Direct and Indirect Approaches to Community Change

Littleglobe and SouthWest Organizing Project talk about finding a relationship between community-engaged arts and organizing.

By Valerie Martinez, Robby Rodriguez, Molly Sturges, and Rosina Roibal

"As artists primarily working in community contexts, we don’t start with the issues. We start by bringing people together."

"It is important for artists and community organizers alike to remember that people don’t want to be lectured, and often direct education feels like that."

Robby Rodriguez is a programme executive at the Atlantic Philanthropies. He was formerly executive director of the SouthWest Organizing Project, where he helped lead the organization through a leadership transition and generational shift. Since 2004 he has been a team member of the Building Movement Project.

Rosina Roibal started organizing as a child and continued at Loyola University where she earned an MA in viola performance. She served as arts and culture organizer at SWOP and in 2010 moved to California, where she works as a program coordinator for the Bay Area Environmental Health Collaborative.

Valerie Martinez is an award-winning poet, educator, playwright, librettist, and collaborative artist. As executive director and core artist with Littleglobe, she has been involved in a wide range of community engagement projects with children, youth, adults , seniors, and families. She was the poet laureate of Santa Fe from 2008 to 2010.

Molly Sturges is the cofounder and artistic director of Littleglobe and is best known for her work integrating intermedia performance, community dialogue, and social and environmental equity and healing. Sturges is a professor of practice at the University of New Mexico.

SOUTHWEST ORGANIZING PROJECT (SWOP) is a statewide multiracial, multi-issue, community-based membership organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since 1980, SWOP has worked to make it possible for thousands of New Mexicans to begin to have a place and voice in social, economic, and environmental decisions that affect their lives. Its mission is “working to empower our communities to realize racial and gender equality and social and economic justice.”

LITTLEGLOBE is a Santa Fe-based, nonprofit consisting of a team of seasoned, professional artists, activists, and facilitators from diverse cultural and artistic backgrounds committed to restorative and generative interdisciplinary, collaborative art practices that heal and strengthen our communities and foster life-affirming connections across the boundaries that divide us. Littleglobe partners with people around the world to create works that support and lift the expressions, voices, and wisdom inherent in each individual and community.

COMMON GROUND: TOC: Littleglobe and SWOP are currently partners on a large-scale, multiyear project based in Cuba, New Mexico, and the two nearby eastern agency Diné (Navajo) communities of Torreon and Ojo Encino. The objectives of this new initiative are to provide participants with the tools to express issues of significance and meaning in their lives; explore and elevate underrepresented perspectives, stories, and experiences; provide mentorship opportunities and options for economic development related to the arts; and teach a wide range of community facilitation and dialogue skills. Littleglobe and SWOP hope to support and advocate for real change in these areas through a multiyear commitment to each community. After six months of working with over 90 community members in schools and an intergenerational ensemble, the community participants created the Common Ground Festival (June 7, 2008, Cuba, New Mexico) at the Sandoval County Fairgrounds.

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MOLLY STURGES: Rosina, you have been working with us on the Common Ground project in Cuba, New Mexico. Could you talk a bit about your work and what it’s been like to collaborate with Littleglobe?

ROSINA ROIBAL: One thing that is nice about my arts-based work with SWOP is that it attracts people who are not typically interested in being involved in community organizing. My experience of being involved with SWOP during the ‘80s and ‘90s was that the arts were mainly used in for keeping the kids busy while the adults were in meetings. I rarely experienced a connection between art and social change. I think Robby’s interactions with Littleglobe changed our ideas at SWOP. We didn’t see art as connected to social change. I am an artist and an organizer, and even I have had trouble seeing how to connect the two.

VALERIE MARTINEZ: Littleglobe values intergenerational work so much—the power of older and younger working together, both artistically and socially. Anytime we feel that we can’t successfully integrate the ages we feel it is a loss. Today, it is rare that generations work together and yet the idea is so important and so natural. It echoes a very old tradition. We are forgetting the power of intergenerational work, and if we do, we will lose the wisdom of the elders and their influence and the energy of young people to shape their communities.

