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Episode 21: Justin Laing - Taking Back the Land
Episode 2119th March 2021 • Change the Story / Change the World • Bill Cleveland
00:00:00 00:43:12

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Episode 21: Justin Laing: - Taking Back The Land

Justin Laing

Before starting Hillombo in 2017, Justin worked as a Senior Program Officer of Arts & Culture at The Heinz Endowments for more than a decade. His work focused on small and midsized arts organizations, out-of-school time arts education, and Black arts organizations, with a particular interest in participatory grantmaking. He came to philanthropy having worked for ten years as the Assistant Director of Nego Gato, Inc, an Afro Brazilian Music, Dance, and Martial Arts company where he taught, performed, and ran the day-to-day operations. Justin has a BA in Black Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters Degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

Justin serves as the co-chair of ArtsinHD, an arts planning and creation process in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to support the neighborhood’s master plan and mark the neighborhood as a place for liberatory Black culture. Justin is the son of Susan and Clarence Laing, the father of Kufere, Etana, and Adeyemi Laing, and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

Threshold Questions And Delicious Quotes

What does "taking back the land mean?

the idea ... was ...from a person named Amilcar Cabral. This idea that you work in small territories. [...] you try to take back the land, like square mile by square mile. So, I was working in one major place called the Hill District... And culture was a critical piece to liberate our minds and the way that European culture oppressed black people was through this indoctrination of its art, its culture is everything is being superior. And so, culture had to be part of the strategy.

You talk about working constructively with the tensions that are present in many organizations. What does this entail?

So, one of the ways that I've tried to do that is by naming some of these frameworks, whether it's white supremacy, culture, what fragility, white privilege, and like you said, trying to bring that into the organization so that, that can be part of the official speak. Because again, going back to that black studies beginning, there was a whole lot of language that wasn't allowed that I didn't see being taken advantage of the nonprofit arts sector at all.

You see racism and capitalism as intrinsically connected in our society. How does this play out in your work with nonprofit arts organizations?

...we're supposed to be the bravest ones, the creatives... and I've been starting to see, the class contradictions battle inside an organization. Cause you're raising issues that people have different interests in and I think that’s, that's a bit of the tension that you're facing, one thing I've been trying to understand more is the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, racism inside organizations. And to the extent that we are talking about racism, there's some level of tension. I think the extent that we include capitalism in that, there's even more tension about that.

What is the meta-message of a Euro-centric culture?

...all of the things that are happening when you go into an orchestra performance. And the way that you step into space and you engage the regal-ness of it, and the carpet, and the chandelier's and everything is sending a message that you are now in sacred space. And I think if you take this idea of ideology, that is its own aggression,


Bill Cleveland: [00:00:00] Hey there. Ponder, if you will, a few unlikely juxtapositions: Capoeira the Brazilian martial arts, spiritual and dance practice, Karl Marx, The Pittsburgh Penguins. How about the Heinz Endowments, white supremacy anti-racism, and the Minnesota Orchestra?

If you're curious, keep listening. This is Change the Story, Change the World, a Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.

Now, Justin Laing is a pioneer of sorts in that he helps arts and philanthropic organizations examine their place In the systems that perpetuate structural racism in our country. In our conversation with him, I liken this to wrestling with a tiger. Which is probably unfair to tigers, given their beauty and endangered status. Nonetheless, Justin has taken on a potent and dangerous force in his life's work. His ability to do this well, has as much to do with his courage as it does his unique capacity to help the people in the organizations he works with accept the inescapable link between owning the hard truths of their histories, and fulfilling the promises and ideals that embody their missions.

At the end of the day, Justin, like many of our guests, is a creative change agent. And like them, he brings an interesting mix of skills, experiences, and sensibilities to the task.

We hear about all that and more in our conversation, which took place shortly after the historic 2020 election.

Part One: Hillombo

So, let me begin with my first more basic question, which is, when you think about your path in the world, particularly right now, what is it that, that you do?

What's your work as you see it?

Justin Laing: [00:01:59] I think ultimately my work is about trying to live my highest purpose. And so that's still always being, revealed to me more and understanding more about that as I go, and then in terms of some of the things that I'm doing now, my work is about trying to partner and work with people around the ways that culture reproduces oppression, the ways that we can use it to disrupt, ways we can use it to engage with it, to create steps towards something that our much more proud to be a part of, and that's the work that I'm trying to figure out.

