From Minneapolis: Building an Institute using art for social change
When I came into the Asian American movement in 1969, I stopped working in films and on Broadway as a ‘professional artist’ to become a ‘community artist’. I was learning was everything from scratch. When I sang with Chris Iijima as a troubadour for the Asian American Movement, he pushed me to write songs. In Los Angeles, when community members asked me to teach a dance class, I figured how to teach and create dances with folks who weren’t necessarily dancers. When the Vietnamese students of Club O’Noodles asked me to do theater workshops, I stumbled my way into techniques to help these non-actors tell their stories on stage. Eventually my arts organization, GREAT LEAP, grew from these stumblings. We’ve been around now for 34 years. Being a community artist has made my life richer, and it taken me many places, including Detroit in 2000, where Grace Boggs connected me with Urban Gardeners. With them I created and engaged the community in a song/dance called “I Dream a Garden.” And I’ve been coming back ever since.
This December I went to Minneapolis to spend a week at the Pangea World Theater in a circle of 30 artists/directors, who create theater within ensembles and among communities. We were a diverse group, mostly women and people of color, who came from theater towns like Los Angeles, Manhattan and Minneapolis, but also from Anchorage, New Orleans, Knoxville, San Antonio, Tijuana and the Bronx. We represent a growing field of creative artists who tell stories about people and places that never seem to hit mainstream culture. We tackle subjects like race, gender, ethnicity, human rights, social justice and the environment. We were there to share our methodologies and philosophies behind this very democratic and inclusive kind of theater making. Our purpose was to help create an ‘Institute’ to develop more directors who are women and people of color and to further this field of work.
After participating in many creative exercises shared by different artist in this culturally diverse group, I saw many similarities in our approach. We worked in a circle, creating a safe and sacred space where equal voices are heard. To honor place, we opened with a blessing from a Native Ojibwe artist. We used story, song and movement to teach listening, leadership and following skills. Our exercises were fun and full of laughter. You can’t dig deep into troubling questions of our world without the help of laughter. We emphasized non-judgement, mutual respect and self-empowerment. It was very democratic in its process.
I wondered how this style of art making popped up in so many places in culturally unique, yet such similar ways. Maybe we’ve been ‘making the road by walking’. Whether old enough to be part of ‘the movement’ or not, these artists have been touched by the ideas of Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native, Asian American, and women’s LGBT movements. We’ve been bringing the values of these movements into our art, not only through content of the stories, but as a process, a way of working with people. We are creating a space for artists and communities to ‘be what we believe.’
Grace talks about the need to ‘grow our souls.’ I believe that’s what we do. Through our artistic practices we are changing ourselves and building a sense of community in a way that Broadway and Hollywood cannot. This work has thrived despite meager funding because of the caring and dedication of its practitioners. It is time to recognize this distinctive and democratic way of art creation as a ‘field’ just as important and essential as Broadway or Hollywood.
I hope this ‘Institute’ takes root. I hope it will inspire and train more artists to walk, dance, and even stumble their way into more communities. As people of color become the majority in our country, we need to share our stories beyond our cultural boundaries to help overcome ignorance and fear of the other. As temperatures rise and the earth’s resources shrink, we need to engage in creative processes so we can experience our connectedness with each other and the Earth. And we need to dream…dream the kind of world we want to live in, realizing we are all part of the same circle.