Comstock's magazine 0519 - May 2019 - Page 10

n OPINION HOW THE ARTS CAN HELP BRING CHANGE by Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick A s they say, timing is everything. I’m writing this on the one-year anniversary of the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African American man who was shot by two Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard. However you feel regarding the circumstances surrounding Clark’s death and the district attorney’s decision March 2 not to pursue charges against the officers, you likely felt the cloud of despair that seemed to hover over the city that week. I felt it, but I am an African American woman and the moth- er of a 14-year-old son. I have become accustomed to constantly feeling concerned over my son’s safety. But the D.A.’s decision, followed two weeks later by the anniversary of Clark’s death on March 18, and the resulting protests had all combined to create a sense of frustration in me that felt truly palpable. I had so many unanswerable questions: Where is the justice? Who will protect my son and other defenseless brown children? How can I help the city I love heal and change? Overwhelmed and feeling a bit helpless, I went about the “normal” business of life, but things were not right — not with me and definitely not within Sacramento. Looking for answers, I attended a community healing circle held by Safe Black Space at Unity of Sacramento where I experienced a spoken-word performance — a work of art. It jolted me back to what I know to be true: Art has always been an essential way people come together, find common ground and express our shared humanity. I realized that if Sacramento is going to be a city that not only works but thrives, the arts are key to laying the foundation for what the Thriving Cities Group (an organization focused on urban revival) describes as the four C’s — conditions, connections, collaborations and commit- ment — that form a community’s civic substructure. Conditions: From cave drawings to singer Marian Ander- son’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 to Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster, art has been a way for people to share their truths and aspirations. The arts help us understand societal issues like racism and economic inequal- ity. They allow us to sow the seeds of trust and to converse in a socio-emotive state, rather than from a place of fear. In Sac- ramento, arts organizations such as Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum, Sol Collective and Celebration Arts give voice to the underserved and use the arts to inspire social change. But these organizations struggle to stay open. Rath- er than investing in them and the type of social capital they create, as a city, we have elected to place our energy on react- ing, such as with more police, rather than on efforts to form a shared sense of community. Connections: In “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” author Robert D. Putnam argues that as Americans have become wealthier, their sense of com- munity has dwindled. As people spend more time working, commuting and being on smart devices, they spend less time volunteering, joining community groups, socializing with neighbors and enjoying collective experiences. In 2015, the Crocker Art Museum began its Block by Block initiative that ex- emplifies how arts organizations can engage and build social capital. Block by Block fo- cuses on co-creating experiences in and with communities that have traditionally not visited the museum. Now working primari- ly in Sacramento’s Promise Zone — federally desig- nated areas disproportionately under-resourced compared to other areas of the city — Block by Block has served more than 35,000 people through block parties, art activities at commu- nity events and smaller pop-up experiences. To do this, the Crocker employs a team of teens and emerging community art and activism professionals to elevate the profile of the arts in these neighborhoods. Last year, the Crocker attended 22 community meetings, participated in 59 events, co-created six pop-up experiences and conducted art activities at eight youth-violence-reduction programs. And the initiative emphasizes giving neighborhood artists paid opportunities to perform. Through art, commu- nity members can develop the sense of pride, security and well-being that leads to a thriving city. Art will not necessarily fix the lack of affordable housing or the legacy of racism and current divides, but it can build understanding and provide fo- rums for conversations that alter the attitudes and conditions necessary for productive civic engagement. Collaborations: The change we want in Sacramento will come from a flourishing creative community that partners with government, businesses, philanthropic forces and indi- Art has always been an essential way people come together, find common ground and express our shared humanity. 10 | May 2019