By Nayo Barbara Malcolm Watkins
Originally published: Winter 1993 | Republished: February 3, 2016
In celebration of ROOTS’ 40th year, we’ll be curating the Archival Revival Series – a collection of articles by ROOTers, about the work of ROOTS over the years.
We begin this series with an article by the late Nayo Barbara Malcom Watkins, a poet, essayist, playwright, performer, and cultural arts activist whose work has left an enormous impact on communities and individuals across the South and the country. Nayo was an active member of ROOTS for many years, and, in the words of Carlton Turner: “a force to be reckoned with.”
The Archival Revival Series, and the field of arts activism, owes an incredible debt of gratitude to ROOTS members Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland who, through Art in the Public Interest (API), first published this piece in their magazine High Performance, and later, reprinted it on the Community Arts Network (CAN). API describes CAN as a “project [that] promoted information exchange, research and critical dialogue within the field of community-based arts.” Active from 1999-2010, CAN modeled the kind of grassroots documentation and thought leadership that we seek to cultivate on the ROOTS blog. The full CAN archive is still available via Archive-It, courtesy of Indiana University; this particular article can be located here. We gratefully reprint these articles here, with the permission of API.
Alternate ROOTS’ Community/Artists Partnership Project grew out of members’ concerns about the many residency projects they were creating at home and on tour. Here Nayo Watkins discusses the Durham Laboratory of the CAPP, 11 projects in progress that would be part of ROOTS’ Community Arts Revival in January 1994. —Eds.
Community artist partnerships, community-based art, or “this work” as we often resort to calling it, does not lend itself to easy definition or articulation. It goes against the grain of the neat categories, the standards and language of the way the arts have been structured. It’s exploratory, transitional, experimental, adaptable to time, place and circumstance, and much too flexible and fluid to be captured and held in the neat boxes and precise terms of Western thought.
Likewise, those of us trying to facilitate “this work,” the organizer and coordinator types like me, are often hard put to explain the particulars of the relationships we seek to foster between communities and artists. We are, nevertheless, clear that the work is important to the revitalization and validation of communities, and that these relationships are at the heart of the endeavors to return artists to meaningful roles in community work. Hopefully, work now underway in the Alternate ROOTS Community/ Artists Partnership Project (CAPP) and similar projects around the country will advance both our knowledge of the work as well as our ability to talk about it.
The first CAPP initiative, based in Durham, North Carolina, seeks to serve as a laboratory for modeling exemplary collaborations among local and visiting artists, arts presenters and community services organizations. The Durham CAPP is ten projects located in Durham, Orange and Wake Counties, and one in Hertford County (—oops! already busted a box.) The projects cross many kinds of communities, many arts disciplines, and include artists of many backgrounds. Each is quite different; the partners and partnerships are different too. General descriptions don’t fit well—no neat boxes. As Project Coordinator, I struggle with how to talk about the work and the relationships within it.
We do know what “this work” is not. It is not bookings for which all details are worked out through agents and intermediaries, the artist and community having no contact before the residency is on. It is not presenters offering seasons of arts programs, the content and context of which may have no relevance to the lives and times of the arts consumer. It is not artists interacting with audiences from behind fourth walls, that being their only point of contact. Nor audiences passively engaged from the distance of spectator and leaving the arts experience having made no investment or exchange beyond an admission fee and polite applause. Nor does “this work” set creativity and artistic vision apart as endowments granted only to a privileged few. No, “this work” is not separation of artists and audiences and presenters and issues; nor is it nonfunctional, unconnected or irrelevant to the real lives of real people and real communities.
When we talk about community-based arts, we use terms like functional, meaningful, affirming, transformative, participatory and empowering. We talk about relationships as interactions and partnerships, and about partners as peers. We envision artists, presenters and audiences sharing and creating in ways that make a difference in their lives, in the life of the community, and indeed in the world. That this will happen, we know, is dependent, in large part, upon the richness and depth of partnerships developed between artists and the hosts or presenters who provide the point of entry into communities. Some of us have learned, often through blood, sweat and/or tears, that such partnerships are not made in heaven.
There are obstacles and barriers to clear. Vocabulary is one. Then, differences in expectations, priorities and goals. Add to these the standard or “status quo” way we are socialized to think the arts are supposed to be done. And to that, the formidable foe—time. The “standard” residency begins the day of the first artistic activity. There is seldom consideration of time for building partnership, for artist and presenter to learn to talk a common language, for each to hear and understand the other’s perspective. No time to see how the work fits into the community’s ongoing needs and struggles. Nor time for addressing how the work might make a real difference given the context of historical, social, political, economic and cultural realities.
In the CAP Project, we are exploring new methods to strengthen and clarify community/artist partnerships and assist partners in overcoming the barriers and obstacles. Having personally known some of the sweat and near tears (no blood…so far) of helping to build partnerships, I was among those anxious to advance, yet simplify the process. A major concern is a method and process to insure that potential partners truly listen to and hear each other, hear how each wants the project to serve their work. Our sweat ‘n’ tears experiences tell us this is essential information up front, not as an afterthought.
