Destinee Forbes, Storytelling Fellow, met with artist, scholar, and cultural strategist and organizer, Ebony Noelle Golden, on a hot and humid summer afternoon at the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics in the East Village. Destinee arrived a few minutes before the Houston, TX native who now lives and works in NYC in hopes of setting up and reflecting on Golden’s most recent live art performance piece, 125th & FREEdom presented by National Black Theatre’s Soul Directing Residency. Upon entering the building Destinee announced herself to the guard on duty and said she was there to see, “Ebony Noelle Golden, [founder of] Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative”. He responded with a laugh and his body relaxed into his chair. He said, “For Ebony? Of course! Just head on up.” Destinee smiled and headed toward the elevator doors filled with a sense of gratitude and excitement to have a conversation about cultural organizing and decentering one’s art practice with an individual who is so well-respected, adored and who is also known as the soul of The Laundromat Project’s Create Change Fellowship Program.
Destinee: I want to start off by congratulating you on the success of 125th and FREEdom!
Ebony: Thank you.
D: I think that’s really amazing– I remember when I was trying to get in touch with you a few months ago to coordinate the first art and pedagogy interview you were so busy! However, I didn’t realize just how busy you were until I read the press release for the show and on it you were credited as the writer, director, choreography, etc.
E: It’s more than a notion, as my mom would say, to do all of these things.
D: That’s really incredible – congrats with all of that.
E: Thank you. It’s really an honor to be doing the work.
D: Most definitely. So you are a dancer first, right? You started off with dance?
E: Yeah – At this point in my life I just identify as a creative, and for me that title is a way for me to be more expansive in how I do my work and define myself. I have other things that I do – I’m a strategist, an entrepreneur, I teach, I do identify as a public scholar. But really all of it is about creativity for me, it really is. I started out studying dance as a child and I’ve been asked this question a lot of times. I do feel like it’s important for me to say that studying dance in school felt like an extension of the way I was raised. I was raised by a creative mom in a creative family where music was always playing. This is a normal story for artists; music always playing, books in the house, dancing all the time. My creativity and my artistic ability was definitely encouraged.
I’ve just always been in a bigger body, and it became clear that there was this division between what the standard dancer body is and what my body is – and that has always been the case. This actually is a foundation for how I see the world. There is the standard and then there is what I see and how I’m moving. That has been sometimes a huge tension in my life and sometimes a huge opportunity. Dance is a thing.
I’ve left being a practicing artist many times for many reasons: to start a business, to go to graduate school, because of a relationship, but there really isn’t a way for me to be human in the world unless I’m moving – as long as I am in this world I need to be moving. I am moving, I’m always moving, but I also need to be dancing and I need to be facilitating dance as a choreographer, and I need to be making art. It doesn’t matter what else I’m doing. That way of coming into the world and seeing the world as an embodied practice, understanding the world as an embodied practice is never really going to go away.
D: That’s really interesting, this idea of understanding through embodiment. To be so expressive through the body and the need to use the body as a medium for expression requires an acknowledgement of the relationship between spiritual and political – to insert the body in certain spaces or move it in different ways can be seen as a political act especially when it deviates from the norm, or standard. How did you approach reconciling this relationship through movement?
E: I do think that my body in the dance classroom was politicized before I politicized it, and before it became a practice of resistance for me to dance. I don’t think that I ever woke up as a young person, or as a young adult, and said I will dance in spite of. I don’t think I was dancing for political reasons at first. I’m definitely dancing for political and spiritual reasons now. I knew then that I had a special gift – not that I thought I was a better dancer, but that I had a talent. That type of self-awareness for a young black girl in the hood who’s not training at Houston Ballet, but taking dance classes at school and in the community is significant. It’s significant, and in hindsight, looking back on it, definitely political, definitely spiritual. I mean I was just in a room with grown women who were older than me yesterday and they were talking about how they used to dance – they no longer dance – and you can tell by the way they look. So I think the larger environment imposes these standards and puts a politic on practice that I did not initially put on myself. I definitely know that moving my body is a political statement. Moving my body on stages and public spaces is a political statement. I definitely know what it feels like to not do that, and what it does to me and what it does to anyone who’s around me. And I know when I am doing that, that I have a clearer insight into everything––both in the positive and in the tense or challenging. I’m able to understand better when I am in this creative practice.
