In this podcast, Michèle Stanners shares her journey toward reconciliation with the First Nations people of Canada, provides a masterclass in the art of deep listening and demonstrates the value of taking both and artistic and pragmatic approach to facing the challenges of diversity. Her book and podcast of the same name “Unsettled” explores the path to reconciling unconscious bias and racism and build bridges of understanding.
There are jarring statistics around how the pandemic has impacted non-profit organizations across all sectors. And further predictions around how many of these organizations will not survive. In anticipation of this inevitability, funders and umbrella organizations, like the Muttart Foundation and Calgary Arts Development in Canada and the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative in the United States, are addressing this by providing funding for organizations that are seeking strategic alliances and collaborations as a means of finding the shore in these turbulent waters.
On February 18, 2021, the International Women’s Forum hosted a webinar to help members better understand this current landscape and hear from two NFP leaders who shared their collaboration success stories. Tapping the Superpower of Collaboration to Lead Complex Change featured Dara Munsen of Chicago’s Family Focus and Canadian Kaile Shilling, Executive Director of the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network of Greater Los Angeles.
Dara Munsen had been the CEO of the Chicago Children’s Society (CCS), an organization that was founded in 1849. It was “steady”, had increased revenue by 80% over four years and wanted to leverage its history of early childhood education and serve new communities. At the time, the CEO of Family Focus was retiring and the idea of a merger was planted with the CCS board. Over the next eighteen months, the boards met, engaged a consultant and the decision was made to merge CCS (which officially shut its doors on January 1, 2021) with Family Focus where Dara became the CEO.
Kaile’s story begins with an arts project she founded focused on incarcerated youth. Six other organizations were doing similar work in secured residential facilities. As the then Executive Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition, she was the natural to convene these organizations to dream of what they could do together. Could they shift from piecemeal services to year round offerings? Could they coordinate fundraising efforts and make the pie bigger? Could they have a greater impact on policy? With support from the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, they moved to create a well-structured collaborative entity, an umbrella organization that now houses fifteen organizations.To set the table, here are some pre-pandemic statistics from the United States:
- Out of 1.7 million NFP’s, 75% had budgets of $100,000 or less
- NFP’s account for 5.5% of GDP; 7% of the workforce, $450 Billion in contributions
- As of the date of the study, 50% could survive for 3 months; 75% for 6 months; only 29% had a surplus
The pandemic’s impact is expected to be profound: up to 7% may close, resulting in a loss of one million jobs.
There is a case to be made for NFP’s to include collaborations and alliances in their repertoire of strategic options. Though this is not for the faint of heart, the time to consider a strategic alliance is not when your organization is facing shutting its doors. Approach this as another tool in your arsenal. Imagine moving from scarcity thinking to long term strength, sustainability and impact. Be abundant: 1 + 1 = 3.
So what might collaboration look like? Anything from informal short-term partnership, joint programming, back office consolidation, a strategic alliance to long term integration involving restructuring and legal contractual arrangements i.e. a merger. Think everything from dating to marriage. The best advice: Start with the WHY and the HOW will follow.
The WHY factors might include:
- Increased financial position
- Greater impact
- Increased organizational capacity
- Cost and revenue synergies
- Consolidating government contracts and funding
- Enhanced expertise
- Augment advocacy, government and public relations capacity
Both Dara and Kaile emphasized the importance of securing a consultant to facilitate the negotiation and integration processes. A dispassionate third party can objectively assess feasibility, financial strengths, alignment and surface information that would be required in the due diligence process. They also ensure that committees of board and stakeholders are heard and look after the nuts and bolts such as capturing meeting minutes and handling the mechanics of the process.
What are additional common success factors?
- Time to devote to the process
- Demonstrated internal clarity regarding what the organizations aim to gain from the process
- Honest, upfront conversations among partners
- Comparable missions and organizational cultures
- Clear understanding of the strategic restructuring process, including negotiation, due diligence and integration
In closing, the panelists left us with these gems from their personal experience:
Even if a merger does not go through, this does not amount to failure – it means rather that both parties did their due diligence. The spectrum of success does not necessarily end with closing the deal.
Cultivate the qualities of a gymnast – the flexibility to tumble, balance, pivot, jump off the vault. Stay nimble and adjust as needed – with grace. Manoeuver with equal parts grit and grace.
This dance requires leadership that is not motivated by self-gain, rather that is decisive, compassionate inclusive in an ego-free zone. “Back lead” into something greater than what you could have ever imagined.
Finally, be patient and trust the process – sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
In 2012, while pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, I won the draw for one of the slots in the Negotiation J-Course offered at the Harvard Law School. I reminisced to my law school studies at the University of Alberta in the 1980’s and back then, “Negotiation” as a course was not a thing. This would be a fun choice for an elective. My background is in the arts and so, for the class paper, I opted to provide ideas for arts and experience based methods that might help convey the themes being taught. This segment addressed a simple and effective listening technique I had picked up auditing the Presencing Course taught by Professor Otto Scharmer at MIT.
