In Pursuit of an Art with Consequences: Panel Discussion with Five ROOTS’ Founders

Transcribed & Edited by Jan Cohen-Cruz | July 29, 2016

This past July, when two more young black men were killed wantonly by white police, and then a black man killed five police, long time ROOTer Dudley Cocke wrote, “While debates about art and culture are important to me, they seem not so important in the face of regular, persistent racially-motivated executions.” He raised the question, what does it take for art to have consequences in the face of such events? He evoked the counter-narrative that ROOTS has long embodied vis-a-vis mainstream art discourse: that art is not essentially elitist but arises from the people in all their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual diversity.

Thinking about Cocke’s poignant comments, I mused that in the long view, ours is not the counter story but historically the main story; it is a persistent thread of meaning making and expression that connects us to something bigger and more fundamental than our separate lives. These larger ties were recently evoked when five of the people (Cocke among them) who attended the very first meeting of what became ROOTS and have been core members ever since spoke at the June 2016 ROOTS Weekend, focused on youth justice, held at the Highlander Research and Education Center. Kierra Sims of the Highlander Education Team, and Ashley Minner, a ROOTS executive committee member from Baltimore, co-moderated. On those very hills, from August 9-11, 1976, a wide-ranging group of theatre makers had met for a three day Appalachian and Southern Theater Workshop. Jan Cohen-Cruz transcribed and edited the text of that panel which follows.

Kierra Sims: Please tell us your name, how you came to social justice work, and at what age.

Ron Short: I came to social justice young, seeing how my father, a coal miner, was mistreated, and knowing it wasn’t right. I lived in an isolated rural community in Appalachia. I became politicized during the Vietnam War, where I served as a medic, and saw the results of war. It can destroy you or build your courage. I realized only certain people were dying there: country boys, black urban boys, Hispanic boys from LA.

I then went to work for the state for a while, believing I could make change from the inside. Then I was recruited to Highlander where I was the administrator until 1977, when I left because I got sick. I also wanted to go home. I found continuation of the work I’d been doing through Roadside Theater, and I’ve been doing that for 35 years.

Kathie deNobriga: I grew up in east Tennessee. I came to social justice work without knowing what it was. I was a teenager in the ‘60s. I was told, shown, instructed that women shouldn’t do certain things. As part of my resistance to the status quo, I didn’t take to that well. I was also affected by the Vietnam War. My dad was on the Selective Service Board, sending people there. East Tennessee was 97% white; I didn’t know about the civil rights fights really until I was older and moved away. I didn’t learn about social justice so much in the streets as through a growing consciousness of how systems operate.

Linda Parris-Bailey: My 1st social justice experience was in junior high school. In 1965-66, there was a teacher’s strike in New York about community control. I was recruited by a progressive, activist teacher who had set up a storefront alternative school to teach in the Black community during the teacher’s strike. I remember being on the picket line and my own teachers yelling at me, calling me names. I was hanging with people who were socially active.  As an African American, previous encounters with racism taught me that this was the right way to go, to organize. I was a student organizer in high school, then president of the African American Club in ‘68. At the end of high school, I read about the Free Southern Theatre and wanted to go there, to do what they did.

Donna Porterfield: I grew up on small dairy farm in West Virginia but it became divided by Interstate Highway 81 in the 1950s so we had to leave our home to find work in northern Virginia, where my dad became a nurse’s aid. Kids at school there often asked if my brother and I were hillbillies. We didn’t know what a hillbilly was, so we said, “No, we’re not hillbillies, we’re from West Virginia!” You can imagine the howls of laughter.

Because northern Virginia is so close to Washington D.C., our local news was the national news. We watched the civil rights movement unfold on TV, and I remember my father crying when we saw the dogs tearing black people apart.  I was in college when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered I remember walking to class and everyone was shouting, “He’s been shot. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.” It was a hard time for so many people.

Dudley Cocke: I grew up hunting and fishing, I knew wealthy people and people just getting by. I didn’t see TV until I was 17. Then I saw that Medgar Evers had been shot. I felt that hope at that moment was draining out of this country; I was surprised by the depth of my feeling. I became active in civil rights, then anti-war movements. I was writing but not working in the arts until I came to Highlander for that meeting of theatre folks at the age of 29.

Ashley Minner: Why did you feel ROOTS was needed and what support did or didn’t you get from your elders to be part of it?

