Talking To Ourselves Because We Are Our Own Consultants

This past Sunday I was able to catch the second half of a talk given by an artist named Rick Lowe at the Open Engagment Conference held here this past weekend. Mr. Lowe’s conversation was about his work around the country employing art as social change and his twenty year work called Project Row Houses (PRH). I’ve heard great things about Rick Lowe for a long time and particularly wanted to get some ideas and inspiration that could go into the Hill District Arts Plan.  However, I would’ve stayed in the family Sunday space and wouldn’t have made it if not for dope, new arts directer of the Hermera Foundation, Tatiana Hernandez checking on me, so thanks Tatiana!

I have never been to PRH and have only met Rick Lowe once and so this post should not be seen as anything like an authoritative account on that work. We actually have artists in Pittsburgh like Alisha Wormsley  who have worked with PRH and so look them up for a deeper Pittsburgher understanding.

One of the houses of Project Row Houses

Project Row Houses. Work featured: Sam Durant’s “We Are the People” 2003

In my case I have heard more of the excitement around the work than really know it (Rick Lowe won a $250,000 Heinz Award, somewhat akin to the MacArthur “Genius” Award), but I do know that he has done an incredible job attracting resources for art to the 3rd Ward of Houston, TX and I  love the mission statement that talks of employing African American culture in the development of the neighborhood. That’s right in line with Hill Master Plan’s 1st principle “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy”.  So, I am feeling that for sure. Shouts also to  Kilolo Lucket who is working with Alisha on  implementing an interpretation of Lowe’s ideas in Homewood in a project supported by the Advancing Black Arts Initiative.

Lyric from Lil Wayne's 6 Foot, 7 foot

Lyric from Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot, 7 foot”

I left the talk inspired, but it wasn’t all simply “rah rah Project Row Houses” and, much to his credit, Lowe wasn’t looking to convey this message and I appreciated this as well. There were some obvious tensions that Mr. Lowe is wrestling with around art, funders, developers and justice in the ALAANA (African, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American) communities he is often working in and a couple times he expressed concern that his work could become a pawn in the hands of developers. There was actually this very  interesting moment when Lowe was talking of art and revolution and he mentioned being criticized as a college student by activists further on the left for not being revolutionary enough as he was discussing the need for artists to continue to use the word revolution in their work. In this vein, Lowe ended the talk defining revolution as the “continual empowerment of the powerless”  and encouraging the audience to continue to also use the words justice  in their art work in communities. Here I didn’t agree. Can we turn revolution into a word that could co-exist inside of an oppressive state and economic system and never have to confront it? Is that just taking artistic license or co-opting the word to be something less threatening? I left thinking we have to add “capitalism” to the list of words we can talk about.

However, I don’t want to leave this post on that note because Lowe has accomplished so much of what he has imagined and there is a lot we could learn for the Hill District and the work we are doing on the arts plan. One of things he said that I dug the most was how he has looked for ways to pay community members for work that consultants would normally get paid to do in his residencies

Rick Lowe in front of Project Row Houses

Rick Lowe in front of Project Row Houses

as well as his stories of how PRH has created other avenues for community members to realize dreams inside of the 3rd Ward.  I like this because its the idea that art should develop community & community members, rather than be used as a tactic to draw outside capital and increase the dollars that developers can get for selling property in the neighborhood. This, again, is  raises the question of what and who is community development really developing? I say this because as someone who is paying a mortgage on two homes in the Hill, increasing the property value of our homes happens not to be our family’s first priority and yet we represent a population supposedly community development orgs and city governments want –professional class African Americans. Not having housing value as a first priority is unlike city government and city fathers /mothers which are much more narrowly focused on the property taxes of neighborhood, particularly African American neighborhoods with a lot of vacant property. Safety, enjoyment, a sense of community, things to do for my children. Those things matter more to me.

An art project at PRH. Haven't found name of artist

Project Row Houses: Andrea Bowers’ “Hope in Hindsight” 2010

So, how do we take these ideas of community development actually developing community into the art plan? A couple of nights ago Bonnie and I spent part of the evening working on the next step of the the planning process: artist focus groups. I won’t reveal the questions here because the streets is watching (of course they’re absolutely not watching, but apparently good focus group practice is to let the questions be responded to spontaneously), but I note from the PRH website that the idea came from a vision of artists, so I am starting to get excited about what could come out of these conversations. Not thinking we need to “replicate” PRH, but rather be inspired by it and create something that makes sense in our own space and time. For example, what would a mission focused on providing a voice and platform for Hill District artists look like in action? How might that deal with issues of justice, power, racism, markets and capitalism? What else might be needed?  What other visions might folks have for art and culture in the Hill? We’ll learn more next Tuesday at the Hill District artist focus group meeting starting at 6 pm. If you know folks who are Hill District artists please ask them to come out and for more information please call 412.697.4692 or email at info@hdcg.org.