It was made clear throughout the course that “active listening” is a high priority skill in negotiation as it is entangled in so many of the key concepts. First, it is essential for good communication – for developing our capacities of inquiry, acknowledgement and paraphrasing. Second, it is only through active listening that we can hope to develop empathy for the other. Finally, it is tied to relationship building and is a skill that is invaluable in life, one that can so easily improve all of our relationships and help us be more present, more aware.
Granted, the practice of communication techniques like inquiry, acknowledgement and paraphrasing hone our listening skills. But given how important this skill is for negotiation, there would be no downside to incorporating a more rigorous training practice to the curriculum.
The diagram below represents Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, the subject of The Essentials of Theory U and the “Presencing” course he taught at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I was struck by his reframing of Buddhist principles of mindfulness into what he calls a deeper learning from the emerging future or presencing. Presencing blends the two words “presence”, the now, and “sensing”, the capacity to detect what is to come, to sense an emerging future possibility and then to act from that state of awareness in the now (“sensing and actualizing emerging futures”).
The first series of listening exercises revolved around what he defined as four levels of listening. Our homework was to engage in a conversation with a complete stranger – someone on the train or bus, your hair stylist, perhaps a person on a park bench. Open a conversation and then ask questions about them and their life and simply listen. Listen and observe the different levels and try to attain the fourth.
- Listening 1: to attend to what you already know – or “downloading” – hearing what the other is saying without paying much attention.
- Listening 2: to recognize some new external facts (factual);
- Listening 3: to see a situation through the eyes of another (empathic).
- Listening 4: to sense the highest future potential of another person or a situation (generative).
As I began to take note of the different levels of my listening, I realized how difficult it is to practice Level 4 Listening, to remain laser-focused on what the person is saying and doing, and not on my thoughts. I realized how often I was “downloading” but as I moved up the scale, it was helping me stay in the moment. When I fully concentrated on the person I was speaking with, when I listened to what they were saying, when I paid attention to their words, to their voice as a window to their feelings, their fears, their anxieties, I could far more easily access my own empathy and compassion. When we were both fully engaged, new possibilities emerged, transformation was taking place.
In addition, as I sat and listened, it quieted the ongoing chatter in my head, stopping me from a tendency to butt in, give an opinion, prefigure how I might respond, cease listening to formulate an answer, or simply wander off to another world. It is a scientific fact that we can have only ONE consciousness “event” at a time. As I sat and listened I noted that the person I was with sensed being valued, a hint of surprise that they were actually being heard. People really liked being around me when I practiced Level 4 Listening. I also rarely said things that I regretted later and I felt good about the conversations. How I listen deeply impacts the current and ensuing conversations. Scharmer describes the phenomenon as follows:
Each type of listening results in a different outcome and conversational pathway. In short: depending on the state of awareness that I operate from as a listener, the conversation will take a different course. “I attend this way, therefore it emerges that way.” The stages and states of conversation change from “talking nice” and conforming (Field 1: downloading), to “talking tough” and confronting (Field 2: debate), to reflective inquiry—i.e., seeing your self as part of the larger whole (Field 3: dialogue), to collective creativity and flow (Field 4: presencing). Through conversation, we as human beings create our shared reality. The different field states of conversation determine the possible pathways of thinking, collaborating, and innovating in teams and organizations. The quality of collaboration depends on the interior condition from which we operate.
This model of listening could be introduced as a supplement to the “active listening” skills and we could practice it in pairs for fifteen minutes and debrief. Then, an exercise might be to journal daily for one week on listening and note how many times during the day we practiced Level 4 Listening, how much of our day was spent on the other levels. We could also debrief on how well we listened following our negotiation exercises. Just like any other muscle, listening as a skill can be exercised and strengthened.
My first encounter with this Plains Indian (as we called them then) ceremony was at the turn of the century at Crossroads. Looking back, the concept of Crossroads was revolutionary, bringing sixty Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women from Calgary and area together for a weekend long “sharing circle” to explore the challenges and opportunities facing urban Aboriginal youth. The theme was not as important as the gathering itself. This was a first. All but a few of the participants had ever had a meal with a woman from the other culture. We were in every sense foreign to each other even though, geographically, we were neighbours.
It had taken nine months to plan with an extraordinary team of courageous women from both cultures who committed to understand each other, exercise patience with each other’s cultural idiosyncrasies and unconscious biases, calmly point out insensitivities, all united in the common goal of finding common ground. This is where I had my first taste of art and experience as a powerful tool for profound change. We were appropriating what Indigenous people have known and lived for millennia – art, design, creation is in everything.