I say “new methods,” but really they are quite old and what we are trying to do is rediscover the essence of the way the arts have lived in communities. We are trying to reexamine traditional relationships, reshape them and foster relationships that address the needs of our time. Truly, there are still models to look to—artists and organizations who have held to the course and consistently gone against the grain of how the arts have come to be done. Their work is often viewed as the exception, the nonmainstream, the lesser, and it is often difficult to articulate within the framework of the guidelines and criteria of “the arts world.”
More often the scenario is: The artist enters the community, including and even their own, with the pronouncement, “I have something good for you.” Well, of course they do, but the question is, will community people wade through abstract, untouchable, come-to-save delivery to get to the good stuff? Or will they simply smile and say, “That’s soooo niiiice!” Hard words, but often true. Not of artists’ design, nor of the community’s. But the way the arts are most often done. Artists are presented as detached entities. Nonartists view them as different from themselves. Community workers aren’t inclined to invite artists to be partners in community work. Community people don’t tell artists what they’re thinking—that “nice” is not enough to make a difference in their lives. The question of what the work might mean the day after the residency and the day after that doesn’t come up. People allow themselves to be entertained, then they go on with their lives and their struggles. It is this scenario and others that cause separations between natural allies that the community/artist partnership concept seeks to dismantle and overcome.
A premise of the CAP Project is that the partnering process must be honored. It is not something separate and apart from the residency; it is a vital phase of it. In the CAP Project, honoring the process in practical terms has come to mean information, time and resources. The artists or arts organizations who submitted preliminary proposals and were selected to be a part of the CAP Project were told the dollar amount they would receive. This was the information they needed. It provided the simple security of knowing what they had to work with. They then entered into discussion and planning with the potential partners they named in their proposals. Here adequate time became the important factor. Realistic (not lavish) deadlines were laid out and people responded with realistic timelines for their projects, including time for building partnerships. A number of the funded participants were out-of-state ROOTS members, some of whom needed to be introduced to and get to know potential North Carolina partners. This meant phone calls, mailings, travel—expenses that needed to be considered if indeed the partnering process is honored. A portion of their funds could be requested in advance to cover these expenses.
A second significant piece of the methodology is the written document upon which the residencies are based. In “standard” residency work, the document of consequence is the contractual agreement. Many funding sources require a contract be in place before funds are released and, sometimes, before applications are made. Binding contracts are not discouraged in CAP Projects, and certainly some of the projects require them. The problem with contracts is that their cold, technical, legal terminology is in no way capable of expressing or encouraging the essence of people working together for social cause. A goal of CAPP is to encourage artists and presenters to rethink their relationships. To pursue this goal, Alternate ROOTS, the party that secured the funding for the project, needed to assume the role of a partner in the process, not a funder or regrantor. The basis for release of funds needed to be different. The document needed to be of language and content to serve the partners. It needed to be the outcome of an active process guided by the CAPP goal. So it became a very simple and direct “Statement of Goals.”
I like to think of the partnering process as a dance, a series of movements through which partners learn of each other through all kinds of languages. They circle each other, watch each other’s movements and play off of each other’s responses. That’s what I see as I watch community and artist partners exchanging information about the work they do, why they do it, what they want to do, and as they consider how working together might help them do it better. No, not made in heaven. But it is a wonderful magic that comes through honest and often difficult interaction and exchange. Each partner is asked to think of a goal(s) for the work they do and imagine how the proposed residency might advance that goal. The exercise or ritual of writing the “Statement of Goals” represents the point of saying, “Yeah, I wanna dance wid you.” It is the foundation of the partnership.
A final piece to the methodology is the recognition of “don’t force what don’t fit.” In the preliminary proposals, artists and organizations described partners or types of partners they wanted to work with. In the partnering process, they explore these potential partnerships. Some work just the way they were proposed; some don’t, most fall in-between. The critical piece is that the funds aren’t dangling before them like a piece of meat for which the hungry will jump through any hoop they can find. Their funds were secure, based on acceptance of the concept of their work presented in the proposal. The basis for release of funds is the bonding with a partner(s) who also wants to do that work. If a potential partnership didn’t work out the way it was proposed, the funded participant could explore other possibilities with the same partner or with others. (That’s so different from the sweat ‘n’ tears experience of trying to force something, but you do it anyhow ‘cause you got the funds and you’d do anything not to give ‘em back.)
So that’s it, the new method evolving out of the Durham lab, at least to the degree I can articulate it now. Does it work? Who knows? Time and various evaluations will tell. For now, there are enough positive preliminary outcomes to feel optimistic. Do people get it? Some do. Some will later. Perhaps those who have become accustomed to doing things the other way have the greatest problem getting it. Was it a well thought-out, scientifically based methodology or hypothesis spelled out in advance? Hey, be real—hell, no! It emerged rather clumsily as the cumulative effect of the mistakes and the wisdoms gained of past experience; of collective will, a lil bit of common sense and intellect; of a lot (oh! lots! lots!) of discussion and debate, listening and hearing; and the passionate belief in and desire to do “this work.” Have we made some mistakes? Sure. Would I try this method again? By all means. It just “feels right.” Still, it isn’t a box, not a precise road map; simply a way to go as we journey on building and rebuilding, revitalizing and validating our communities.
