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Thursday, October 29, 2015

#SayHerName, Inspira and Art as Ceremony

I'm writing just after spending a week as Friend-in-Residence at Haverford College.  It was a huge week of meeting professors, speaking with students at Quaker House, leading workshops, sharing meals and teaching classes.  You might expect this as a Friend-in-Residence.  What was unexpected was the end of the week performance-ceremony.  #SayHerName

Michael and I performing Assata Shakur's poem "Affirmation" to Bach's Chaconne and Lift Every Voice and Sing

Quaker Affairs asked me to share so that folks might get a taste of me as a performer.  As I was preparing, I realized I really wanted to experiment with ceremony.  Could we effectively use ritual and performance to make ourselves and the community more whole?  

YES!  Together we created  #SayHerName, part-performance, part-ritual to make visible the killing of Black women by police and while in police custody.

We began by acknowledging that which we hold divine and our ancestors.  People shared names of about a dozen ancestors, and we could have gone on, but I drew it to a close so that we could continue.  

I used elements from Ricardo Levins Morales, and we acknowledged the oppressive power relationships and ideologies in the room.  "Patriarchy we recognize you and we do NOT submit to you.  White supremacy we recognize you and we do NOT submit to you."  

We also called in what we wanted to assist us in the space.  "Courage we honor you and we welcome you.  Hope, we honor you and we welcome you." It was such a relief to know that crappy ideologies are present but we can choose not to submit to them.  Similarly, it felt good to call in the values that strengthen us.

I then shared film clips of monologues written about real women who had endured slavery.  This was from To Cross an Ocean Four Centuries Long. We listened to their stories.

Things got really tense when we watched a slide show of women recently killed by the police or while in custody. Michael Jamanis and Francis Wong from the  INSPIRA:  THE POWER OF THE SPIRITUAL ensemble improvised beautiful music that morphed into a fiery jazz explosion when Matthew Armstead sang "No justice, no peace." and Gerri McCritty brought in the dun-dun drums.

Afterward people stayed to share their heart, their commitment to take action and their appreciation.  A prospective freshman, a young Black woman, stayed a long time to tell me that she'd never experienced anything like that and was inspired to follow her calling.  

I share this because this is why I continue working as an artist.  I am being used to reach people and get to the heart of the matter.

Some of us do policy research and advocacy.  Some of us organize marches and die-in's other direct action.  Some of us pray and meditate and send energy to all of the folks on the frontlines.  This is all important and good.
My work is to feed people's spirits and remind them that we are all One even when systemic oppression separates and dehumanizes us.  

I invite you to co-create art as ceremony, art as social change.  We will perform INSPIRA: THE POWER OF THE SPIRITUAL at Lancaster Catholic High School on Jan. 18, 2016.  Please come and/or contribute to support the artists.  The show is FREE!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Leaning in

What do you do when somebody says something classic like:  “This country is so focused on racism that we’re forgetting about everybody else”?

As a diversity and justice consultant, I encounter some version of this all the time.  Sometimes it will pop up in a one on one conversation in my personal life.  I’m going to address it in this blog because I want to highlight a strategy that artist Ricardo Levins Morales suggested in the Deeper Change Forum a few weeks ago.  Ricardo urged us to seek the common ground of values even when we disagree with each others’ narratives.

Recently, I heard a European American who felt worn out by the constant scramble to earn a living get impatient with charges of racism.  It’s almost like he/she said “Hey, my life is sucking right now too, but I don’t get to point at the easy bogeyman racism.  I just have to keep working harder, and nobody cares.”

Typically, I walk away from someone who takes that position because I feel disregarded, dismissed and just plain “dissed.”  Even now I notice that my belly feels tight and my breathing got shallow just writing and imagining scenarios where this has played out.  Walking away is a legit option, especially when you are on Facebook.

When I feel vulnerable or angry, I’m not in the head space to look for the shared values.  So, I typically remove myself.  However, when this happened recently,  I leaned in, breathed a little deeper and asked questions.  Here is the flavor of the questions that I posed.  I did not do this perfectly so I comment on each question as to its effectiveness.

Can both be true?  Can there be racism and your life be really frustrating because you’re on a grind where things just aren’t getting better?
This is a great question if the person isn’t in too much pain.  I asked it out of my frustration.  May or may not be a great first question.

What’s frustrating you about your job?
This is a great question because it’s better to get right to the cause of the person’s pain.  The real issue is not whether or not African Americans have it better than European Americans.  The person’s real issue is: I’m scared, frustrated, and tired, and I feel alone in carrying all this.  Somebody please care about me.  This is where I can find the shared value:  You and I are both a child of God and worthy of a great life, as are our children.  I’m on your side too.  We’re on the same side.