On Day 1 of the conference, we all stepped into the liminal space – so much was new. As a white person who thought she knew A LOT, the signs and cues of “difference” were incoming from every direction. For example, a number of the women had brought their families – including their husbands! Imagine! How would we explain the increased numbers to the hotel’s catering staff?? How could these women focus on the task at hand? Who would think that this is appropriate? Who?? People who value family first, a family that often includes children “adopted” due to adverse circumstances. Imagine. A community where one family takes on the care of children because the parents died tragically, the mother was too young…Imagine. Living in a community where members, above all, take care of each other.
On Day 2, we were concluding a session and the group was gelling, a cacophony of women laughing and sharing. Needing to get everyone’s attention, rather than whistle or shout, well-meaning Julie took a drum down off the wall and began to beat it. A deafening silence followed and the mood darkened. Marie took me aside to explain. This is a ceremonial drum and use in this manner and by a white person is a serious infraction. I explained: She didn’t know. We couldn’t know.
The Elder in the group took charge. She gathered us all, sat us down in a circle, and took out her smudge kit. (The white organizers were angsting about all of this getting us behind schedule). She rolled up sage leaves, picked off sweetgrass, and nestled these medicines into a seashell and lit the little bundle, fanning it with a sacred eagle feather. (Now we were fidgeting about the fire alarm going off.) And she prayed in the language of her people: Oki…..
She bathed herself in the grey green smoke, pulling it inward, her hands treating it like water, pouring it back over her hair, holding it to her eyes, ears and mouth, her heart, over her shoulders and down the rest of her body. And then she stood, holding the shell and feather and this ritual was repeated by every participant. We let go of time. We cleansed ourselves and all evil spirits left the space.
Twenty years later, I smudge every morning and every evening. Here is how I’ve adapted it over the years.
East meets West in this, my daily morning ritual. I am not the first to observe the similarities between Buddhist and Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world. The concepts of interbeing and interdependence, respect for nature and our environment, or “earth as mother”, are fundamentals in both. The fusion of these universal traditions sets my intention for the day and puts me in a place of compassion for all my fellow beings, two-legged and four-legged.
It begins with smudging, a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts and it should represent the four elements of earth, wind, air and fire. The vessel I use is a shell, representing water. The earth consists of the sacred plants, the medicines, which I have tailored over the years to include the two essentials, Sage and Sweetgrass, which have been picked from the lands of the neighbouring Siksika and Tsuut’ina Nations and blessed by their respective Elders, my brother Miiksikaam (Red Crane) and Vanessa.
Sage grows abundantly and seven different kinds are used on the plains. When burned, the smoke relieves headaches, and a tea of the leaves loosens up a heavy chest or sore throat. It rids toxins, settles sore stomachs, is excellent for arthritis and is an all-around “energizer”. It is used to cure horses. I inhale it to cleanse my spirit and get closer to my true nature, which the Buddhists claim is the seat of compassion.
Sweetgrass is a sacred plant used for prayer, ceremony and medicine. It relieves sharp pains, cures colds, and the wash of tea relieves the soreness of windburn and chapped skin. And it smells nice, great for shiny hair. I bathe in the smoke to purify my thoughts.
I introduce lavender for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties, and particularly for how it addresses anxiety, insomnia, depression and restlessness.
Sweet Pine is the common name for Alpine Fir, considered to be holy incense, and is used in smudges for medicine pipe bundles and transfer ceremonies. Sweet pine, its tea, its smoke, its “gum” can heal conditions from headache and faintness to tuberculosis and venereal disease. This was gifted to me first as a bough which I dried in the oven and ground using a mortar and pestle, and second in powder form, both gifts from my friend the Chief who had harvested it from the hills in Kananaskis.
When the shell is full, the ashes are returned to mother earth, either buried or sprinkled, with a word of thanks for the gifts.
I enjoy the sensual experience of stripping the sage leaves off the stem and rolling them into a little ball, adding a pinch from the tip of the braid of Sweetgrass, separating the lavender buds from the shoot and sprinkling them atop of the Sweetgrass and icing this medicine truffle with Sweet Pine powder.
Lighting the smudge (with a wooden match) represents the element of fire and the smoke produced constitutes the air.
Once lit, I use the feather of a red-tailed hawk, sometimes an eagle, to fan the flame and produce the rich and thick grey-green smoke. Pulling the smoke inward, I begin by “washing my hair” and thanking Creator for another day, an opportunity for generosity and compassion, for suffering and healing. Next I bathe, my eyes, ears, mouth, throat and heart, and finally my feet, pronouncing out loud:
“May my eyes see clearly
And my ears hear with compassion
May my words be true and my voice be helpful.
May my heart be open.
May I travel safely and in a good direction.”
I sit in meditation, closing with the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen, each in-breath taking in others’ pain, each out-breath, sending them relief. As I sit, I feel that “I am home”. And I am ready for the day and all that it brings.
