Project: I Am

get ready for some reflection...
get ready for some reflection…

Sometimes you need a reminder about what matters. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of work life and become convinced that some minute detail deserves front and center attention. I’ve written about social justice; I’d like to think that my work connect to social justice never falls victim to such distraction, but it does.

Let’s face it, in the work world people often become wedded to a point or idea or concept and adopt the stance that such point is the center of the universe. The sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way round. I’ve done it; the word on the page becomes the only word you can see and you forget about all the paragraphs that go around it. It also means you lose sight of your audience, and when myopia takes over, you even convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if your audience understands what you’ve written.

I’ve certainly watched others in my world of work get caught in this. I get distracted as well, arguing on principle and insisting that it must be a comma instead of a semi-colon. What I hate is how that small point suddenly takes over my life for a period of time. I become consumed by it, angered, saddened, frustrated…and the obstinate teen that still inhabits my headspace typically just wants to push the chair into a back corner, lean back with boots up and say, “whatever dude” to whomever is trying to push me into something.

Aside: that’s a funny point though isn’t it? That we find ourselves in those consuming spaces usually because there are others we are butting up against on those very detailed points. I suppose I should say that sometimes a detail does matter. But it still drives me nuts when I have to give attention to that.

Where does this ranting lead me…well as it happens too many of such points have dominated my life recently. So I am grateful for the wake-up call that was our gallery exhibit of Project: I Am. It shook me in just the right ways.

witnessMy lovely co-director and I decided to lead a workshop this spring that involved teaching counselors how to assist clients in a process of reclaiming identity from experiences of oppression. I won’t go into the theories and such here, but it boils down to 12 participants who met as a group on two separate occasions and also worked individually in between meetings. It was a learn-by-doing method; like so much of the work we do it helps to go through it yourself in order to really learn what is going on. The process results in each person creating a work of art that expresses an aspect of their preferred “self”, the self that Oppression may have tried to diminish, alter, restrict, dominate, etc.

It waI AM exhibits the first time my partner and I had attempted this workshop. While it is based on work that we’ve learned about done by many others, it is still a new thing to us – so this was one of our biggest experimental leaps yet (I say that even after attempting the film. Yikes). So we always had this background anxiety questioning if it was working, if we need to change anything, is it going to fail, etc.

As with the film experience, we found our little group starting to form their own community through the process. They talked to each other about difficult things but also about triumphs. They helped each other develop images and ideas to translate into their work. They gave encouragement and had a good laugh throughout. And that also means we got to know people in a way that, again, is a little different from a traditional classroom setting. You find out just how much talent people have through things like this; I don’t mean specific to artistic talent (although we did find many closeted artists!) but the many different talents that get revealed through the process. In short, you see just how amazing and interesting people can be.

The project culminates in a gallery exhibit of participant’s work. We managed to secure a gallery and hold a one-night show

we're making art here
we’re making art here

where participants could invite whomever they wanted to share in their exhibit. The night before we set up the space – and here is when we first started to see the “magic” that exists, that mysterious force in work like ours that definitely envelopes all that is done, but will disappear if you try to put your finger on it. You just have to let it “be.” As the works went up on the walls, you just felt it in the air, had that tingle in the spine that says, “something is happening here.” Even watching each person setting up, watching them work together, made me want to just stand back and take it in. Something had happened for these people and while I still don’t have a word for it, I can see its presence, particularly in ways different from before.

Resident Artist  - he's gonna go far
Resident Artist

The show itself was fabulous. It was also my first time seeing the completed works. I was taken aback by the commitment and passion in each piece. And the variety of media was a big surprise; everything from woodcut to painting, photograph to spoken word. Each person getting to share their work, talk about why they did what they did, and to do so in the ways they chose to, not in the ways they were required to. To have their work addressed and handled by a professional artist (our resident consultant), then displayed in a gallery, all adds a level of legitimization that I think even the participants didn’t quite realize until it was happening. It’s like the ultimate, “hey this matters; your story matters.”

And that brings me back to where I started this post. I had an emotional moment at the start of the show. Not because I was sad, but because all the shit from the past month finally started falling off my back. It didn’t happen because it was the end of the week, or because I’d checked off another “to do,” but because I was experiencing a space of camaraderie and validation, I was witnessing our group “arriving.” Something had been reclaimed and we were in the presence of it. So I shed a tear, not out of pain, but out of the relief of being reminded about what matters. I saw who our participants are, and it reminded me who I am as well. Why I do what I do and what I’ve gotten good at. And suddenly the bullshit details I’ve had to fight around became just that, small insignificant points that in some cases didn’t even add up to a whole. That inner teen finally got to fist-pump the air.

