Our culture and art is our tool, medicine, and our weapon.
ACSJN Leadership Team members, Tufara Waller Muhammad and Carlton Turner attended the Convening for Black Lives held in Cleveland, OH from July 24-26, 2015. Network Facilitator, Alison Lin, interviewed them about their experience there. This blog is a compilation of their conversation.
AL: What were your roles and how did you weave in a focus on art, culture and justice?
TWM: As one of three Southern people on the National Program committee, a major difference I saw was how the program was shaped in a more democratic manner, taking into consideration people who were organizing all over the country. Our committee was comprised of artists and cultural workers, educators, philanthropy folks, and healers too. We understand that our culture and art is our tool, medicine, and our weapon. We kept that in mind while planning.
CT: I came in as a supporter, maneuvering in different circles to figure out how to interface with Black Lives Matter, as the ED of Alternate ROOTS and as member of the We Shall Overcome Fund advisory board, and a member of the Southern Movement Assembly Governance Council. All of these organizations were able to support people in attending the convening. This, the Movement for Black Lives, is what my work has been about as an artist and cultural organizer living and working from Mississippi. Having conversations with artists from across the country to talk about the role of our work and how to continue to build as a group, as creative people who can lend their voices, talents, and creative energy to shape and propel the movement towards justice.
TWM: Carlton also helped bring philanthropic support to the overall convening. He helped people in philanthropy understand what has been happening on the ground and the continuum of where this movement sits.
TWM: Together, Carlton, myself and Ash-Lee Henderson facilitated a strategy session, Art as Movement Work: Art and Culture for Black Lives. We are all Southern people, too often Southern people have been part of movement work and not always documented. Over 200 people attended. We talked about what it means to infuse culture and art in mass mobilizations. What it would mean to have a network that includes multiple generations focused on fighting state sanctioned violence. There were cultural workers and artists in our strategy group, with many organizations represented including the Living Room project, Spirit House, Kindered, Peace Poets and ROOTS.
CT: I was surprised by how many people in the room didn’t know each other or about the resources available to them. These are the people we say we serve and who are working at the center of the issues. As a group there wasn’t collective knowledge of organizations, both regional and national,working in service of them. An important take away for me was realizing that we are missing a large portion of our base. M4BL was the week before ROOTS week and a few weeks before Gulf Rising and the K10 Commerration and people we met showed up at both those events who would have not otherwise known about them.
TMW: Through those continued connections people are still working. I believe that some of what we did in Cleveland will directly impact the policy shifts in November 2016 and beyond. Our work is already influencing how the larger Movement for Black Lives is operating. Since Black Lives Matters is a decentralized movement, the actions and impacts of our session will materialize differently across the country.
CT: Creative and artistic work is happening that is directly connected to people who are leaders in movement building and also people who are doing work in this experience. There is work that is occurring in partnership with the Movement for Black Lives, including artists like Claudia Alick, Ebony Golden, Tef Poe, and Jasiri X. Then there is work based on people’s experience that speaks to the Movement for Black Lives. We must find ways to validate both, giving support to those in institutions and also those on the ground.
TWM: When looking at the faces of this movement, 2 out of 3 identify as artists and cultural workers including people like Patrisse Cullors. Another example is Moe Mitchell. People don’t connect him to Afro Punk, but he is connected and he is a musician. So many of our folks who are organizing to fight state sanctioned violence and uplifting the value of black lives are artists and cultural workers. They are people who understand that our art and culture are our tools and medicine. For lots of Non-white communities artists and organizers are not separate, often we are one in the same. When we look at local communities, people like Vitus Shell, Kai Barrow and Frankd Robinson’s visual artist works connect directly to the organizing and community work that they are doing.
CT: Yes, for instance Angela Davis Johnson, a Black visual artist from Atlanta, whose work is all about Black women who disappeared. If this isn’t the Movement for Black Lives, I don’t know what is.
CT: Do some research, often the easy route is to support people you already know. A lot of the time what we’ve seen is that people that are doing the work that is most directly connected are not always connected into larger organizations. In Cleveland talking about organizations that support, who identify as artists and cultural workers didn’t know organizations existed – how do foundations connect to the closest entry point to the ground? Example, Red Cross raised and 6 billion dollars in Haiti and built less than a dozen homes. So where are the dollars going? We have to start a practice of support that expands our circles beyond the familiar.
TWM: This movement is fueled by people of all ages but in a lot of instances led by people under 35. BYP 100, The Dream Defenders, Project South, Southerners On New Ground are all anchor organizations with youth leadership. We must create places to engage younger leaders who are often not connected to the meeting rooms. We must go to where the corn is grown, and not just sit at the table waiting for young folks to meet us there for the meal and the meeting.
CT: Important to talk about this work. Share it out!
AL: What was unique and different about the convening in Cleveland?
CT: This was the first convening for me. I came in with a strong focus on understanding how to be an ally. Specifically, the focus on allyship with the trans community, both at the conference and in relation to the atrocities on the street against Black trans people. This was a space where we had to realize these struggles were intertwined and recognize our trans siblings plight as one of the most vulnerable in our community. Another shift was the recognition of leaders who were under 35. Their relationships to generational struggle is different from my own, recognizing what is means to be in Black space that is about Black bodies and taking a back seat as younger people were leading the conversation was important to me.
AL: What do you want people to know about the Movement for Black Lives?
TWM: The Movement for Black Lives is bigger than a hashtag; it started a few years ago or depending on how we look at it decades ago. However and whenever it started it is a continuum of our people’s resistance against white supremacy and oppression. In the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, 1930s, and 1960s, Non-white people were fighting state sanctioned violence against those of darker hue and we continue. As it relates to younger people, many were politicized and mobilized after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Our movement didn’t start with the convening in Cleveland this past July, Cleveland was just another time when like minded folks pulled together resources and were able to bring together 2,000 people.
CT: It is easy to say that the Movement for Black Lives is the new Civil Rights but it is not a Civil Rights movement. It has its own place on the continuum of movements led by Black people. The leaders are from a younger generation, some have been mentored by Civil Rights leaders, but this is not the Civil Rights movement. Also, the movement is not just about the lives of Black people; it is more diverse than people recognize. People across race, culture, and ethnicity including many white and brown people are involved and recognize the importance of Black leadership. Not only Black leadership, but Black women and queer leadership, which has not been the traditionally recognized and validated leaders in the past.
Photo Credit: C. Turner