By Tia Richardson
Milwaukee is getting really interesting. Six years ago I visited friends in Detroit, MI as an artist yearning for something just beyond my grasp, words unable to articulate my reach. The story of my life. Always following my inclinations, however small; be it doodling in the pages of a blank book or noodling around in my imagination. Words about what I was doing or wanted usually came later.
In recent years, my inclinations have driven me outward into the real world; ever less the introverted, shy person of my adolescence and ever more a person sincerely wanting to find the genuine in the world and in people. Specifically, as it relates to being a creative person in a world where, growing up, being creative meant ‘strange’ but desirable; ‘offbeat’ and ‘fringe’; ‘necessary’ but rarely on my own terms.
Now as an adult I’ve grown to see and understand those places in the world – in my own backyard even – where art doesn’t just mean something that decorates. Where ‘art’ is an action word synonymous with culture, and culture means ‘way of life’. ‘Culture’ in my mind has broadened from a textbook assumption I had growing up that strictly meant ‘regional’; ie. family ethnic background whose roots one can trace back to a region or country. It meant ‘traditional’ language, food, music, dance, customs and beliefs of that region. Culture always separated human communities from one another.
Now, as I think about culture, I realize the impetus behind my desire to find what’s genuine in the world and in each other is that I want to be an agent in shaping it as a creative thinker. I’m learning that culture is something we are constantly making and forming with each other every day; it’s elastic. It’s in our styles of interacting; ideas and assumptions that drive those interactions; and where we place values. And, art is an integral process of shaping that experience when it brings out the latent creativity we possess as beings who dream, noodle, and want to improve our conditions.
While in Detroit I met adults working with young people in ways that I had never encountered before except in my imagination. The ideas and experiences of the young people were central; were like taffy stretched and pulled by using their life experiences as a ‘container’ or context in which to explore new ideas about what was shaping the real world. One of the methods I encountered is called ‘popular education’. From this container youth made art, performed spoken-word or painted murals expressing their awarenesses which framed alleyways in broken spaces throughout Detroit. I’d never seen or experienced this way of learning as a ‘thing’, and certainly not in Milwaukee. Detroit Summer was one youth program that inspired me to grow that kind of soil in my own backyard. I came back on a mission.
That was six years ago. Fast forward to now, and I can identify all sorts of people and organizations who’ve been turning over this kind of soil in my own hometown well before I was aware. I will name just a few who I’ve had the chance to work alongside of and learn from over the years. Venice Williams is executive director at Alice’s Garden. She teaches young people and adults how to garden in an urban setting and grow their souls using wisdom garnered from her Choctaw and African roots. The garden is a space for ritual, community gatherings and expressions, and food in the form of community potlucks. Sara Daleiden, a cultural organizer of MKE<—>LAX (a Milwaukee/Los Angeles connection) is like a midwife fostering the birth of latent creativity and emergent connections among creative individuals and organizations. She helps Milwaukee value artists as cultural producers – critical thinkers capable of effecting shifts at community, organizational and city-levels – not just object-makers.
Adam Carr “works with communities, places and people to tell stories”. He is a tour guide and griot extraordinaire for so many Milwaukee neighborhoods. He holds the stories of the Polish, German, Italian and Latino immigrant communities, the black community and so many more as their stories have evolved and interacted over time. His tours are full of laughter, witty humor and gravelly history; granular and multicolored like quartz. Melanie Ariens is artist-in-residence for Milwaukee Water Commons, a cross-city network fostering stewardship for our waters through creative community engagement. They contract artists like myself to work with partner organizations who want to learn water stewardship, and create permanent art about water.
To paraphrase the title of a book I’m reading by someone I admire, (Arlene Goldbard), this now is ‘The Culture of Possibility’ where ‘Arts, Artists and the Future’ are central to fostering human connection. Someone who intentionally works this soil is a ‘cultural worker’; someone who does it with and for others is a ‘cultural organizer’. Six years ago people like these occupied hollow, walled-off slots in my mind labeled ‘community organizer’, ‘writer’, ‘muralist’, ‘teacher’, ‘artist’, ‘parent’, or ‘farmer’. The slots were bigger and deeper where I could label them as ‘friend’. Now I no longer occupy my own hollow slot in the world labeled ‘offbeat’; or ‘fringe’. I am in lockstep; I have found and touched the genuine in my own backyard.
The slots have all but disappeared and in their place weeds grow wild and edible; only bits of blue sky are visible between sunflower stalks I walk among. Each stalk is a person and we shake hands as I pass. They seem to bow, but I mustn’t be so vain. Really, they are heavy with the weight of seeds ripening. My job is to spread fresh soil at their bases so roots can grow deep and strong. Then, heads are held high. Seeds fall on freshly watered soil and the cycle begins again.
In an effort to learn more about this way of working in the world, as a creative in lockstep with community, I acted on an opportunity that landed in my inbox last fall. It was to apply as a volunteer ‘Cultural Agent’ with the US Department of Arts and Culture. Sounds like a neat department, huh? It’s not actually a federally recognized organization, but it is a nationally-networked grassroots people-powered movement with a Statement of Values that begs attention for doing just what the name says.
This January I made the team, a six-month commitment to meet bi-weekly via videoconference with a learning cohort of 17 other Cultural Agents from around the nation. We are committed to the soil of social interaction; of engaging people’s hearts and minds to imagine and create with each other in a world where social imagination is relegated to the periphery. We bring our full selves as creatives to the world and demonstrate that it’s not just the product that comes with being an artist; it’s the mind, the heart, the soul. We reshape a culture of possibility for the future, bringing to bear on the mind that culture is the crucible in which we forge the way we live and move and have our being – with each other, for each other, and by each other.
Alice’s Garden: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=BlzIUHtGOgw
Milwaukee Water Commons: http://www.milwaukeewatercommons.org
US Department of Arts and Culture: http://usdac.us/about/
Arlene Goldbard: http://arlenegoldbard.com/talks-workshops/videos/