Confidentiality, Community Development & Power

This post has been sitting for a second, but I’ve been a little distracted. It is written in protest of the confidentiality component of the recently launched (March 30th) Hill District Development Review Panel, the process developed by the Hill Community Development Corporation and the Hill District Consensus Group to facilitate the process by which new developments can be said to have community support. I was nominated to the DRP by the Hill District Consensus Group (where my wife is the co-director) and went to the December orientation meeting, but had real disagreement with both the actual power of the Panel, which appears limited, and process of the Panel. Maybe I will devote a future post to the power of the panel ( you can see some of my thoughts in the linked email below), but I want to call out a particular part of the process and that is its confidentiality. That is in order to participate on the Panel the participants must sign a confidentiality agreement, a confidentiality agreement so strong that the signers agree to not mention the agreement itself.  BradPittFightClubI sent an email to the signers of my initial  invitation to join the DRP in January, Ms. Marimba Milliones, Ms. Chloe Velasquez of the Hill District Community Development Corporation and Mr. Carl Redwood and Dr. Emma Lucas Darby of the Hill District Consensus Group saying that I would not sign the confidentiality agreement to which I did not receive a response. However, according to Mr. Redwood, chair of the HDCG, I am still one HDCG’s nominations to serve on the DRP which is cool because the idea of communities engaging development and developers is a good one. I will not recount the explanation I was given for this mandatory agreement as it I don’t fully understand it and I might get it wrong, but you can read my criticism of what I was told in my email to the parties saying I would not sign the agreement. I sent an email a couple of weeks ago to both organizations seeking to confirm that the confidentiality agreement was still in place and Mr. Redwood’ said the Panel has not actually been convened since it met in December.

Maybe the most important question in terms of community development work is how does confidentiality contribute to community? My view on the role that community planning processes should play in the development of community go back to Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum in 2012. Our community development leadership just doesn’t seem to see building collective power as being in our individual best interest. Were we to face any of these hateful acts of police murder, or even as we are traumatized by our young family members being murdered by other young people in the community we are not organized sufficiently yet to change these outcomes. This same logic applies to how the Penguins failed to meet our goals for community development, or how the Lower Hill is discussed as a critical location by the City and my employer, The Heinz Endowments,  do we have the collective power to make sure the Master Plan and its goals are our an important part of the conversation? If we take our recent inability to get the Penguins to honor our affordable housing goals as evidence of where this neighborhood’s ideas for itself sit in Pittsburgh’s economic, social and political thinking, the answer to that question is no.

Planning, Art & Identity in the Hill District

Jorge Myers, Born and Raised Hill District Artist

Jorge Meyers,  Hill District Artist

Very productive Arts Plan meeting sponsored by the Hill District Consensus Group last week, March 17th. I am on the steering committee along with Tanika Harris of the Hill CDC, Karen Abrams, resident, Suzie Sparks of the Hill House Association and my wife, Dr. Bonnie Young Laing, Hill District resident and Co-Director of the HDCG. The purpose of the meeting was to get us back on track after a slowing of momentum over the end of the 2014/beginning of 2015 and share the plan the steering committee had come up with to get us going again. The meeting had nice attendance with 15-20 ppl and a good representation of Hill District artists with that being the majority of folks there.  To see the meeting agenda, click here.

Bonnie got us started by sharing slides of the data from more than 250 surveys and for those slides that are a work in progress click here. A few highlights of the data:

Kim El-Born and Raised, Hill District Artist

Kim El-Hill District Playwright and Actor

  • 65% of the respondents identified as Hill District residents;
  • 85% identified as African American
  • Most commonly used word to define art?–“Expression”
  • When asked about preferred art words most commonly used were “Children” “African/Black” “Music” & “Dance”;
  • There’s a broad set of tastes in the neighborhood with lots of arts mentioned when asked about preferences;
  • An influence from international travel;
  • A desire for opportunities for youth;
  • “Festivals” was the most frequently mentioned method by which people got art and the Three Rivers Arts Festival, specifically;

There was a good conversation that followed about how the data showed there was an interest inarts & experiences in the neighborhood and a willingness to spend $, but a lack of venues. Folks also talked about how more options need to be given to the community because we don’t know what we don’t know when it comes to art choices. An idea that stood out to me came from visual artist, Kaceem Barnett, about the Hill having an “Art all Night” experience like Bloomfield. What would that look like??

