University Press Week Blog Tour: How to build community

It’s University Press Week and the Blog Tour is back! This year’s theme is Read. Think. Act. Today’s theme is: How to build community

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Paul Farber and Ken Lum, co-editors of our new book Monument Lab penned this entry on community building.

From coeditor Paul Farber:

Monument Lab_CMYK_090319_smWhen we started Monument Lab, it was not a fully-realized curatorial project or interventionit was a classroom experiment. Ken and I were teaching in Fine Arts and Urban Studies, respectively, and were galvanized by our conversations with our students about representation, equity, and memory. We each spent time with scholarly texts and we also moved outside of our classes into public spaces as their own primary sources. We met one another, and connected with a circle of collaborators after that expanded what we could have ever dreamed of on our own. We iterated and took our questions outside to the courtyard of City Hall in 2015 for our first discovery phase exhibition. We eventually that moved to public squares and parks around the city for the citywide project with Mural Arts Philadelphia documented in the book, and now work in other cities with similar goals of critically engaging monuments we have inherited and unearthing the next generation of monuments.

We have been fortunate to work with a range of artists, writers, and organizers*. Some have artworks and essays represented in this book. Others put fingerprints and directed their own forms of expertise to the project to make this possible. We hope people will read the essays, but we hope people also tend to the captions, credits, and thank you’s, as they give insights into how monuments could be and are made, critiqued, and re-imagined. This was a profoundly collaborative effort and that is the point.

There is no single fix to our monumental landscape. There are ways of engaging the moment worth nodding to by many people representing previously exisiting and ongoing approaches. This includes antiracist, decolonial, feminist, queer, ecological, and other systems of social justice perspectives that take long first steps toward redress. These practitioners understand we live at once in the deep seated past, changing present, and unknowable future. The book and the work of Monument Lab is meant to document collective aspirations for art and justice and serve an active, living approach to history.

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Enter Karyn Olivier, The Battle is Joined, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

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Sharon Hayes, If They Should Ask, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

From editor Ken Lum

I just received Deborah Thomas’ book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, WitnessingRepair. She is an esteemed colleague at Penn and we both co-taught a course in Kingston, Jamaica that looks at a major violent incursion that took place in the impoverished neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in 2010. From this moment of eruption, there followed an uneven and halting pattern of attempts at recognition, redress and reconciliation for the many human lives affected, and continues to affect, by the incursion. Although a different context, as I started reading this book, it made me think about Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, the new book from Temple University Press that Paul Farber and I edited. 

There are many sites all over the world, even sites within sites, such as neighborhoods within neighborhoods or streets within streets, whereby were they truly examined in a holistically democratic and critical sense, would reveal many of the same flailing patterns that stymies institutional and official initiatives that attempt to confront issues of human trauma and under-recognition. I started thinking about how Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia is not just a book but also a method of thinking about matters of address and redress that offers no presaged prescription or anticipated conclusion. What Monument Lab offers is a way of thinking about the world in as open a manner as possible. Monument Lab is a project of inclusion including the real inclusion of Philadelphia’s many unheard voices. Monument Lab recognizes the untapped wisdom of the unacknowledged peoples and the truths that they offer. Monument Lab is a means rather than an end, but one that produces hope in the coming together of voices. 

Monument Lab draws on visual art, oral histories, scholarship and subjugated knowledges—there is no one knowledge that takes precedence over another. It is this openness in both thinking and method that accounts for whatever success Monument Labhas been able to achieve.


*Contributors: Alexander Alberro, Alliyah Allen, Laurie Allen, Andrew Friedman, Justin Geller, Kristen Giannantonio, Jane Golden, Aviva Kapust, Fariah Khan, Homay King, Stephanie Mach, Trapeta B. Mayson, Nathaniel Popkin, Ursula Rucker, Jodi Throckmorton, Salamishah Tillet, Jennifer Harford Vargas, Naomi Waltham-Smith, Bethany Wiggin, Mariam I. Williams, Leslie Willis-Lowry, and the editors 

Artists: Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, Kara Crombie, Tyree Guyton, Hans Haacke, David Hartt, Sharon Hayes, King Britt and Joshua Mays, Klip Collective, Duane Linklater, Emeka Ogboh, Karyn Olivier, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Kaitlin Pomerantz, RAIR, Alexander Rosenberg, Jamel Shabazz, Hank Willis Thomas, Shira Walinsky and Southeast by Southeast, and Marisa Williamson

What happens when the protests end?

In this blog entry, Harold McDougall, author of Black Baltimore, looks at growing civic infrastructure from family and neighborhood connections to show the “powers that be” that little people matter

Recent events in Baltimore are a reminder of the need to build “civic infrastructure” in inner-city communities like Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, a neighborhood I studied closely when writing Black Baltimore, more than twenty years ago.

Sandtown then was home to many community-based, self-help efforts that provided examples of what participatory democracy, on a small scale, should look like. News reports from Sandtown in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death show they are still there—Rev. A.C. Vaughn’s Sharon Baptist Church, the New Song Community school, the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, ”helicopter” parents and grandparents, trying to guide their kids through the maze.

black baltimoreI celebrated the indigenous social capital of these small-scale efforts in the book, calling them “base communities” because they reminded me of the Christian study circles organized by liberation theologists in Latin America. Groups of no more than twenty, seminar-size, where people could connect, reason together, figure things out and take action.

Friends and colleagues challenged my idea, arguing that while intimate and powerful, these small groups were not scaled to solve the problems they could see. Employment? Education? Police misconduct? Environmental damage? How could a group of twenty people respond to such large-scale issues?

So I went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to take base communities to a scale large enough so they could impact the issues people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face without sacrificing the intimacy and trust that made them so powerful, so important, so precious.

It was quite an undertaking, assisted by serendipity and caring people as much as by scholarship and hard study. It’s taken a long time.

The process started at a National Civic League annual meeting I attended, where former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech comparing American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience’s attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool—and the society—unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice.

But how to build that infrastructure, how to knit those base communities together?

Then I met Don Anderson, a lawyer and social activist who was also an African-American descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He had come across some of his ancestor’s writing on “Citizen’s Assemblies.” The assemblies were to be sized to a Congressional district, and would select their Member through a series of caucuses. The Assembly’s most intriguing aspect, however, was its structure, and its potential to do a lot more than elect a Member of Congress.

The building block of Jefferson’s assembly was a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a “conference” representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information—and instructions—from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model’s democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board.)

This was what I was looking for.

Today, Sandtown numbers approximately 9,000 people. A Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could aggregate families directly, and empower the people of the neighborhood. Such an Assembly could hold local government more closely accountable—schools, the police, elected officials—not from the distance of the voting booth but up close and personal. The Assembly could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation. (I called this the “politics of parallelism” in Black Baltimore)

The Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could also check businesses and banks engaging in exploitative or high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor’s boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Co-ops such as those Gar Alperovitz has described [http://democracycollaborative.org/] could round out the Assembly portfolio, creating “social” businesses, micro-enterprises, and other “off-the-grid” sources of income.

Protests emerging from the hassles people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face every day have erupted all across the country.  These protests are, at bottom, about a political and economic system that just doesn’t care about little people until, like Lilliputians, they get organized.

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