(Continued from Part 1)
International Women’s Forum and Reconciliation
Changes were afoot at the Stampede. It remains one of the few organizations in the country that has maintained a solid partnership with Indigenous people for over 100 years. Representatives from the surrounding Treaty 7 Nations have played an important role in the annual celebrations, through their participation in the Parade (over 500 in some years), the rodeo (as competitors and bullfighters) and the chuck wagon races. Every year, the Indian Princess is crowned as a member of the Stampede Royalty and over twenty families raise their teepees and welcome visitors at the Indian Village. In 2019, these components were renamed to the First Nations Princess and the Elbow River Camp.
Time to Talk: “Canada’s Indigenous Women Leaders: Resilience and Promise for the Future”
Why not celebrate that relationship and build a dialogue around the challenges and opportunities of reconciliation? Further discussions ensued and the culmination of months of conscientious deliberations led to an immersive an experiential breakfast and conversation.
This innovation featured a departure from the traditional “continental” breakfast to a feast of bison, bannock, Saskatoon berries and Tsuut’ina Apiary honey; a dance performance by First Nations Princess Falon Manywounds; an audiovisual presentation depicting the 100 year collaboration between the Calgary Stampede and the Treaty 7 Nations of southern Alberta; drumming and an honour song performed by the Spirit Winds female drum group; and a keynote address by the Honourable Roberta L. Jamieson, President and CEO of Indspire Canada. Each guest also received a lapel pin with a “moosehide” to acknowledge murdered and missing Indigenous women and was invited to take home a logoed jar of the Tsuut’ina honey.
It was billed Time to Talk: “Canada’s Indigenous Women Leaders: Resilience and Promise for the Future”. Our table hosts were Canada’s leading Indigenous female influencers and the sponsoring companies who made the event possible.
At the Westin Harbour Castle
Doors were scheduled to open at 7:30 am, and at 7:15, guests from around the globe started streaming down the escalator to the Frontenac Ballroom at the Westin Harbour Castle. Their eyes and smiles widened as they were welcomed by the beat of the drums and the sweet aroma of bannock, elegantly laid out on long, marble buffet tables, adorned with Saskatoon berries and fall foliage. We were ready, greeting our colleagues and ushering them to tables to meet their hosts. By start time, it was standing room only. The energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. Large screens scrolled photos of the First Nations Princesses in front of world icons – the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Bright colours and pageantry created a sense of celebration. The air was electric as guests engaged in conversations about colonization and reconciliation, bringing their own unique perspectives to the dialogue.
The formal program was short but impactful. The land acknowledgement took the form of a dynamic video, with a commentary by Mary on the Rozsa Foundation’s role in making this creative option accessible to all. Kara represented the sponsors and spoke eloquently about the role of the industry. The IWF international and national presidents took the stage to deliver, emotionally, their pride in hosting this first and hopefully not last acknowledgement of the role of the country’s first and founding Nations. And Dr. Jamieson held the audience spellbound with a riveting address on the urgency and realities of reconciliation, here in Canada and around the globe. To close, Falon took the stage to perform a dance, her feet like feathers gliding effortlessly to the beat of the drums and Indigenous vocables.
We were overwhelmed with the positive response and proud that our national sisterhood, comprised mostly of members from the dominant culture, and our Indigenous sisters, had embraced and supported this ground breaking initiative. Equally important to Mary and me, we demonstrated how art, visuals, food, music, and dance were powerful communication vehicles and transformative tools that provide a common language to bridge complex divides and pave a path to reconciliation.
(For Part 1 of this article, go HERE)
At about the same time as Mayor Antanas Mockus was using mimes to reduce traffic deaths in Bogota , across the ocean in post-Soviet Albania, Edi Rama, a larger than life artist politician was elected Mayor of Tirana, an ugly, neglected patchwork city of grey, uniform, sterile buildings cluttering streets lined with bulbless lampposts hanging uselessly over grey people, trapped in stagnation gazing lifelessly for a better future on more distant shores. How could he bring life to what he called “a boulevard without a city”? What if…he painted the facades of those structures, the reminders of a regimented, oppressive existence in tangerine, aubergine and aquamarine?
Rama recalls the reaction: “And when we painted the first building – purple, and orange – I received a call: there are hundreds of people on the street, it is a traffic chaos. And everybody started to talk about colors – it was the first time that people debated about something which was there, instead of debating what the quickest way out of the country is.” Emmanuel Kant claimed that art, or beauty, courts agreement. While Tiranians were quibbling and pontificating over the juxtapositions of shades and tones, they were seduced into dialogues on their future, into engagement, into a city worth talking about. They were sharing a common experience which, in their reactions and responses, wasn’t that common at all.