Conversation then moved to the definition of what a Hill District artist might be (see previous post) and folks were good with the definition we were using with the amendment that there should be space for artists who have lived here a “significant” period of time, but no longer live here in addition to the space for artists who were born here and no longer live here. The main issue here is that if we are going to advocate for Hill District artists to support their work and enliven the neighborhood and build on its cultural legacy, then the definition of

Mark Southers, Hill District Artist, Born, Raised and Current Resident. Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

Mark Southers, Hill District Executive Producer of Pgh Playwrights Theater

who is a Hill District artist is needed. This then brought up a spicy question and a missing part of the definition: the geographic boundaries of the Hill District we would use. This hole was revealed in the question someone posed–“Is Uptown in the Hill?” This got some murmurs and multiple comments from the room that could be summed up in “It depends. Sometimes Uptown wants to be in. Sometimes they don’t.”

The question of Uptown brings up that little issue of race and community identity. When the Hill District was working  on the Hill District Master Plan and my wife, Bonnie, was writing up the history section talking about the Hill as a neighborhood predominantly shaped by African Americans, there were white residents of Uptown who talked to her and were insistent that this legacy be reshaped in the Master Plan to speak in multi-racial terms. Terms that she thought (and I agreed) gave disproportionate voice to the multi-racial history in comparison to what we had lived and heard  (Bonnie living here her almost entire life and a mom born and raised here and my working and living here about 25 years). Ironically, when you enter Uptown from Oakland, you see it marketing itself as it’s own neighborhood and selling its real estate in the same manner with no reference to the Hill District.

A meeting participant shared a history of the Hill District that included a certain section of Uptown as African American called Soho and we discussed including that section in the definition of a Hill District artist. The thinking being that if white representatives of Uptown are not going to be consistent in their identification as being a part of the Hill District, and when they do identify they

Hill District artist, Kaceem Barnett

Hill District visual artist, Kaceem Barnett

want their participation to be recognized as white contributors to the history of the neighborhood,  then we should not include them in this definition of the Hill, while not penalizing African Americans

in Uptown who have long identified as members of the Hill. It may be that Soho no longer exists in this same way, but it was a way of defining a Hill District Artist using the first principle of the Master Plan and that is “Build Upon The African American Cultural Legacy.” If we took a vote today, mine would be to not include Uptown because I think it would lead to disparate benefit to artists who I have not seen as general participants in Hill District and because Uptown arts activities like the Gist St. Reading Series never seemed to me to see folks on the other side of fifth ave as part of their audience, but this will be a subject taken up a later point. Maybe some kind of positive, NAFTA-like, cross 5th Ave Trade Agreement?

The next step will be a convening of artists in mid April to share the data and conduct focus groups that seek to find out how the neighborhood can better support the creation of art by Hill District artists in general and how we can support more of it being made and made visible in the neighborhood. Can’t wait to see what folks come up with.

Still thinking of a Master (Arts) Plan

Rolling again on the Hill District Consensus Group Arts Plan! Meeting this Tuesday at 6 pm at the Hill House Kaufmann Program Center. One of the things we’ll discuss is what defines a Hill District artist i.e. musician, actor, dancer, craftsperson, painter, doll-maker, filmmaker, photographer, quilter, rapper, choreographer and infinity plus 1. The idea being that the plan should serve Hill District artist and so this category needs to be defined. Additionally on the agenda will be reviewing the data we’ve collected from more than 200 surveys and planning an artist focus group to be held in April.

We’ll propose this definition of a Hill District Artist:

She or he has always lived here
Was born here but raised elsewhere;
Was born elsewhere but raised here;
Lives here now;
Works for an arts org/company based in the Hill;

Looking forward to the discussion.

Whites fighting racism: what it’s about

Justin:

These kinds of white voices will stimulate thought and justice in the development conversations about the Hill District. While I believe this is piece is written by a white person and is about and for white people, I appreciate it as a bi-racial Black person, a special Black person, you might say, in the white supremacy construct. It resonates with me, particularly the part about wanting to be thanked. Thanks to Etta Cetera of WHAT’S UP Pittsburgh for tweeting this piece out. Onward and upward.

Originally posted on Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio:

When I dare web

Note: I was asked by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice – a group which organizes white folks against racism) to write a few paragraphs offering a perspective on white solidarity. It was to open a national organizing conference call. What I wrote follows:

White people are taught that racism is a personal attribute, an attitude, maybe a set of habits. Anti-racist whites invest too much energy worrying about getting it right; about not slipping up and revealing their racial socialization; about saying the right things and knowing when to say nothing. It’s not about that. It’s about putting your shoulder to the wheel of history; about undermining the structural supports of a system of control that grinds us under, that keeps us divided even against ourselves and that extracts wealth, power and life from our communities like an oil company sucks it from the earth.