D: So it amplifies everything that you do. Even the other things that you’re doing like being a teacher and a cultural organizer.
E: That’s right. I often say this, and if I’m not clear about anything else in the course of this interview, it is that if I don’t dance, if I don’t make art. I can’t do anything else. My wellness is dependent on my art making. It is not some grand notion of being on Broadway or just making art to make art, or to make a lot of money making art. It is ultimately very, very personal – it’s for my wellness first. The first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth reason why I’m making art is for me. I might be telling stories that other people can attach to, that other people can relate to, but if it does not bring me the type of understanding that I need about what it means to be well in this world then it really doesn’t matter.
D: I want to know a bit more I want to know about your history as a community organizer and teacher in relation to your relationship with The LP.
E: I’ve been a teacher for a while and I’ve taught in many different places. I’ve taught in DC, I’ve taught in North Carolina, I’ve taught in Texas, I’ve taught here [New York]. My work as an artist, as a teacher, as a cultural organizer, are all one breath and that’s important for me. I am not dividing up my practice in any way. This is sometimes challenging because people think that you must do one thing, and if you’re going to do anything well you must focus, but all of these things are my focus. For me, the question is: how do I bring all of the sides of who I am into whatever I do? As a cultural organizer and as a person who builds strategy rooted in what people do, I need to do. I need to lift up the everyday ways of folks in order to understand. You know, lift up, study, be engaged in order to build strategies that are about affirming people and their culture, and what they do and how they do it.
I was hired as a consultant after a friend of mine mentioned that The LP was hiring and recommended I apply. The real beauty of this opportunity was that I’ve been able to grow as an artist, as an educator, as a strategist, as an entrepreneur because The Laundromat Project has invested in me. For me at this point it’s much more than client/consultant relationships with The Laundromat Project. That language doesn’t really resonate, and I think that is because the people who brought me in, Kemi, Petrushka, and Risë¹, are people who want to go beyond the standard. They create standards.
¹Destinee Forbes: Here, Ebony makes reference to The LP’s founder, Risë Wilson, The LP’s Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi and the former Director of Programs at The LP Petrushka Bazin Larsen, who is also the co-founder of Sugar Hill Creamery in Harlem.
So initially the first thing that Kemi asked me to do was to come in and do a bunch of interviews and site visits and sit with people and talk with people and use that information to come up with a report that really highlights how the organization should best move forward in its cultural organizing practice. To have an organization invest in you and your creative growth is inspiring and makes me want to do more for that organization. At the root of being an artist, an organizer, an educator, you want to give the most you can. I did that. I got to see such good work, I got to ask such deep questions, I was all over the city, and I basically reported back to the organization – and this is a standard kind of recommendation report with best practices and learnings and so on and so forth. But I was able to do this with an eye on all of the information I have been taught.
To be a cultural organizer is to embody that practice in such a way that, again, everything that you touch and everything that touches you is relevant. The mentality from which I work is the triad model of thinking about art and culture, policy and practice, and wellness and transformation. The idea is holistic sustainability of a community. Working for legislation and everyday practices that support the holistic sustainability of a people, of a community. If an organization can move with that in mind we’re in a good place. If The Laundromat Project can continue to think about the holistic sustainability of the communities it reaches, it impacts, and is accountable to, then they understand cultural organizing.
D: From your words and expressions I sense such love. When you said when an organization supports you wholly it inspires you to want to do more, to want to give back… to want to give back that love. And like you said, not many people get to experience that, and I think that’s beautiful.