The seaside municipality that that had only 78 functioning street lights, has now doubled in size. A veritable pastiche of color, it is also a city worth visiting, with its array of new bars, cafés, restaurants and nightclubs. Rama, who was the winner of the World Mayor award in 2004, capitalized on the dynamism created by Tirana’s facelift to dismantle illegal kiosks and structures built on public land, and expand its parks and green areas. Granted, it has grown and now has “big city” problems, but a new sense of pride and admiration has emerged to change the discourse, and citizens can brag that they are home to The City of Lights.
While being rational creatures, we humans are also both spiritual and creative by nature, at all ages. Music, as a catalyst for societal progress, has proven to be particularly effective with the youth of our species. One of the best modern day examples where an artistic intervention has had an unprecedented impact on education and social capital is in Venezuela. Forty years ago, Juan Antonio Abreu, an economist and closet maestro who understood the transformational power of music, had a vision for a cultural project and asked himself “What if….Venezuela had a national youth orchestra?” What began with twelve students in a garage has since transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged youth.
It’s called El Sistema, “the system”. Its method, in a nutshell is described by United States Abreu Fellow Marie Montilla who was sent to Caracas to train: “You give a child an instrument and throw them in an orchestra. They sit in a chair all afternoon, no breaks. I thought, this can’t work. I was wrong. I’d never seen so many happy children, not one ever complained.” Any child, from the age of two, can join an urban center or nucleo. Unlike conventional music education in the West, which tends to serve the elite, El Sistema works from the lower classes up, builds on passion and not on talent or skill. In 2012, it existed in twenty-four states in the form of 126 community-based centers and 326 orchestras and choirs. The annual budget tops US $30 million and the program which has migrated through ten different ministries currently sat in direct report to the President.
Venezuela boasts no less than four touring orchestras, its flagship under the skilful baton of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s maestro Gustavo Dudamel, a product of the system who remains dedicated to its growth and success. In 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a US$150 million loan to El Sistema based on its own research that linked the program to declines in drop-out rates and juvenile delinquencies. They calculated that the multiplier effect of one dollar invested in the program is 1.68 in social benefit.
El Sistema is now being introduced into the public school music system and the aspiration is to increase the current nation-wide 250,000 participants to 500,000 by 2015. Many of the children live under conditions of constant fear and trauma, victims of homelessness, poverty, abandonment, violence, abuse and drugs. Montilla concludes: “In El Sistema, t hey can express their emotions through their instruments. This speaks to their spirit. It gives every kid a chance.” One artist businessman’s effort to let the children play is giving hundreds of thousands a hope, a future, and a life with meaning.
Brock University’s Michael P. Berman, might describe Abreu as an “artist leader” and call him a Hermanaut – a seeker, a questioner and crafter of meaning.
ACT UP caught my attention and captured my imagination months before I was introduced to the concept of leadership espoused by Professors Dean Williams and Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. The activities of this New York phenomenon were brought to my world thanks to Helen Molesworth, the then curator of the Houghton Contemporary Gallery of the Harvard Art Museum. As you entered, a large poster displayed red block letters which read “KNOW YOUR SCUMBAGS”.
The tagline under the condom reads “This one prevents AIDS”.
The mirror in the women’s room was framed by lettering which read:
I AM A/ mannish / muffdiver/ amazon / feminist /queer / lesbian / femme AND proud! I AM A / lezzie / butch / pervert / girlfriend / bulldagger / sister / dyke AND PROUD!
I learned during the course of the lecture by the curator that these evocative and provocative exhibits were part of a series of interventions used by a curious movement which was launched in 1987 and lasted for nearly twenty years. I was particularly attracted to this project because of the predominant use of art as the means for intervention. This demonstrates the power of symbols, metaphors and images as an armless weapon to capture attention, raise and lower tension, to reach emotions and change values. It was the work of a group of passionate artists, film and theatre people, and designers who brought their visual talents to bear to produce nationwide social movement and change.
The movement was curious also because it was a stunning example of radical democracy from which no single charismatic voice emerged and with which no particular leader is identified. Names such as fierce pussy or Gran Fury (the Plymouth model of automobile used by the New York City Police Department.) and acronyms like DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Artists) represent the myriads of groups that collaborated under the one umbrella organization called ACT UP.
In 1981, a handful of young gay men in Los Angeles were diagnosed with a rare pneumonia and reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shortly thereafter, a highly unusual skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) was also detected. Both would later become known as AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome). It was referred to as “gay cancer” by the media and healthcare professionals, mistakenly suggesting that there was a link between homosexuality and the syndrome. That year, 182 people died of this unknown condition. By 1983, the virus is became known as HIV and 1,508 deaths were thereto related. By 1985, that number quadrupled, the first major play about the epidemic opened in New York and Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to announce he had AIDS and died later that year. President Reagan mentioned AIDS in a public address for the first time in 1986 and the number of Aids-related deaths had climbed to over 12,000. In 1987, the US Congress adopted by an overwhelming margin an amendment banning the use of federal funds for AIDS education materials that “promote, encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” and the FDA approved the drug treatment AZT which costs $10,000 for a year’s supply.
