We’ve Got a Book on That!

This week in North Philly Notes, a rundown of recent news articles that relate to topics in Temple University Press books.

The Meaning of Emancipation Day in the Opinionator column of the August 4, 2014 issue of the New York Times

Korb writes about abolitionist writer and former slave Harriet Jacobs, who published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Envisioning Emancipation_smJacobs was featured in Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer. The authors quote Jacobs about fleeing her North Carolina master in 1842, and making her way to Brooklyn:

“What a disgrace to a city calling itself free, that inhabitants, guiltless of offence, and seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned to live in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection. This state of things, of course, gave rise to many impromptu vigilance committees. Every colored person, and every friend of their persecuted race, kept their eyes wide open.”

Willis and Krauthamer write that activists like Jacobs, “portrayed themselves as intelligent, empowered, sensitive, and dignified women.”

Another New York Times piece, Bright Passages, Along the Northeast Corridor, published on July 24, celebrated the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The article showcased the five-mile stretch in Philadelphia that features, what the article described as  “Christo-esque installations of seven enormous works of art by the Berlin-based visual artist Katharina Grosse, entitled, ‘psychylustro'”

Phila Mural Arts 30_smJane Golden, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program for 30 years, co-edited Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30, with David Updike, an editor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s publishing department. Their book showcases the results of 21 projects completed since 2009 and features essays by policy makers, curators, scholars, and educators that offer valuable lessons for artists, activists, and communities to emulate. Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30 traces the program’s history and evolution, acknowledging the challenges and rewards of growth and change while maintaining a core commitment to social, personal, and community transformation.

In other local news, Timothy Cwiek reported on SEPTA (Philadelphia’s transit agency) denying union workers same-sex marriage benefits in the Philadelphia Gay News on July 31.

Cwiek writes, “Due to an impasse with union representatives, SEPTA’s management only recognizes the same-sex marriages of its non-union workers for the purpose of workplace benefits.”

Out in the Union_smMiriam Frank’s recent publication, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Frank provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests. She carefully details how queer caucuses in local unions introduced domestic partner benefits and union-based AIDS education for health care workers-innovations that have been influential across the U.S. workforce. Out in the Union also examines organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inclusion in the Creative Economy?

This week in North Philly Notes, Tarry Hum , author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood, writes about the re-branding of Brooklyn.

New York City Mayor de Blasio was elected with a mandate to address the city’s deepening crisis of income and wealth inequality. Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 victory was echoed across the country as progressive candidates won mayoralties in cities such as Boston and Seattle. In light of federal inertia, the political will to tackle the troubling persistence of poverty and a diminished middle class has shifted to local municipalities. The first six months of Mayor de Blasio’s administration has been defined by important achievements in universal pre-K, paid sick leave, and a municipal ID. Moreover, Mayor de Blasio has stated that his approach to economic development will be premised on creating opportunities for all New Yorkers in the city’s high growth sectors including the technology industry which is essential to NYC’s creative and knowledge economy.

Making a Global Immigrant_smAn example of the events that are taking place to engage in a public dialogue on New York City’s economic future took place last week at a half-day conference titled, Onramps of Opportunity: Building a Creative + Inclusive New York, with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and NYU-University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida, the “rock star” author of The Rise of the Creative Class. Presenters described how the spatial geography of New York City’s creative economy is increasingly centered in the industrial waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens where factories and warehouses are retrofitted, wired, and modernized to accommodate tech, media, entertainment, and artisanal manufacturing. Almost a mantra, conference attendees were told repeatedly, “every future job is a tech job”. Tensions between the creative class and neighborhood gentrification were alluded to as several presenters emphasized the need for affordable housing. However, it’s clear that meaningful inclusion extends beyond the provision of affordable housing as evidenced in the Extell Development Company’s project which will have separate entrances for tenants of its luxury and affordable housing units.

IstanbulThe re-branding of Brooklyn as an epicenter of creativity, innovation, and artistic production has achieved international success. On a recent trip to Istanbul, I was astonished by the prevalence of Brooklyn branding in clothing and cafes. Numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Fort Greene are exemplars of the clustering of skills and talent and urban amenities such as bike paths, parks, and good coffee shops that support a creative economy and the lifestyle preferences of the creative class. The potential of this economic revival was recently explored in the PBS NewsHour clip “Could Brooklyn hipsters help save the middle class?”

