Social justice is an everyday lifestyle to create change
After local arts organizations shared social media posts about their solidarity with Black Lives Matters and called for an end to systemic racism and police brutality, this reporter wanted to know how the arts community can help promote social justice.
Scot X. Esdaile, president of Connecticut’s NAACP, urged arts organizations to do more than post a hashtag and take action.
“We appreciate the social media posts, but it’s going to take a lot more than just a social media post to change what’s going on in America,” Esdaile said. “This is way bigger than a hashtag,” he said in reference to the June 2 #BlackOutTuesday posts.
Suzanne Kachmar, the executive director of the City Lights Gallery in Bridgeport said she is not taking any action or making solidarity posts on the gallery’s social media as she is still processing everything. She did share a call for poetry another artist is collecting for a poetic protest called “We Can’t Breathe.”
Dexter J. Singleton, the executive artistic director at Collective Consciousness Theatre, an organization that produces plays and workshops to propel social change, feels that listening isn’t enough.
“Theater can be used to promote social change because theater is art imitating life,” Singleton said, explaining that Collective Consciousness works to hold plays and workshops that can open a dialogue and have a lasting impact on the community.
“We also believe that plays and projects should be a catalyst for debate and debate is when we’re not all just speaking to the same people who have the same opinions and outlook on life,” he added.
Esdaile said arts organization leaders should take action by attending hearings at the state capitol and writing letters to the governor, local leadership, the chiefs of police to voice their outrage with police brutality.
The outrage over George Floyd’s death and the deaths of other POC like Floyd has sparked protests across the country and Black Lives Matter protests have taken over the headlines.
“I think it’s really at a boiling point right now and with COVID-19, there’s so much tension, but I’ve never seen anything like this with COVID-19 and the protests and the tensions between police and with Donald Trump in office, this really is a smorgasbord of tension and turmoil and trials and tribulation and sickness and madness,” Esdaile said.
Kachmar said she feels that the arts community can be a tool for social change.
“The arts can teach us about our humanity, the diversity and the commonality of it,” she said. “I think that sometimes we just need to listen and learn from others and hopefully we’re all examining our actions and our consciousness moving forward hopefully for coexistence.”
At his theater, Singleton said Collective Consciousness teams up with nonprofit partners to provide additional resources about the subject of the play or workshop to provide a lasting change by giving audiences a place to volunteer, to donate or a space to continue the conversation from the play.
Singleton also cited the importance of representation on stage and seeing depictions of everyday life, not just the extraordinary moments. “People have to see themselves on stage in an engaging way so that people say ‘that’s like my brother, that’s like me, that’s like my mother, that’s like my neighbor’ and if people don’t see people who are like those in their own lives, it can be very easy to disengage or say it’s not real, or its not true, or its not me.”
He added that while the theater’s doors are closed, Collective Consciousness is currently promoting the work of the theater’s nonprofit partners and community leaders during the protests.
“We all know its a difficult time for the arts, especially arts that gather people in a space like ours, so we’re at a point right now where we can’t gather a hundred people together or dozens of people together in a space because of the pandemic, so what we’re having to do what a lot of theater organizations are now and we’re getting the message out online,” he said.
When asked what arts organizations should be doing to help promote social justice, Singleton said they needed to do more than share posts on social media.
“With social media it’s so easy for us to be like hashtag or post about it and that’s it, but that can’t be it. We’ve been doing the work since the beginning, it’s not about words it’s about action. All of these organizations are putting out solidarity statements but who is going to follow it up with action? I always say to any organization that’s looking to be involved in social justice, ‘what are you doing for the community directly that’s ongoing and not just a one-time deal or two-time thing but an ongoing thing?’ Support communities of color throughout the year with all of your programming in some form or another and an action plan on how you’re going to help the community engage.” he said.
Amplifying POC artists and holding dialogues about social justice isn’t enough. Singleton said arts organizations need to diversify their staffs and boards to ensure diversity in the narratives they share.
“I’m hoping organizations will all work together to add more diversity to our staffs, to our boards and to our leaderships because ultimately without that there isn’t going to be any change at all,” Singleton said. “You can’t have all people from the same background discussing how to reach people who aren’t even in the room.”
Singleton pointed out that the conversation about social justice and systemic racism has to continue even after the protests fade away or when a different topic dominates the news cycle.
“Social change is not something you can let up for a day or a month or a week when you periodically do it,” he said. “You have to really engage in it, social justice is an everyday effort in an everyday lifestyle.”