That year, playwright and activist Larry Kramer called a meeting of those who were increasingly concerned about the medical community’s and the government’s neglect in responding to the devastation being perpetrated by this unknown disease. Over 300 people showed up to form the Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the first Silence=Death poster appeared on the streets of New York City. The pink triangle was the inversion of the symbol that had been worn by soldiers in WW I to identify themselves as homosexuals. The image was the product of a sub-group of ACT-UP and became the universal symbol for the movement.
The seemingly insurmountable challenges were courageously addressed by this movement which defined itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”. Its members came from all walks of New York life, but unlike many other movements for social justice, ACT UP did this through art. In addition to its commitment to direct action – evidenced by its massive and well-coordinated acts of civil disobedience – the group mounted a vibrant visual campaign of posters, stickers and T-Shirts, and organized media savvy street demonstrations aimed at capturing the attention of the evening news as much as that of every day pedestrians.
From 1988 – 1990, ACT UP organized marches on Washington and Wall Street, attracting between hundreds and 500,000 demonstrators. They organized a Women’s Caucus, WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), a Needle Exchange Committee, YELL (Youth Education and Life Line), the national ACT NOW coalition, introduced the revolutionary concept of parallel track drug testing, declared a “Day of Desperation” and delivered coffins to city hall.
In other actions, fierce pussy used stencils and spray paint to rename New York City streets after prominent lesbian heroines, and engaged in an iconoclastic greeting card campaign directed at Cardinal O’Connor and Senator D’Amato. One group took over Grand Central Station in a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience with a banner announcing “One Aids Death every eight Minutes”. Another conducted a die-in on the road to President Bush’s house with a 50 foot banner outlining a 32 point plan and declaring that with 120,000 Americans dead from AIDS, the President was getting away with murder. Over the course of this time there were hundreds of non-violent arrests. ACT UP’s primary goal was always to make the six-o’clock news.
The extremely clever posters targeted different issues. Some were aimed at the non-gay community to raise awareness and appeal to their broader sense of equality, social justice and human rights, the very foundations of the nation.
Some encouraged gay men to practice safe sex: “Men use condoms or beat it”. Some, such as the poster with the bishop, were intended to shame the religious and political leaders. They were shocking, evocative and provocative. The demonstrations, the visual effects, the arrests, the petitions, the die-ins were creative interventions that were constantly changing, holding attention on the issue and maintaining engagement. The activists relentlessly disturbed and perturbed the equilibrium. The ACT UP leaders also acknowledged that their brand of activism could have originated only in a center like New York with its cosmopolitan, educated, arts savvy citizenry. It had a large enough pool of artists to draw from to sustain the quality and diversity of artistic interventions over a long period of time. It took artists to see the hidden issues, to go beneath the surface, to have the courage to create a new language to communicate these complex problems.
Location was also in their favour as they could from there attack the most influential politicians and church leaders, demonstrate on Washington and Wall Street and have access to the relevant local and national institutions and organizations whose partnerships were required. And they had access to representatives from all of their factions who could be recruited for purposes of outreach, coalition building and critical functions like translation services.
By 1992, AIDS had become the number one cause of death for men aged 25-44. Finally President Bill Clinton agreed to a meeting with UAA (United for Aids Action). One thousand people marched in Manhattan to make AIDS an election issue. Eight thousand people held a political funeral in Washington and broke police barriers to scatter the ashes on the White House Lawn. Bill Clinton was elected on a campaign platform that included HIV and AIDS issues. 41,094 people died of HIV-AIDS related causes that year. In 1993, one million lesbians and gays marched on Washington to demonstrate against the pharmaceutical industry and 45,850 deaths were reported. In 1994 they formed further partnerships and pressured Rudolph Juliani and there were 50,842 deaths. 1995 marked the highest numbers of deaths at 54,670. Finally in 1996, the FDA approved a therapy called HAART which helped reduce new AIDS illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths and improved quality of life and life expectancy. The number of deaths dropped to 38, 296. ACT UP had reached many of its objectives and continued to operate but the larger movement dissolved.
In the spring of 2010, Public Art Interventionist Alfredo Jaar was on the verge of giving up on the commission for Turku, one of six thousand small islands comprising the archipelago in Finland’s Baltic Sea. That year, Turku had been named the Arts Capital of Europe and as he explored the extraordinary, barren and breath-taking landscape by tourist boat and ferry, he was so taken by the beauty that he felt he had nothing to add. And a further dilemma lies in this northern, natural and barely inhabited land: even if he could come up with a work, who would be his audience? …The tourists? The non-local lords of the mansions that punctuated the islets? The residents whose number you could estimate by counting the multi-colored mailboxes at the post office? The bird-watchers? Here I must digress. Jarr just didn’t “get” birdwatchers.
