Breaking Out of a Bifurcated World

Edited by Caron Atlas

Many funders face a paradox: while some of the most creative strategies for positive social change live at the intersections of sectors, disciplines, cultures, and generations, the practices and structures of philanthropy can create silos and disconnect funders from their cultures, their grantees, and their full selves.

Breaking Out of a Bifurcated World: A Bridge Conversation on Philanthropy,” organized by the Arts & Democracy Project and Seventh Generation Fund as a session at the 2010 Grantmakers in the Arts conference, invited participants to engage this paradox and reflect on a practice that is powerfully transformative, yet, at times, painfully fragmented. Since 2008, Arts & Democracy has been commissioning “Bridge Conversations” to learn more about the power of living and working at these intersections. Three colleagues with multiple relationships to arts, culture, activism, and philanthropy — Pepón Osorio, Amalia Deloney, and Tim Dorsey — were invited to help us get the GIA conversation started. The following is an edited version of some of the dialogue from that session.

From Linear to Multifaceted

Tia Oros Peters: I've been thinking a lot about the word “bridge.” In some ways I am probably not one of those people that necessarily likes to use the word, although we often call our organization a bridge organization, because we are a connector — often at a nexus between philanthropy and Native communities and nations.

As a Native person, as a Zuni woman, and certainly as an American Indian here in the United States, I hear a lot of “there's two worlds ….” That there is the Indian world and then there is the White world.

I think we can often understand things best in the ways we've been taught — according to our cultures, experiences, worldviews, and what we have inherited as part of our collective consciousness. I would have to say that what I have been taught through these avenues is that there's probably more like one world — and this world has multiple realities, many dimensions, and that they are not mutually exclusive but operating all together in time and space.

Someone at this Grantmakers in the Arts conference told me to “get with the real world,” in a conversation where I was talking about adding things to a bottom line which looked an awful lot like a dollar sign. We were talking about the Capitalization Project and I was asking the collective, “What about social profit, what about cultural profit, what about ecology? What about the multiple things that are woven together, not alongside, not in parallel to the financial bottom line, but that might actually have more value than money?” This individual who responded was disdainful of me and saw the world really differently and reacted to my question as if it were a personal assault on her thinking. I understand her world, her reality, and I understand that for some people like her, my very existence and perspectives may seem to be an affront to her reality. Yet, I think we're all in it together — we share this world. But her reality is shaped by what she considered the “real world,” which was a financial/capitalistic reality. My reality is shaped by things that she wanted to dismiss; she did not want them to be as real as her worldview. It was a really interesting moment — and there was no nexus of understanding, no bridge.

So, in thinking about that when people refer to bridging, I'd have to say that it's a challenge and if I am expected to compromise my beliefs, well, then I don't like bridging so much — Point A to point B, it's a linear line, not a circle of relationships but a hierarchical reality.


Pepón Osorio: I'm not sure if I truly understand social justice — although I think I have a comprehensive idea of what it means. It just comes down to my personal experience of when I saw my mom being harassed by a guy, when I was very little. And my mom had a fit and turned around and then she looked at me and she said, “I just want to live in a fair world. F A I R.” And that stayed with me for a long time. And I don't think she thought of herself as anything but just a citizen that — wanted to live in a fair world. I think of myself as a squatter most of the time. When I go to museums, when I present work in museums I know I'm being a squatter.

— I'm just coming in, I build a thing, take it down, go away. Not a nomad but a squatter. And the other thought, where I'm at lately, with this whole idea of social justice, is what my place is as an artist who is somehow established. How do I struggle with the younger generation and what my place is in relationship to that younger generation? How do we shape our communities and how do we shape our world based on how much I know and how much they're experiencing? That is something I've been struggling back and forth with for awhile, and trying to construct it, to round it all up to my Mom's experience. I just want to live in a fair world.

Tia: As an indigenous person in today's world, I think there is sometimes a latent perception that we shouldn't be here — even if no one says that to our faces. We all know that there was a pretty effective campaign to destroy us, but it didn't work, so here we are shifting paradigms. Language is so powerful. By saying “squatter” the way I hear it, you're saying you have no right, and anyone can take you out of there at any time. And my assumption is that you've been invited. You have a right to be there.

