Tensions and Synergies of Being Strategic and Creative

Brad Lander and Esther Robinson discuss organizing and art, anthropological listening, and whether being holistic is important.

By Esther Robinson

"…For people who are aspiring to make the change you are, by definition, doing something a little soulful whether you like it or not…. You’re saying something else is possible."

"Doing strategic bridge building work does require two things which are sort of contradictory: an openness to things you’re not sure will be strategic,... and  then some strategy."

Brad Lander is a New York City Council member representing the 39th district in Brooklyn. Prior to his election to the Council, Lander was the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. Before joining Pratt, Lander served for a decade as executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee.

Esther Robinson is the founder of ArtHome, a nonprofit business that helps artists and their communities build assets and equity through financial literacy and home ownership. Robinson was director of Film/Video and Performing Arts for Creative Capital for seven years. Her film, A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory, is currently in international theatrical release.

PRATT CENTER FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT works for a more just, equitable, and sustainable city for all New Yorkers by empowering communities to plan for and realize their futures. As part of Pratt Institute, it leverages professional skills—especially planning, architecture, and public policy—to support community-based organizations in their efforts to improve neighborhood quality of life, attack the causes of poverty and inequality, and advance sustainable development. The Center was founded at the birth of the community development movement as the first university-based advocacy planning and design center in the U.S. For over 40 years, it has worked with community groups to revitalize their neighborhoods, create and preserve affordable housing, build childcare and community centers, and improve their environment. The Center has trained hundreds of community leaders and organizations to implement effective community development strategies and supported a wide array of successful public policy and community planning efforts.

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I first met Brad when I and others in my predominantly low-income residential neighborhood (Gowanus, Brooklyn) were fighting to prevent the construction of a proposed Ikea store, a development that would have radically impacted the nature of our community. Brad was the director of the Fifth Avenue Committee (a nonprofit community development organization), and he and his organization tirelessly supported us in a struggle we ultimately won.

It was a struggle, like many neighborhood struggles, that necessitated a forging of unlikely alliances to become successful. It amazed me how Brad was able to imagine and support the most unlikely alliances and to directly inspire belief in the possibilities for direct change held in those coalitions—angry counter-culture activists, small-business owners, long-time homeowners, and first-generation immigrant tenants that all felt that Brad listened and understood their concerns and in turn were able to work together for a successful campaign.

What has always impressed me about Brad, and inspired me as well, is his incredible curiosity, creativity, and consensus-building skills—all grounded in his conviction that all ships must rise with the tide. Our friendship has deepened since those initial meetings, and I have found Brad to be both an inspirational colleague and a provocative advisor on my ArtHome project.

Nuestro Communidad (Our Community), ceramic mural at Fifth Avenue Committee 
© 2005, Mauricio Trenard

It was Brad (along with Miguel Garcia at the Ford Foundation) who began asking hard questions about how ArtHome could be used to work with neighborhoods and advocacy groups beyond just arts groups and artists. These provocative questions set me on a soul-searching path that has considerably deepened my thinking about how artists integrate (or not) into neighborhoods, and the role of subsidy in this equation. This deepening has taken ArtHome to a new level, where the goals are no longer simply the equity building and education of artists, but also the enrichment of the communities in which they live (a goal that is much more challenging, forward thinking, and potentially rewarding).

Our conversation was wide-ranging, and I have condensed it quite dramatically. I also made the decision to focus on Brad’s unique perspective on listening—which inspired me and I felt should be heard with little editorializing. However, in fairness to the breadth of our conversation (and the assignment to converse, not interview), I feel compelled to say that the later part of this is excerpted from a much longer conversation on two books well worth reading: The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde and The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss.

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ESTHER ROBINSON: So, what moves you to work in between worlds? In particular, what led you to begin working with arts and culture groups?

BRAD LANDER: Originally it was not all that intentional. In work at a community organization like the Fifth Avenue Committee, you wind up in dialogue with people who—despite coming from very different backgrounds—are upset about the same things, or hopeful about the same things, or just doing interesting work with their neighbors or with young people. Once you’re in it, you see the power of it.

You go to a place like El Puente and you see the power of the connections it makes between artists, young people, and the nascent Environmental Justice Movement, and you really can’t help but come home and think, “Hey, how can we do something like that?”

The first big opportunity we had to combine arts and community development was when the Fifth Avenue Committee built its new home on 4th Avenue—ironic, I know. This felt like our first opportunity to more deeply integrate the presentation of art and the involvement of lots of people into the identity of the organization. It’s more of a story of how than a story of why.

ROBINSON: What brought those things together?

LANDER: Well, what I’m tempted to do is give the rationale for why it’s good to have art and community activism go together—which I think we have come to be able to do. But it’s not the real reason, it’s not really what motivated the intersections.

It’s funny. There’s a way in which I think of myself as an utterly uncreative and unartistic person, but I definitely think for people who are aspiring to make the change you are, by definition, doing something a little soulful whether you like it or not. You’re curating that part of human beings that is not about getting-and-spending or accepting the particular grind of life and daily existence. You’re saying something else is possible.

And you’re trying to bring people together to think about it and imagine it and make it happen. And that does turn out to be a soulful or creative practice even if individually you’re not very soulful or creative and aesthetically inclined.

So, I think there is synergy between that belief in the possibility of change that calls for some imagination and some kind of hunger for something beautiful.

ROBINSON: Is this something ingrained or can it be taught?

LANDER: It’s a kind of curiosity and openness and tolerance for things—you kind of have more or less of it. You have to be genuinely curious and interested in random funky things when they come across your path.

