Arts and Activism Convening in partnership with Nathan Cummings Foundation

Nathan Cummings Grassroots Grantee Convening Summary

Convening overview, goals, and outcomes

The Arts & Democracy Project joined with the Nathan Cummings Foundation to organize a convening of the foundation’s grassroots arts activist grantees and their allies. The  3-day gathering took place from November 19-21, 2008 at three locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York: Nathan Cummings Foundation, Pratt Center for Community Development, and New York University ITP. Forty-one people participated in the convening which connected people from across the country to discuss the opportunities, challenges, and exemplary practices of linking arts and activism and to share examples of their communication strategies. (See attachment 1 for participants.)

The convening had the overall goal of strengthening the field of work that links arts and social justice by identifying what is needed to increase the impact, effectiveness, depth, and sustainability of the work. It focused on three primary intended outcomes:

1. Participants, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Arts & Democracy Project gain a deepened understanding of the work. This includes learning about:

• The progress groups have made in realizing their goals over the past five years
• The skill sets that would enable them to be more effective
• Coalitions that have strengthened their work
• Approaches to generational and demographic shifts
• Issues that they see themselves addressing over the next five years
• Strategies for achieving their goals

2. Groups strengthen their work by becoming resources for one another through peer learning and increased sharing of skills and resources.

3. The meeting provides a needed space for reflection, visioning, and strategizing following the 2008 national election.

Prior to the convening participants completed a survey asking them to identify their challenges, best practices, skills/resources, needs, and opportunities. The results of the survey helped shape the convening agenda. (See attachment 2.)

Engaging the historical moment

The convening took place soon after the presidential election as an opportunity to strategize with one another about how to most effectively engage the changing contexts in which we do our work across the country. On the first evening we invited an additional group of allies including funders and seasoned organizers to join us in a future-focused post-election debrief. The themes of this session continued in the next two days, particularly as the group discussed strategies and opportunities for movement building.

Key points and questions

• Assume that Barack Obama is a result, and not a cause; the culmination of many years of organizing and activism.

• There is a sense of being at the cusp of something great and/or terrible with the excitement of the election and the harsh reality of the economics of our communities. Hope and excitement are mixed with concern about the change being realized and continuation of grassroots participation. Strong action is needed to push the administration to do the right thing. It’s positive that someone like Patrick Gaspar from SEIU could become political director, but it’s an open question whether the capacity of the movement will be advanced as a result of the organizing prior to the election. Challenges to democracy remain at a local level, as in the case of the NYC Council and mayor deciding to extend term limits without a vote.

• It is important to be proactive in policy and strategy: “We don’t want to be invited to the table, we want to set the tableand take the table home.” How can grass roots conversations be heard in Washington DC? But being proactive and
engaging the difference between protesting and participating in and negotiating with government can be difficult; when you’re used to being the opposition it’s a different task to make the government work for you. Are we ready? Do we have
the strategies to proactively engage? “I have a sense of paddling – what would it feel like to catch the wave?”

• Sense of empowerment: this was the “first moment when I felt inside the conversation.” This moment can be a profound shift in our relationship to power and exercise of it. Keep in mind both “the sunshine and the shadow of power; it doesn’t need to be negative, it can be transformational.”

• Take time, stop and breathe slowly to free our imaginations. How do we sustain ourselves and be creative in this moment?

• Establish what is meant by change. We don’t have a common definition of change: “Is it change in leadership, paradigm, or relationship to politics?” Develop a deeper understanding of what organizing is, “defining the
characteristics of movements of transformative change vs. movements branded with change.” We need to gain clarity about our definition of transformational change and social justice.

• Be clear about what you want and articulate the value of grassroots arts activism (for example, a model for understanding the other without dehumanizing them and a platform for participation and problem solving). Other groups are already making their cases. “Who speaks for us? It is important “to speak from our work in an affirmative way – so a single story isn’t being told.”

• Building unity – How to reach communities, for example, in southwest Virginia who did not support Obama and involve people who aren’t the usual suspects?

• The lines are getting softened; the campaign created the idea of shared stakeholders. Examples include artists of color and communities of color joining around affordable housing, the blurring of art / public media and activism, and a
discussion about the responsibility of artists.

Download the full meeting report