Finding Common Language Between Artists and Community Organizers

The second Bridge Conversation between Littleglobe and SouthWest Organizing Project about their ongoing collaboration.

"We have stereotypes that organizers and artists have about each other…. We are going to find real differences in approach and practice."

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. 

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.

This is the second bridge conversation between Littleglobe and SouthWest Organizing Project about their ongoing collaboration.  The first conversation was held in June 2008 and entitled "Direct and Indirect Approaches to Community Change." To read the first conversation click here 

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MOLLY STURGES: It seems to me that you, Robby, as an organizer, and we as artists at Littleglobe are all involved in looking deeply at the processes whereby we come to access the stories that inform our lives—the process of choosing, discarding, and reframing those stories, and then the telling the chosen stories in our own strong voices.

ROBBY RODRIGUEZ: I have been watching the news a lot lately and in terms of race, I think the only way we can get to a point where we can really move forward, into a post-racial place, is through cultural change.

VALERIE MARTINEZ: I go to the word ‘fear’. I am thinking of all of the public racial slurs of late. So when you say, how do we change the story, I wonder—is changing the story possible when fear is really present? At Littleglobe we spend so much time building relationships and creating safety. I know you do that too. We are both working against fear, I hope, reclaiming, and re-languaging. How does changing a story affect the presence of fear in our lives that is constantly being affirmed by conservative media? I have a lot of questions about this.

RODRIGUEZ: I feel that the work that we [SWOP] do, and have been doing is about working with and facing fears. But how do you do that to a level of scale and significance? One of the things so important in developing leaders is encouraging people to tell their story in their own voices.

STURGES: How do we create/identify/unearth the living stories that inspire us and give us strength rather than perpetuate fear?

How does this happen in community organizing? How do artists do this? So many questions. In our work we see that creative exchange facilitates emotional connection, empathy, the discovery of new possibilities. We develop the connective tissue we need to work over the long-term on difficult issues. We also see that creative exchange and art making can give rise to metaphors that guide us.

I am wondering, in all this, about where we place art making. It can be perceived as so separate in the conventional paradigm to basic human need, but it is always present—it seems so essential. I would like to see this work become more accessible to other fields and sectors as it really is about engagement. Deep engagement, something that happens when we feel significant connections with ourselves, others, and the world around us. I continue to be interested in a regional team of practitioners, of cultural workers, such as organizers and artists, who evolve and develop the capacity of this work in the Southwest.

 This being said, we know from our experience working with you, Robby, and SWOP on Common Ground: TOC that the languages we use can be really different. It seems to me we need to find out where we connect and where we don’t and try to identify an integrative language for this kind of engagement work. People have been working on this for a long time in many places, but I think this has to be specific to this region and the people who live and work here.

MARTINEZ: We talk a lot about how collaborative art making allows people to take risks. We witness one another. We practice sharing. We are learning to see one another, hear one another. It seems to me we spend a great deal of time creating exchanges where we can individually and collectively deconstruct fear and find new ways of working with it. I continue to be amazed by how many voices we don’t hear in the political dialogue. All of this work can lead to civic engagement.

At Littleglobe we tend to draw a circle, an artistic and community frame, and this is the circle in which we come together to create. Our projects, because they involve creative collaboration over a long period of time, tend to build bridges. One thing I have noticed from working with SWOP is that we definitely have areas of shared practices and goals. But we also work differently

RODRIGUEZ: I am interested in an integrative language between organizers and artists. What do we have in common in terms of our practice and goals? Organizers tend to work from principles. For example, you never ask someone to do something you would not do yourself. Another principle is that organizers are supposed to push responsibility out, which means you don’t want to do stuff for people, but rather encourage people to do it for themselves. These are some of the fundamentals of how we do our work. Maybe by putting them out there to a group of artists, we can find out what we have in common. It may make sense to come out with a different language. The point of reference seems very different.