I left shouting to everyone just how beautiful they really are (no, it wasn’t just the wine talking). It’s funny, because one of the silent motivations for doing this project was the hope that it would be my parting gift. One last thing to give to them before I leave. And darn it, whether they know it or not, they ended up giving something to me too. Au revoir my friends; I’ll carry that one with me for a very long time.

until we meet again!
until we meet again!

March On

Feeling inspired, humbled, reminded, motivated…went to see Selma last night with a group of people at the Alamo Draft House. We made this an informal get-together for members of our student group, and it was secretly my treat to myself after a long day of training. I’ve been wanting to see this one for a while and have gotten very interested in the behind-the-scenes story of what it took to get it made. So first off I have to say, excellent job to cast and crew, you are all heroes. Clearly David Oyelowo is superb (he WAS King) but all the performances are top notch. You always know everything is working in a film when you’re not thinking about the film itself at all, but rather getting swiftly carried along by the current of the story and not ever wanting to look away. You must know what comes next. You want to feel everything it throws at you. And when it ends, you have to sit in that theater for a moment because you aren’t entirely certain where you are, because a moment ago you were sure you were living in that land, that story.

I wasn’t alive when the events depicted in Selma took place. I came along 5 years after MLK was murdered. So I didn’t watch it to recall my experience, as was the case with some who attended with me (and their transport was a different, yet similarly significant, journey) – I watched to witness the story that was to be told, a story I had heard pieces about or read about but didn’t really know, at least not in the ways you know something when you lived through it.

And Witness it we did…I couldn’t believe how much it felt like we were in that screen, caught up in those events. Bravo Ms DuVernay, brilliant job. I don’t know how she created that illusion like you were sitting in the audience as King gave a sermon, or that you were on the bridge when the tear gas was shot in the crowd…but it felt like you were sitting in the middle of it all, and I felt such a range of emotions from anger to surprise to joy to grief. But what I wasn’t expecting was how it also transported me simultaneously to the present day – to the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner…the attempts occurring now to restrict the vote, the attitudes displayed now towards people trying to make a change. I felt it all because it was like a mirror of what is right now, and the words being spoken in those speeches were the same words we’re trying to get out there to people everywhere today. It is still relevant, it is still happening.

During our post-film discussion, someone mentioned how a few people have criticized the portrayal of LBJ. In truth I don’t know how “accurate” some of that is, but it is very clear the film is not meant to be a documentary. It uses its medium very well to convey a story, a very poignant story that also includes people who really existed and who really did some of the things shown on that screen. What I thought was interesting though is that while I don’t have any historical record of what two very powerful White men in the 60’s actually said about Dr. King and the events in Selma, I do not doubt that the style of conversation portrayed was on target. Why? Because the words used were genuine, and because people still sit around today referring to people of color through racial slurs, “good ol’ boy” assumptions, and power expectations. Again, the film wasn’t just a reflection of 1965, but a window into today.

It’s ironic that I spent the morning offering a diversity training to a local organization. They wanted to see Parrhesia, and also learn about community engagement. My co-director and I jumped at the chance to do this since it’s all pointing in directions we want to be heading towards. We’ve been preparing for a while now and we were going to have the floor for the majority of the day.

Overall it was a very good experience. While everyone was similar in that they worked for the common goals of the organization, there was a great deal of difference regarding job titles, functions, experiences, and so on. So it had some of the “general audience” effect when watching the film. We had an anonymous feedback form this time and responses were highly favorable (3-4 stars!!) with the only complaints being to include people who come from experiences not focused on in this film (this is a criticism I have no problem with at all – sequel, anyone??). Many also freely offered that they really liked the film and we had a very exciting conversation afterwards, followed by our training material. I’ll admit we were quite nervous, because the training part was newer for us. The work itself wasn’t new, but trying to show it in a way to a group of professionals was the new part. It was like teaching my diversity class, a typically 15 week course, in about 2 hours. But everyone seemed up to the task.

I’m not going to go into details about the conversations had, but some really good stuff came out of it. I found myself going through my usual inner monologue of “trust the process” when the fear would creep up on me…and sure enough we would press through the awkward moments and get to some very useful, productive places. I know they were left with much to think about. John and I had to work together in a way which was new, but even with the bumps we figured it out pretty well, I think. The topic was a little bit more my territory than his, which is different, so there was the experience of figuring out in the moment what we each lend to facilitating the overall experience. Interesting and useful, and I think we both learned some things.

