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Practicing for Liberation

Posted on 09/04/20 by in Stories from The Well

Over-the-Rhine neighbors Jeremy Neff and DeeDee Flowers perform in Storefronts' premier show, Vigil, 2017. Photo credit: Pat Clifford

By: Mary Clare "MC" Rietz

There is a small but growing group of people in Over-the-Rhine who, since 2017, have been making art that confronts the socioeconomic, racial, and political systems of oppression that affect them.

Storefronts was founded in 2017, at the Miami U. Center for Community Engagement, as a collaboration among neighborhood residents, students, and local artists. At the center of our work together are the lives, concerns, and visions of those residents most harmed by systemic injustices and how these specifically show up in Over-the-Rhine.

From the beginning, we have been Black and white folks together. Also, a mix of people with more and fewer resources, more and less access, greater and lesser privilege. This comes through in our work, largely because our art shows are mostly performance-based. We have used our bodies, our voices, and our lives to express our critiques, and our visions for what could be.

We’ve talked about race, racism, the systems of whiteness that perpetrate things like displacement, cultural erasure, and theft of space in Over-the-Rhine. But, until now, those conversations have been more in the course of doing our creative work. We point to them, name them, perform our experience of them. We haven’t really talked with each other about how those things show up within our community of artistic practice.

We have decided that now is the time.

Next week, the Storefronts 2020 cohort of eight Over-the-Rhine neighbors, plus two staff, will begin new ways of looking at how white supremacy manifests in our work together, and how we might replace those with liberatory practices. We’ll use as a guide The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture developed by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones of Dismantling Racism.

We’ll consider how these characteristics operate among us. We’ll not assume, but will explicitly ask, “Do we want to keep letting them run how we collaborate?” We’ll look at the antidotes to white supremacy from Okun and Jones. We’ll identify tools and practices to shift the ways that we are, together.

Enter: mindfulness practice. Maybe a more fitting term here is awareness. Pressing the pause button can be a first critical step to becoming aware of anything. At Storefronts, we are intentionally pressing “pause” on our work, setting aside time and place to look, with courage, compassion and honesty, at what is there. But this is not a solo practice; it’s collective. And, for heaven’s sake, you already know it’s not a one-time thing. We’re talking ongoing … weaving these practices into everything we do.

As with meditation and the breath, we’ll need a focal point to bring us back when we engage in unaware thinking/talking/action. Maybe we’ll choose our bodies as the baseline. Or a word we all agree to. Or maybe we’ll wave a literal red flag.

Robin A. Wright, Senior Social Equity Specialist at Design Impact here in Cinci, has adapted this tool we’ll try out: PAN (PAY ATTTENTION NOW). Robin and DI colleagues have used it in groups of Black and white residents as a way to become aware when the specter of racism appears for one or more people in the midst of a group process. The PAN tool emphasizes that racism shows up in our minds and feelings, yes, but also very much in our bodies. In all of us: Black, white, brown. And that our same bodies can bring us home to calm and healing.

“By raising your awareness of your own subjective experience, you can practice self-care and your own ability to stay engaged in difficult conversations and situations.” -PAN tool guide

Along with awareness practices, we may want to write and recite a specific, explicit commitment that we make to one another. Sarah Corlett, Director of Community Development & Strategy, also at Design Impact, shared with me that in their work in Madisonville, they wrote their own “Commitment to the Collective.” We could give ourselves the prompt, “What do we promise each other around dismantling white supremacy and working energetically for Black liberation?”

Maybe we could frame every time we meet as follows, whether we’re meeting to develop the concept for our next show, or rehearse something, or draw…

To start: we read our commitment out loud together; one person leads us in a practice to bring us into the present time, space, state of together-ness;

In process: we use our agreed-upon practices to become aware of, flag, and address instances of white supremacy as they come up, calling on Okun’s and Jones’ antidotes … knowing that sometimes “addressing” might mean discarding our agenda and dealing head on with a difficult issue, and sometimes it might mean just pausing, naming, giving ourselves some space and care, and then continuing with our work;

At end: ask, “Did we follow our commitment?” and “How can we do better/different next time?”

Whatever practices we choose—and because we’re a group committed to shared power and decision-making, we will choose together—it seems they’ll necessarily be ones that cultivate awareness. Especially for those who are white among us, but also for Black folks sometimes, we can be blind to when white supremacy is running the show. Or, if we’re aware of external things happening, we might be numb to how they feel in our bodies, our nervous systems, our emotions.

Our friends at Peaslee have the motto, “Expression is the first step out of oppression.”

To express something, we need to first become aware. Our wish for ourselves, and for you, is that our practices to cultivate awareness of oppression lead us to practices of expression, transformation, and ultimately to the liberation of us all.

Be well.

[Full Photo caption: Over-the-Rhine neighbors Jeremy Neff and DeeDee Flowers perform in Storefronts' premier show, Vigil, 2017. Jeremy and DeeDee are among the 2020 Storefronts cohort who will cultivate practices to dismantle white supremacy as it shows up in their collaborative work. Photo credit: Pat Clifford]

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