Conduit

Here’s my story about power:

Over 16 years, I have developed a position in which I understand the needs of the Oakland cultural community and have both a wide network and deep relationships with important influencers in that sphere. In six years of running a shared venue, I have interfaced with hundreds of artists and thousands of community members. When it became clear that we could not financially hold on to our venue, I started looking towards a systems solution for cultural space. In the face of rapid and violent gentrification, I could see that Oakland was badly and urgently in need of an enterprise that would collectivize the power of artists to control space – especially Black artists, who are being priced out of Oakland at an alarming rate. Some collaborators and I began talking about this idea over a year ago, and every artist or cultural worker we spoke with got very excited about it. A movement was starting to build towards this idea.

Over the same time period, I have also built influential relationships with funders and folks that represent various types of capital (impact investors, developers, CDFIs, etc.). I came up like any other arts entrepreneur, building my artistic practice, growing my organization, trying to gain access to resources and create stability for my enterprise and the artists who depended in it for space and employment. After feeling very much shut out of the funding environment for a very long time, in the past year or so, I got to the point where funders were coming to me with funds for projects. I started to understand the “back-room” nature of philanthropy, and the reality that open-call proposals were only the very tip of the iceberg – just a way for funders to get to know new groups. The real dollars came with relationships. It’s about who you know. And finally I became one of the people that the funders knew and trusted.

From my position, I tenuously hold two different types of power:  collective power built on trust, and access to resources and capital built on relationships.

Here’s what happened:

My collaborators and I received some funding to convene a group of Oakland artists & cultural workers to design a prototype for this cultural space cooperative. When we convened the group, issues around race and trust came up in a major way such that we could not continue as planned. Then one of my closest collaborators, a Black woman and a good friend, left the project and our friendship suddenly without any discussion. It was a complete personal and professional rift. I was devastated.

While the details of the conflict are complex, I’ll just say here that it had to do with my level of access to the funders and my perceived (and real) complicity with that system. It turned out that in the same moment of gaining a small level of access to that system of resources, I lost the trust I had gained with some members of my community. This is an impossible position.

What I understand from talking to several elders who have been around the block many times, is that this type of incident is not unusual. As one Black leader confidante told me, “while we’re sitting here fighting with each other, the developers are buying up the land.” And another told me, “no good deed goes unpunished.” And yet another: “It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize. What’s harder is actually DOING SOMETHING.” There’s blood on the battlefield. The trauma is real, and trust is fragile. If you walk into the fray, you’re bound to get some wounds.

In reflecting on this incident, I have come to see the ways in which I AM indeed complicit with the power structures that continue to funnel money, resources and power to those who already have it (eg. white folks) over those who don’t (eg. Black folks). I am not outside of that system. I have a role in it.

And also, I recognize that the only way things can actually change is to build bridges between these two worlds, these two types of power. The reality is that we are all complicit in some way in the unjust systems that run our world. The trick is to get the power to flow from where it is to where it needs to be. In order to do that we need to be inside (ie. complicit in) those systems enough to build relationships and actually have influence in those spheres. But we also need to be vigilant that we are not lulled into the paradigm of the status quo, and that we are always accountable to our communities. 

My task now is to focus on healing trust. If I can manage that, I think I can become a conduit for power from where it is to where it needs to be.

7 thoughts on “Conduit

  1. Great post. I’m glad you felt enough trust to share what is obviously a painful story.

    I don’t spend much time in the philanthropy world, so I’m not sure I have much context, but I would be curious to know, is there anything besides your whiteness that led to your success in the funding world?

    What is or would be your role in the governance and management of the organization with these new grants? What are the other roles that your fellow community members are playing? If you were to take the power being put in your hands and instead spread it out, what would that look like? Is it even possible to spread that power out or is the system making you into a gatekeeper?

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    1. Nick-
      In addition to my whiteness, other things that led to my success were:
      – being able to speak the language of business & nonprofits
      – building and running a successful nonprofit arts enterprise over several years
      – showing the funders that I had the trust of the community
      (so the two types of power feed each other sometimes)

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  2. Phew! Anna, Wow. thank you for showing up with such vulnerability and honesty to share this story and to help us appreciate what you’re in the middle of digesting and getting to the place where you can make sense of.

