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.