This is the 3rd post in a 3 part series about my work with the US Department of Art and Culture as a Founding Cultural Agent. This summer, the 17 Founding Agents were tasked with planning and hosting "Imaginings" in their cities. The DC Imagining took place on Saturday, July 12th.
The 1st ever DC Imagining is a memory in the hearts and minds of (at least) the 100+ people who attended. Since then, I've been thinking about it's prologue - the things that influenced my cultural practice leading up to the planning and launch.
Before I sent the first solar flare into the universe about the DC Imagining, I was in my laboratory being consumed, amazed and affirmed by Poet/Activist/Black Feminist/Architect/Ancestor June Jordan and her friendship with Futurist Architect Buckminister “Bucky” Fuller. Their 1965 (environmental and social justice) collaboration, the “Harlem Skyrise Project” was "imagining" at its core. But it was Jordan's writing about that deliberate moment of choosing love as mode of action and resistance was a salve to the viceral emotions I hold about DC, the ever-changing place I call home.
I share June Jordan’s words about the genesis of the “Harlem Skyrise Project” as a love note to myself, a meditation on the power of imagining and a primer for some of us.
“…the agony of that moment propelled me into a reaching far and away to R. Buckminster Fuller, to whom I proposed a collaborative architectural redesign of Harlem, as my initial, deliberated movement away from the hateful, the divisive.
My first meeting with Bucky lasted several hours, just the two of us, alone. And when we separated, agreed on the collaboration for Esquire magazine, I felt safe in my love again. We would think and work together to design a three-dimensional, an enviable, exemplary life situation for Harlem residents who, otherwise, had to outmaneuver New York City's Tactical Police Force, rats, a destructive and compulsory system of education, and so forth, or die.
This was a way, a scale, of looking at things that escaped the sundering paralysis of conflict by concentrating on the point, the purpose of the fight: What kind of schools and what kind of streets and what kind of parks and what kind of privacy and what kind of beauty and what kind of music and what kind of options would make love a reasonable, easy response?
Forward from that evening in Fuller's room, at the St. Regis Hotel, my sometime optimism born of necessity hardened into a faithful confidence carried by dreams: detailed explorations of the alternatives to whatever stultifies and debases our lives.
My life seems to be an increasing revelation of the intimate face of universal struggle. You begin with your family and the kids on the block, and next you open your eyes to what you call your people and that leads you into land reform into Black English into Angola leads you back to your own bed where you lie by yourself, wondering if you deserve to be peaceful, or trusted or desired or left to the freedom of your own unfaltering heart. And the scale shrinks to the size of a skull: your own interior cage.
And then if you're lucky, and I have been lucky, everything comes back to you. And then you know why one of the freedom fighters in the sixties, a young Black woman interviewed shortly after she was beaten up for riding near the front of an interstate bus-- you know why she said, "We are all so very happy."
It's because it's on. All of us and me by myself: we're on.”
Source: Jordan, June, 1936-2002, Chapter 40: Foreword to Civil Wars in Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002, pp. 306-308
(Collage illustrating the implications and roots of June Jordan’s ‘architextural’ principles. Source: Race & Architecture Studying the historical intersections of Culture and Form.)
Coming in at a close second to my fascination with June Jordan X Buckminister Fuller was this idea of “Emergence" found in complex science. I was introduced to this concept in an article by Margaret Wheatley and then again by Invincible, an amazing Detroit-based cultural worker, artist and member of the collective Complex Movements. As organizers and change agents we can learn so much from flocks of birds, schools of fish and swarms of bees. Our local, national and global social movements need to take cues from nature.
I came to thinking about the design and intention of the DC Imagining with this vocabulary and perspective.
I also came with with my share of the psychic energy connected to living, working and creating in Washington, DC - the socio-political belly of these United States. I choose to see this energy as neither good nor bad, more like latent, full of potential.
And the belief that communities are always visioning for themselves. Even when they don’t recognize it. I also believe that many of these communities share the same locale, cultural, social and economic profile for all types of reasons.
Solar Flare 1.
At the end of May I shared my new role with the USDAC and the upcoming DC Imagining via a weekend blog post. I proceeded to invite (and challenge) everyone I knew - artists, activists, people from the creative, educational, social, business sectors, the bus driver on my route to work, my Mama, everyone - to join in and imagine DC in 2034 with me. Steadily the blog post views, shares and likes increased along with the questions and amazing supporters.
Over the course of 6 weeks the DC Imagining was co-created with…
- A budget of 200 dollars.
- Equal parts of soul, uncertainty, interest and a dash of healthy skepticism about the USDAC (“Wait, you’re not the government?!”).
- A dynamic group of creative connectors who came to the USDAC with different interests, levels of engagement and investment.
- A planning framework developed out of praxis and field testing. Everyone who volunteered to support the event participated in mini-Imaginings and visioning activities to some degree at every meeting.
- Generous extensions of selves, networks and donations of space and supplies.
Solar Flare 2. About Planning and Co-Creating
We made much of the planning process transparent and accessible to citizen artists via social media and word of mouth. 2 hours before every planning meeting I’d share the same mini-imagining prompt online that we were using that evening. At the meeting I’d share the responses we received online and after the meeting I’d post photos and a recap of what was discussed. It was important to me to archive and build physical and digital #ImagineDC communities and bridge the two.
Beauty created/ The community fully/ Engaging itself
Bright visions of change/ Fully realized by those/ Who've made DC home
(both Haikus written by Citizen Artist, Tavia Benjamin during a DC Imagining planning meeting)
Before our second planning meeting I boldly posted, “What are 3 issues impacting people in DC”. This was a whole different kind of solar flare. Responses popped up with people listing 3, 4, 5, 6 issues. “Gentrification”, “White Supremacy”, “Poor Education”, “Displacement” and “Food Desserts” ran up and down the timeline. Honestly, I hadn’t thought out my end goal for this post but I could not ignore these very real issues; they had to be embedded into the work of the Imagining. I acknowledged everyone’s responses and pointed out the data: that this question was the most active post to-date. Why? In Cultural Agent mode I challenged respondents to imagine what could be if we brought our full creative selves to finding solutions. I was energized by the powerful, creative responses. This confirmed my suspicion that our imagination is a muscle that must be activated and conditioned.
Solar Flare 3. The Event
The logistics: Saturday, July 12th, 1pm - 4pm at the Impact Hub.
In the spirit of June and Bucky, who knew the power of space and place, the Impact hub was the perfect location physically and politically. It is an accessible co-working space for organizations and companies committed to social justice that's sandwiched between two major metro stops. With a bright, open space floor plan we were able to host 100 people in the space effortlessly.
The air was festive and deliberate; our resident DJ Les Talusan curated an #ImagineDC set that featured local jams. Critical Exposure's latest youth photography exhibit, "REFRAME" hung on the walls. We had guided arts stations connected to the theme of the day, a photo exhibit featuring youth photographers from Critical Exposure, an “Imagining Your Self-ie” booth and snacks.
The agenda read deceptively short:
- Imagine: DC 2034
- #ImaginingDC Freestyle
- Planning for the Journey: 2014-2034
- Next Steps + More Art
But it was packed. In 3 hours we wanted 100 people from all over the city…
- in the state of mind to imagine 20 years from now;
- to discuss their visions for the city in small groups;
- to create a shared vision in their small group;
- to creatively report out their vision to the large group and finally;
- plan action steps to get to those visions.
As a planning team and facilitators, we embraced uncertainly. I acknowledged at the outset that we were not going to solve anything today, that we may have more questions than answers at the close at that all of it was ok. Everyone dived in for 3 hours, with creative interpretations of visions for the city that included cooperatives, artists in schools, a minister of culture, a go-go museum and truly diverse communities. DC-native, Grammy nominated progressive hip-hop artist and cultural gem of DC Christylez Bacon created an Imagining freestyle rhyme on the spot using 10 words from the audience. Our youngest participant was 7 and our oldest was 75. And we made it through the entire agenda!
Images that appeared during a search of “#ImaginingDC”…
(l to r: Christylez Bacon freestyle performance, Citizen Artist in the “Imagining Your Self-ie" Booth, Graphic Notes from a small group breakout, 2014 - 2014 timeline, Volunteer in the “Imagining Your Self-ie" Booth, Chalk art outside Impact Hub, Citizen Artists in the “Imagining Your Self-ie" Booth, Photo exhibit from Critical Exposure, Small group discussions, Small group presentations, More small group presentations. More #ImaginingDC HERE.)
The prompt used during the small break out groups generated a lot of ideas. Beyond the list we generated, what was most powerful was/is the acknowledgement that we must get creative about how we are going to save ourselves from ourselves. People who hadn’t really seen art and culture as tools to be applied and integrated into justice work were going just that. People identified and claimed their role on making our city a more just, creative place. People who didn’t necessarily shared the same locale, cultural, social and economic profile were in community, listening to each other. There are mini-imaginings happening in recreation centers, board rooms, classrooms and kitchens, right now. Flocks of birds, schools of fish and swarms of bees.
There is a deep interest and desire for accountability in the “what’s next”. A a Founding Cultural Agent and host of the first Imagining I encourage you to learn more about the US Department of Arts and Culture and become a Citizen Artist: usdac.us.
Just like June Jordan knew that justice and transformation for Harlem would take bringing her full-self and extending her reach to collaborators, I am so clear that this work - imagining and planning for DC 2034 - cannot happen in a 3 hour meeting or in a silo. I look forward to our second gathering this fall and supporting the cultivation of shared local leadership and collective imagination. We're just getting warmed up!