The revitalization of Brooklyn may be the ultimate test for Mayor de Blasio’s vision of an inclusive urbanism. Acknowledging Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood as a nexus of the human and physical infrastructure necessary for equitable economic growth, Mayor de Blasio announced the formation of a Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force in front of the Brooklyn Terminal Army along Sunset Park’s waterfront. Heavily immigrant and working poor, Sunset Park’s Latino and Asian residents are largely concentrated in low paid service jobs. Sunset Park still retains a sizable number of garment factories that continue to rely on immigrant women workers. As Professor Florida described, these are the people that pour our coffee, take care of our kids and elderly parents, clean our homes, and make our food – jobs so essential to a creative city that Professor Florida extolled these workers as the “lifeblood of the city”. As one of New York City’s few remaining industrial neighborhoods, Sunset Park is now facing the challenges posed by a growing artisanal and creative economy. According to a recent New York Times article, the neighborhood’s extensive industrial building stock is being refurbished to accommodate a new Soho. Examples of tech and artisanal firms that now call Sunset Park home include MakerBot which manufactures 3-D printers, the internationally known Jacque Torres chocolatier, and the world’s largest urban rooftop farm on a former federally owned military warehouse. Even the Brooklyn Nets want to be in Sunset Park and are planning a 70,000-square-foot training facility with a rooftop terrace to enjoy the waterfront views.

deBlasioBATThe question of inclusion in New York City’s creative economy is essential to the future of neighborhoods like Sunset Park. Framing the afternoon’s discussion, Professor Florida stated that building an inclusive economy “will require all hands on deck” to formulate a new approach to economic development. Political will is just one of the necessary ingredients – policies that support unionization, affordable housing, living wages, worker cooperatives, workforce development and placement in jobs with avenues for economic mobility, and meaningful engagement in city planning and economic development decision-making are also essential. Working class, immigrant Latino-Asian Sunset Park is ground zero in testing the development and implementation of “onramps” for an inclusive creative city.

Harvey Milk’s lasting influence in the labor history of queer America

In this blog entry, Miriam Frank, author of Out in the Union, explores Harvey Milk’s political vision of union involvement and LGBT progress.

article-stamp-0404Two months ago the United States Postal Service issued a new “Forever” postage stamp to honor Harvey Milk. I remember when Harvey Milk won his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was California’s first openly gay elected official.

A year later Milk was still campaigning, but not for himself. A new amendment to California’s state constitution was on the ballot for the November election. If Proposition 6 passed, it would require local boards of education to fire school employees for public or private declarations of their queer identities, as well as any school worker, straight or gay, who affirmed or advocated gay existence.

In June 1978, Milk spoke out against the menace of Proposition 6 to hundreds of thousands of gay people at San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day rally. He challenged supporters to defy the threat by making their gayness more open than ever. “Come out to your friends, if they indeed are your friends,” he said. “Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop.”

Milk organized hard against the amendment. Throughout the summer, he was on TV for interviews, or for debates with state Senator John Briggs, Proposition 6’s author. Milk’s prominence and charisma kept the battle in the news, but central to the fight were California’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens: city dwellers, suburbanites, rural folks. Many so feared how the amendment would affect their lives that they did come out. Sons, daughters, friends and co-workers told the people in their lives the truth about what the amendment would mean for their futures. One by one they asked their families and neighbors to vote “no on 6.” And one by one, they broke through the secrecy and fear that had held them back from living open, authentic lives as equals in civil society.

The decision to come out had to be an individual one, but LGBT people who were fighting Proposition 6 were not alone. Harvey Milk was not only dedicated to the gay community of the Castro but had also supported the municipal workers’ unions and a successful Teamster-led boycott of Coors beer in the neighborhood’s gay bars. Unionists were familiar with Senator Briggs’ record of hostility to labor’s issues and opposed the amendment because it would undermine collective bargaining and legalize workplace discrimination. Three days after the Gay Freedom Day rally, the San Francisco’s Labor Council announced its unanimous opposition to Proposition 6.

Out in the Union_smUnion endorsements and donations enabled wide canvassing and publicity. By mid-summer, liberal religious groups and civil liberties organizations were also involved in the expanding grassroots campaign. Squads of queer activists knocked on doors in city and suburban neighborhoods and visited community meetings at union halls and country churches. In September, an endorsement of “No on 6” by former Governor Ronald Reagan, a right-wing rival of Senator Briggs, swung many more voters. Unions released the power of their political machine in late October with phone banks, a front- page editorial in the AFL-CIO newsletter and 2.3 million palm cards at the polls. On election day, Proposition 6 was rejected by 58 percent of California voters.

