Building Bridges Through Art and Social Action
“Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.”
Grace Lee Boggs
What do the times require of us? This is a question I often use with my students, and I have established a daily discipline of asking myself the same question. Sitting with this question and reflecting on its meaning and impact creates a specific type of lens for seeing the world and my place in it. It also beckons me to go further to examine and question how my actions and practices of teaching and making art contribute to creating the world I want to live in. Changing the question to include the outer world demands that we think critically and grapple with the complexity of holding multiple, often contradictory viewpoints and diverse ways of knowing. This internal inquiry stirs our imagination and creative capacities and prepares us for the work of building bridges outward. One of my greatest teachers and inspiration, bell hooks, might call this internal inquiry “the outrageous pursuit of hope,” for it leads us to think imaginatively about the future and conjure grand designs for moving the world forward.
Through creative action, artists can draw out the questions and hold space for complexity, nuance, and contradictions. Within this space, with these new lenses, we dare to take a risk, imagine that another world is possible, and realize that we can construct a more equitable and inclusive future. The call to action for what I define as the citizen, artist, designer is a new way of being in the world and changes the questions we put before us, the emphasis of our work, and it creates a more ambitious goal for our work together. As bridge builders, we see an open space and imagine something better that can go there.
BE A BRIDGE
Cultivating a deep sense of interrelatedness and trust to undertake social change projects in our communities requires that we engage in the process of bridging and belonging. Bridging pushes us to move beyond individualized strategy and network-building to the deeper work of social healing and exploring the root causes of cultural and structural power imbalances and historical inequities. Activating this part of ourselves means building shared spaces where individuals can come together across differences to engage in creative expression as co-creators who embody different identities and viewpoints. In the current context of significant social fracture, scholar John A. Powell suggests starting with “short bridges” closer to home and looking for ways to “make belonging infectious.” In our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities, we could begin to experiment with different forms of creative expression with other people to animate our connections with each other, to make visible and amplify the breadth of social and cultural experiences and identities in our community.
Co-creation stirs our creative capacity through the direct hands-on participation of art making and creates the right conditions for individuals to see the power of their creative capacity to transform their lives, relationships, and surroundings. Legendary civil rights activist and organizer Grace Lee Boggs called people to be both “imaginative and generative.” Her ideas of transformative organizing stressed the critical importance of human relationships for imagining a new concept of citizenship and forming movements capable of changing the conditions of communities from the ground up. Growing these vital connections is essential for joining our many short bridges to a broader, more inclusive pathway leading us toward life-affirming directions and community belonging.
A preparatory space, or “on ramp to bridging,” is often necessary for undertaking social change projects in communities. Constructing relational spaces and social interactions is one of the most critical aspects (and can be the centerpiece/primary outcome of the project) of socially engaged art. My ongoing collaborative practice, Future Mothers, with artist Colleen Kinsella, uses a mobile tent as a short bridge and community platform for art making and dialogue. Working in partnership with neighborhood associations, schools, and nonprofit organizations, Future Mothers uses hands-on, creative experiences, including printmaking, stitching, and bookmaking, to engage citizens in community questions that address the concerns and desires of their communities. In the tent, we talk in communal ways and are fully present. The goal isn’t about the correct answers to the community questions or convincing someone else of your position. This preparatory step of making ourselves available to each other and acknowledging our full and shared humanity begins to lay the groundwork for tackling more challenging questions, reckoning with structural injustices, and giving space to community members to be seen, heard, and celebrated. As a citizen artist participant in this endeavor, I am not an impartial bystander or project coordinator. Instead, I am engaging in creative risk and vulnerability, willing to be open and moved by others’ stories that are so different from mine, to accept others’ truths, and to be moved by others’ suffering. In the tent, we also value and privilege different ways of knowing and relating; intuition over cognition, sensory and somatic, cooperation over competition, and learning outside formal structures or institutions. The community knowledge and web of connections co-created in the tent becomes a replicable structure and shared value system that can be adapted and applied across many community sectors to navigate complex challenges and change.
PLATFORM OVER PROJECT
Since relocating to Central Maine, I am focused on building resilient community platforms rather than individual projects. Building platforms is about setting intentions on long-term impact that extends beyond the life of a single project, seeds relationships, and sustains collaboration.
My two most recent endeavors, Hinge Collaborative and Common Threads are platforms and spaces for stirring the social imagination and building strong community coalitions, for making space and time to engage our imagination which allows us to transcend our current condition and dream of a better world. We must experiment with new organizing models to relate, connect, and build new communities where we all can thrive.
Hinge Collaborative is a print shop and studio I established in Waterville, Maine, with my husband and artist Séan Alonzo Harris. The print shop is a co-creation space connecting youth, emerging and established artists, and community partners, including art institutions, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions. Acting as another short bridge, the studio convenes diverse community members to share, teach, and experiment with various creative processes and social change projects that promote civic engagement and foster strong community coalitions. Working with and alongside each other at the press, community members experience the joy of pulling a unique print while also putting their creativity to work to address shared concerns in their communities and the larger world. Additionally, Hinge Collaborative is a resource for artists who need access to an affordable printmaking studio or to help facilitate print projects to support their creative practice. Since opening in 2019, we have worked with the Lunder Institute for American Art, Colby College Museum of Art, Maine Art Educators Conference, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Oak Institute for Human Rights, Waterville Creates, and individual artists in Maine.
Common Threads is the most recent Future Mothers collaboration with the arts organization Waterville Creates. Common Threads brought artists and community members together in the Future Mothers tent for critical conversations and creative workshops. Common Threads became a community platform for asking a series of social questions to capture our collective hopes and visions for the future amid rapid change and uncertainty. The questions included:
Who was here before us? Who is here now?
What stories need to be told? What stories are missing?
How could we honor the land we are on?
What does a future of care and connection for each other and the planet look like?
During July, Future Mothers facilitated a series of free arts experiences to gather individual and collective stories and responses through printmaking, book arts, writing, photography, and recordings by participants of all ages and backgrounds. As the tent traveled to multiple sites in Waterville, individuals became active participants and, by extension, artists in this collaborative project. The culminating creative output and community responses will help shape future programming at Waterville Creates and be showcased in the inaugural exhibition at the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in Waterville.
While the Common Threads workshops have ended, the social questions will continue to frame and shape our practices and actions in our communities. How can we fight for something that we can’t imagine? Making space and developing practices to cultivate and nourish our social imagination increases our capacity to cast vision, spur actions, and ignite change to bring about a more equitable future for all of us.
CITIZEN ARTIST CALL TO ACTION
The call to action for the citizen artist-designer is to commit to working models and practices that move us from project to platform where the impact of the project outlasts the presentation and establishes sustainable avenues for creative and social action. In this model, there is an active partnership between institutions, organizations, and citizens where individuals co-labor and co-create the world we want to inhabit. How might the citizen activist and citizen artist work together to develop a set of skills and opportunities that allow us to be more effective in the world? These are not one-off, short-term solutions but require making and connecting over time.
If people are the engine for fundamental social change, we must establish a process that values genuine collaboration, joint authorship, and meaningful belonging. When we are all at the table from the beginning, we share a common language and a dynamic relationship. Strong partnerships are similar to a thriving ecology. They require attention and care and the ability to see the totality of relations, guided by reciprocity and inclusivity. As caretakers of our community and planet, we must bring this way of seeing and being into all aspects of our lives.
Image at top: Another World is Possible, screen print on paper, 11 x 14 in.