Four years ago this weekend, in the midst of concern over the potential for our country to unravel after the 2016 election, I had an opportunity at the last minute to create something at an arts festival in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
My head was a mix of fear, worry, protectiveness, hope, connection, and disconnection.
Although my own artistic vision is clear in the artwork, I created it in my role as Program Director of FLY Creativity Lab which served students in the Ypsilanti Community Schools as well as the broader community. Although it deserves more than a sentence, for the purposes of the present discourse, suffice to say that state and local policies have re-segregated Washtenaw County’s public schools, and created huge inequities between Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and the smaller population centers in the county.
I knew that it was important to take a stand in favor of pluralism and against the divisive policies and actions we believed would be coming.
There were signs for both candidates in every neighborhood of Ypsilanti. There were people in my social circles who expressed discomfort with the candidate who won but voted that way anyway because he pretended to be “conservative.” I couldn’t fathom how they believed his farce, but they did not heed my counter-arguments.
This work of art was truly co-created. I began with a single yarn tied to the loom: that our community could resist more strongly if we collectively wove together our connections.
Participants found threads of inquiry that I hadn’t imagined. They noticed that the way the yarn was thrown made a difference in texture. They drew my attention to the patterns created by the combination of the octagonal “loom” and the choices that each child or adult made. They connected to the metaphor, finding some hope and joy in a dark moment. There have been many dark moments since, and hopefully this metaphor offered some comfort as it has for me: that we are stronger together because of our differences.
If I were to run this project again, would it hold up? What would I change?
There is no way I would have predicted the ensuing events. What has come to pass is even more dystopian and unexpected than I worried it might become.
Since the work that I create tends to be hopeful and compassionate, I think it bears stating:
I was angry then. I am still angry.
It isn’t lack of anger that moderates how I choose construct discourse in my artwork.
For years, I’ve never found much use in being angry with someone who disagrees with me, but this wasn’t always the case. My mentor at 20 years old, described me as happy-angry. When she saw how angry I would become at people who were doing things that were unjust she said, “They can’t hear you right now. You have to learn to offer an ‘out’ with your observations so that people can hear you. Even if they can’t process or understand you now, it’s possible they will remember later if you teach with compassion.”
The rips in our culture were there before 2016. The social fabric has been torn by generations of racism, misogyny, classism, homo/transphobia, xenophobia, fear, and ignorance. Whatever hopeful mending my generation grew up with in the 1990’s were just ironed on over the laborious but fraying stitches made by the BIPOC tailors of the civil rights movement. The bully of dominant culture has keeps pushing us down more and more often, tearing and fraying the labor of generations more quickly than we could keep up with for the last four years.
But we have kept on stitching, weaving, knitting, connecting to one another.
On the day of the election 2020 I made myself a mini-zine:
With all the uncertainty of the pandemic and the never ending news cycle, I knew if I didn’t occupy myself on Election Night (and for the next couple days!), I would probably not sleep or eat. I arranged with some friends to do a video conference to just “be” and not have the news on. I planned a project for us to do, although I think I’m the only one who made a mini-zine while we were on the call.
I was already thinking, like I was in2016: whatever happens, what can I do? How can I act? How can I create change?
In my mini-zine, I asked myself some questions, and tried to frame it positively, despite my pessimism. I didn’t (and don’t) have any answers. I just keep working, try to contribute where I can, and listen, and listen, and listen.
What would I add to both these projects?
There is a thread running through both my projects, and our culture which gives me hope. We really are stronger together. Every choice we make to connect to someone different from ourselves; every different way of being and moving through our country adds up to weave the counter narrative:
- The idea of ”radical reimagining” has entered the mainstream because the Black Lives Matter movement has shaped social media, and social advocacy by young people for restorative justice.
- The fight for re-enfranchisement by social justice advocates, led by BIPOC’s and supported by the vast majority of young, Millenial, and Gen-X people has created a drip- drip- of blue dots dyeing the map from red to blue in big southern cities, and rural midwestern nexuses like Atlanta, Austin, Marquette, and Traverse City.
- The show of force made by protestors of every race and hue through the summer to now gives me hope that (white) people are finally coming to understand how white supremacy is damaging to our entire culture. Many men have understood that misogyny harms men and women alike, but for some reason white people struggle with how our cultural structure is harmful to them (us) too.
- Even more hopefully, in Ypsilanti, in the 2020 the progressive anti-racist community has gotten more vocal. Protests for BLM in 2015 were less than 100 people. A silent protest organized on Martin Luther King Junior Day in 2017 by YCS High School students was 300. The biggest protest organized by the BLM movement in June 2020 was over 3,000.
- Ypsilanti (and our whole country) are still divided. Although I live in Boston now, I spent a few months in Michigan this summer and it is still my home. There was less division in yard signs this year.
- BUT: Many of the people who didn’t heed my arguments in 2016 have changed their minds and voted for Biden and even for Senator Gary Peters. FLY’s former board member, Eli Savit, ran and was elected to be the Washtenaw County Prosecutor on a platform that pushes for restorative justice and alternative sentencing.
My questions to myself as I consider how I will connect and weave my threads in the movements we will continue to navigate with a new president in office:
What color and texture is my path through the fabric of our culture?
What threads do I throw quickly?
What threads do I weave slowly?
How will I add to our collective strength in the next year?
I believe deeply in pluralism over dualism. We need every voice in the circle to weave strength. To knit together justice, we need to center the voices that have been silenced. What is my role in making that happen?
EDIT: Added link to archived Blog entry about the original piece 12/14/2020 15:42 EST