Creating Transformative Spaces

Harriet Barlow and Kathy Engel talk about the Commons and crossing borders.

By Kathy Engel

"There is an increasingly bizarre sense of hierarchy of the oppressed, the superiority of one issue over another one."

"We need to be unafraid to be wrong, unafraid to ask the next question. To go to that soul place."

Harriet Barlow is the director of the Blue Mountain Center, and founder or cofounder of 15 nonprofit organizations. For four decades, Barlow’s work has been focused on creating a synergy between elements of progressive work. Her particular interest is in strengthening the capacity of and integrating cultural work within movements.

Kathy Engel is a poet, teacher, activist. She has co-founded, directed, and consulted with numerous organizations, including founding and acting as first director of MADRE, always emphasizing the relationship between imagination and social change. She teaches in the Department of Art & Public Policy at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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I first met Harriet Barlow in 1982 when we were organizing for the historic March and Rally for Disarmament and Human Needs coinciding with the Second U.N. Special Session on Disarmament in New York City. I, in my twenties, was a cultural coordinator, and Harriet had started something called Arts Alive, acting even then as a bridge between people who saw themselves as organizers and organizations and artists and imaginers. I remember her walking into a gathering of actors, dancers, writers, etc., aimed at involving people in the momentum building toward the June actions. After everyone talked and hemmed and coughed and slid around, Harriet, standing at the back of the rather elegant room, said “I often come to gatherings such as this one, and I hear a lot of ‘yes, yes, yes’, but not a lot of ‘me, me, me!’ It was a call to action and a call to end bullshit! That simple statement struck me as so strong, so wise, so on the mark that I’ve quoted it no less than 50 times since. She had the ability to go to the heart of the situation to shake people up without alienating them completely.

Harriet plucked me up and told me she thought I probably needed some time to rest and think and write and read after that wild moment in history. And she was right, as I was losing my mind, waking in the middle of the night, looking out the window for the children we might have left off the stage!

I went to Blue Mountain Center (BMC) in June 1982. I think it was the first session ever, maybe the second. It changed my life. My husband and I went back the following summer, and he started their garden. I encouraged my friends to go there. It was at BMC in 1982 that I met Kamal Boullata. Kamal and I, with June Jordan and Sara Miles, organized Moving Towards Home, a benefit poetry reading for children in Lebanon, with Lebanese, Israeli, Palestinian, and American poets, and Kamal edited the book based on the reading And Not Surrender. Twenty-five years later, during the July 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Kamal and I reconnected and edited a new edition of the book with new work, called We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon (Interlinkbooks).

I returned to BMC as a resident in June 2007 with Alexis De Veaux and Valerie Maynard to work on a collaboration on women, silence, and terror. What struck me, actually awe-struck me, coming back after so many years, is what care, wisdom, and vision had gone into building BMC into a lasting institution that makes the world more beautiful, sustainable, and possible by caring for people engaged in creative, thoughtful, daring efforts of transformation. The sense of community—albeit transient by definition, or changing—the ‘who’ of it, the ‘where’ of it, the ‘how’ of it—is remarkable. I count myself among the most fortunate of cultural workers/activists, or as my students have called us, ‘artivists’, to have spent time at that extraordinary place steered by Harriet Barlow.

Harriet’s remarks below are excerpted from my interview with her in December 2007.

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Mine is a standard tale for a political person of my age. I moved through the rivers of the work—civil rights, antiwar, women’s movement, Central America—each one feeling they were doing something different, insistently a different stream. This pride of distinctiveness became clearest when I got into the antinuclear movement and was told I had to choose between antinuclear power and antinuclear weapons and that both were separate and different from alternative-energy exploration. During my antinuke work Iunsuccessfully dedicated myself to trying to make bridges between weapons, power, and alternative energy movements. I tried to employ my Quaker roots.

There is an increasingly bizarre sense of hierarchy of the oppressed, the superiority of one issue over another one, where you choose an issue and are defined by that issue. What all of this ended up saying to me was that we didn’t pay attention to the origins of the movements—to the essential body of water we all come from.

When it became clear to me that something was wrong about the way we were approaching the work, I also became aware of the cultural underpinnings and the fundamental role of analysis in our work. I realized that in single-issue organizing we mostly talk about tactics and strategy with little of our time spent moving across the elements of the work. That propelled me into thinking about the Blue Mountain Center. When Adam Hochschild and I talked about it in 1981, we asked ourselves what kind of place would help advance the work. I thought we needed to do everything possible to avoid being associated with any sector or ideological strand, but rather to ground long-term organizing in long-term cultural work. I had been researching this and believed that this was how we could strengthen political work.

When I heard this at a Quaker meeting I was moved to the core: “The goal of the spirit is to keep it open enough so it can ultimately contain all that it wants to cherish.” At the Blue Mountain Center we want to believe in collective consciousness and the power of the dynamic, not just at this time, but also with all the people who came before. Jung was right; it’s all about consciousness.

