfully and as a guest, but Black women are centered. It’s for them. 

I also feel really connected to these questions in Vessels’ sister project, Freedom Chamber: singing and storytelling work with women who have experienced incarceration, and with organizers. It’s been really beautiful and has revealed in me a calling to craft spaces with folks where people can take supported risks with their voices. And these spaces, in both process and performance (and when sharing the process beyond a core group), are explicit about who is in that core. I love it, and I’m sure it will also inform my work forever. 

I’ve launched the Spiritual Technologies Project and done some deep research on a dying form of congregational singing that I grew up doing in church. It’s called “lining hymns.” We’ve connected with some amazing folks in my home region of Central Georgia and, interestingly enough, have spent a lot of time with the Gullah/Geechee Nation on St. Helena–that same island where Penn Center lies and where you and I connected deeply. Everything comes full circle! 

I’m also working on my first solo performance, exploring tenderness, intimacy and physical touch among Black men, particularly in the context of families. I’m looking forward to sharing that work-in-process at some point toward the end of this year. There’s so much healing we need to do as Black men, and I’m excited for that journey.

What’s been up in your world and in your work? 

Jennings:  You are on an amazing personal and creative journey! Thanks so much for sharing. I am glad to say that “retirement” and “elderhood” also offer opportunities for learning and growing. I retired from my work with the Art x Culture x Social Justice Network in 2016, but I didn’t stop working. I still direct a program that focuses on making art every week with children and caregivers in the visitors lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail. As in most jails, there is only video visiting, no physical contact at all. And the families routinely wait two hours or more for their 20 minute visits with a television monitor and a phone. And now pre-trial detention is about incarcerating people who have not yet been found guilty of anything, Every week, we see the need for policy change and how unjust the criminal justice system really is. So a group of us are now working to create new policies and practices in our community--and still making art with the families directly experiencing the impact of incarceration, too.

So tell me more about your latest learning and priorities?

Ragin: I’ve shifted my practice, even as I have re-entered the philanthropy space, as a consultant and as I partner with white folks again, but I’m no longer prioritizing that work. I expended so much energy and time being a bridge builder and translator, trying to help elite white institutions understand how to do better. In contrast, and to extend the metaphor, I am now focused on building HOUSES for my people and writing POETRY in my mother tongues. For me there’s a moratorium on bridges and translations. There are others who are committed to and doing fabulously at that work. But, as for me, I’m not concerned about whether folks outside of my communities can “read” most of what I “write.”   

I think about, what is our practice now? Wherever we find ourselves related to systems of oppression–the carceral system, our culture of punishment, and systemic racism that criminalizes Black folks; patriarchy and the sexism and misogyny that uphold it; extractive capitalism and the systems and cultures of institutionalized philanthropy that try to make it palatable. How are we doing the alternative work of dreaming and building beyond what we know? And that's why I think our many forms of art are important technologies from our cultural practices and lineages. I think of the songs that I learned growing up as technologies. They are tools that have a specified, repeatable, and desired effect. As Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon said, they tamper with us. So how are we doing that tampering intentionally? How are we tampering whenever we show up with our energy in any space? 

Like Octavia Butler wrote in Parable of the Sower, all that you touch you change, all that you change, changes you. I believe we must bring that level of intentionality to everything we do, everywhere we do it. All of it matters. Every utterance, every emotion matters. Matter, literally, as in it moves atoms around. And “matters” as's meaningful, it's consequential, it's significant, even if it's small.

Jennings: Beautifully stated and so important amidst the national and international context we live in now. It was definitely consequential and significant when I heard you sing at Penn Center. Eight years and many subsequent changes later, our friendship is so meaningful and, I truly believe, will endure for years to come. 

Photo captions and credits:

Ron headshot and Vessels group hug, photos by Melisa Cardona
Ron singing, photo by Robbie Sweeny
Judi presenting Health Impact Assessment in Louisville, photo by Layfierre Mitchell 
Judi dancing in Brooklyn cultural organizing workshop, photo by Shannel Resto