BC: [00:02:38] And given your history beginning working with Nego Gato, how did you come to that, and where do you see the question of culture and anti-racist work coming together?

 JL: [00:02:54] So I would say I really came to Capoeira out of, the black studies tradition. So, I was a black studies major at the University of Pittsburgh and had some really important professors there who were also artists, Dennis Brutus, who's a really great poet out of South Africa, and Rob Penny, who's a poet, a playwright out of the Hill district. And then other teachers who are educators like Dr. Barbara Sizemore. And so I was influenced to see education and art and culture all as connected in the work I wanted, to do. And I was always surprised by how much information there was at the university that felt like it'd be really useful, but it was really not in the general public, and that seemed just so designed, that you'd have this plethora of information and it was as though it didn't exist, or it wasn't well known. And I grew up in a house where this was all also totally unknown when I was a teenager, a gentleman named Peter Claire gave me a book called There is a River by Vincent Harding, which really changed my whole understanding of history and all these things. I did not know. It was shocking to me around our histories of black people and the connection between various different pieces.

So, I was with a group that was trying to create an African cultural center at the University of Pittsburgh. We weren't successful in that, but the group stayed together, and when I came across, Capoeira due to a friend of mine named Shaka, I thought, oh, this would be great for me to learn personally. And this really is a connection that I'm trying to stay in more as well, which is around gender and masculinity. Cause they're real men can fight, which I could and was afraid to do. So, like a martial art, like this was going to really shore me up, so I was going to do this and I was going to get it all done at one time

 And so, I decided to start doing this capoeira but then I would also bring it to other people could learn from it and they could join it and I asked Gato, “Oh, Can I go take us back in Pittsburgh.” And I just assumed that I could, because Pittsburgh had a thousand dojo, no, it's not there, but if you organize people, I'll come.

So, then I thought, oh, this could be one of the things that the village for an African culture center does, and it would also be a way that I would learn this Capoeira, so it became this part of our programming and the idea there was again, take it from a person named Amilcar Cabral.

 This idea that you work in small territories. You work in [...] you try to take back the land, like square mile by square mile. So, I was working in one major place, like called the Hill District and I stayed there and I still, my office is still there. And culture was a critical piece to liberate our minds and the way that European culture oppressed black people was through this indoctrination of its art, its culture is everything is being superior. And so, culture had to be part of the strategy. And with the idea that Capoeira's story was also thinking you could embody, and it would also say that you could engage with people on it. You didn't have to talk it, but you could do it. That is how I got interested in and started working in Capoeira and began doing little demonstrations with the group and doing classes. And that's how I saw those things as connected.

BC: [00:05:59] So now you have a contemporary practice, with your organization Hillombo and yeah. Do those roots still speak to your work?

JL: [00:06:08] They do well for sure in the terms of, the name Hillombo. Hillombo is taken as a merger of two words, Chilombo and the Hill district, the Chilombo’s being these places that Africans escaped and built these freer communities in Brazil, some lasting a hundred years in the midst of the Portuguese colonizing and enslaving in Brazil.

So, the idea was that this company would be still interested in that same idea. So, it's still in the same neighborhood that I was talking about. And it's still trying to take on the role of arts in marketing the Hill District as a place of black liberatory culture, and we're doing the planning process for that, and that's still there.

So, I'm doing that work now, and that, so I would say there's still a... you can see a line through there to that. And then, what's changed is as I was working with Nego Gato and ran into a ceiling. Both in terms of some of the relationships in the organization, but then also in terms of money, and then went to go work for the Heinz endowments and in that ended up working more clearly for a predominantly white organization, and although I can, I'll say, I think when you work in the arts, in the nonprofit arts, You may have your own company, but I still think you still work for philanthropy, even when you have your own, you know what I'm saying?

So I think I worked closely for them, but I still think I worked for them even when I was running an organization in part, just because of the influence that they have on the choice that we make. And now I would say that where there's the difference I think is that now I work with many more predominantly white arts organizations on things like anti-racism and other people might call it sometimes DEI work and that work I think is different, and I think that's related to the economy of our art sector.

BC: [00:07:57] So say more about what I call the three-legged stool, which is the foundation, the organization, and the audience or the community.

 JL: [00:08:07] I just think that if you look at the work that Holly Sidford, as done over the last eight or so years and see who has money in the art sector, to hire people like myself, it's predominantly white organizations. So, I think that has an influence on where I end up working. You know what I mean?