Pepón: The notion of squatter comes from a place I've been in with so many intersections that I have to create a really strong sense of self and an unapologetic one. And I have been told many times how older people feel insecure about themselves and how secure I am of who I am, not as a man but more like someone of color and Puerto Rican, and I know where I come from and I know what I eat. It's so ingrained in me that there's no doubt about that. So when I'm moving to other places, like for example, academia — I just started a job five years ago as a professor at Tyler — I felt like I was literally squatting, coming in with this history. I just have to build this place, and I'm not going away. And the same with museums. I just felt like, I'm going in, I'm building, I'm putting this thing together, but somehow, this is not the world that I was meant to be in, but I chose it and I'm coming in. I think of squatting as forging. That it doesn't belong to me, but eventually, if I stayed long enough, it will. And I dare you to move me out. That's what justice is for me.

Bill Aguado: Squatting was a type of strategy, a political community strategy, to empower, to take over, to assume. I don't need a bridge, because I've just taken over the space. You need a bridge to get to me. I don't need a bridge to you. And many of my colleagues that I grew up with in this field — we defined our space and took a lot of pride in the quality that we produced. A lot of pride in the integrity of our cultures, whether Dominican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, we were all part of one community. Squatting was a way for us to take over housing, to take over hospitals and improve the health care, to take over school boards, saying, “You don't listen to me, I'm taking it over.” In communities like the South Bronx, Harlem, Bed Stuy, Lower East Side, and many others across the country, we had to take control of our space.

Jorge Merced: I'm a fellow squatter here. One of the things I love about when Pepón squats is that there's a whole bunch of people that come with him, a whole history, a whole tradition.

Shape-Shifting and the Spaces in the Middle

Amalia Deloney: My understanding of movement has always been universal and that migration was never just about A to B, as in the immigration narrative. It was always about global migration or global movement from many places. I think about this movement a lot, in different pieces of my life. Like, how do I show up in a space or not show up in a space? How do I occupy a space? And how can I be in many spaces equally at the same time?

I've gotten to a place where it's not so much trespassing, it's maybe not even squatting, but I feel like I'm a shape-shifter. Whether it's code switching, with language, whether it's mimicking what I see around me, it's not about a lack of genuineness. It's about reflecting what's being fed to you and at the same time having the double consciousness to be in a whole different place internally and to have both of those realities at the same time.

When I think about what that means for the work I do, to who I am, there are traditions you can draw from. Mayans have a concept called en lak etch — it means “you are my other me.” It's a concept that is rooted in a belief system that we can only come to know ourselves and communities in relationship to one another. It is not just about the individual, it's the collective. Or, as Angela Davis calls it,

“It's about thinking things through, together.”

There's the concept of nepantla — this idea that the space in the middle is actually a space, a place in and of itself. It's not a place going to anything. It is a place to be and become all at once.

How do you hold many yous all at the same time within one person? How, as the Zapatistas ask, “do we create a world where many worlds are possible?” Where in the work that we are doing in communion with one another do we value and teach that and not subvert it? I've had some interesting conversations that border a little bit on fetish. There's a piece of me that's like, how much do I want to share, because I don't want it to become quaint or interesting.

Roberto Bedoya: I really love the shape-shifting concept. I run a public arts agency. It's a weird mambo because I'm working with such a broad range of concerns, from the symphonies to the grassroots people, and I've always thought the job has been about making the space. I am perceived as an insider by the general public because of my agency's status. Yet I have a high threshold and love for the outside. Maybe it started, as a little kid and my sister, loving Little Anthony and the Imperials singing, “I'm on the outside looking in” and later Patti Smith, “Outside is the side I take.” So, I flow in that zone. I'm comfortable there, between the inside and outside. What does it take to be a shape-shifter? How do you move in those spaces, loving the in-between, the interstices in anything that you do and being mindful of it? That's, like, fierceness.

Who defined the world as bifurcated? It's complex, and I live in complexity. The economy is showing us all the fault lines of our civic infrastructure, and they're all collapsing. Not just culture, it's railroads, it's health care, it's all collapsing. And my job is to imagine the plural, coming out of this collapse. You know, I feed the people who do the imagining.

Risë Wilson: I think double consciousness gets hard. I have to create a third space so that my whole self has somewhere to live, because everyone else has asked me to be either/or. That notion of a bridge, that A or B, it just doesn't work. It's both/and. But until we actually create a larger space where both/and can exist, then there's this kind of third space to hold ourselves, where sanity lives.

Holding Space and Wrestling with Power

Tim Dorsey: I traveled this year to India for the first time. I was getting schooled quite a lot in Gandhian philosophy and principles, thinking about this notion of ahimsa, which, translated badly, is nonviolence. And it turned out I had no understanding of what that really means, because I thought it meant to not be violent, and it actually means to actively be nonviolent in everything we approach and everything we do.