California’s successful defeat of Proposition 6 in 1978 was the first major political coalition to connect the fresh and angry power of gay liberation with labor’s long-haul commitment to fairness and equality. Many other great LGBT labor collaborations have flowed forth since then.

In my book, Out in the Union, I interviewed people who participated in those coalitions. My research began in 1995 and my search for stories continued for another several years. To explore the lives and achievements of primary activists, I conducted interviews in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Washington DC, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and many places in between.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender union members who have told me their stories have been newspaper workers, nurses and health technicians, bus drivers, telephone installers, construction tradespeople, store clerks, hotel and restaurant employees, factory workers, social service workers and employees of AIDS clinics. Their queer lives have taken them through extraordinary adventures and long phases of everyday routine; and their everyday jobs are as various and their unions as diverse as the labor movement itself. Some have founded new union locals; others have negotiated innovative contracts; and still others have fought to save jobs when their plants were being closed. They are the people of Out in the Union.

Harvey Milk did not live to see the great changes that his activism started.  But  I like to think that he would have been proud of all that the labor and LGBT movements have accomplished.

 

Do you want an American nurse?

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with  Catheters, Slurs, and Pickup Lines  author Lisa Ruchti  from Al-Jazeera America‘s July 3rd morning news program. [She appears at the 2:00 minute mark in the video link].

 

In addition, we repost Elijah Wolfson’s July 3 article from Al-Jazeera America‘s website that features Lisa Ruchti.

The doctor won’t see you now

Patients in American hospitals often get away with asking for caregivers based on race

Tonya Battle had been working as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, for 24 years. Her employment record was spotless — by all accounts she was one of the most knowledgeable and capable care providers on the NICU floor. Even so, it wasn’t so surprising when, in the fall of 2012, one infant’s father asked to speak to Battle’s supervisor: Health is extremely personal, and no matter how skilled a health care provider, there will be times when communication with a patient breaks down. It’s common for a patient to ask for another doctor or another nurse.

What was shocking, however, was the note posted on the department assignment clipboard the next day: “NO AFRICAN AMERICAN NURSE TO TAKE CARE OF BABY.”

Here’s how the incident unfolded, according to allegations made by Battle in a lawsuit that followed: After she had finished her shift the day before, the father had come to the charge nurse (Battle’s supervisor) demanding that no black nurses attend to his (very sick) infant girl. To punctuate his point, he rolled up his sleeve to show off a swastika tattoo. The charge nurse, Deborah Herholz, then called her boss, the nurse manager Mary Osika, to ask what she should do. Osika said to reassign the baby to another nurse.

A staff meeting followed, in which the NICU nurses were told that Hurley Medical Center had decided not to allow any African-American employees to take care of this particular baby. The note was posted on the assignment clipboard for everyone to see.

The next day, Osika called Battle at home to inform her that the father’s request would be granted. Later that day, Battle reported to work, where one of her co-workers showed her a photo of the offensive note (which had since been removed).

Battle would go on to sue Hurley Medical Center for employment discrimination, settling out of court for an undisclosed amount, and with Hurley agreeing to hire an “employee advocate” whose role would be to forestall similar misadventures in the future.

It’s unclear how common these types of experiences are; there have been no major studies on the issue, so advocates and policymakers have had to rely on anecdotal evidence, the few isolated stories that leak out of the hospital wing and into the press. But many believe Hurley represents the norm and not the exception — that discrimination of this kind is endemic to the health care system.

The ‘open secret’

“I think it happens a lot,” said Julie Gafkay, Battle’s attorney. “I have 20 plaintiffs in the last year who have been subjected to this type of discrimination.” According to Gafkay, after Battle’s case was made public, dozens of other health care workers (nurses, social workers, home health aides, etc.) reached out to her with similar complaints.

Some situations were even more outrageous than Battle’s. In one case, the plaintiff is a human resources employee who says she has direct knowledge that an African-American nurse was fired under false pretenses; the real reason for the firing, she alleges, is that a patient had made the request that no African-Americans care for him.

It’s an “open secret” that “patients routinely refuse or demand medical treatment based on the assigned physician’s racial identity, and hospitals typically yield to patients’ racial preferences,” wrote Kimani Paul-Emile, a professor of law and biomedical ethics at Fordham University, in a 2012 study published in the UCLA Law Review.