When I say I’m simply not interested in single-issue work except tactically, people often become frustrated or angry. I can only think that it’s my job to figure out how to talk about it more effectively than I know how. We don’t have a way of talking about it; it’s too abstract. Most great literature is great by virtue of being great about many things—the human heart finding its place against the backdrop of the chaos of the world. I find the questions and complexities expressed more in the arts, in literature, than in polemical writing. Dickens, for example, in a Western context, explores class profoundly. (I am a Marxist, but not prescriptive. I am a fan of the clarity of Marxian analysis expressed brilliantly by Dickens.) Nobody has to read Marx or Engels to understand class; they can read Dickens. Or read Pers Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, and you could talk for weeks about gender, class, betrayal, and the land. In the end, you could say how reading helps you place yourself in history. Isn’t that the reason we try to find our own voices, to find where we want to place ourselves in history? Out Stealing Horses helps me do the most difficult work—to keep the distinction between respectful analysis and judgmentalism. To be useful in history requires me to keep struggling with that.

I can’t figure out the immigration issue in 2007 unless I work out the distinction between being judgmental and being analytical. One does well to avoid sinking deep into any single rivulet, because that makes a useful detachment impossible. Reading Out Stealing Horses helps. I have the same feeling looking at Mark Rothko. Invisible Man is about race, but about everything. People from any culture can read and identify with it. It’s important not to be sectarian in any way, to work to find what is a window.

People who are not in the arts tend to see the arts as decorative. Great art is still seen as a luxury rather than a starting point or essential or integral to the capacity to proceed with the accuracy one needs in order to act politically. We need consciousness, analysis, tactics, and strategy (in that order). We need arts braided with political or nonarts-specific community. This is one reason for the Blue Mountain Center.

The last eight years of my work on the Commons has been an effort to find a way of talking, a world view that matches this commitment. It works because it encompasses every element that I find essential to achieving a just world, a healthy world—everything we care about. The Center for New Community is trying to approach the immigration question by finding the Commons. Its main political argument is against the politics of scarcity.*

On a practical level, what impedes us is the way the work is organized, that political change is felt to be legitimized in the nonprofit sector (my professional home), and it is all based on tactical and strategic opportunity driven by funding possibilities. Foundations won’t give support for general work, for saying ‘let’s figure’ out what it would take to make a difference in this community and then ‘let’s do it’. In all the Commons work we haven’t raised pennies, but we have made inroads to help people to think differently. It’s unfundable because it’s too abstract. We hear from funders: “I love this, it’s so relevant, but it doesn’t fit anywhere.”

To institutionalize these approaches into systemic change is not as complicated as we think it is. It is what the Rockwood Leadership Program [a training program for progressive leaders] is trying to do. Huge numbers of organizers and activists move through the program learning confidence building. It demonstrates the efficacy of taking time for discovery—well guided, personal, and interactive discovery. It is an important model. They have four-day and yearlong trainings that are dramatically significant for their participants. What underlies the work is room for soul, analysis, and connectivity. How do we find that together?

For example, if we want to talk about race, we could talk about a national conversation about possibility. But we need to talk about public education and prisons. Rhetoric trumps analysis that might take people to the place where they would take action on those institutionalized renderings of American failure to address race and class systemically.

We need more conversations—to not be afraid to bring people together just to talk, to read to each other. We need to be unafraid to be wrong, unafraid to ask the next question. To go into that soul place.

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Talking with Harriet about the connections among art, artists, the creative process, and progressive political work was like swimming a river I know and love and still finding new life in it, new rivulets, new names for fish and wildflowers and the ways the waters move. Her water imagery, the sensuousness and continuity of her rendering of our human organism, our journey; her persevering commitment to challenge herself on the question of judgment, as distinct from analysis; her forward movement toward understanding fused with pragmatism, creativity fused with analysis, humility fused with purpose—move and inspire me.

The way she talks about literature and art as windows for social understanding and depth resonate with me. I only wish more people engaged in progressive political work shared this sensibility. I feel if more of us viewed our work with this wholeness we would be more powerful in our ability to make meaningful, respectful change.

I agree with Harriet; we need more conversation. Never should we dismiss talk as lack of action. In this terrifying age of smart bombs, the shelling of language and culture, the hijacking of our humanity, we must honor our most basic and useful communication—our ability to talk, probe, think, and create together.

And we need the space necessary to figure out other ways to fix things, reimagine our world. Here’s what I wished at the end of my conversation with Harriet—more time to talk and listen and explore in the way that your body sometimes craves green vegetables and fresh fruits.

It’s hard to live in the space that doesn’t fit into categories, that perhaps goes unnamed. The place of attempting to pull down walls and reconnect in new and different configurations. It’s uncomfortable. And exciting, interesting, filled with possibility. I so appreciated hearing Harriet define this ‘bridge’ space that is familiar to me, and I’m also grateful because I always learn so much from the well of her references and breadth of information and analysis she brings to any conversation. She reminds us that we don’t have to choose between being conscious, intellectual, creative, pragmatic, analytic, strategic, humble. We are all these things, can be, must be—just like the river, the Commons, the threads connecting us to those who came before.

*The Commons is made up of all that we inherit and create together and should pass on undiminished to the next generation. It consists of gifts of nature (air, fresh water, the ocean, wilderness, etc.) and gifts that we as a society have ‘gifted’ to one another (Social Security, farmers markets, the Internet, bridges, scientific knowledge, libraries, etc.).

The Center for New Community is a national organization committed to building community, justice and equality.

Original CAN/API publication: April 2008