This is a big challenge because many people who are very strategic in pursuit of community organizing goals are not open to working in new ways and letting different things happen or trying something that comes out of left field. And the reverse problem is also true. You wind up in some creative but very unstrategic spaces. That’s part of the price of this type of work, and finding the overlap isn’t always easy.

Doing strategic bridge building work does require two things which are sort of contradictory: an openness to things you’re not sure will be strategic,… and then some strategy.

ROBINSON: Can you elaborate on this?

LANDER: There’s some tension between strategic and creative thinking. In the case of effective bridge building, the strategist is thinking: “How does this potential partnership amongst three or four different groups of people work in the self-interest of each, and how would we get there from here,” and then working to help the conversation head in that direction. I find that kind of thinking a lot of fun—and ironically feel that’s actually the time when I am at my most creative.

ROBINSON: Can you tell me more about the creativity? You always refer to yourself as uncreative so I’d like to seize this moment when you self identify as creative to dig a bit deeper.


LANDER: So, it’s a funny thing to say—creativity—there’s nothing aesthetic about this. It’s having listened enough, just having been interested enough to notice that different sets of people were looking at something in different ways. Talking to people and reading and being open to things outside your world. Listening enough to have a sense of how people approach and think about something.

You have to understand the things people are working on in their own terms and not in your terms. And then you have to take people’s different ways of thinking, find things they have in common, see the differences that mean they are not naturally working together and recognize that if you help by doing some translating or some bridging that something more will be possible as a result.

So, its creative, but I think it’s more anthropology than art.

ROBINSON: I think an artist would say that their job is also translation, and that the artistic moment is that ‘reframing’ where everyone resees something that they think they know. The artist is using aesthetic language to make that proposal that ‘this is not a pipe’, this is an art piece, and you’re making a different argument, but it’s a similar goal and both come from creative impulses. The reframing is an artistic expression. It’s artistry.

LANDER: An artist is doing that reframing really from themselves, from their creative ego. But in the organizing world this creates a basic tension: On the one hand you really are genuinely trying to have the framing come from the different, collective perspectives of the group. But you also need to help the group see their problem in a collective way.

There’s manipulation in both cases. In a funny way I feel that for the artist there’s the sense there’s nothing wrong with that singular voice. And for the organizer there’s a sense that there’s everything wrong with it, so you pretend it isn’t happening.

ROBINSON: (Laughter)

LANDER: You sort of pretend like all of these people just happened to wander into the room. I invited you all here—and now magically you will share a sense of which actions to do to get what outcomes.

I think the better and more honest organizers recognize that it just can’t be all or nothing—that some amount of manipulation is necessary to make something strategic happen, but if it’s totally scripted it’s not really going to work well either.

And, I mean, I think that a challenge for artists who engage in this work is figuring that balance out, because it’s not all or nothing. And you have to transcend the sense that your particular reframing or perspective is just the one that should govern. That is fine for a work of art, but it doesn’t work as well in bridge building.

There needs to be a certain openness and a kind of listening that is hearing the perspective that different people are bringing, not just translating what they are saying into your perspective.

I have come to think about it as anthropologic listening—appreciating that there are different languages being spoken; these languages can be intelligible, but that doesn’t make it completely collapsible with how you view the world.

ROBINSON: The last question is: What advice would you offer people that navigate between fields for connecting with people whose outlook is not holistic?

LANDER: It’s funny, but for me it’s never interesting that things are holistic. I must confess as a value it’s something I don’t really get.

ROBINSON: Really? Why?

LANDER: I never really thought about why. I’m always suspicious when someone says, “We want it to be holistic.” I don’t care if it’s holistic.

ROBINSON: (Laughter) That’s great….

LANDER: I mean, at some level, and again this is an anthropological response, it’s kind of preposterous, right? I don’t know what holistic means. Most things people call holistic don’t encompass hundreds or thousands of different experiences of the planet. And they couldn’t. Sometimes I think that trying to be holistic is actually privileging one’s own way of looking at the world over many, many others.

I agree that there seems to be a human longing for the ineffable. Many people would like to have an experience which feels complete, total, whole. But I just don’t feel invested in my outlook being holistic. I understand that my outlook is very particular, it’s varied, it’s interested in lots of different things. And it’s one very particular, fragmented vision of completeness.

In interdisciplinary or cross-sector bridging I don’t think of holistic as necessary.

I think of cross-sector bridging as coming from what French sociologist Marcel Mauss calls “sociological apperception.” One of his students, the brilliant French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, has talked about one of Mauss’s lectures, and how he described how this happens.

Mauss is standing on a train platform and appreciating what it really means that of the 600 other people around you there are 600 other really genuine consciousnesses and very different experiences of that exact same moment. You are all standing on this train platform, so there is a common structure to the experience, firmly rooted in railway structures and physics and engineering. But you’re coming from different places, and you’re going to different places, and so many things about how you’re experiencing and seeing that moment are different. There are enough that are similar, and these are human experiences, and you are all on the train platform. If you really appreciate that then each one is as interesting as yours, and as particular.

And then holism is not really what is important, listening and appreciating and understanding and translating are what are important.

For me, that holds in bridge building as well. The goal is not usually to find the holistic space where everyone feels as one. Save that for synagogue or church or retreat, for a space where people share a common, often spiritual pursuit.

In bridge building, and especially bridge building with a goal to make change, I think it makes sense to hold onto Mauss’s idea of “sociological apperception,” to try to be a better listener, to recognize and appreciate particularity, to hear people’s self interests and hopes and barriers. Then you can seek to translate between different groups, to help very different sets of people to hear each other, and to find common ground for action.

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008