Ron: I didn’t think ROOTS was needed. Highlander had organized musicians and political stuff; Highlander was not pro-art. They thought it may be a waste of time because of the sense of independence among artists; they aren’t organizers. [Even though there was a big presence of music at Highlander.] Mrs. Horton [Highlander founder Miles Horton’s wife] brought We Shall Overcome and Guy Carawan and Juneapple Records to Highlander. But others of us felt that theater is the public voice of people so we planned a workshop to gather people around that. It began with lots of posturing but many people there resisted organizing. Those who didn’t met again and came up with the name “ROOTS” because Alex Haley had just written Roots. They took it as an acronym [Regional Organization Of Theaters South], not intended to stick, but we became Alternate ROOTS. Most of the artists were still against organizing so they called the 1st director the “Big Carrot” – from the ground up.

Kathie: And a smaller group of people was called “the salad,” not the executive committee. . . .

I’m not sure I had awareness that something like ROOTS was needed. Though I knew people were working in isolation especially across the mountains – there was no way to know about each other unless you took to the road, and there were many bad roads. Isolation was the glue that drew people together; we wanted contact among companies doing original work in isolated southern towns. I don’t remember elders around; we didn’t use that word. John O’Neal maybe was an elder to me, who kept saying “don’t forget about that or this.”

Linda: I have to talk about the black experience at ROOTS. Isolation is not only in the mountains. We were engaged in the Black Arts Movement but it was struggling; we had to connect with people who were like-minded to survive. I didn’t know who they were. So I went to this gathering out of a need to connect. I was a member of the Southern Black Cultural Alliance which didn’t survive. We needed to be supported by each other. I was drawn to the connection between art and social justice. Over the years African American organizations came and went; when I encouraged new ensemble members of our theater, Carpetbag, to come to ROOTS it was—“Where? Do they have bathrooms?” Some founding members of the ensemble like Linda Hill understood the value of meeting with people who knew about ensemble and activism. But it wasn’t all peace and love. We gained from ROOTS a group of people committed to continue struggling, artistically and about social justice. That’s why we came, stayed, and are still coming.

Donna: Roadside was part of Appalshop, which does other arts, too. Our elders were older people in the community. Appalshop’s older films and plays came from our actual elders – relatives and community members, through storytelling, music, church going. Appalachia has no theater tradition. At ROOTS we knew that if we’re trying to change things, we need to bring different sorts of people and theaters together in our area.

Dudley: Like Linda, we showed up here at the founding of ROOTS coming out of movement history and appreciating the opportunity for solidarity.  We were dumb about theater – we didn’t know how to book a play, or manage a tour. ROOTS provided the opportunity to learn and support each other. None of us – Ron, Donna, or I – went to art school, and there we were plunging into that world. John O’Neal is a few years older; maybe he’s an elder. One time he was up here visiting with Miles Horton, who had a dry sense of humor. He told John about this theater in Kentucky that appeared to have an Appalachian nationalist bent, kindly nationalist like John’s theater. John and his friends, like Ed Brown, Rap’s brother, had come up thru SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and they took me to raise telling me stories at night around the barbecue pit with ample beer. I liked to hear them argue about particular actions and strategies that SNCC took.

Kierra: As an elder now, what are some examples of multi-generational organizing you are seeing, and what’s working and what’s not?

Ron: This for sure, at Highlander. Many of the companies we started with are gone now.  It’s hard to get grants; ROOTS started with an Expansion Arts grant. One of the most hopeful things is a guy who used to work with us is now in education; he makes grants for people to work with young people, taking photos and marketing them on the internet, that sort of thing.  We need to organize intergenerational conversations; they don’t happen naturally. So talking to you, seeing you, maybe it means more to me than for you, you to see and hear me. It’s been difficult to keep young people working with us; it’s hard work. Young people think they have to “make it” and go looking for where that’s supposed to take place. But Miles Horton taught me that nothing good ever comes from desperation; only from hope. For me hope is the next generation.

Kathie: You next generation are digital natives and we aren’t. That’s a huge asset to organizing; we are learning from you. We need more time to talk with each other.

Linda: In our community we see a movement, working with the local Black Lives Matter. They are organizing themselves, not asking us for permission, and that’s appropriate. Our generation can provide some support and experience. We need to shut up sometimes; we get caught up in our own experience, and talk just about us when we have someone to listen. So long as there’s a reciprocal relationship. I’m excited about what’s happening in our company; it’s moving forward. I see in people’s faces what I saw when I came to this hill.

Donna: In Letcher County, Kentucky, a federal promise zone, we’ve got some young people making a play about our county. No change happens without hope. These young people come from desperate situations and are creating their own hope, raising their younger brothers and sister, with parents who are addicted. A difference from my generation is the high level of anxiety they experience all the time, in the psyche. We talk a lot. I try to tell them what they don’t have to worry about. It takes a lot of courage and hope to try to make a change. It’s harder than it was in my time.