E: Yes, Completely.
D: So, you mentioned this in regard to your own philosophy as a creative, but why is it integral for artists, especially artists coming through the Create Change program, to have these strategies, or to have the mindset of having a holistic practice when creating art that’s related to community engagement?
E: It just depends on what the artist wants to do in terms of the impact of their work and their energy and their resources and their life force, to be honest. The arts industry, the arts field in New York City, has a lot of people and a lot of interests tugging and pulling on the artists, right? And you do have to decide what your true north is. You have to decide what your core values are. You have to decide what and to whom you are accountable. I think, and what I’ve said over the years, is that artists have to consider their studio practice and their community practice and what values translate those spaces. I often also say that cultural organizing and working as an artist through a lens of cultural organizing is an attunement – it is a way. And sometimes you may not be moving in that way — you may not be sometimes, but you want to have a diverse skill set if you want to reach a diverse group of people.
Cultural organizing, when I first started getting into it 12-13 years ago wasn’t a popular thing. It was coming from very specific organizations and very specific leaders in the field who would not stop using the language, who would not stop talking about intersectionality, of cultural wellness, public health, art, politics, and would not stop. And it is not the same as arts activism – It is just not the same. So these things kind of get all conflated and then it’s up to the artist to distill.
And I think for me working with The LP has provided a way for me to even learn how to distill this information and to share it with other practitioners from the perspective of not forcing, but sharing. Offering an experience through what was Field Day², through the coaching, through all of the different ways in which cultural organizing can be explored, and then seeing how they reflect the pedagogy. And some of them go on to do extremely powerful work because they’ve decided to lean into this direction or into this way of working.
²Destinee Forbes: Field Day was a free public event initiated in 2013. The event served as The LP’s annual festival of neighborhoods showcasing arts and culture and celebrating community in Bed-Stuy, Harlem, and Hunts Point/ Longwood. It was at the Field Day festival where Create Change fellows would activate their group projects with larger audiences in and around our anchor communities.
D: After having conversations with Petrushka [Bazin Larsen], Hatuey [Ramos Fermín], Ladi’Sasha [Jones] and Kemi [Ilesanmi] about the formation, growth, and codification of The LP’s Create Change program one thing that I have been taking away from those conversations is the emphasis on decentering one’s art practice, which it seems you also agree that this type of work is required of artists engaging in this work.
D: Can you speak more on the idea of decentering one’s art practice, and why that is so important?
E: From the self?
E: Decentering the self in the art practice? Is that what the question is?
D: Let me think about it. Yeah, I guess so.
E: Like I shared, the art that I make is about me first. I’m not looking at the world without looking at myself first. And I do think as a black woman, I need to see the world through myself. Having a deep understanding of who I am through what I make is important. It’s not the only reason why I make, it’s not the only approach to making, but for me it has become – I’ve become very reflective and I do think that my art practice allows me to do that. My teaching practice allows me to do that as well. I don’t teach things that I don’t have a connection to. I don’t make art about things I don’t have a connection to, and I don’t consult with organizations I don’t have a connection to.
To get to this point in relationship to what Petrushka was saying about decentering one’s art practice within the cultural organizing methodology – the first step in understanding this is as one of my teachers, Tufara Waller Muhammad³ said, “it ain’t about you, boo.” So the practice that we’re doing when we are in community moves us from us. When we’re working in community we have to know that the community is as important as we are, and we have to move with the understanding that if we’re a community engaged artist, if we’re a socially engaged artist, we need to step out of the center. So whatever work you need to do to honor who you are and center yourself, do it, but once you step into community, not that you need to treat yourself like trash but you need to understand that the center of a community engaged process is the community. This is a hard thing for some people to understand. And I won’t move on it. Cultural organizing as a practice, as a pedagogy, as an artistic methodology, de-centers the self. It de-centers the ego and allows for there to be a collaborative connection with community.