Can I share what it’s like for me?
This is the part I downplayed a bit too much.  However, it’s progress for me that I risked to share any of what I was feeling and noticing.  Sometimes I go into social worker mode and make it all about you to avoid being vulnerable.  In this case I validated that racism hurts and isolates.

What’s your heart saying right now?  What’s my heart saying right now?
Let’s take care of each others’ hearts.  The quickest way to shift the mind (which is built for separation and defense) is to go straight to the heart.  Asking what the heart is saying rather than how do you feel could help to navigate around the ego.

Our conversation could have easily ended with a stalemate and separation.  Instead we traveled toward each other because the questions were not aiming to disprove the person’s narrative about racism.  Rather, I went to fundamental shared experience of frustration and inadequacy.  The conversation went the way of shared values:  I care about you and want to know what’s hard for you right now.  Your feelings are important to me.  I share my feelings with you.

Finally, as I said before, when we engage is a choice.  If you’re heart needs comfort, then you may not have the space to meet someone where they are.  Don’t sacrifice yourself.  Instead nurture yourself.  Meditate.  Take a bath.  Get a hug from a trusted someone—like your dog.  You will get another chance to engage someone who makes that kind of comment—sooner or later.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

When You Lose your Power

Take Your Medicine!

Have you ever been somewhere and just had to write down what someone said so that you could look at it again later?

Last week I kept writing as I listened to self-described "political artist" and long-time organizer Ricardo Levins Morales speak at the Deeper Change Forum in New Haven, CT.  Ricardo spoke about trauma, the power of stories to divide, and applying the wisdom of farming and nature as applied to social movements.

In a series of blogs, I'm going to share what I heard and the truth that it points toward in my life.

Trauma & Self-Medication
Ricardo spoke of trauma, at its essence, as a loss of power; someone or something taking away your ability to protect or act.   Having experienced this loss, we instinctively self-medicate.  We do something to remove ourselves from the shame, pain, etc.  The medicine may strengthen or poison us.

Almost simultaneously I thought of the group and individual levels in which this plays out.
For African Americans, the trauma of slavery, jim crow, segregation, and second class citizenship is enforced by state violence, lynch mobs, and individuals such as George Zimmerman.  The threat is always there.  As a group we tend to experience police killing of black men and women, boys and girls as a stripping of our power.  We experience today's Confederate flag as a reminder of our severe loss of power as humans under slavery.  We are frequently re-traumatized on social media.  Not surprisingly, we collectively and individually create medicine/poison to numb the pain and/or to restore our power.

I see the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of medicine.  Instead of internalizing the shame, people left their individual homes and took to communal spaces such as the streets, court houses, hospitals, schools, shopping malls, etc. to say no more shame on us, it's shame on you.  Moreover, we exercised power as a group to demand the Attorney General, the President, the Prosecutors, the mayors, etc. take action to protect and nurture Black life.  These demonstrations of power were often angry and fierce and led by younger generations.

I also see art created by groups such as Tribe One and my own Inspira: The Power of the Spiritual as medicine.   I went to a Tribe One concert last November soon after the failure to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner.

Tribe sang songs of hope and grief and then created a song with the audience about what they were feeling and knowing.  Using phrases like "No justice, no peace," "I can't breathe" and "truth and reconciliation."

Similarly, as part of Inspira, Matthew Armstead and I shared journal entries written during the Ferguson uprising and used chants from protests to build a soundscape along with our musical improvisation.

These performances provided space for us to feel our anger, grief, despair, and remember our power to do good.  They resonated with audiences deeply because people already know they can affect reality but, as Ricardo says, "we've been brutalized into forgetting."

Ricardo's words also made me think of my individual trauma: childhood neglect and sexual abuse.  As a child I coped with the loss of power by escaping into novels.  I read anything we had in the house for hour.  I also developed a highly self-critical voice as I strove to be "good."  Feeling unsafe, I couldn't sleep at night. I denied sadness and anger and put on a "happy face."   These strategies were somewhat helpful AND detrimental, my poison and my medicine.  Today, when the trauma gets triggered I automatically go back to these standbys.

Thankfully, I've also developed some new ways to remember my power to protect and befriend myself.  For example, I drink a lot of hot water.  In fact, I take a hot bath.  I write out my feelings.  I share with a trusted friend.  And, thanks to the 30 Day Meditation Challenge, I now meditate as a way to reboot.  However, I'm not to proud to say that I take myself to a professional and cry it all out when the Big Feelings get triggered and I feel destabilized.  Like the artist and the change maker, a counselor can render the invisible visible and accompany you back to your core.

Here's a challenge this week:  Notice when you feel as if your power has been stripped away from you.  What triggered you?  What do you do to protect and strengthen yourself?  Any poisons?

Please let me know via email, below or on Facebook.

Thank you for reading On a Mission to Heal the Planet.  Our mission is to nurture and expand the Tribe of the Heart, individuals who stand for Oneness and Take Action to heal the world, their families, and themselves.   Stay in touch! Peace and Love, Amanda

Monday, October 5, 2015

When the Women Drum: Sister Gerri

When I first met Gerri, she told me "I'm a tribal drummer."  I didn't know what that meant to this Liberian born woman until she went on to explain that when she plays all her ancestors play.  She comes from a line of drummers, and though she was pushed toward the shekere, a feminine instrument, the little girl Gerri determined to play the dun dun, a bass drum.  Now a woman, Gerri McCritty is fulfilling her dream to not only drum but to create art.  Below find a taste of our conversation and Gerri's newest venture!  Peace and Love! Amanda

Bringing Tribal Art to Lancaster:  Gerri McCritty Founds PAVAA Gallery

You may have heard of MOMA and the Whitney, but watch out New York, we've got the Performing and Visual Arts in Action (PAVAA) Gallery! The brainchild of Liberian artist Gerri McCritty and jazz vocalist CoCo, PAVAA is dedicated to the promotion of African and African American art and music.

Just open this month, PAVAA exhibits highlights from Gerri's work at Millersville University where she graduated with a degree in art last spring at the age of fifty-eight.  (That's right!  Can you say live my dream?) 

Gerri calls herself a “tribal artist” and sees herself as connecting people to “tribal culture.”  For her, tribal refers to the wisdom, customs, and art of indigenous people.  Although she grew up privileged in her native Liberia, she spent weekends and school breaks on family farms in rural areas, watching and learning from people with strong tribal traditions.  She says she always been attracted to tribal culture.  “I would sneak out at night to hang out with the villagers.”  It was there that she learned to carve and to play the dun-dun drum, which is traditionally reserved for men.  Although partially educated in England and the U.S., and a frequent visitor to Germany, where her Liberian mother lived for forty years, Gerri has long cherished “tribal” ways of seeing the world and that comes across in her art.  

Tribal Art Influences
As in Liberia where “We use everything,” Gerri's work includes abstract wood-work, hand made drums, including one with a album cover for its head, and other pieces made from found objects and trash.   The drums have a special place in her life because she fought to drum at a very early age and had to prove herself again and again.  The exhibit also includes several works that feature the head.  “We start with the head because we come out head-first.  I’m very much into heads…I visualize it  [the head] everywhere.  I see it in trees… I see it in the sky…”

One of her most striking works “By Any Means Necessary” investigates human resilience.  This installation represents how people can go from having a lot to having nothing.  “A lot of people are here now.  It represents my mother because she had to live like that during the war.  This is what inspired me.  She was a woman of great dignity and during the war” she had to survive on very little.

Like Mother like Daughter…
Geri herself was studying in the U.S. when the Liberian Civil War broke out.  She found herself unable to return home.  However, she couldn’t continue her undergraduate studies in the sciences without financial support from her family which was devastated by the War.  Like her mother, she learned to make do on very little.  Without documents, she found worked various jobs in human services and managed to support herself and eventually her son.   By necessity, Gerris kept the arts in the margins of her life and developed other skills, but at the ripe age of  fifty-four she matriculated at Millersville University where she decided to major in Studio Art. 

PAVAA Gallery
Now only four months after her graduation, Gerri has teamed up with Marion CoCo Coleman to launch a gallery that shares her love of African art, music and culture.  “This opening is the beginning.  This gallery is the birth.  I’m inviting the Lancaster community to journey with me.  I can learn from them, and they can learn from me.” 

True to its tribal roots, PAVAA emphasizes audience interaction.  McCritty envisions musicians, art lovers, and people from all backgrounds participating in drumming and dance and screenings.   “Whatever we do, we’re heavy into audience participation and interaction… Every time you come here we’re going to be doing something…”

If you go…
PAVAA  Gallery  @632 N. Christian St. Lancaster, PA 17602
Open Saturdays 11am-3pm;

For more info see: on Facebook

Thank you for reading On a Mission to Heal the Planet.  Our mission is to nurture and expand the Tribe of the Heart, individuals who stand for Oneness and Take Action to heal the world, their families, and themselves.   Stay in touch! Peace and Love, Amanda