In Appreciation of Words

Irene Borger

I early on came to appreciate words as what I now realize are repositories of human history.
 — Paul West, author

Sometimes a word or phrase pierces the air, catches your attention, and sensing that an idea or a body of knowledge is embedded there, you want to stop and ask, “What do you mean?” or “Can you say more?” That’s exactly what happened to me at the GIA 2015 preconference session “Measuring Impact and Translating Value: Support for Individual Artists” as I listened to Eleanor Savage and Travis Laughlin. So I asked them to say more, and the result is the following response from Savage and an interview with Laughlin.

On Story

Eleanor Savage

During the preconference session Eleanor Savage, senior program officer at the Jerome Foundation, asked designer Natalie Hemmons and choreographer Cheng-Chieh Yu if they might recount a story from their experience. Story! Sensing that her question was not random and might have a backstory of its own, I asked her after the session if she would say more about her appreciation of “story.” Our conversation proceeded by email.

My initial questions: Why were you requesting they tell stories? To what end? In your experience (both personal and professional) what is the power of story? Am I imagining that you’ve engaged with, used, story before in numerous settings: Where? How? How have they been received? In what way(s) can stories be more than anecdotal evidence? In addition to thinking of story in its own right, were you also hoping to bring story into the conversation as an antidote, complement, and/or supplement to quantifiable data? You’ve been working in the foundation world for some time. Do you think stories could be encouraged more, could be used more in assessment? There are those of us who love story and recognize its power yet bump up against the sense that “facts” are given more weight.

Here — with a little editing — is what Eleanor wrote in response.

Stories are how I understand the world. Stories connect us, opening a window into others’ hearts and minds. Given the barrage of information I encounter daily, I find myself desperate for the vibrant and nuanced sparks of imagination and connection that stories provide.

Stories are intimate; they create a dynamic opportunity for engagement. I find people are more specific and personal about broad concepts like “value and impact” if they illustrate their experience through story. I remember stories much longer than any PowerPoint presentation, bullet-pointed list, or even the names of the artist or events.

As a southerner from Macon, Georgia, of Irish and Scots ancestry, deeply influenced by African American culture, story is part of my DNA. Story was a daily family and community experience, a way of capturing and sharing lived experience and inviting listeners to participate and respond. When I talk about story, what I am talking about is truth telling, versus spinning yarns or telling tall tales, which is an art unto itself. Stories are a means of establishing value and relationship. I have seen story heal divides, and I have seen story change hearts and minds. (I don’t see them as “anecdotal.”)

Irene Borger After reading something else Eleanor had posted previously on the web, I asked her if she thought it would be equally true if story were substituted for art. Here is what she posted: “Art, like spirituality, transcends material reality. It has the potential to dissolve the lines that divide, penetrate through entrenched ideas based on a lack of information.”

I believe story has tremendous capacity for moving people from conflict to understanding. Though I grew up loving stories, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and had the great fortune of meeting John O’Neal — at an Alternate ROOTS convening — that I understood the power of story as a tool for social justice. O’Neal cofounded the Free Southern Theater (1963) and founded Junebug Productions, both based in New Orleans. His life practice as a civil rights organizer, playwright, director, and actor is built around the importance and power of stories and their role in creating social change. He infuses his work with the use of “story circles,” in which participants tell stories around a common theme or issue for the same amount of time without interruption. The stories inspire productive dialogue about difficult topics. Experiencing his story-circle work galvanized my understanding of story as a way of creating dialogue, fostering relationships, and instigating change.

I’ll share with you an example of how story has worked as an instrument for change making. I did a documentary film project in the mid-1990s that focused on the homophobia and ageism experienced by lesbians over age fifty. Even though the state of Minnesota has offered some protection for GLBTQ people, many of the elders in this community are still very closeted, fearful of the consequences of disclosing their sexual orientation. Many people fear losing relationships with children and grandchildren if they are open about being gay. Doris, whom I interviewed in a nursing home, told me about how she and her partner of fifty years, Ruth, came to be separated when they could no longer manage to live independently in their home. They had no family, no money, and had always been closeted about their relationship. They told the county social worker they were sisters, and they were sent to different nursing homes across the city.

Doris had to take a long bus ride every week to visit Ruth. She wasn’t able to be with Ruth when she died because she had no way to get to her. My heart was wrenched by Doris’s story and enraged at the lack of care and consideration for them. Securing funding for wide distribution of the video to caregivers working in nursing homes and other elder care facilities, I was able to use the project to advocate for better support of GLBTQ people. I spoke at several trainings and witnessed self-confessed homophobic nurses and attendants openly admitting to feeling changed by Doris’s story.