And so...

BC: [00:08:27] So, one of the things you talk about- I've gone through... I like your blog. Yeah, some blogs are I guess what I would call is too shiny. I feel like you're talking to me, so

JL: [00:08:41] Oh good. I appreciate that. Thanks, Bill

 BC: [00:08:44] Part Two Wrestling with Tigers.

00:08:48] So, you talk about bringing frames like white fragility, white supremacy, and critical race theory into the real-life mechanism of a nonprofit or a foundation into the boardroom, where the human beings who hold the influence and power actually in it viscerally. The image that came to my mind was a tiger and a tail. And maybe there's a capoeira metaphor for the way you have to work in that environment in order to do something other than give people a pass cause they went through the workshop or feel insulted. Something in between that gives people an opportunity to actually calm the tiger maybe.

JL: [00:09:33] Yeah. is the tiger in this case here, is this tiger-like, like racial capitalist part or something like that, or something?

BC: [00:09:39] Power influence. I don't need to change, so why are you here?

JL: [00:09:43] Yeah, that's for sure. I think if you, a few thoughts about that, I've definitely been interested in this adaptive leadership framework. I'm feeling like that has some really valuable ways of working and I just did a shoutout to Eric Martin, and he has a book out now, Your Leadership Moment.

When I was working at Heinz, I had a chance to spend some time being a part of a group that was trying to think through the adaptive leadership model, and one of its core ideas is exactly how I think you were offering it to me, which is there's this top level of tension that one can create and a lower level of tension. And below it no one pays attention and above it, the larger system will shut down the work. And so, you're trying to find that level of tension.

So, one of the ways that I've tried to do that is by naming some of these frameworks, whether it's white supremacy, culture, what fragility, white privilege, and like you said, trying to bring that into the organization so that, that can be part of the official speak. Because again, going back to that black studies beginning, there was a whole lot of language that wasn't allowed that I didn't see being taken advantage of the nonprofit arts sector at all.

It was as though no one was even aware, which of course we are aware, we're just ignoring. And usually, you're partnering with somebody who feels the same way. So, I would say that's also part of that issue is that I'm not alone in that. There's a number of people who, I think, who feel similarly, and I think where I end up going is where someone's (saying) “I could use another partner. I think this way too, but I'm somewhat isolated in my organization, and I could use someone who could work with me, maybe bring some credibility to assist.” But that's ultimately what I find I end up doing is I end up partnering with people who have this, just to stay with the tiger analogy for a second. I think that they're also working on that.

 BC: [00:11:31] But that boardroom, often the reason they want you there is cause they want you to sit next to them in that boardroom. And there's a lot of people around the table who are going, “What's this about?”

JL: [00:11:43] Yeah. Yeah. And I'll tell you that this, go back again to again, to the things that we're not allowed to talk about and things we're not allowed to say.

And we're supposed to be the bravest ones, the creatives... and I've been starting to see, the class contradictions battle inside an organization. Cause you're raising issues that people have different interests in and I think that’s, that's a bit of the tension that you're facing, one thing I've been trying to understand more is the intersections of patriarchy, capitalism, racism inside organizations. And to the extent that we are talking about racism, there's some level of tension. I think the extent that we include capitalism in that, there's even more tension about that.

BC: [00:12:30] Oh yeah, especially in a foundation, right?

JL: [00:12:33] Yes. At this point I don't do as much work in foundations anymore actually. My work has actually moved. When I first left the (Heinz) Endowments that's primarily where I was working. But I'm not working in that many foundations anymore. Actually, I'm mainly working with arts organization. So, that probably says something about that drift.

BC: [00:12:50] So I'm going to ask you to tell a story. But before I do that, I was thinking about your work. And I've been, the people who came to mind is a kind of interesting cast of characters. There's a thing in the New York times Magazine, where somebody gets asked, “Who do you want to have dinner with?” And the cast of characters that came to mind when I was thinking about you were James McBride and Octavia Butler.  

JL: [00:13:13] Is the author Color of Water?

BC: [00:13:14] Yeah, and then the book I just finished, which is The Good Lord Bird, and here are artists who are story storytellers, and they're taking on the same things you talked about that we're not supposed to talk about. But they bring them through characters, through drama, through humor, through a narrative, [and] through conflict. And actually, another that came to mind, Ta Nehisi Coates who just tried his hand at fiction. And, having heard him talk about it, for a particular reason, because there are certain ways you can say things in fiction that are harder in the “sitting around the board room” conversation.