So why aren’t more people outraged? Racism in health care settings tends to be much more insidious than the type of racism that would, say, make it onto the nightly news. Patients aren’t screaming racial slurs in the ER or spray-painting derogatory signs on the sides of hospital buildings. They often won’t even say outright that they don’t want a black doctor.

“Patients know it’s not PC” to directly request a white doctor, said Paul-Emile. “They come up with different ways to do it. I talked to this one doctor who said there are these older ladies who will say, ‘You know, I want a Jewish doctor, I just think a Jewish doctor is better.’”

Lisa Ruchti, a professor of sociology at West Chester University and the author of the book “Catheters, Slurs, and Pick Up Lines,” agreed. “Patients who want to fire their nurses based on race say things like ‘I want an American nurse,’” she said.

And hospitals comply. Health care providers are trained to be so patient-focused that even when they feel a request is amiss, many ignore their qualms — whatever the patient wants, the patient gets. In another of Gafkay’s current cases, two plaintiffs allege that an elderly white woman was being treated in the rehabilitation facility of a nursing home when she began to express fears that an African-American man was coming into her bedroom at night to “touch” her. The facility decided that, for the good of the patient, no African-Americans — male or female — would be assigned to her care, and it issued a directive to its staff saying as much. One female African-American nurse was even questioned for coming into the patient’s room at night, and suspended during the questioning.

“[The organizations] are so patient-focused,” said Gafkay, “that they ignore the civil rights of their own employees.”

Not just nurses

At particular risk is the nurse-patient relationship, which Ruchti believes is regularly informed by racism. In providing what Ruchti called “professional intimate care,” nurses are already at risk of being seen more as hired help than as health care professionals. And racist beliefs can exacerbate that misconception. “There are lots of examples of nurses of color being mislabeled as housekeepers by patients even when they are obviously doing nurse work — symbolically demoting them, if you will.”

But it’s not just nurses. Dr. Meghan Lane-Fall treats cardiovascular patients in the surgical care unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

“All of the things that are taught in medicine about being a care provider are to really not think about yourself or your characteristics,” Lane-Fall said. “Your gender and ethnicity are, in theory, erased when you walk through the doors of the hospital.”

But in reality, as an African-American woman, Lane-Fall is often subjected to racially based judgments.

“I can be walking the hallway wearing a white coat,” she said, “and someone will think I’m the janitor, and I’ll think, ‘Is that because I’m black?’”

Lane-Fall recently wrote about an experience caring for a coma patient. On the third day during which the man was under her care, she happened to be in a room when the nurses were changing his gown. Spread across his chest was a tattoo: 3- to 4-inch-high lettering spelling out the words “White Power.”

At that moment, Lane-Fall recalled how she had felt nothing but coldness from the tattooed man’s family; until now, she had thought nothing of it. Now it seemed sinister.

She thought: “Oh, you’re not just this nameless, faceless person taking care of a patient; you’re a black woman who has all these other characteristics that affect the way patients see you.”

Race concordance

On the flip side, Ruchti said nurses of color she spoke with told her that patients of color sought them out on purpose. And in fact, research suggests that your health outcomes can improve if you and your physician have what’s called in the literature “race concordance.”

A Johns Hopkins study published in 2002, for example, found that, when given the choice, patients would choose doctors of their own race. And, when treated by same-race physicians, the patients reported higher satisfaction. The results cut across all races and ethnicities. The study, led by Thomas LaVeist, was one of the first of its kind.

But others soon followed. A 2005 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that many African-Americans and Latinos believed strongly that the health care system was racist — and that they preferred to have same-race doctors as a result.

And more recently, a 2010 study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association confirmed the previous findings: Black patients were more likely to feel that white doctors were giving them subpar care compared with black doctors and, therefore, preferred same-race health care providers.

Some will even argue that choosing a doctor of the same skin color is no different from choosing a doctor of the same gender. Many women don’t feel comfortable talking to a man about gynecological issues; is it that much of a stretch to imagine an African-American man feeling he can be more open and honest about his lifestyle and behavior with an African-American doctor?

All things being equal, if you offered me a black provider I’d probably choose that.

Dr. Meghan Lane-Fall

Preferences like these aren’t driven by ignorance. Lane-Fall got her undergraduate degree in molecular and cell biology from the University of California, Berkeley, her master’s in health policy from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.D. from Yale. She’s about as well educated as a human being could ever be. And yet, “all things being equal, if you offered me a black provider I’d probably choose that,” she said, adding that she’d assume someone from a similar background would know more about her.