STURGES: Yes, I can understand working from principles and your ideas sound familiar, but to me, speaking as an artist, and the place where my creative practice comes from, I don’t think in terms of strategies. I think a lot of artists would not be starting there, some might. Listening, investigating, curiosity, connection, moving into unfamiliar places, even love—I don’t know, lots of things that are hard to talk about in linear communication forms inform my creative practice.

MARTINEZ: I have recently been working on Littleglobe’s core values. In them, we say the same things you say, Robby, but in a different way. We see the power in the collective and this is different than ‘empowering’ those that have less. We can’t do that in reality, but we do see that someone may become empowered through a process. Creative experimentation (as a group process) can expand our individual and collective capacity because it involves the kind of shared risk-taking and creation that encourages all of us to experience possibility. I think this kind of language might be really different than that used by organizers.

STURGES: We need to articulate where we diverge. Back to reflecting on the Common Ground: TOC project—I am thinking about when a SWOP member came in and did some sessions about the will of the community, but some people wanted to do art, they felt they were there for ‘the art’. There were some big disconnections after that moment. We turned away from the language and momentum that had been created internally and there were some consequences. Good things came from it, but it has been an important point of reflection for us. That group had already bonded and made their own language, their own vision.

MARTINEZ: At those sessions there was a community organizing exercise about the ‘river’—it was meant to emphasize looking at community problems from deeper sources—that was metaphorical. TOC residents loved it. Then we broke for lunch and came back to talk more directly about organizing. This is where we saw a disconnect. Once we moved away from more creative dialogue, residents were treading in unfamiliar water; I don’t think they were ready for it. We would like to see creative capacity building and moving towards civic engagement in much more integrated ways. How to move from metaphor to more direct organizing language and action plans? We don’t know how to do this though we have been working on it. We actually need to work much more closely with community organizers. We wish we could have an organizer as part of our core team. We don’t currently have the staffing capacity but we really love the idea and want to see it happen.

RODRIGUEZ: One thing that would be helpful to do is talk about what are the stories we say about each other and break them down. We have stereotypes that organizers and artists have about each other. There are triggers. I am telling you that because I hear organizers talk about artists all the time and many don’t want to like you and reinforce the story they tell themselves, and that is a big problem. The other thing is we are going to find real differences in approach and practice. When we identify places of divergence we see which areas you excel in, and which areas we can take on.

STURGES: I often think about differences in sense of urgency, relationship to ambiguity, and timescale. Often artists are not thinking about working on projects in terms of years. We have come to do that, but that is after a long process of learning and realizing the importance of sustained engagement. I don’t even think a lot of artists think this is possible. It is a different approach, but I think many would be interested in such a commitment.

RODRIGUEZ: Reflecting on Common Ground: TOC, I think one of things we have underestimated, and are realizing, is the amount of time and resources needed to do that level of community building and where does it make sense for a group like SWOP or Littleglobe to be the primary group. SWOP is realizing it can’t be that group. We think of ourselves as supporting the capacity of a local group towards its sustainability over time. We are talking on the scale of years.

STURGES: Yes, it takes a lot of time. We believe in long-term relationships and supporting local emergent leadership related to what you are talking about. These questions you are asking are also important to us. We have a two-year community digital storytelling project up now that is in several communities around New Mexico; we have been wondering more about a ten-year project. We do need to reflect upon what we do best and build partnerships from there. What we are learning is that partnerships need to be seasoned, practiced, and tested. We are learning about what we do best and what we need help with.

RODRIGUEZ: We too are balancing and discovering our priorities and capacities.

MARTINEZ: I’m thinking that artists and community organizers need to spend more time together, accompany each other on the ground where we could learn much more about how we practice, how we use language, how we communicate. It would be wonderful to accompany you and your staff, Robby, to see how you work. This would teach us a lot. And we would love to have you come along when we are working in a community, so you could experience what we do. Then, we could reach across any differences in ourselves and find ways of integrating what we do.

Original Arts & Democracy publication: June 2011