Several years ago, as I struggled to further define and understand my own work as an artist, my mentor and friend asked me one simple question “Are you doing healing work or just making art about something?”
It took me more than two years to answer that question.
Longer still to understand what she meant.
Even longer to understand what it truly means to be accountable to myself, the community, those that came before, and those yet to be born.
As a community-based artist, organizer, and occasional urban farmer, my creative practice is rooted in exploring and expanding methodologies that utilize art as a vehicle for dialogue, social change, and community healing. For several years, however, what I did not do: interrogate and explore the moral and ethical implications of working in community. Beyond a trendy catch-phrase, what did I mean when I said community healing?
I made many mistakes.
These were often rooted in situating my art, creative ideas, goals, and production schedule before people. I put myself at the center of the discussion instead of seeing myself as a part of difficult dialogues in which the community and I were interdependent. I did not create space for people to come together and interact with the art, with each other, with me even. I arrived as the “sage on the stage” with all the creative answers. Subconsciously, I operated as if I could show up, exhibit beautiful and thought-provoking work, and voila, people would “see the light.”
To put this in perspective: my work addresses historical harms by revealing and discussing the impact of hidden histories with a special emphasis on racial violence. Since 2002 I have led The Lynch Quilts Project, a community-based effort that utilizes textile traditions to explore the history and ramifications of racism and racial violence, specifically lynching, on our contemporary culture. These are difficult projects, exploring challenging and emotional topics. The imagery is jarring and brutal.
About five or six years after the project started, I was invited to present the quilts at a youth home with children who had experienced what for many of us is unimaginable trauma. I strutted in like a proud peacock to showcase the horrors of history. A young boy about nine or ten years old walked up to me when viewing an image and said, “So that is another reason why it’s not good to be me.”
I was mortified and ashamed of my behavior.
I wanted to be angry at the institution for inviting me and called the program director to give her a piece of my mind. My rant was full of phrases such as: You all should know better. You know what these children have been through. Why would you have me bring the project there? To paraphrase her cool response: Yes. You are correct. We made a mistake and will address it with the children. But, if you felt so strongly, why did you accept the offer?
Honestly, I had not thought of any of those things until this young soul, who was living in a group home because this was safer than being with family, revealed my hubris through his reaction. The look on his face is indescribable but burned on my mind forever.
My own artistic gifts and talents, while vital, are not the skills needed to effectively engage people. I needed to learn what it meant to work in community. So, I set out on a journey to incorporate new skills about community building into my creative practice. Over time, I began to develop guiding principles to navigate community-based work:
- Reciprocity and flexibility
- People-Centered Asset Based Community Development
- Trauma Informed Community Building
- Collective Impact
- Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding
- Agapic Energy Campaign
In recent years, I have witnessed many well-intentioned artists present work that led to backlash, community angst, and, in some cases, traumatized the community in the attempt to discuss difficult topics. What was most disturbing and problematic is how often the artist and/or institution invoked artistic license but did not acknowledge the impact and harm their work had on the community. Nor did they seek ways to further community dialogue around the topic that could also translate into some type of healing.
What I came to understand over time is that it is not about whether one approach to art making is right or wrong, but about one’s responsibility and accountability. I still don’t always get it right. Working in community with people is hard. Talking about hard topics in public settings is even harder. However, I make it a point to take ownership of whatever happens. To reach across the aisle. To show up and be present. To directly engage the public. It often means I must slow down and think deeply about how to present work in community spaces. To intentionally create space for people to connect with the artwork and each other. To raise their voices in dialogue.
America is at a crossroads. Recent events have highlighted divisions that seem to increase daily. Artists and art processes are well positioned to be the connectors and bridge builders that help our communities navigate these journeys. But to do so, we must ask ourselves this question again and again:
What does it mean to be accountable?
To hear LaShawnda speak about “Building Community One Stitch at a Time” check out her TEDxIndianapolis talk.