He was simply fascinated by people who would travel thousands of miles to one of the most remote places on the globe to catch a glimpse, through binoculars, of “a single little bird”. On one of his visits, a tourist boat was packed because one phone call to the island had alerted them all of the possible presence of the rare plover he recalled was the columbinus. “They didn’t even want to take a picture! Look at them!” he marveled, totally bemused as slide after slide showed variations and permutations of Jane Hathaways perched over the guardrails, their Bushnells glued to their eyebrows. “What’s so weird about that?” I thought, reminiscing about my own heart-stopping birding moments in South Africa, Venezuela, Zanzibar, Nova Scotia and Iguassu. The most memorable occurred in Costa Rica’s bird watching mecca, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where travelling by myself I was missing the company and fellowship of other birders. I was gingerly circling a group from Louisiana, getting the sidelong glances that are reserved for freeloaders when I overhead the renowned ornithologist brief the group on the possible sightings for that morning. I happened to have toured the park at sunrise and politely leaning into the crowd, I offered to lead them directly to the ubiquitous Three-Waddled Bellbird, and then to the Resplendent Quetzal. I was immediately in and adopted for the duration of their stay.
But let’s return to Finland where Jaar was making one of his research trips. It was an early morning in the mist and silence of the archipelago as he sat waiting for a boat to take him on a four-hour journey back from Utö. Upon boarding, he was both perplexed and annoyed that it departed at 5:45. “No wonder this boat is nearly empty” he complained to the captain. “This is the most anti-touristic thing you could do!” The captain chuckled and took him to the seating area on the deck and pointed to a half-asleep teenager sprawled along one of the seats. “We leave at this time because he has to get to school on the main island.” Jarr was so moved that he began to cry at the thought of a country that would place such an investment in a single child. That “happy accident” was the starting point of a work that would reflect a model of society represented by this boat ride and this boy named Markus.
He scrapped all of his other ideas and sent a letter to Finnish intellectuals – journalists, poets, authors, thinkers, musicians – asking them to write a maximum one hundred word letter to Markus on the theme of the boat ride to school. Eleven accepted and their contributions were displayed on “anti-design” white billboards with plain black text representing the letters just as he received them. They dotted the landscape on the route from Utö to Pärnäs. Here’s what a birdwatcher might see through her binoculars:
These are samples of the letters:
You are living a wonderful youth!
Traveling daily from the safety of your island
towards the great unknown
You travel alone in peace
to the community across the water,
Carrying the strength of your inner world
into the world of others.
Be at home in each one.
Rafl Gothóni, Pianist
Do not believe in the bad thoughts of
Always remain true to yourself.
Remember the sun’s haze in May, the
Remember the granite, the dark cliffs
You are all these and everything
Kjell Westö, Author
In the morning you can see the sea, in the
evening the stars. The story of the universe,
the story of life, the story of humankind, your
story: we are all made of the same stardust,
all part of the shared tale that ascends ever
higher. Every fish is your cousin, every pine
tree on the shore is your kin.
Did you see the sunrise today? Do not believe
those who say the world is heading for destruction. Day is dawning, year after
Year, aeon after aeon. The great story of
humankind is only just the beginning, not ending.
Learn, study, gather knowledge and, through
knowledge, wisdom. A better future is in
Esko Valtaoja, Astronomist
We sat cross-legged on the carpet in the living room at the gathering after his presentation, just me and Alfredo Jaar, the other guests chattering on the surrounding sofas and chairs, invisible and inaudible to my eyes and ears,. “So what do they teach at the Kennedy School?” he probed, after I invited him to give a lecture on leadership. I could see that he was wondering what an artist specialized in public art installations could possibly contribute. “I’ve spoken to artists, photographers, intellectuals, poets, authors – no – never to students of leadership”. Shame, I thought, we have so much to learn from Alfredo Jaar.
It was a hunch – “Parlez-vous francais?” I asked en passant and he responded in the most articulate, poetic French. I knew that he was born in Chile and now made his home in New York. Now he shared that he had lived as a youngster for ten years in Martinique. Back and forth we went between my two native tongues. My mind was still abuzz about It is Difficult, the lecture he had just given, talking us through his work, his approach and methodology, the projects he undertakes and in particular his intervention installation in Skoghalls, Sweden. I thought of how many community and arts leaders have struggled for decades to build a museum or an art gallery in their town or city. How they gathered friends and colleagues and established a committee, raised money, secured a site, got land-use approval, hit an economic downturn, started over, replaced dispirited founders, witnessed the site be repurposed, rallied a new team, and on and on. In came Alfredo Jarr, from Chile through New York to Skoghalls and with one public art intervention, in one day, managed to make a cultural space a priority for this Swedish community.