-an aside – I still hate powerpoint.

Anyway, I’ll say it does feel a little weird to go from that to Selma in the evening…not weird in a bad way but it means my head and subsequently my heart was filled to the brim with social justice. Getting into the spaces to teach social justice also makes me face my own inner workings and experience related to it – it does become a lot to manage but it is part of doing the work, in my opinion. I have to keep an eye on me while I’m keeping an eye on them. So I also notice all my vulnerabilities, mistakes, successes, turning points…and brought all that into the theater with me. (Oh yeah, did I also mention I showed my film to a group of people and it still scares the crap out of me?)

After all that I think that’s where we get to the humbling and motivating part…what I thought was masterful about Oyelowo’s performance was how he brought the human to the image of King. You saw and felt the fear, uncertainty, pain, and even humiliation while he was engaging in these remarkably brave and terrifying acts. Now I will not in any way attempt to say that I work like MLK, because I don’t. But I could connect with that experience, the moment of pulling together all your strength to do something courageous because it must be done, all the while feeling scared, doubtful, and alone. Because that’s the truth of it, courage and fear exist simultaneously, and we can’t ever pretend they don’t live together. To ignore one will destroy the potential of the other.

I also noticed….that while MLK was certainly the point of the spear, he was not the only person pushing the machine (mixed metaphor, whatever). There were many, all putting themselves out there. We can’t forget that. I think oppression tries to convince us that we are alone, but the truth is we are not. So if they can do it, so can I….

Nerves of Steel…

…I don’t have. While I am slowly coming to accept my tendency to blindly jump into large frying pans (and that usually works out really well, truthfully), some things still make me shake down to my core. We showed the film to our first general audience – meaning an audience that isn’t composed of a university audience, or professionals who already have some level of investment in the work being presented. We were invited to show, which is different from just a group of people gathered from anywhere, but I suppose it would be similar to people choosing to say, buy a ticket for your film instead of someone else’s. Except our film was free. But I digress…

SGUUFThe San Gabriel Unitarian Universalist Church hosted the event, inviting other congregations and individuals living in the area. Our cast member, Vicki, spearheaded this effort, so we did attract an audience that had some possible connection to what was going on. I’ll grant that. But it definitely got us closer to the experience of having a “cold” audience, in that no one there really knew me, or cared one way or the other about what I think, and so on. In truth, I think I prefer it that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love praise, but really that’s an ego thing; I want to hear from those who aren’t attached to me.

(Of course I say no one knew me, but as it turned out there was someone who did – someone I actually went to high school with was in that audience. Now that makes for an extremely small world. Very weird. But not in a bad way, just a “yikes, you might remember what I looked like when I was a freshman” kind of way.)

So when the lights went down and the film started to play, I was hit with a wave of panic as it sunk in that this was indeed a general audience. And I’d invited my kids to watch the film for the first time. And I had friends there. And strangers. And a pretty good sized audience. And Christ what will they think, I’m in a church. Now I’m sweating. I can’t breathe.

A minute later I settled down, sat with my kids, answered their funny yet pithy questions (e.g. “mama, if she trained that lady how could they have fired her?” and “why would someone say those kinds of words?”) and watched the audience. Here again I noticed this interesting phenomenon where the audience began to interact with the film – gasps, laughs in the right places, shaking heads, even tears. This fascinates me. This is where I watch the art interact with the audience, and it transforms in the process. It is no longer a static “thing”, a picture on a wall, but a movement, something affected by the watcher and a watcher affected by the art. Performance, performer, observer, all become somehow intermingled and a new thing emerges.

I realize the abstraction of what I’m trying to describe, but I think it becomes more clear afterwards when the panel comes on and the lights go up. This time we had Mandi, Richard, Lance, and Vicki on our panel – that was a first for Mandi and Richard, and I learned Richard’s first true viewing of the complete film. Each panel is different and each panel session is different. I’m finding I still don’t know what to expect, but I am enjoying this panel piece. The discussions coming out of there are usually more than I can hope for. This time there was an interest in behind the scenes, why did we make this, how did we make this, and what has happened since. And our panel just went to town with those questions, and I also watched the panelists express themselves in ways that I just couldn’t have imagined 2 years ago.

That gets to the pieces again we just never saw coming, how this film experience could affect the lives of all of us involved. We thought it was just a movie, but it has become a statement, a reflection of our position to be more than we were, a symbol of our stands and our voices. And now that we know how to use those voices, we just aren’t shutting up. Now that is super cool.

Be cool
Be cool