A new year marks a new beginning. For the past several years we have been under attack by policies set up by the current administration. There have been upticks of hate crimes in places where our president speaks and counties where he has won. He’s ridiculed and attacked women and people of color that are critical of his work.
The immigration protocols that are supposed to make this country the best in the world have made the US look inhumane: minimizing access to SNAP benefits, threatening civilians overseas, and openly cavorting with foreign governments to interfere with domestic elections. He’s even besmirched a teen climate activist.
Now that our president has been acquitted of impeachment charges, I know many of us are thinking, “will anything change, or will he be held accountable?”
Xenophobia and nativism are not solely US issues. From the deforestation and colonization of indigenous lands in Brazil, to the dismantling of the rights of Muslims in India and China, we are experiencing threats to our freedom, globally.
This year was the last year Arts Corps will have been a recipient of the New Executive Fund. This award is given to new leaders of non- profits that work in human rights. Arts Corps is one of the only arts organizations to receive this grant and we are the only education-focused organization in the last three years.
It has been an honor to receive acknowledgment from George Soros, a known advocate for equity and justice. Recently, he pledged $1 billion to fund a new university network that would tackle nationalism, namely in the countries mentioned above.
My last international trip was several months earlier, in April, in Germany, when I was working with UAEM. As you know, I had difficulties enjoying it completely, so I was eager to have a better time in Spain. Spain had been experiencing some protests and unrest, regarding Catalan becoming an independent republic, separate from Spanish government. Catalan has a distinct language and culture and almost operates as an autonomous community. Yet it is still a part of Spain. The people are split about whether or not this should move forward, but 12 activists and politicians were recently sentenced to up to 13 years in prison for sedition. People immediately took the streets to protest the convictions, or to support the decision.
In Catalan’s biggest city, Barcelona, however, there was little I saw in terms of protest or unrest. It reminded me of a sleepy port town in rural Maine. I was expecting something out of Vicky Christina Barcelona, with vibrant colors, beautiful people in fancy clothes, and delicious food. Instead it was more like… well a sleepy port town in rural Maine.
After eating dinner and recovering from jet lag, all of the new executives gathered for our first session the following day. Looking around, I noticed a big difference, even from two years ago. Most of the executives in attendance were of color and the number of non-binary and trans executives tripled. It was first time that I sat in a room of C Level folks and they looked like me and were from similar communities to the ones Arts Corps serves.
A noticeable exhalation happened as others noticed the same. We were coming from all over the globe and this year also had more representatives from the Global South. It was an amazing feeling to be in a group where you’re not the “other.” I’ll speak for myself, but I’m sure others felt similarly, like we aren’t in this alone.
Then we started talking about our work in human rights and our work as leaders within that field. We spoke of issues familiar to all non- profits: lack of funding, overworked staff, work feeling like its never finished, out of touch funders, and love of our work despite all of that.
It didn’t take long to get deeper though. We spoke of operating within the non- profit industrial complex based in patriarchy and white supremacy. We spoke of the disparity of philanthropic resources available to people like us that didn’t come from those communities. We spoke of the lack of trust funders have in POC, queer, non-English speaking, immigrant, and trans communities. We discussed how the current political environment is making our work more difficult, and for some physically dangerous.
Quite a number of my colleagues talked about armed forces trying to stop the work of non-profits. Some spoke of being forced to leave the country they’re operating in, for fear of violence. While the name George Soros brings some cache to US-based human rights organizations like Arts Corps, his name is anathema to countries and communities being led by oppressive dictators.
For those that inherited the leadership role from a white cis predecessor, we spoke about the difficulties in doing so. Even though, my predecessor was incredibly helpful and supportive, still to this day, there’s no denying we are held to different standards. By funders, by our community, and by our staff. The internal conflicts sometimes matched the vigor of the external conflicts for many of us.
One ED said it best, when she said, “We are in a state of crisis, and there’s no end in sight.”
I sat there staring at the floor, tears forming in my eyes. The work of providing the Maslovian needs to people that have been stripped of their humanity should not be this difficult. We are all working for a better world, but the cards are stacked up against us. A couple of my colleagues were leaving the non-profit sector and others gave themselves a definitive end date, not far from today. We were all hurting, and luckily, we had one another with whom we could commiserate.
The work of human rights is draining but it needs to be done. Communities have had their resources taken from them and we must fulfill those needs, but only by competing with one another and for fraction of the costs that it takes to meet those needs. The disparity between the haves and have nots is growing yet philanthropy overall hasn’t changed much. In fact, the wealthy are giving less and it’s our communities who suffer.
What do we do?
Obviously, using the “master’s tools” aren’t working, and haven’t worked, as Audre Lorde predicted decades ago. We need another tool. My question is can art be that tool?
If art can be the tool for black liberation as Alain Locke writes, can it also be the tool to liberate others?
If we look at Great Depression, and how the Harlem Renaissance provided both pride and a source of income, could we continue that modus operandi in 2020? Look at how Manchester addresses their homeless problem with the arts. How the arts are a central core to Finland’s education system, which is the best in the world. How the work of Amplifier, in Seattle, sheds a light on issues facing us, locally, and across the US. How the group Appetite for Change uses hip hop to bring awareness to healthy living.
How the work of my friend, playwright Mathilde Dratwa, whom provides a perspective to the misogyny of David Mamet writing about #metoo, a world in which he is oblivious. Akwafina winning a golden globe for telling her Asian American story. Bong Joon-Ho winning Best International Film, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay for the Korean language film, Parasite. Art provides voice to those whose voice wasn’t valued. It provides an expression of how we feel and an outlet for how we want to shape the world.
Art is liberation and artists are the liberators. Though we all may feel downtrodden, let us remember the arts. Let’s look to artists and believe in their visions and let’s be artists that make our own world. Let’s Make Art Anyway and know that there is no better resistance to oppression than that of creativity.
— JAMES MILES, Executive Director