³Destinee Forbes: Tufara Waller Muhammad is a cultural organzier and strategist from Little Rock, Arkansaa with roots in Fort Worth, Texas. Muhammad uses art to empower and inspire activism. She coordinated cultural programs at Highlander Research and Education Center from 2004 to 2015. She also is a member of Alternate Roots and served on the Executive Committee.
D: Right, because it is not about creating art that’s in a vacuum. That’s so important. In my opinion all art produced should have that mentality and framework.
E: Oh, well. Some people would fight you on that.
D: That’s true.
E: I will say that… Some people will fight you on that. But, if you want to engage, sure.
D: Well, only if the ego surrenders, right? – I think that’s a question of the ego coming in again.
E: It totally is. I don’t disagree with you. I do think in terms of this question [about decentering] in relation to my work in terms of education, and I think that coaching and consulting – I think that consulting is a way of being like a teacher. I’ve come to understand my work with organizations as a teaching and learning exchange. Working with the Create Change artists is definitely a teaching and learning opportunity, but again it’s collaborative. I sit down with the staff and I ask them what do you want me to teach under the umbrella or under the auspices of cultural organizing? And depending on what it is we call people in, we develop kind of a two-day or three-day curriculum with resources – like the mapping tool kit – and activities and discussion prompts. All of that because this thing about pedagogy is super, super important. And scaffolding information using cultural practices, using popular education practices, using intentional dialogic practices is super important.
Doing this has allowed me to build residencies, to build curricula, to build tool kits in collaboration with other consultants and teaching artists and staff. I have trained the teaching artists, the commissioned artists, the fellows. I have sat with incoming staff members. I have provided resources and have been a listening ear for the organization. So yeah, I’ve been in it, and still doing it all through collaboration, liberation, listening, deep listening, and learning exchange. Now, another way I’ve come to think about my work with The LP, and with other organizations to be honest, is through the lens of strategic partnership. The organizations that I work with provide certain aspects and elements that make the partnership go. And I do too, or my team does. It’s reciprocal. I just think that the idea — I’m coming away from the idea that you give more than you get and that we all can just move with the shared resources that each partner brings to the table and allows us to move forward with justice at the center and at the core of the way we engage each other.
D: I want to go back to the topic of creating curricula and that process for you, especially in relation to the theme of abundance we have this year. So I was wondering what was that process like for you? How did you approach building a framework for abundance?
E: Approaching abundance. Well, I asked them what do you sense? What does abundance mean for The LP? Why? And so again, coming up with this way of weaving abundance into the conversation, into the facilitation, was starting with listening. Here’s the thing. Everyone is talking about abundance.
E: Not just here in New York City. But some are. And so I was like OK, I am actually invested in this conversation so how are we going to build a space for folks to really talk about abundance?
There are certain things that I do with an organization which is about building a facilitation plan. My team did research, we came up with resources about abundance, we looked at what The LP already was doing and has done in the past that affirmed abundance, and we used cultural practices and discussion prompts to get people building out what they understand abundance to be. I’ve been doing this work with The LP for so long that we have a template for how the cultural organizing intensive should go, and we can take out – this is what it means to really be investing in working together. The Create Change program is a flagship arts training program. It’s a flagship arts professional development program. Being able to come back to it as a teacher and then as a learner, being able to look at this idea of cultural organizing from many different angles and themes offers a tremendous learning experience.
My work is to listen to what The LP is saying about how the model needs to be activated, and then following through. That’s what I do as a teacher – asking, “What needs to be taught?” I would say there is some meditation that I do around how I’m going to engage with folks, and I will say that the meditation on abundance is very political. We’re living in a time where people don’t feel like they have access. Some people don’t have access. So the idea of abundance in spite of had to become an embodied meditation. So I was thinking about how is joy a practice of abundance? How is art a practice of abundance? How is breath a practice of abundance? How is being in and of community a practice of abundance? How is being seen by your community, visible in your community, a practice of abundance? All of these often get ignored when talking about abundance.