The names…

View original 246 more words

Definitions of Race Matter

The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) has the best definition of ‘race”. Period. Dot. Came across it again today while doing my homework assignment (See prior post.). See it below from a document titled “Structural Racism” written by Keith Lawrence and Terry Kehler for the 2004 Race and Policy Conference.

RACE: A specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) which assigns human worth and social status using ‘white’ as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power. (Ronald Chisom and Michael Washington, Undoing Racism: A Philosophy of International Social Change. People’s Institute Press. People’s Institutefor Survival and Beyond. 1444 North Johnson Street. New Orleans, Louisiana, 70116.1997. Second Edition. p. 30—31.)

This definition could be more specific in terms of what economic class of whites created the concept, but it is still the best out there for at least two reasons: (1) It’s clear in racial terms about who created the term. Dr. Joe Feagin, a sociologist of Texas A & M University, author of The White Racial Frame,  points out that when history is written on the racism experienced by African Americans it tells us the object of the sentence (African Americans) but not the subject (white people). For example, we might read something like “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were often denied the right to vote”. Feagin might rewrite the sentence to say “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were denied the right to vote by a variety of white institutions.”

Secondly, it tells us the purpose of the term of “race”. We are not learning about “race” as a naturally occurring, politically neutral concept, but rather its being exposed as an ongoing shaper of our reality that penalizes and benefits. This definition then plays an active part in the undoing of racism, which of course is the goal of the People’s Institute. The Institute has done training for Grantmakers in the Arts, of which I am a board member, and it’s been the most impactful professional development of my time in this field.

My #Philanthropy Black History Month Assignment

This is a post from another blog I write “Philanthropic Windows”. I will be posting more posts from there, here, and changing Hillombo to be about some things other than the Hill District. Mainly because I’d like people to be able to find things I write more easily, but also because I want to do more dot connecting.

With the movie Selma out and research I’ve been doing for a few other projects, I’ve had a chance to learn, think and talk about the Civil Rights Movement and the business of philanthropy. In David Garrow’s  “Bearing the Cross” there is a brief mention of a foundation, The Field Foundation, withholding payment to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for failure to meet grant conditions at the end of ’62/beginning of ‘63, right before the the-good-citizen-8-638Birmingham, AL Project Confrontation campaign is to commence. This withheld payment required Dr. King to meet with the foundation personally and to acknowledge that the voter registration that they were to be doing in a number of localities in the South wasn’t really happening. Wait. What?? Dr. King was called to account by a Program Officer??

Coming across some parts of the backstory of that meeting in two other sources piqued my interest even further. According to Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s report “Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement”, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy convened a few foundations Taconic, Field, Stern Family and New World and asked them to put money into a project called the Voter Education Project. (VEP) His idea was that Civil Rights organizations like the SCLC, SNCC, CORE and the NAACP would turn their attention to voter registration rather than the direct action strategies like sit-ins and freedom rides. His argument to the organizations was that voter registration was big change rather than the smaller local efforts of sit ins. The authors of both pieces cited above say Kennedy was more so motivated to take pressure off the Federal Government to provide protection for the activists and in doing so alienate Southern “white” voters.

There are a number of interesting angles here (1) The VEP as an example of philanthropic practice; (2) The VEP as “public/private partnership; (3) The VEP as structural racism; (4) The VEP as funding grass roots political activity; (5) The VEP as a way of unlearning the story of “South-racist, violent, bad” and “North, on the side of African Americans, supportive, good”. The assignment I will give myself as African American history month closes is to write on at least of two of these angles. Angle #4, “The VEP as an example of funding grass roots political activity has been taken in the NCRP report”, so that should leave only two undone. If anyone wants to help get extra credit for this assignment and take on one on their own or find a new angle and write that one up, that would be “sweet” (circa 1986).

To get going, I’ll start with “The VEP as an example of philanthropic practice”. This story brings philanthropy and Black liberation movements into focus in a way that gives me pause and reflects ideas that I find most problematic in our work. In this little anecdote, we see behavior pretty consistently criticized as a going against best practices and I point them out not to say I haven’t made these choices, or that The Heinz Endowments has made a commitment to invest in civil disobedience direct actions. I have made these same choices and we haven’t made those investments in direct actions in my time at the Endowments.   Still, this history deserves real attention and should be something I check myself against  everyday. This story shows philanthropy…

As we take a moment nationally to reflect on African American history and the Civil Rights Movement in particular, its interesting for me to contrast how the Civil Rights Movement has been lauded all throughout this month for the courage it showed in direct actions to dismantle Jim Crow. In this the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there will be celebrations throughout the year. I would guess that some of this attention has been and will be supported by philanthropy. Simultaneously, the  #BlackLivesMatter movement continues its fight against police brutality and killings. What will be said about philanthropy’s role in that movement in 50 years?