Dudley: Over the last seven years, I’ve been focused on generational transition at Appalshop. The founders are from the late 60s-70s. We lost the middle generation – people now in their 40s and 50s. Another problem is that there aren’t many Appalshops left, and you don’t learn when you are an island unto yourself. Appalshop is now run by people 35 and under. For them. the circumstances are different than when we started. Now nonprofit arts and humanities organizations are highly leveraged on private foundation money reliant on the stock market. Like ROOTS, Roadside/Appalshop’s early money was public money – NEA Expansion Arts for example. It was our tax money, and we were serving the broad majority of people, not an arts elite. Expansion Arts was a legacy of the Civil Rights era; it focused on poor, working and middle class people, both people of color and rural white people – just as King had done. It was about our common interests, not what divided us. A question is how much did the Civil Rights Movement create King or the other way around? The understanding was deep on the ground – the movement created King. He was a great spokesperson. Young people now are raised to think their tax money is not supposed to do anything for them; my message is let’s take back our money and do things for our people, whose money it is in the first place.

A young person in audience, Sabrina, asked Ron: You said young people were trying to reach something in themselves to say “they made it.” In my experience looking for jobs in the arts, I feel mostly shut out. Why do you think young people think they are supposed to “arrive,” what do they mean? Kierra asked people to talk from their experiences, not try to image what other people think. So Sabrina reframed her question:

Sabrina: How can you help young people not be discouraged?

Ron: I was trying to say about a sense of one’s own artistic identity – no one can answer that for you. We could make a place that young people could expand and try things out and they did and come to some answer for themselves. And they did. I told them to find like-minded people, with us or elsewhere.

When white and black working class people moved to the city, divisions grew up when they were competing for jobs. People were desperate. It ruined the chance for coming together. And older people are not leaving jobs until later because they need to keep them, to have insurance. But they shouldn’t be working just for that reason. So another divide, for the same reason, is between youth and elders.

Another Questioner: The younger generation took ownership of their activism, moved forward. But is there a bridge between older and younger activists?

Linda: I believe in intergenerational work. The contributions we can make to each other come out of our experience and the new learning young people bring to the work. Echoing Ron: I think it’s important that our generation focus on making that place where youngers can work. There’s also some guilt about not being able to provide enough resources to hire all of you. How do we work together to make that happen? That’s very important. We bring connections that we’ve built over the past 30-40 years, building relationships and resources, and we must pass them on to you. And you are building relationships on this hill right now that could last your whole career. Don’t be afraid to share and be generous. It’ll only enrich you. Competition about that in our generation destroyed a lot of relationships. Take the good, leave the bad.

Someone in audience: Amen!

Omari Fox (from audience): First I want to make a comment. I inherited from ROOTS elders that when they kick it with us they always do it like we are on the same level. Then a question: If things are relatively the same over the years, looking at the minutes, what victories can you identify to give us hope that some progress has happened?

Ron: It’s hard to believe how many changes have happened. One meeting at Highlander, 40 years later that organization is still functioning and including people all over the South. Environmental justice, economic justice, organizations that are still working, clinics in Mud Creek KY, very numerous. Today it looks stalled; the fight back is much more sophisticated than it used to be, swallow it up. Til you get something to happen. The status quo is working as hard as you are to stay the way they want it. Me and you having a conversation is a great victory in my mind.

Kathie: I believe Alternate ROOTS has become the change we wanted to be. It began as a largely white organization with lofty ideas and over 40 years it has evolved to now – look around [majority people of color]. This is our new norm. That is a victory Alternate ROOTS has won through many bitter battles that continue. But we come with a different consciousness.

Linda: In terms of our leadership too, following Kathie. How much smarter we get all the time. There have been many interesting experiences at ROOTS. We learn from them, unlike some organizations that don’t.

Dudley: Miles Horton’s autobiography, The Long Haul: that’s what we’re involved in here. Goes way back before any of us arrived here. Miles was always saying that Highlander caught two waves: labor and civil rights. What happens between them—the waves are building. Our responsibility is to be alert and be paddling alongside that wave so we can catch it when it breaks. Jo Carson, Rebecca Ransom, Nayo Watkins. Like Junebug/the Free Southern Theater used to say – it’s not the size of the ship that makes the waves, but  the motion of the ocean. I think Gloria Steinem said, it’s not about passing torch from older to younger, but about older people helping light the torches of those coming along for the long haul.

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Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.