STURGES: Rosina, how has it been for you coming to work with us from a community-organizing background? As artists primarily working in community contexts, we don’t start with the issues. We start by bringing people together. We move slowly, we eat together, engage in a range of creative explorations. We create a sense of safety together. We wait to see what emerges. In my conversations with organizers, and my experience of organizing, this is different than traditional organizing.

ROIBAL: I am not used to the Littleglobe process. It evolves. You (Littleglobe) create a space for the arts and then let community issues arise. You facilitate and create opportunities to bring people’s opinions and concerns forward. I think a lot of people in small communities don’t feel safe or comfortable going more directly against the grain and that is what we social justice groups do—we fight against things. So many people are scared to do this—so how does it become possible?

But I also think Littleglobe could create more time where direct and deliberate education about issues is possible. People become inspired by this process and can make art from this place. Maybe this is where we can really connect and help each other. I do this at SWOP when we choose a song for an educational purpose. Once we focused on a Guthrie song about worker camps and we would talk about Chavez. The kids came to empathize with farm workers through the song and the conversation. They begin to understand it on deeper levels and it inspires them.

MARTINEZ: I think this is an important point and it brings up ideas of direction and indirection. Often, when I teach poetry classes, I say that the language of good poetry is the language of indirection. I have a fear of too much directness; sometimes what is lost is nuance and complexity. I’m much more interested in the gray areas. But there is a place for both in Littleglobe’s work; we have both in mind. Sometimes, we give prompts (for creative work, for discussion) that are more directive and sometimes we just wait for things to bubble up. It is a balance. The play between the two is very important.

ROIBAL: I think it is important for artists and community organizers alike to remember that people don’t want to be lectured, and often direct education feels like that. I can see why you are afraid with such directness. I have been faced with this before. One example of this is when I asked my mom, who knows of all of my politics, to come to a play about hunger that we did at SWOP. My mom said she didn’t like it because she is tired of being lectured.

MARTINEZ: I think so often political rhetoric does not allow for participation. I think this is also an issue of time. We have to know each other first to be able to trust and speak our thoughts. That is why our projects are long-term. We have to commit to each other first, to issues second. Long-term collaboration allows for an unfolding that the group can honor and hold. We encourage people to feel the strength of their feelings in a place of mutual trust. When something is too direct, or too quick, I think it does not allow this process.

ROIBAL: In my opinion, we organizers are often not creating a space for the diversity of people’s experience and expressions. We say: Here are the issues and how can you help? What can you do? This may often relate to the issue of time because, for example, maybe the city council is going to decide on something next week and they need voices right away.

STURGES: When someone is trying to organize an emergency response, what time is there?

MARTINEZ: Yes, in that case, there’s no time to wait—it must be direct.

STURGES: At this stage of the project (six months in), I think we have a group of people who are bonding. Trust has developed. We see empowerment. It is now that we need you, Rosina, to help us start conversations with community members about what comes next. How do we continue to support the cultural leadership that is emerging? How do we integrate direct education that is relevant and meaningful to these communities?

ROIBAL: I think artists and organizers should be giving each other workshops and training.

MARTINEZ: For us it is about encouraging and nurturing a community. Bringing people into community who would not typically work together. After the bonds emerge we are able to respond to the issues that arise. And they do arise. Where we are working now, trust comes slowly but it is coming.

STURGES: So, how do we nurture that process and find the right times to bring up, for example, systematic issues regarding power? It is not an easy transition in our projects. Some people seem to crave this kind of discussion and others shrink from it. We have a lot to learn here and we have to remember each project and community is unique.

ROIBAL: This is a challenge. We were talking about the Mexican revolutions in a workshop once, and a girl said, “I hate Mexicans.” She didn’t want to learn the music of other cultures, especially Mexico. This discrimination between Hispanics and Mexicanos is scary.


MARTINEZ: We’ve seen this prejudice, and prejudice leading to violence, in the schools of Santa Fe, too. When I talk to Hispanic kids, they often are surprised to learn that where they live was Mexico until 1848. Much of these problems result from not knowing our own history, not understanding how complex the history of the Southwest is.