    What most stuck out to me:
    “The trick is to get the power to flow from where it is to where it needs to be. In order to do that we need to be inside (ie. complicit in) those systems enough to build relationships and actually have influence in those spheres. But we also need to be vigilant that we are not lulled into the paradigm of the status quo, and that we are always accountable to our communities.”

    How do you plan to stay vigilant?

    Where are you in your healing journey?

    How has this experience helped evolve your understanding of power and how it operates in the world?

    What power are you building now, and how are you building it differently?

    What relationships are you investing in right now?

    I’m so glad you’re here and that I’m getting this tiny glimpse into your world through this workshop.

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    1. Thanks Felipe. Here are answers to some of your questions.
      I plan to stay vigilant by investing in relationships with other black cultural leaders and checking in on my actions with them. Also, continuing to educate myself on anti-racism.
      I am realizing that the most important thing for me to do right now is to heal myself. From this incident, and from the negative impacts of white supremacy culture on me over time. I am working on several ways to do that and it is in process. I’m connecting with generative somatics (https://generativesomatics.org/) for starters and getting some guidance.
      Right now, a new seed group has formed to determine the future of the project. It is 5 Black women plus me. I am very aware of my relative place in that group and the importance of being aware of my power at all times. So far this group is extremely positive and seems to be going in a great direction. We are taking time to name and acknowledge power dynamics on the front end and agree on how we will operate together. It feels like it is coming from a place of care – for ourselves, each other and the community we all serve.

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  3. Anna I hope that writing about your experience –creating this important snapshot of how you and your artistic community got to where it is–has been somewhat cathartic. I feel your pain! One of the things I’ve experienced is that if I don’t allow my suffering to be transformed, I transmit it by attacking, blaming, withdrawing. It sounds like your Black friend and collaborator has been wounded, has yet to deal with her own deep pain, and in turn has caused you deep pain. I hear you acknowledging your own devastation personally and professionally at the loss of this friendship and think your desire to be a bridge builder is the right impulse. I’m curious about a couple of things: what is helping you to process your own loss and pain? what might be your next best step to begin building with the artist community? what might your next best step be on the funder side? (I wonder if they have seen this kind of implosion before? They may even have some best practices that have emerged with other grantees). Again, thank you for sharing your journey!

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    1. PS I listened to part of this Q&A webcast by Dereca Blackmon, Assistant Vice Provost and ED of the Diversity Office at Stanford, on “Spiritual Allyship” (you can skip the first couple minutes , more of an ad for the course) and think it might might be a helpful resource https://theshiftnetwork.com/qa-dereca-blackmon-20200819?01SpiritualAllyship01_20=01SpiritualAllyship01_20&utm_campaign=email&utm_source=maropost&utm_content=01spiritualallyship01_20%20dereca%20blackmon%20q&a%20recording%202020.08.22&mpweb=708-9049102-741943122

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      1. Thanks Jon. I’ll watch that video when I have a moment.
        I’m really focusing on my own healing at this point. I’m doing that by talking with friends, focusing on finding joy in small moments with my family, getting into nature (as much as possible with our state on fire!) and seeking out workshops and healers to guide me. So far, I am seeking a generative somatics coach, and I’m looking into doing some courses at the strozzi institute (https://strozziinstitute.com/). But I am also interested in taking a more spiritual approach. See my previous reply to see what I am doing now. Also, I did talk about this with one of the funders, and he was very understanding and supportive. He is sitting back to see how this new seed group emerges. Interestingly, we set out to do research on cooperative enterprise in the arts, and I think a big part of the findings will be about tracking this type of personal/social implosion of trust. That is one of the biggest barriers to achieving some of these big goals we have. If the trust isn’t there, forget about it. All the big ideas, innovative structures and capital won’t go anywhere if trust has not been built and healed with targeted communities.

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