D: Yeah, exactly. So focusing more on what you have, instead of the have-nots and feeling whole within ourselves, which relates to Grace Lee Boggs’ quote, “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” Her words were a big source of inspiration for The LP’s theme of abundance. However, it’s interesting to hear how you get to that point through engaging in the topic through meditation.
E: Yes, and through art making and through living a life where I grapple with access and where I experience abundance, and where I am paying attention to the people who don’t feel abundant. Again, it’s people-work. It’s deep listening. It’s being in the practice of community, not just around people, but in the practice of community. And again, at this point in my life I am blessed and very grateful to be doing work that is connected, grounded, purposeful, impactful to me and to other people.
D: In “The Alchemy of Abundance” facilitation you had with the 2019 Create Change fellow cohort, what was it like trying to create and apply a framework of abundance to their practice?
E: The thing about having these types of conversations with people sitting in a room is that you don’t know where people are coming from, you don’t know the struggles that they’ve had, and everyone has a particular and personal journey to the concept. The way that I try to craft the experience is to keep it broad enough so people don’t get backed into a corner by thinking, “I’m not abundant because etc…” The idea really was to weave together a collective understanding of abundance that’s rooted in community power, and not in capitalism. All the fellows knew the theme and the topic before we began the facilitation so the idea was to not absorb where people were struggling, but to help people journey. I definitely was careful, with building a space for shared understanding and shared definitions. So that by the end of the weekend we had gotten super clear about what abundance means to us and how to build and work in community through an abundance mindset, framework, and practice.
It was a big journey and it was a big weekend, but we were able to journey together. To have the space to be visionary was very critical and important, and I think one of the reasons why maybe there wasn’t as much struggle with [conceptualizing the theme] is because we came into the room having already peppered the pot with the idea that we are abundant by default. We need to live in our current practice of abundance, as challenging as that may be, as challenging as that may feel, and we need to continue visioning around abundance, visioning what we see, what we want to see, what we want to live, what we want to have, how we want to move – it’s inspiring. It brings breath into the room. It brings joy into the room. It brings hope into the room. It brings creativity into the room. And this is something that I’ve been talking about in my rehearsal rooms as well as with clients, we know how to fight – most of us – but how many of us have the stamina to be in the continuous practice of visioning the life, the world that we want to live?
Talking about abundance can be a struggle for some people and not a way to vision, and I think ultimately in the facilitation of “The Alchemy of Abundance” intensive the alchemy is in the changing of that conversation. The alchemy is the thinking that anything can be changed to gold.
D: How do those outside of the Create Change program activate this philosophy of abundance?
E: By activating the muscle. We need to activate the memory. We need to activate the legacy of abundance that comes from many of our communities, and we need to build, strategize and collaborate and work from there. One of the most revolutionary and innovative things we can do is remember. What would it be like if we could remember and activate all the ways in which our communities have practiced abundance? What would our communities, our cities, our countries, our world be like if we moved from capitalist ideology that some people should have more and others less – to believing everybody is abundant and we have everything we need. What if we really reoriented our way of understanding of interrelating from one that is about lack to one that’s about abundance? What would the world be like? I know I’ve thought about this before and it is wonderful to be able to come back to that again, to come back to that again as a two-day conversation, as a two-day reawakening with the fellows, and The LP staff.
I think it’s medicine. It’s spirit medicine, it’s community medicine – to take a moment in the day and bring into clear focus and insight how you’re practicing – I’m practicing – abundance. I know it’s become an important part of my day and it’s really linked to gratitude. I am so abundant and I am so grateful for this abundance. I am so abundant and I am so thankful for this abundance.
D: I think that’s a perfect place to end! That was really great, really inspiring. Thank you!
*Featured image head shot by Melisa Cardona*