I work at a foundation and I've only worked there a year and a half. I've done the foraging, the squatting, and that makes me think also of agitating. And that there is the role for agitating, but you know, agitating only gets you so far in terms of advocacy or as an organizing strategy. You have to be able to have the dialogue, to have the conversation.

I love my job. I think the work I'm doing right now is what I'm really meant to be doing. You know, the amazing thing about this work is that I've never had such an opportunity for reflection, for reflective practice. But the more deeply I am reflecting, the less comfortable the power structure of philanthropy feels. Something I'm realizing is really important, as Tia said: “You always have to have your people with you when you go into these spaces.”

I think it's really important to be in the institution, the power room, and it's also important to know who you are before you get there, so you can remember that and also have the place you can go back to. I think what many of us do in our work — whether we're grantmakers, organizers, artists, activists, or all of the above (most of us are all of the above and many other things) — is hold space. Not just for ourselves, but for so many other people who aren't in the room.

Denise Brown: A lot of what we're talking about is the inherent inequality of the power relationships, of philanthropy, and our discomfort with that. For those of us that come to this work after years of community and activist work, part of what we bump up against is our own discomfort with the power we've assumed. I'm in the privileged position of being able to create an organizational culture. And that culture can be a reflection of my values. But I think we talk about a lot of things, but we never talk about power. And I don't know how we can do this work without having that conversation. And so this notion of squatting from an activist perspective is about power; shape-shifting is about power.

Melanie Cervantes: I definitely feel like a weaver, and there's a very tactile, real reason. I think my art practice, and the art practice of the generations of women before me, who never had the privilege of being recognized as artists, is really rooted in our relationship to each other and to fabric, and to weaving. And so I think that sensibility is something I've been able to bring along this journey to transverse many different worlds, to the point where I'm traversing them in a day, back and forth, sometimes occupying more than one world at the same time. This notion of bringing your folks along empowers. It's not easy, but it has been incredibly useful, weaving those networks and bringing the folks along, in order to move the power.

I felt like I got access to education, so I fought for education for more people. And then when I went into philanthropy, I asked why is there concentrated wealth? And given that this is the structure, how do I have any power within this institution? How do we weave what we're trying to do here within this larger framework of social justice? How do we weave together the desire for something else? It's not easy.

Huong Vu: About two weeks ago I started kung fu. It's an all-women's studio in a mixed neighborhood. They'll do a demonstration, and then we're supposed to do what we learned. And what we've all learned about ourselves is as women, we may be able to throw the punches or kick, but when it's about the “hai,” the noise associated with a lot of the kicks, verbally, we just can't get out that big energy that we're supposed to.

And so, for me, I thought about that in the context of my life, being in a position of power, but also being an ethnic minority, an immigrant. I was intrigued and moved by what Sherwood [Chen] said about carrying our histories, carrying a lot of responsibility for our cultures. I think about the comments that were made about carrying burdens, carrying responsibilities, because we are in positions of power. It's a very complicated thing, and I deal with it, every day, and try to do my best.

An Infinite Capacity to Learn

Gülgün Kayim: I was with an interdisciplinary group of artists, planners, geographers working on something called Deep Mapping, looking at the landscape not as an object that's solid but as one that has many, many, many viewpoints. We spent five days journeying around Virginia, going to various sites of slavery, of lynchings, of Appalachian poverty. And listening to stories, some of them from the people who lived there; others were from historians because the people had been wiped out. What was fascinating was to see the way in which those histories had been preserved and not. So, for example, a slave house was turned into a bathroom. The community remembered what happened, but whoever made the decision to turn it into a bathroom had another set of priorities. From whose perspective do we create our environment, and how do we attentively listen to the communities as well as to the landscape?

I've started to think about what a deep attention mean in my interactions with people, and then how can I represent that back into the foundation. I come from a foundation where often arts are competing with other things for funding. Having said that, I walked away from the mapping thinking it's even more imperative that arts become part of the conversation, that they become integrated into how we witness, and then build as a community.

Sherwood Chen: I always have to remind myself that I have an infinite capacity to learn from the staggering diversity of the communities I work with, where 98 percent of the time, I'm an outsider, to the community, to the cultural protocols, to the cultural systems. And so, that's the greatest challenge, and the greatest joy and wonder in that process. It really forces me to humble myself, to try and sensitize myself in order to understand the communities that we work with.