The heart of my work at the Jerome Foundation is building relationships with grantees, and stories are a critical way of getting to know and understand artists and arts organizations. Stories convey their values. They are powerful tools to communicate about the work to Jerome’s members and directors, as well as to the public.

I have to confess that I have an inner geek self that loves working with data, and some of the current work with data visualization is incredibly useful in communicating ideas. You can run all the numbers in the world, and if you are not talking to people and listening to their stories, you are missing an essential part of the work. I want to challenge the reliance on facts and figures as a primary means of assessing value. Just because you can quantify something doesn’t mean you can make sense of what is going on. The whole point of gathering data is to help tell the story, build your case. Data are only one source of information. It is encouraging to see initiatives that are using story as a means of evaluation. Race Matters is working with John O’Neal, and Imagining America is working with Roadside Theater.

I find it helpful to draw a distinction between value and evaluation. When I want to know the value of an artist residency program that Jerome Foundation is supporting, I call the artists who have participated in the program and listen to their stories. When I want to evaluate the program, I look at the numbers — how many artists applied, how many were selected, what was the diversity of the applicant and grantee pool, and so on. There are many different ways of gathering information to help answer the question of whether to fund or not to fund or consider the impact of your portfolio.

One of my favorite quotations about story is from Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal: “Story — sacred and profane — is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

To Activate

A Conversation with Travis Laughlin

In a breakout session conversation during the preconference, I heard Travis Laughlin, art education director at the Joan Mitchell Foundation, use forms of the verb activate several times, as in “activating the artist,” “activating the art,” and “activating the audience.” Intriguing. There seemed to be a juicy idea embedded there. Postconference, Travis agreed to unpack his use of the word. Here is an edited version of our email exchange.

Irene Borger What do you mean by activate?

Travis Laughlin I’m interested in systems that allow an artist or piece of art to flourish and impact those with whom they or it come in contact. When I use the verb activate, I mean creating systems for action. The verb activate has at its root action, so there is no space for passivity. Activating with regard to supporting artists requires listening to their ideas fully and with intent.

These systems may be as simple as unrestricted funding or access to residencies where artists can freely explore and create. Or they may be ensuring fair pay for work done by artists, or literally bringing artists and their ideas to the boardroom or planning table.

IB Do you have a sense of how you came to use this verb? Have you heard other people use it — in speech or in writing?

TL My use of the word activate is certainly rooted in radical left ideology — much of my thought and approach to my work is informed/influenced by writers/activists/philosophers/artists such Bill Ayers, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, David Graeber, bell hooks, and David Wojnarowicz — but this word resonates with me mostly because it was recently used by one of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s artist-teachers in talking about her experience working with the foundation’s Art Education Program, as well as her view of the overall work done by the foundation.

This particular artist-teacher, who has been an educator for over thirty years, mentioned in her annual performance review that she wanted a chance to share her knowledge and experience with her peers, that such an experience would be invaluable professional development for her. With this in mind, my colleague and I created the role of peer coach for her — a part-time position that utilized her unique skill set and provided additional support for our education program staff.

She said she admired the fact that the Joan Mitchell Foundation listens to artists and finds ways to activate their visions and dreams. She told me, “When I came to you with an idea of how I would like to further my role at the foundation and put my skills to use assisting and supporting my peers who are teaching, you listened. But, more than that, you all created a way for this idea to become a reality.”

In this way her work with us has become more than a job and more than a grant; there is real investment in the artists and what they envision — what they dream of in order to grow and impact the world in which they live.

IB How moving! So, could you sum up what to activate means to you? What is the result of it? What (and who) has the potential to transform?

TL Activation, and the elements needed to truly activate the ideas and work of an artist, requires a deeper level of connection to and understanding of the artist. It also requires a level of trust in the artists and, therefore, a shift in the power dynamic leading to true collaboration between the funder and artist. What results — from activation — is the potential for a change in the dynamic between funder/employer and artist. Ultimately I guess activation, for me, is about not only recognizing a desire of transformation but embracing one’s power to initiate change.

The next questions — not yet polished — might be directed to the readers of the GIA Reader: What areas in your work have the potential to “activate the artist,” “activate the art,” and “activate the audience?” What systems are already in place? What has been successful? What can you envision . . . and try out?

Alternate ROOTS is a regional arts service organization composed of artists and cultural organizers that supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in community, place, tradition, or spirit. Race Matters Institute helps organizations develop policies, programs, practices, and protocols that achieve more equitable outcomes for all children, families, and communities. Roadside Theater, founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia in 1975, uses the storytelling tradition of the region to pursue its community development and social justice mission. Imagining America creates democratic spaces to foster and advance publicly engaged scholarship that draws on arts, humanities, and design, with the goal of enabling artists and scholars to thrive and contribute to community action and revitalization.