So the question is, is there a central role to play for that kind of work in what it is you do?

JL: [00:14:09] Yeah.  It's funny that you should say that.

I think so. It's one of the things I have to learn a lot more about. My brother who I work with, Alex, he tries to persistently and somewhat subtly say "I think we should look at the slides."

And I think, he loves stories in that regard and. And it's something I have to do; I think more of. So, I think that they could be, and it's something that I want to do, which is to lean more in and share a little bit more of my personal self because I can easily, go to the technical kind of like here's some information and be fairly strong in that area, and this thing that you're asking about, I think I have a lot more work, and this goes to the piece around one's highest purpose. What I'll say here is in June, I was initiated as the Olorisa which is old Olorisa, and Oshun is so many things. But culture and the finer things are surely one of her expressions. And improving in that is absolutely one of my aspirations. And I think one of the ways to, for me to better fulfill, what I'm here to do. But I would say have a long way to go in that regard.

 BC: [00:15:19] But you have a history that is steeped in that, of course. So, it's not like some foreign territory.

JL: [00:15:27] It's true, I'll say this though. When I went to Heinz, I put some of those things to the side to say, now I'm doing this. And I want to be careful that I'm not, double-dipping on not going back to my old organization and I also had my fill. I was exhausted, and so I was so tired from what was probably, I don't know, maybe twelve years of six or seven days a week working very long and also working in some very tough situations, and some tragedies that took place, and working in that kind of environment that are still with me.

So, I really put it down. And so now things are coming back, but they're there, but I have to go back and get those Sankofa, “go back and fetch it.”

BC: [00:16:07] One of the things that comes to mind is the part of my biography is working in prisons and one of the early lessons was dealing with toxicity that you can't control. It's like the water you drink the air, you breathe. And, you are, you have that tiger I'm talking about could also be described as having a certain level of toxicity. And so, bringing one's personal story actually crossing into the culture realm. The story realm. I know having been one of those people inside, is that it leaves you more vulnerable also. So, it just comes to mind that, protecting yourself as an important thing to do in the work that you've taken up, I believe.

JL: [00:16:53] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I agree. And the stories are important. What occurs to me is the structure of the story, what is the story about, and working with the organizations I think the stories I would want to find are the stories that are about groups of people.

Because I feel like one can go to a personal story, but then in doing that one is also supporting a frame of individual change, as the way we're going to really do this. I feel like in doing that, you're also supporting a larger narrative of individualism. And so even as you try to undermine it, you actually end up reinforcing it, if you make this a narrative about -and this is how I did this and this- so I feel like the stories that I want to look at are stories of groups of systems of also named structures at play.

BC: [00:17:44] Part Three: The Hill District.

So, did you come up with a story or a narrative that somehow personifies your path. What it is you're after you're working?

JL: [00:17:57] And I guess one, I would say, would be a story around the Hill district. I mentioned Arts in the Hill District as a group that I'm a co-chair with Dr. Kendra Ross. And its mission, its work is to support the marking of the Hill District as a place of black cultural liberation, and then trying to figure out what that means. So, I start there when my wife at the time... I was the co-director of a group called the Hill district consensus group, and they had this section of the master plan which was the arts and section. This is about eight years ago. And, although she's her own kind of artist in her own way said, would you lead this effort?

So I said I would. And we started off, I happened to go because of an artist named Daryl Kinsel. and another woman named Janera Solomon So, we were working on a project collectively called the Transformative Arts Process. About trying to create like a place of black narratives.

So how can we create more counter-narratives for black arts and culture and try to build that? So, I did my work to help Darrell and the contingent go to the AMC Conference (American Media Conference) and went myself, I think, and there was part of a session that was called Research as an Organizing Strategy. Data collections that ordinance.

So, try to come back into this idea that you mentioned beginning about experiments. I like experiments. I like to try something and make that be my teacher, what happened in doing it? And then usually when I don't know something, I'm like let's do something in it and worst comes to worst, when it's all over, we'll know more about it. So, come back and start to ask people to what you would want to see in terms of art in the community here as a research group.

Yeah, so we get 10 or 12 people together who will go out and ask people questions and collect data. But the idea is really mobilize ourselves around arts as a strategy around community development in the Hill District, because a lot of the conversation was mainly around physical development and buildings and it wasn't a lot of talk around the culture work, although the Hill District has a big history of that with people like August Wilson right in that neighborhood.

 So we did that and gathered some steam, and some momentum, and a collective us both came together and tried to take that data and do something with it, and the initial group was myself, Bonnie Young Laing, Diamonte Walker, Karen Abrams, and , an artist ed acting Gibson. But not too long after that, in 2016 and 2017, a gentleman named Joshua Pollard, bought a building on Center Avenue, and had a vision for like arts being involved somehow. Maybe there'd be a coffee thing in the bottom of the building and there'll be some pictures on the wall, but Diamonte brought it to this group of us, and said Hey, there's this guy, he's got arts ideas. “What do we think about this?” And at the same time, there was a young woman named Samantha Black, who had a vision for a place called Heart, which was going to be an artist residency space.

And so, we thought, Hey, what if we were to put these ideas together, an arts residency space and Josh's space. And Diamonte worked with the Hill District Community Development Corporation at the time. And I worked at Heinz. And we put together an idea that that the Heinz endowments would underwrite artists who rents and that we would also have some support from community development to help deal with some of the planning to hire a programmer for it.

So, in 2017, the endowments put about $350,000 to this project. And I was leaving at the same time. So, a quarter-million went to underwriting artists' rents, and another a hundred thousand for a programmer. And for the next couple years, we made that our main focus. Samantha Black came on as a, consultant to work on the project, this Hills CDC went through a number of iterations, trying to hire someone to manage the project from their end. Joshua Pollard who owned the building, went through a lot trying to get this building up to code, which was no easy task.

And so, we're figuring this thing out, and got us bumps along the way. But over the course of it this, spring, it opened, it got up and we're able to select six artists who are now living in that space, and I think so we've had a chance to try to see what it means to mark this place as a place of black cultural liberation and but had probably 16 applicants so also had to do some rejections in that. So I’ve had experience of applying and then not getting it, and we're being tagged on a Facebook post. It was like, they said they really wanted to do something different, the, artists they brought in are more established and those of us who aren't as established.

 So that's where that project is today and now, we're doing a new planning process, but that for me has a bunch of different threads in that story.

BC: [00:22:39] So if I were to be having coffee with a few of those artists right now, how would they describe, what would they say they were up to?

 JL: [00:22:50] Yeah, I know, they've just moved in the last month or so. But I can say a little bit that I know, James Hoff is a visual artist who lives there and has a project right now in I think it's in MoMA, I think, in New York.  He's also a muralist for the Philadelphia mural program MAP. And working with that, another artist there, Dawn, she is a designer, and she was just nominated for artist of the year in Lagos' Nigeria.

BC: [00:23:18] Well, I'm also interested in what they see. Do they see themselves as artists who are living with other, artists and that have a culturally animated space in a community? Do they see themselves, given that it is about The Hill District, do they see themselves as having a community role, or basically thriving as artists?

JL: [00:23:40] Part of the interview and application process was having an interest in the neighborhood. So, everybody who was selected, made a compelling case by their interest in the neighborhood. And what's interesting though, is that because of the Hill District, the role that has in Pittsburgh, if you're black and Pittsburgh and have been here generation, you have your own relationship to it most likely. It was that important a place.

And when it was… the lower Hill was destroyed. and it's an interesting story of how the lower Hill was destroyed to continue this story in the fifties and then completely in the sixties, the bottom what's called 28 acres, and to go back to the role of culture in this part of that is related because the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, the Heinz family of which was related to this, were going to put their cultural district in the Lower Hill. And they were going to put the Civic Light Opera, and this place called the Civic Arena. But, in the rebellions, after Dr. King was killed, that was moved and now all those things are lower about half a mile down. And that space state is like empty territory. And the planning process in part was because of a reaction to the Pittsburgh Penguins were given that by the city. And so there was all this fighting around the lower Hill district, which, I was involved with and then eventually we came up with a plan, which is pretty much for the upper, the middle, and Upper Hill District.

And so, James for example is from the Hill. And then Dawn, her father used to play jazz there. Cynthia Kenderson, who's also there. She owns a gallery now downtown. She shared her own story of this as well. So pretty much everybody, I think, has their own history in relationship to the Hill.

BC: [00:25:22] So is the, is that 28 acres still contested territory?

JL: [00:25:26] No, it's the Penguins. It hasn't been really contested since it happened, and I think it's contested in terms of the narratives that are spoken about it, but physically they own all of it.

BC: [00:25:35] Okay. So, let's say it's 10 years now. And the Hill district has moved in a direction that is considered successful. What's happened there.

JL: [00:25:45] Yeah, I want to say that I see all kinds of potential challenges, right? Like depending on philanthropy where will that go? How does that play out? The fact that you have pressure from the lower Hill and when that gets redeveloped, what impact could that have? So, I want to say that what my past experience says is that it's going to have ups and downs. It's going to have some, great things too, and I'll have some challenge and things that happen because of larger issues around the way that I think greed affects most of our cities, and people who are largely greedy in terms of how much that they want to control and rah rah rah.

Some good things I think that would come through from that project is: people have shared visions of wanting to see people in the neighborhood employed through their work; marking the gateways of the neighborhood and clear ways that when you go into those gateways; you're like, “Oh, this is a place of a black culture and the neighbor has been able to hold onto that.” That, we're doing this visioning right now. And people have named, three basic areas three or four.

 One is outdoor festivals and presentations of music. So that's a key piece of it. You know, another one is, marking the neighborhood like I said at the gateways and public art and making sure that when you come in, you know, that you're there.

And another one is around an ongoing public education project where there's going to be, these outdoor libraries throughout. And then quarterly conversations around black culture that people can come to all ages and participate in.

 And so, I feel like that what we want to do is to be a part of creating some processes of which things emerge that we have no idea about. And we have some kind of democratic structure that assists and supports ideas from coming to fruition. Have we built structures and processes by which people's vision and imagination for the neighborhood? And not just for creating things, but issues of power. Like people have talked about owning land and how does that work? So, I feel like what will be triumphant is that we have the processes that we're developing are stronger if we have thought through issues like what is it to be a member in a project like this. And who gets to nominate the governing group, and then we built out furthest idea of marking a space as black liberatory culture. And we have lots of people around who can speak to that. Those two will be all signs because 10 years is going to take a lot of endurance but that would feel great.

BC: [00:28:07] What I hear you saying rings as full circle to me because you talked about your attraction to Capoeira and this isn't an arts thing. This is a community, telling its own story, owning the means of its own sharing and exchange, defining things as they come, retrieving the history, owning how the current history is shared. Which is another way of not separating culture from everything else but seeing it as intrinsic to all the other things that need to happen, which is social change, justice work, historical, reconstruction, all those things. So, it's not an arts project.

JL: [00:28:50] I think that it does come full circle, but I still think the challenge that I see that still there to figure out is without philanthropy, it would have been hard to bring Gato to Pittsburgh who was the teacher, and so I'm still struggling, stymied with the financing structure of these ideas. Now going back to being a member of the Lucumi community and shoutout out to the house I belong to, Eliashi, The House of the White Cloth. Now that is a world that does not engage in that structure. Everything is all paid for internally among us people, right? There's no, one's really going to foundations for things, everything ceremonies, everything is paid for internally.

And, I think, we are still very unfinished. I wouldn't want to give the impression of completion. These are still experiments in work. The issue of our arts and cultural expression, I think is very much related to the imagination that I would say, let's say the capital class and the ways in which they imagine what art is for and the ways in which I think a Western canon dominated art scene, supports other narratives of white supremacy, and also, but I would also say that the arts are really for like wealthy, and so I think these are all still for me, they're like very much in play,

BC: [00:30:11] Two people that you may know of, but that might be useful. One of the podcasts is by an artist named Fantastic. Negrito. He's, I think he's up for his third Grammy, so he’s done pretty well, but his vision is to take his immutable force of his musical community, because he has a whole community of people around him, to basically take back the neighborhood. And the idea that you're talking about with the Hill district is exactly what he's talking about in Oakland. But he's at a formative stage and obviously, the current state of affairs is slowed a lot of things down,

but yeah, another Judy Baca. If there's a queen of muralism in America r there's probably oh, 1500 murals in Los Angeles that have come and gone. She's at the heart of all of them, but her ultimate goal was to reclaim the history of the place. Los Angeles has got a lot of buried history and, and so, she has, over many years, used her artistry to bring people in the community, into the place where they manifest very powerful statements of what happened here, who was here, who is here and the true story.