I think we are working against very oppressive systems, and we've also internalized a lot of those oppressive systems, so they're in us. And we have that potential as well, to be able to express and exhort those things. So, I have to remind myself that the best of us have blind spots. And that vigilance has to be something that we keep, and we hold in our work; it's endless and it can be very exhausting sometimes. How do you begin to keep that vigilance in the ways you work with your grantees, the ways that you work with your partners, and particularly how you create your organizational culture, how you work with your staff?

Judi Jennings: I think we mix up that power is money. I think in philanthropy, we just kind of get mixed up that we're all-important because we have the money, and we're going to make it OK. I come from Appalachia, which is a place defined by poverty, but I think we're pretty clear that that's not the most important thing. Where do we learn the lessons that we need to learn? In rural areas communities are still intact. If you go talk to somebody, they'll say, “Oh, you're Everett's daughter, aren't you?” That's what they'd say, really, and they know who you are. But rural areas are so devalued now, made fun of, and that keeps us from learning those lessons. That's really bad because there are great community lessons that aren't about money, they're about relationships.

We're All Very Connected

Lori Pourier: I want to go back to the word “humble.” When we began this journey with First People's Fund, we were gifted three feathers by this elder woman. It was at one of our very first Community Spirit awards and she called me up to the podium and said, “You know this feather is for you.” And I took the feather as with the “you” being “First People's Fund.” And she said, “This feather, the second feather, represents your ancestors.” And it was a very old feather and she said, “You know anywhere you go your ancestors are all with you.” It's not me alone, it's those ancestral footsteps, and we can all relate to that. And then she said, “This other is your future. This smaller feather here represents the future generations.”

Oftentimes when you move in and out of institutions and these conversations, when you're coming from that background, it throws you. You have to pause and say, “OK, I know my ancestors are with me and I know I'm here for the future.” But how do you move in the space in between with honor and with respect and not from a place of aggression? I don't want my daughter to be having these same conversations. She sees herself as a leader at eleven years old. She's been well prepared. How do we think of every one of us as human beings? I'm listening and listening, and I think we're all really saying the same thing, and we're all very connected.

Pepón: I realize that I cannot teach art, that is something extremely personal. But what I can teach, is for art students to commit and fully engage with their creative process. In my struggle to live in a just world, I have been welcoming students from all different places in the university and igniting them, sparking their light and to acknowledge their creative force. To find their creative core. Directing them to a place where they can go out and come up with solutions. The more we think about art, the more that we think of a limited field. The more that we think of creative people, we open up the circle and become just.

Amalia: I work for the Center for Media Justice, which sees itself as a movement-building institution. So we are a vessel that work passes through. And we honor it and we contribute to it, but we do not own it, it is not of us. I just came from a staff retreat where we closed our conversation around two archetypes that are like two truths that we hold at the same time: a person's fundamental need to feel safe and belong. And how can we learn? All the things I hear you struggling with exist in our institutions too.

Tim: I'm reminded at this point why I love my job, and why I'm so deeply grateful to participate in this conversation. It's a tremendous privilege that this work brings with it, the honor of being connected. I'm moved by the power that we have in the room collectively and the fact that we're been able to come together and have this conversation.

Tia: Power is a canoe in the water, right? Power is what you all said here in this circle, that's power. There's a great Karuk artist, Brian Tripp, who said — talking about basket weaving, but also about constantly creating the world — “One part river, one part land, weaving the world, strand by strand.” If we were to extend that metaphor to our conversation here, we did that. In the basketry of northern California you take from the landscape to create your patterns, and from the river to create your strength and your resilience. Can what you make survive? Can it absorb water? Can it hold hot rocks? Can it feed people? Can it be ceremonial? We created that very basket, that very world in our words today.

Participants quoted in this article:

  • Bill Aguado, Bronx Council on the Arts
  • Roberto Bedoya, Tucson Pima Arts Council
  • Denise Brown, Leeway Foundation
  • Melanie Cervantes, Akonadi
  • Sherwood Chen, Alliance for California Traditional Arts
  • Amalia Deloney, Center for Media Justice
  • Tim Dorsey, Open Society Foundations
  • Judi Jennings, Kentucky Foundation for Women
  • Gülgün Kayim, Bush Foundation
  • Jorge Merced, Pregones Theater
  • Tia Oros Peters, Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development
  • Pepón Osorio, Tyler School of Art at Temple University
  • Lori Pourier, First Peoples Fund
  • Huong Vu, Boeing Company
  • Risë Wilson, Leveraging Investments in Creativity

To read more of the Arts & Democracy Project's Bridge Conversation series: