Article by Wendy Shenefelt, Alternate ROOTS Programs Associate (Jackson, MS)
On February 15-16, 2015 New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project, along with Alternate ROOTS, and Turner World Around Productions convened the Mississippi Performing Arts Summit in Jackson, Mississippi. The Summit created an opportunity for local and national artists, presenters, and arts service organizations to discuss the crisis of cultural equity within the performing arts by focusing specifically on the arts landscape in the South. Alternate ROOTS’ Executive Director, Carlton Turner, gave the Summit’s keynote, “Welcome to Mississippi,” which has since been published on HowlRound. The following is a first-hand account from one of the participants and ROOTS new Programs Associate, Wendy Shenefelt.
When Carlton Turner greeted those of us gathered for the Mississippi Performing Arts Summit with “Welcome to Mississippi,” I heard “welcome home.” I was privileged to attend the Mississippi Performing Arts Summit in my adopted home state of Mississippi. Hosting an event like this in and about Mississippi — a state that has birthed artists and entire art forms — should be a given. But this gathering was to discuss how the arts-rich landscape of the South is currently in a crisis and what we as artists, presenters, and art service organizations could do to find workable solutions.
The event was held in the beautiful Mississippi Museum of Art, a facility described by MMA Director Betsy Bradley as “built to remove walls that might stand as a barrier” to it being an arts gathering space that reflects the true diversity of Jackson. As a person who has called our capitol city home for 15 years, I am well aware of the many factors that divide us in the city of Jackson including race, class, and cultural experiences.
Carlton Turner, a ninth generation Mississippian, gave a moving introduction detailing some of the historical reasons on “Why Mississippi Now” and the importance of bringing national arts presenters and art service organizations to the South.
One theme that resonated throughout the summit was that of under-resourced organizations presenting under-resourced artists. This is what we’ve always done in the South. We take scraps from the Big House and create the most delicious gumbo you’ve ever tasted. Our communities may not be rich in financial resources, but we are rich in another vital resource — relationships. We have strong ties that make us effective community organizers. We nurture relationships among our audiences that surpass ticket transactions. Summit participants agree that it is time to quantify our abundant resources rather than bemoan the scarcity of funding.
We discussed the need to educate others on who we are and what we have to offer as well as educating ourselves as artists and arts organizations through professional development and technical assistance. Many funders, like Alternate ROOTS, now have a variety of ways to apply for grants, including submitting applications via video. Organizations do not want to fund good grant writers; they want to fund meaningful, transformative art. More and more, funders are offering technical assistance prior to writing the grant and site visits during the process to ensure that the real work is being done.
In our conversation around cultural competency, we discussed the need for a diverse body to be involved in the decision-making processes, including grant panels and boards. Southerners and artists of color need be around the table to have our voices help shape policy decisions. Participants want to make this a priority rather than leaving recommended policy changes for the last conversation after grant panels are wrapping.
The most passionate conversations were around what we value. How do we value what we already have? How do we elevate the rich community theater and dance companies in our neighborhoods rather than privileging the big stages deemed important by others? Can we shift our thinking? Vicki Meeks of the South Dallas Cultural Center told of an exchange with a potential audience member who was complaining about the location. “Well, we ain’t moving. So if you want to see us, you’ve got to come to where we are.” How many of us are prepared to make that commitment and support others who do the same?
The best part of an arts convening is, of course, the performances! We were treated to a performance of Numb by Goat in the Road Productions and the spinning skills of Jackson native, DJ Phingaprint. One of the most moving performances of the day was Junebug Productions’ GOMELA/to return: Movement of Our Mother Tongue featuring poet Sunni Patterson, trumpeter Troy Sawyer and Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective. There was something transformative about this piece being performed outside on the grass in Mississippi; it felt like hallowed ground. We were taken from the shores of West Africa through Haiti and on to New Orleans. This piece spoke of the joy of our cultural art forms, the brutality of enslavement, and the tragedy of the levees breaking. This year we will commemorate the 10th year since Hurricane Katrina and the pain is still searing. Ultimately, GOMELA is a story of survival. This is another common thread through our Southern Story: No matter what the struggle is, we will survive.
The night ended in a celebration at the Yellow Scarf Listening Room, a project conceived by Jazz artist and Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson. We had a marvelous dinner by Chef Phillip Brown that embraced the diversity of culture and palate in Mississippi. Don’t be fooled into thinking all we eat is fried catfish. We had healthy, delectable food that fed the bellies, souls, and spirits of carnivores and vegans alike. I think everyone went back for seconds! Local soul artist Tawanna Shaunte belted out selections from her debut album, “Freedom Agent.” It was a fitting end to a spectacular day — listening to songs about being creative agents of change, embracing our differences, and radical love.
I left the summit with the overwhelming feeling that this was necessary. I keep a quote in my office, said by a former NASAA leader. “We know that we’re doing good work. But are we doing the right work, right now?” The conversations we had at the summit felt like the right conversations to be having, the right work to be doing, right now.
Addendum: After I wrote the first draft of this piece, news came that a Black man had been found hanging from a bedsheet in a tree in rural Claiborne County, Mississippi. As we wait for the FBI investigation to sort out the circumstances surrounding his death, we are reminded of the violent government-sanctioned terrorism that inhabits this place. It is a constant reminder of current and ancient history. #BlackLivesMatter protests are this generation’s Ida B. Wells editorials against smiling crowds gathered at lynchings. Except instead of looking at yellowed newspaper clippings, we watch police brutality in real time on our smartphones.
One of the participants at the summit, Natalie Collier, a writer who also works at the Children’s Defense Fund, remarked that art is a reflection of our greater society. “If they don’t value your life as a human being, how do you expect them to value your art?” So again, this feels like the right time to be in Mississippi, in the South, hearing from a diverse group of voices, making decisions about what we value. To show others that this South, the culturally inclusive New South, is rising by telling our own stories and using our relationship resources to create our own valued spaces and projects. When we look at our history, we know that we are survivors. And we ain’t going nowhere. Y’all come back now.
Growing up in Little Rock and Memphis, Wendy inherited a passion for civil rights, social justice and the arts from her parents. She believes in the power of people to create change and has been privileged to learn from organizers of the Civil Rights Movement and today’s young activists. Wendy has worked as a middle school Drama teacher and Arts Education Director for the Mississippi Arts Commission. She joined the Children’s Defense Fund, first as the Southern Regional Office Youth Leadership Director and later as the National Youth Leadership Development Outreach Coordinator and National Conference Liaison in Washington, D.C. Since 2013, Wendy has worked with nonprofit organizations assisting with strategic planning, programming and large-scale events including the 50th Anniversaries of the March on Washington commemorations in Atlanta and D.C. and Mississippi Freedom Summer.
Wendy is currently a consulting partner with Parents for Public Schools of Jackson assisting with communications and the Ask For More Arts Initiative. Wendy collaborates with musician Ezra Brown to produce a community arts gathering, the “Soul Art Pop Up Festival” in Mississippi. Wendy and her husband Michael split time between Houston, Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. A dancer and Texas Woman’s University alum, Wendy still performs when she can, now primarily in her kitchen.