Because of these complexities, the legal issues here are legion. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, national origin or religion in public accommodations and in any place that receives public funding. On the face of it, this would appear to mean that a patient could not make race-based requests for nurses and doctors. After all, pretty much every health care institution receives some federal funding, whether directly or in the form of public health insurance reimbursements.

But, as Paul-Emile argues, those provisions of the Civil Rights Act are actually meant to preclude institutions from “prohibiting individuals from enjoying the benefits that the institution provides” — and by accommodating a patient’s preference, “you are actually allowing that patient to enjoy the benefits” provided by a federally funded hospital.

And, in fact, that is what is happening in the real world. A 2010 study, for example, showed that patients across the board will often make race-based requests with regard to their health care provider — and that providers will often accede to these preferences. In that same study, Dr. Herbert Rakatansky, the former chair of the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, is quoted as saying, “In a life-threatening situation, you would have to abide by a patient’s request.” In other words, there may be both a legal and an ethical imperative to accommodate racial preference in the hospital.

The positive preference

None of this, however, is meant to justify racism.

Paul-Emile has highlighted an important legal distinction between doctors, who can usually decide themselves whether to treat a given patient or not, and nurses and other health care support staff, who are assigned their charges. She argues that hospitals run afoul of the law when they reassign African-American nurses at a patient’s request, no matter the potential health benefits.

Gafkay, the attorney in Michigan, pointed out that all her cases involve an “organization validating the discriminatory request” — a much different situation, since it puts nurses in the precarious position of being unable to express themselves for fear of organization retribution.

Second, while it may be both legally and ethically acceptable for a patient of color to seek out a doctor of color, what about a white patient who seeks out a white doctor?

The legacy of years of racial discrimination has led to a disproportionately low number of African-American doctors. A 2009 Health System Change report, for example, found that the physician workforce was about 74 percent white and 4 percent black, while the U.S. population as a whole was 69 percent white and 12 percent black during the same year.

And one major study a few years back had patients go to doctors presenting with the exact same symptoms (which suggested cardiovascular disease), identical in every way except race and gender. Across the board, African-American women received substandard treatment and poor diagnoses.

Studies like this suggest that it’s entirely rational for an African-American patient to feel wary of the medical system. And that, Paul-Emile believes, is what should drive a physician’s decision whether or not to accommodate a racial preference.

In other words, though it may be difficult to discern a patient’s motivations, the goal of health care professionals should be to distinguish between a positive preference, in which patients are seeking better care, and discrimination, in which patients are just expressing racist beliefs.

And even then, Paul-Emile said, accommodating these positive preferences is far from ideal.

“I don’t think this is a solution,” she said. “I think it’s a stopgap measure until we get to the more fundamental issues that are driving this. The medical profession must instead increase diversity among providers to encourage tolerance and understanding of other cultures, and expand cultural awareness at all levels of practice and training to enable providers to interact more effectively with their diverse patient populations.”

Announcing the publication of Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies

Temple University Press is pleased to announce the publication of
Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies

Kalfou

Kalfou is the Haitian Kreyòl word for “crossroads.” It is a scholarly journal focused on social movements, social institutions, and social relations. Editor George Lipsitz explained, “The publication of Kalfou ushers in a new era in engaged scholarship. This first issue blends contributions from the leading scholars in ethnic studies with compelling writings from artists and activists. This journal constitutes a new public square for addressing the most important issues of our time.”

The journal seeks to promote the development of community-based scholarship in ethnic studies among humanists and social scientists and to connect the specialized knowledge produced in academe to the situated knowledge generated in aggrieved communities.

Kalfou is published by Temple University Press on behalf of the Center for Black Studies Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Spring 2014, Volume 1, Issue 1

Introduction: A New Beginning • George Lipsitz

Feature Articles
Martin Luther King Encounters Post-racialism • Kimberlé Crenshaw
Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and the “Illegible” Politics of (Inter)personal Justice • Tricia Rose
The Ideological Alchemy of Contemporary Nativism: Revisiting the Origins of California’s Proposition 187 • Daniel Martinez HoSang
Beyond Conflict and Competition: How Color-Blind Ideology Affects African Americans’ and Latinos’ Understanding of Their Relationships • Chrisshonna Grant Nieva and Laura Pulido, with Nathan J. Sessoms
From College Readiness to Ready for Revolution! Third World Student Activism at a Northern California Community College, 1965–1969 • Jason Ferreira