Trained as an architect, Alfredo now devotes one third of his time to museum works, one third to the creation of public art and one third to teaching by directing workshops and seminars around the world. But my focus was on the methodology he adopts when he goes into a community to create a public work. At the beginning of his career, he would engage in what he termed guerrilla operations. Today, he receives numerous invitations per year by communities and institutions and accepts just one or two. He has the luxury now of setting the conditions for the “commission” which is effectively a carte blanche to create his art, referring to what geographer David Harvey calls “spaces of hope”.
For an artist, his process or methodology is unusual by most standards. First, he chooses his “partners” by carefully assessing who is doing the inviting. To him, the patron or client-artist relationship is a partnership. Is there chemistry and can he trust the people and the institution to be with him for the long run? This, the second point, is essential because he will insist on having the leeway to make as many trips to the community as necessary before producing a work. At times, he is joined by one or more of his assistants, and some research is conducted via the internet. But “nothing beats being there” to interview the people, to observe, to survey both geographically and structurally the meaning or the essence of the city. “Context is everything” he exhorts “and I cannot act without understanding the context or where I am”. It may take up to nine visits for him to reach what he calls a “critical mass” of information so that he can distill things down to one core issue, to articulate a single idea.
For this third step, Jaar stresses the importance of the singularity and simplicity of the idea that will ultimately be embodied in his final work. His methodology or process is about editing, the power lying not in trying to a great many things, but in the single concept. And while he is aware that there may be more than one issue, he waits until he has enough data to intuit which issues he is not in a position to tackle. He claims his research is finished when he has become a part of the community, when he has become invisible. Thinking like an architect, he identifies success from the outset and works towards that. And he reflects further on the advantages of being an outsider: “The last one to realize it is in the water is the fish. And you only realize that when you are taken out.” He can say things through his art that no one else can.
As he did in Skoghalls. This middle class, “company town” boasts a population of some twelve thousand, and the entire economy revolves around Stora-Enso, a manufacturing plant that rolls out reams of the treated paper used for milk and juice cartons. During his research, Jarr became appalled at what became glaringly absent to him – any cultural life or public space for art. In fact, he would hear later from a survey conducted by one of the local students that the reason no one ever thought in fifty years to have a museum was that the community didn’t need one. He boldly stated his observations to the Stora-Enso board after rejecting the commission from the town: It is time for Skoghall to present to Sweden and to the world a new image, a contemporary image of progress and culture, beyond being a dormitory for the Paper Mill workers. An image of creativity and actuality. An image of a dynamic and progressive place where culture is created, not only consumed. A living culture is one that creates.
He then formulated the following proposal for a temporary contemporary art museum:
The Skoghall Konsthall
I propose to design and build a new, contemporary structure to house the new Skoghall Konsthall. This structure will be built completely in paper produced by the Paper Mill, in close collaboration with local architects and builders.
The design will reflect the best of contemporary Swedish architecture in its minimal elegance and respect for the environment. It will also reflect the generous commitment of the main local industry in the creation of a forward looking structure and institution that will project Skoghall into the future.
The opening exhibition
The opening exhibition will feature the first exhibition ever held in Skoghall of young emerging Swedish artists from Stockholm, Malmo and Gotenburg. The Konsthall will be officially inaugurated by the Mayor of the City, in the presence of the entire local community.
The Closing Ceremony
Exactly 24 hours after its opening, the Skoghall Konsthall will disappear, engulfed in flames. The burning of the structure will be pre-planned and will satisfy the most demanding security requirements.
By its paper nature and design, the Skoghall Konsthall will probably be one of the most advanced contemporary paper structures ever created for contemporary art. But it will also be one of the shortest-lived structures ever created for contemporary art.
I am hoping that this combination of creativity and ephemeral existence will perhaps help define the importance of contemporary art in our lives.
And it is my hope that the extremely short life of the Skoghall Konsthall will make visible the void in which we would live if there was no art. And this realization will perhaps lead the city of Skoghall into the creation of a much-needed permanent space for contemporary creation and projection.
Alfredo Jaar, Notes on The Skoghall Konsthall, 1999
They built the paper museum, the majority of citizens attended, the paper mill orchestra played and the Mayor made a speech. The newly minted “museum goers” proudly toured the exhibits, rubbing shoulders with their friends and family, enjoying this unique opportunity to enjoy art together in their new arts and culture space. Twenty four hours later, everyone came back, the site was cordoned off, the Swedish flag was ceremoniously removed from its pole and firemen in asbestos suits entered the structure and took a blow torch to the timbers. The town watched in horror, dismay, disgust, sadness, remorse, resentment and anger as their new Kontshall was engulfed in flames. Within a year plans were afoot for a space for culture and seven years later, Jaar was invited to design a museum.