Nayo Barbara Malcom Watkins (1939-2008) was a poet, essayist and playwright who also worked as an arts consultant and cultural organizer in North Carolina where she lived, and throughout the South. For over 40 years she worked with nonprofit organizations, including the Mississippi Cultural Arts Coalition, At the Foot of the Mountain Theater, Southern Regional Development Initiative, Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble and Alternate ROOTS, with a focus on arts as tools in community empowerment and social transformation. She founded and served as executive director of the Mekye Center in Durham, North Carolina. “She would see things not right, socially or politically, and she would commit,” said her son John Watkins. “The things she believed in, she believed in passionately. It wasn’t seasonal. She was all in.”
The Durham Laboratory is part of the Community/ Artists Partnership Project and has been funded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Greater Triangle Community Foundation, and The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation with in-kind support from the Durham Arts Council.
Artists and Community Partners in the Durham Laboratory
part of Alternate ROOTS’ Community/Artists Partnership Project
Writer Christine Lassiter (Asheville) and choreographer Tzadki-El Yansan Tahar Nut (Durham) assisting persons living with AIDS to discover and express their truths through poetry, scriptwriting, movement and choreography. The community partners include residents of a Durham County housing complex supported by the AIDS Community Residence Assn. (ACRA) and the staff of ACRA.
Drummer Bev Botsford and musician/movement artist Jef (both of Chapel Hill) using masks, drums, rhythm, story and mime to engage elementary school students in “Gourdmania and Calabash Kids,” in partnership with R.N. Harris School and as a model for the cultural services program of the Durham County School District.
Poet Alice Lovelace (Atlanta), steel drummer Wilton DuBois (Hillsborough) and actor/poet/ drummer Thomas I. McDonald with master drummer Khalid Saleem (both of Durham) using African-American, Afro-Caribbean and African art forms to encourage self-expression, cultural affirmation, community awareness and crisis prevention. With the Hayti Heritage Center, elementary, junior and senior high schools, housing project centers, a library, bookstore, health center and seniors center, the residency seeks to strengthen networks within Durham’s Black community.
TWO NEAR THE EDGE (Durham dance company) working with residents of Durham’s West End through the West End Community Center, to create an after-school program for teenagers and offer workshops for parents and younger children as part of a grassroots effort to combat adverse effects of crime and drug abuse in the community. TWO NEAR is also conducting movement workshops for students of the Wright School for emotionally disturbed children.
Photography artists Max Below Toledo and Kim Irwin (Durham) working with residents of their own community through the neighborhood center of Durham Parks and Recreation to create a “Community Family Album” using photographs collected and/or taken by the community participants. And as a conversation piece around which people share stories about themselves, their families and their community and the values that support them.
Playwright Scott Meltsner (Pittsboro) with Native-American, African-American, Latino, Jewish and Euro-American groups of the Triangle in the creation of separate “State of the Race, 1993” pieces and a collective performance/sculpture work, “Toward a Circle Unbroken.”
Videographer and director Eddie J. Harris, Sr. (Durham), working with a team of teen participants, will videotape CAPP projects led by Scott Meltsner and Thomas I. McDonald and explore the production of video mini-documentaries.
Storyteller Cynthia Watts (Atlanta) with Seeds of Sheba (Chapel Hill) and The ArtsCenter (Carrboro) in a project building upon community histories and personal stories and engaging community participants, exploring local history and culture through storytelling. The partners will involve youth, adults and seniors of the Hargroves and Pine Knolls Community Centers and the Carr Court Community Association.
Duke University Medical Center Cultural Services Program (Durham) in partnership with Triangle-area poets, writers and health-care workers, exploring and demonstrating ways to integrate literary arts into the lives of people in health-care facilities.
Mary Anne Maier and Chris Doerflinger (Louisville, KY, dance/theater/literary artists) with The Women’s Center (Raleigh) offer performances and yoga, creative movement and creative writing workshops for the women’s community and general audiences; and The Women’s Center in an exhibition project with homeless and formerly homeless women.
The North Carolina Writers’ Network bringing together writer Laverne Zabielski (Lexington, KY), choreographer Judith DeWitt (Atlanta), local writers and correctional institution staffers to share and explore empowering ways to work with encarcerated [sic] populations. The partners will also lead writing and movement workshops, and assist with readings and publications at Central Prison and Women’s Prison in Raleigh.
Roadside Theater (Whitesburg, KY), Junebug Productions (New Orleans), textdancer Celeste Miller (Atlanta) and musician Kevin Delaney (Hillsborough, NC) in “Stories, Songs and Treasures of Hertford County,” a project exploring the local culture of a rural northeast N.C. community. Partners include the C.S. Brown Cultural Center, Gallery Theater, the Meherrin Indian Tribe, the Assn. for the Quality of Life in America (AQUALA), the Hertford High Cultural Arts Dept., the elementary schools Art Education Program and the North Carolina Arts Council.
This article was first published in High Performance #64, Winter 1993, it is reprinted here with permission from the publisher, Art in the Public Interest.