Talkative Ancestors
Chris Iijima on Asian American Identity

Keywords
Critical Ethnic Studies • Chandan Reddy

La Mesa Popular
The Alchemy of Race and Affect: “White Innocence” and Public Secrets in the Post–Civil Rights Era • Paula Ioanide

Art and Social Action
Music and Mobilization: Kombit Pou Haiti 2010 • Chuck D and Gaye Theresa Johnson

Mobilized 4 Movement
Race, Municipal Underbounding, and Coalitional Politics in Modesto, California, and Moore County, North Carolina • Emily Tumpson Molina

Teaching and Truth
The Bigger Scandal • Pauline Lipman

In Memoriam
Afro-Asian People’s Warrior: Richard Aoki, 1938–2009 • Diane C. Fujino

Book Reviews
The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory, by Catherine S. Ramírez • Reviewed by María Angela Díaz
From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution, edited by Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins • Reviewed by Michael E. Brandon

 

KALFOU EDITORIAL BOARD

Senior Editor: George Lipsitz, University of California, Santa Barbara

Associate Editors:
Enrique Bonus, University of Washington, Seattle
Maria Herrera-Sobek, University of California, Santa Barbara
Roberta Hill, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Tricia Rose, Brown University

Book Review Editor:
Paul Ortiz, University of Florida, Gainesville

Founding Editors:
Claudine Michel, University of California, Santa Barbara
Melvin Oliver, University of California, Santa Barbara

Managing Editor:
Rose Elfman, University of California, Santa Barbara

 

Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here: http://libwww.freelibrary.org/authorevents/podcast.cfm?podcastID=1216

Questioning French Republican Politics

In this blog entry, Jennifer Fredette, author of Constructing Muslims in France, writes about Marine Le Pen’s reaction to Muslim soldiers who gave their lives for France during WWII.

French president François Hollande recently paid his respects at a memorial in Paris dedicated to the 100,000 Muslim soldiers who gave their lives for France during the First World War. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, responded by saying, “It makes me vomit.”

Strong words, to be sure.

What was it that made Le Pen vomit? In her words, it was the very idea of “dividing the French” along the lines of religion: these soldiers should be celebrated as soldiers, and as French; their religion should be immaterial.

On its surface, Le Pen’s statement reflects the French way of doing politics, the “republican tradition.” Americans are accustomed to hearing political leaders speak openly about race, gender, and religion. In fact, our political leaders even appeal to such group identities for the purpose of elections (consider “Women for Hillary” or the “Moral Majority”). French republicanism, however, abhors the recognition of difference. French republicanism is a political philosophy that demands that people engage in politics purely as a citizen, leaving their other identities and affiliations (such as race, gender, religion) at home. Why the distaste for identity politics? The short answer French republicanism offers is that identity politics rip a nation apart. They make it impossible for citizens to appreciate one another as equals, sharing a nation and its future together.

Constructing Muslims_sm We really need to examine Le Pen’s comment a bit deeper, however. After all, Le Pen is no difference-blind republican. She is the head of a xenophobic, anti-immigration political party whose manifesto boldly announces that France’s national culture is profoundly influenced by Christianity. In 2010, Le Pen equated Muslims praying in the street (a result of insufficient prayer space, not religious fanaticism) with living in Nazi-occupied France. True, French republicanism would criticize those who pray in the streets for bringing religion into the public sphere in a highly visible way; but equating them with Nazis was a rhetorical flourish all Le Pen’s own, suggesting that Muslims are dangerous outsiders seeking to invade and even oppress France.

Beneath the surface, Le Pen’s comments about the memorial communicate something else: the power of political omission. Le Pen says these soldiers should be celebrated as French, not Muslims. But many of these soldiers fought for France as French colonial subjects. To celebrate them simply as “French” is to conveniently forget France’s participation in the systematic domination and oppression of parts of the Muslim world. Furthermore, media coverage and political discussion of French Muslims today often portrays them in a negative light, questioning their Frenchness and depth of “integration.”

A 2012 French Institute of Public Opinion poll indicates that nearly half of the French would describe Muslims in France as a threat to national identity, and the National Consulting Committee for Human Rights recently warned that Muslims are increasingly subject to violence at the hands of their fellow citizens. In light of this highly charged and certainly not difference-blind climate, it seems a problematic oversight to celebrate these soldiers without recognizing that they happened to be Muslim, and that Muslims have indeed contributed to the betterment of the nation.

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