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4 Questions For Artists Working In Social Justice

by Carlton Turner 20 Oct 2016 10:26 AM

How Carlton Turner, of Alternate ROOTS, checks his intentions before moving forward with projects.

Photo: Melisa Cardona

Yesterday, Zannie Voss of SMU introduced us to the theme of this year’s TACA Perforum: Community Connections: Models for Building a Shared Vision for Arts and Culture.

Today, we’ll hear from Carlton Turner, Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, based in Atlanta. His non-profit arts group supports artists who are working at the intersection of arts and social justice. He’s in town for ROOTS Weekend-Dallas,  and sticking around to join the conversation at the Perforum Monday morning.  He answered this question from us to spark the conversation.

What was the most difficult hurdle to overcome when you were first getting started in your work as a convener in your community?
As a young artist just beginning my work in community, I often thought that my artist identity granted me special powers and permissions.

Art&Seek will livestream the TACA Perforum at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

That my creativity was the answer to problems yet to be solved. I thought that I could fix it with what I knew. But in order to do the work that I wanted to do I had to get out of my own way. Realizing that my ideas are mines and that everyone I invite to the table has ideas of their own that are just as valid and important to the work at hand as mines.


Carlton Turner

Artists tend to come to a community practice with a strong sense of their own aesthetic practice and a desire of what they want to see as a product or outcome from the process, a challenge they want to address. But that perspective often contains blind spots that obscures the artists’ ability to allow the voice of the community, the most impacted, to lead the discussion and guide the artistic and aesthetic vision and the implementation of a plan that places the community at the center alongside the artist.

Keeping this in mind I have recently started using a set of questions to ground my work and check my intentions when working with a community or on a project.

  • Are my practices grounded in empowerment? Many community-based organizations and artists work from a position of service provider. The service provided being a central part of the provider’s identity and purpose. I seek to develop a practice that over time will not require my presence of involvement. My role is to share and learn, to improve my practice and through my practice improve the practice of others.
  • Am I challenging norms? As an artist I try to work in community from a place that is informed by history of place and is grounded in an analysis of power as it exists on three levels: personal, institutional, and systemic. This analysis creates a space for me to recognize when my work is advancing and supporting the status quo or challenging it. As an artist growing and evolving my practice in community to be more equitable, more open and transparent, and more accessible to those that have traditionally had their voices silenced.

Turner working with Pangea World Theater.

  • Am I comfortable? Working at your growing edge is not a comfortable place to be, but it is the place that offers the greatest potential for growth. It is the place where you have identified your boundaries, can see the obstacle/s obstructing your expansion, and see openness lies beyond. When I feel too comfortable, I know my growth is stagnating. So I seek to be in places that cause me to challenge myself as a practice of awareness and development.
  • Are my actions and practices grounded in love? There is a quote from the late great freedom fighter and former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba. “If you don’t love the people, you will eventually betray them.” This quote reminds me that the greatest intention as a human being is to operate from a place of love. Any future visioning for a more equitable landscape for arts and culture to truly inform our communities has to grow from a place of love.

This is the lesson that I have the most work to do on. Partly because I am still learning to love and value myself. This is my growing edge and the place where I see the greatest possibility for change.