 So yeah. In small ways, in big ways, all around the country, this is taking place. The Hill District is one of many nodes of reconstruction and reclamation.

Part Five. How Do You Keep from Going Crazy?

BC: [00:31:46] So, one of the things that have always driven me crazy is the idea that you described. Foundations are a part of a larger system of capitalism. The way our education system is set up, and in my mind, one of the intrinsic conditions of our current state of affairs is that it's corrupt. And so when I think of your work with the tiger, the delicate dance, it is two things. One: What's your theory of change? and number two is: How do you keep from going crazy?

 JL: [00:32:21] Yeah. It's funny, I think in those two, I think things are related. I'll go back to, this black studies piece and something that I, someone who had been really. Impressed by and want to be influenced by is this gentleman called Cedric Robinson who wrote a piece called Black Robinhood, Black Marxism, and is also known for this phrase, racial capitalism.

And I listened to a professor at Howard talk about his work last weekend and he was saying that he thought that a better phrase would be around racial regimes and that Robinson's work really is around, how intrinsically racialized the dominant strains of Western culture have been, well before they confronted the other.

And part of my work lately with organizations has been to spend a little bit of time looking at like Aristotle, and what he had to say. This problem was much deeper than just the last 200 years or diversity. I do feel like the theory of change that is, I think we have to have a real reckoning with the dominant strains of Western culture.

And in the regard that our most recent version of I think capitalism. Most states are an expression of that culture, and the idea that some people would have incredibly more control that others over the world are I think a part of the ideas when Aristotle says " some are born to be masters and some are born to be slaves".

 I think the state is the tool by which that idea is expressed. And by the state, I don't mean just mean the government. These official areas, whether it's the arts, or the church, or the family, or law, or different institutions in our world that hold those ideas.

 This goes back again to Marx, like base and superstructure. These ideas that there's a, there's this top place of ideas that produce the kinds of concepts and ways of being in practice that then support the underlying structure, in terms of who has resources and who makes things, and who owns things.

 I think we need a different sense of who controls those things, and that needs to be much more broadly held, and we can't have Western culture being the dominant framework for those places. Now the theory of how that happens, I want to participate in work that is about that. But I think it's going to be massive amounts of people who are, organized to work to that end. But of course, there's a clock ticking when it comes to the environment as well. So maybe we'll just make a good show of it and then go out. I don't have a... I have a theory of effort, but I don't have a theory of change, you know what I mean? And I feel like the way to avoid going crazy in that is to be careful around the Western culture influence here.

 I feel like sometimes as clear thinking as someone like Lenin was, his very masculine very much non negotiation, anything that looks like compromise as weak, I think it does produce a certain kind of imbalance in one's personal life that I think you see in some of those stories as biographies.

So, I feel like going back to Oshun and water, I do want to live a life of some fluidity that has some humility in what one person accomplishes and that there is a role that one has for joy in one's life. And that's very important, I don't think I was brought here to be a martyr, and so those are things I feel like are the balance.

BC: [00:35:50] One of the things that I take from reading you and listening to you is [...] and it's also embodied in your biography, which is, Marxism understood the power of spiritual thinking, and belief, and connection, and basically said, " in my Bible, that's a sin. We don't want that." And, in many ways turning your back on the natural world, turning your back on the patterns and connections that humans have to most of the questions of the universe that we don't have answers to, and being able to be brothers and sisters in that, rather than in the material, is the piece that was terribly missing both in their individual lives, those theoreticians, and also in their practice, it went to pieces because of that, I think.

One of the things that James McBride talks about in his book about John Brown. John Brown basically saw Christianity as his roadmap, and the one thing that is personified in the book is this idea that if you can accept, you're not actually in charge, so the theory of change isn't, "I've got to figure it out. Here's the roadmap, and now we're going to go do it right". There is an unknown there that, whatever you want to call it, faith or, stepping back and allowing the community to be present in its future. Yeah, I don't know. That just seems to me to be super important.

 JL: [00:37:21] Yeah, I think just to think about, God or creator or something about, it's just an ongoing unfinished project. And this is of course ironic, because, as thousands of people have pointed out, Marx has become his own Bible, you know what I mean?