STURGES: Take an example from our group. We received an e-mail from someone who would not drive from Cuba to Torreon (‘the rez’), where we hold some of our meetings. We found out many people from Cuba had never been out there, even though kids from Torreon come in every day for school and services. Several people from Cuba feel Torreon is ‘unsafe for non-Natives’. We went back and forth about how to respond. We had purposely scheduled our weekly workshops in both communities. We decided to offer her a ride.

Now, many weeks into the project, many people now cross these lines every weekend. But I don’t know how many people are thinking about the history of that area, the historical trauma, and why the mistrust and tensions have developed. Again, it is an opportunity to create something that could be more educational, but in a creative way.

ROIBAL: And that is where direct education can be effective. For most of my life, I grew up around organizers who had anti-White sentiments. There was a lot of hatred and my mom is White, so it was hard. I didn’t totally understand their judgment of White people. Then I went to an Undoing Racism workshop by The People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond. Extreme facts were offered to us. White people in the group got offended and could not deal with the facts of their own privilege. I was shocked. Then I finally understood what people in the movement were talking about. It was a great thing to learn this.

I think now we could incorporate more educators and organizers into Littleglobe sessions—presenters showing films about hate crimes or immigration—issues that are relevant to what is already coming to the surface in your sessions.

MARTINEZ: This is where you can help me, Rosina. Honestly, I actually feel afraid of bringing things up directly. I worry about alienating people after working so hard to create a place where people feel comfortable together. We work so hard to foster connections and healing.

STURGES: Val, we can reflect on our experiences with La Migra in the last project and how a family we worked with, and many others, went into hiding because of the immigrations sweeps. The whole ensemble had to deal with this and did.

MARTINEZ: The ensemble members who lived in fear during the sweeps all came to the workshops during those hard times because they had trust. It had evolved naturally. Of course, we responded. We all cried. In our current project, I think there is more distrust between community participants.

ROIBAL: I have seen people feel alienated because of one comment. That individual then felt targeted by the rest of the group. I think it is helpful to be very sensitive and to make a space for everyone. A space that is beyond right and wrong. SWOP tries to pick issues that the community will obviously support, such as healthcare, living wage, clean and fair elections. Issues that we know will get people involved. We want to give people a voice.


MARTINEZ: I think art can also do this. We could show works that are more confrontational, even from our own previous projects. Then we could have a conversation about it. There are plenty of examples of art and music taking on some of these topics in many different ways. Littleglobe is working to ensure that our projects lead to conversations with our audiences about the pieces we create—healthy dialogue about controversial subjects.

ROIBAL: It is important in organizing not to assume that one thing is right or wrong. We so often have agendas. A side we are on.

STURGES: We have this opportunity to explore the relationships between definition and abstraction, between direct and indirect. As we think about the next stage of our project we will be dealing with many of these issues. We will be moving from creative exploration to work around building community capacity. We will be responding to concerns around economic development and sustainable programming within the TOC communities.


MOLLY STURGES: Robby, what made you interested in collaborating with Littleglobe initially?

ROBBY RODRIGUEZ: When I saw the DVD about your project Memorylines (a community-dialogue new opera), I realized that what you were doing was organizing even though it was not a campaign, and you never called it ‘organizing’. We have attempted to collaborate with cultural workers for years, and we have attempted to do it in various ways. It is a nut we are still cracking.

STURGES: What do you think SWOP could teach artists that work in communities?

RODRIGUEZ: There are tools that we have learned that are helpful in terms of how we analyze problems and have discussions that may require a little more directness because the problem is so concrete and acute. Within organizing people learn to name and understand the roots of the problems they are facing.

I think the arts are always relevant. Generally speaking there is a scarcity of arts and cultural engagement and that is an obstacle to creating social change work. If we don’t engage people in terms of recognizing them as whole people, it is problematic. I think community-engaged art making, organizing, advocacy work, and service work are all done best collaboratively. We do our best when we are working with others who are trying to address other parts of the problem.

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008