And I'll say this too, going back to this adaptive leadership, even though it's from the Harvard business school. So, it should be thrown out right on the face of that as a neo-liberal invention... But they've got some thoughtful ideas, and one of them is around the importance of leadership, acknowledging that things are unfinished, and not overly simplifying things. That's not what that leadership is and that these complex things really need a full engagement.

So, for sure, I wanted to give one acknowledgment about some of these ideas that I was talking about regarding the state this real quickly, because it points this other contradiction, that you just mentioned.

 I was trying to talk to an important person in the Hill District, Carl Redwood (see pg. 54)  the head of the Hill District consensus group, and a respected organizer in Pittsburgh, and I was asking him about who would you look at when it comes to arts and culture and social analysis and he was saying Stuart Hall from cultural studies work in England. So, I did, but Stuart Hall is referencing this. The other guy, Louis Althusser, like in every other page, so now I gotta go look at this guy. He's got a piece on social reproduction of capitalism and this is big on that and a project that I'm working on actually. Was titled, How to Reduce the Reliance and Reproduction of White Privilege in an Orchestra, and so I was interested in naming reproduction because I wanted to study it more and learn about it more.

So Althusser has this idea that the state has these two sides to it, the repressive state apparatus, which is the police, the military, it can even be, government, but then the ideological state apparatus. And that's where I think we could use some of his ideas around institutional racism. I think his expansion would be to say, it's not institutional it's institutions of racism, and then we need to name the institutions and how they operate. And so, then what is the specific role of the arts play in the reproduction of racism? And I'm interested in contributing that to the conversation, and when I was saying that earlier, Al through Sarah, his ideas of ideological state apparatuses. That's what I was thinking of and I just want to make sure to give credit for that's-

BC: [00:39:37] Yeah and particularly when it comes to the power of culture, one of the great tyrannies that I think culture lives under is that it's either benign or nice, when in fact, the people who really are interested in marshaling power understand completely, that it can be nasty, and it can help you win a war, it can repress people.

 We live in a culture that has basically said artists are good for a few things. They can be entertaining -- that's terrific and we can turn it into a commodity and rarefy it. And then, they can be an investment. But the hidden secret, which the Stasi understood okay, and Slobodan Milosevic understood is if I grab hold of the prevailing worldview by a story or an image or an ad, I can blow your mind. I can make you do anything I want you to do, and most artists were trained in a world that said, you could either be an entertainer or invested in. That thing down the middle, which is that culture is the story of the community, is left out.

JL: [00:40:43] I'll say one last thing as I know we're wrapping. I'll say this is, I think this idea around the ideological state apparatus, which I think needs some renaming, but let's just hold it for the moment.

 A project I'm working on with, the Minnesota orchestra, a gentlemen there recommended this book Musicing, and it's about the process of going to an orchestra performance, and all of the things that are happening when you go into an orchestra performance. And the way that you step into the space and you engage the regal-ness of it, and the carpet, and the chandelier's and everything is sending a message that you are now in sacred space. And I think if you take this idea of ideology, that is its own aggression, and then what role does that have in the cities that have the most prime real estate having this kind of experience, and how does that then send a message out that we're engaging in and practicing in the whole time around mainly European men, who have achieved the human ideal. And we don't ever need to say those things, we just need to have you experience it, and that ideology really. And that is seen as benign, but it's not even remote.

BC: [00:41:55] No. The medium is the message. Yeah, absolutely. I think about those little kids that go to the symphony, once in their elementary school life, and there's a story up there that it's, and it's not my story.

JL: [00:42:08] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So that's the work I'm doing and wanting to do more of is to say. How do we look at these kinds of questions and bring these institutions, organizations, and while representation might be a question?  There are other things that we could be looking at. But it's been great to be able to talk to you about all of this.

BC: [00:42:26] Yeah. And I would just say that this conversation planted five or six seeds that are now in my garden, and as I said before there are not a lot of people doing the work you're doing, and it's really important. It's really important.

JL: [00:42:42] I'd enjoy staying in touch with you, Bill.

BC: [00:42:44] Alright, alright. Back at you, Justin, and same to you listeners. We also enjoy being in touch with you. So let us know what you think of our show by dropping us a line at, by subscribing to the show, and by sharing the show with your friends and colleagues. Change the Story / Change the World is a production of the Center for the Study of Art and Community.

It is written and produced by yours truly, Bill Cleveland. Our glorious, soundscape and theme are by Judy Munson, and our inspiration comes from the creative change agents out there who are doing this good work. Adios.

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