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Art & Pedagogy at The LP: Creating Frameworks of Understanding and Being for Cultural Organizing

Kemi Illesanmi, Executive Director of The Laundromat Project, sat with past and current LP Programs team members to discuss how The LP conceives of and reconciles the relationship between art practice and pedagogy specifically focusing on the changes to the codification of the Create Change program since its inception. Kemi was joined by former Programs Manager and current co-founder of Sugar Hill Creamery, Petrushka Bazin Larsen, along with current Director of Programs Hatuey Ramos-Fermin and The LP’s Artist Engagement Manager Ladi’Sasha Jones. Their conversation took place at Sugar Hill Creamery in Harlem. 

KEMI: Petrushka, sometime in the early 2010s, you were thinking The LP needed to find a way to codify what was happening with early artist-in-residents and their projects by putting together a series of classes. How did you approach creating a curriculum for the Create Change artists? What were some of the ideas, or values that you felt were critical to have?

PETRUSHKA: Very early on, Risë and I were talking about ways to optimize the Create Change experience for future cohorts. We started to think about conversations that we were having in the residency such as the idea of decentering one’s art practice, ways to market one’s work and ways to serve others in collaboration with neighbors and community members. What were different milestones, and benchmarks that anyone would have to think about if they were working in community?

It became a question of how can we be of better service to our artists, and what other resources can we provide for them. Risë and I wanted to figure out a way to further empower LP artists as change agents, and we really wanted to be an incubator space for them to be their whole selves while also creating a space free of judgement where they can critically examine their practice, and perhaps even acknowledge their own privileges within it.

K: Yes, absolutely, that’s awesome.  So, one of the big changes we’ve recently implemented in 2017 for the Create Change cohort was a program theme. The 2017 Create Change artists engaged their practice around the theme of, Sanctuary, which evolved to practicing sanctuary in 2018 — and subsequently in 2019 to the theme of Abundance. Hatuey, could you tell us a little bit about why there was a shift in framing the program around specific themes, what that introduced, and what you feel you’ve learned over that time?¹

¹Destinee Forbes: Prior to the introduction of themes to the Create Change curriculum artists explored themes like memory, displacement, police brutality and gentrification, independent of a single, connecting focus. For more information on past artists project click here. 

HATUEY: I think partly, it was right at the time of the 2016 election, so there was a general sense of, “we gotta do something.” It felt that we had to collect ourselves, and be responsive; it was a pivotal moment that sparked that kind of thinking. It also became apparent that the residents, fellows and staff needed to focus their attention on that moment. Assigning a theme like, Sanctuary, became a lens for us, as staff and facilitators, to have conversations with artists through a unified topic. Having a theme was very helpful, actually, because it was a guiding framework for us to work within. For us, we were thinking about space as the construct of Sanctuary. We were thinking of Sanctuary as an embodied practice that must be done with others and in community

After 2018, we decided to move toward the theme of Abundance, which was a shift, because with Sanctuary it was more about creating internalized safe spaces that were somewhat guarded. We were thinking of sanctuary as a construction of spaces where artists could be whole and defend themselves from the outside. However, after consideration, we decided to shift the focus from ourselves to instead asking, “Now what?…What can we do now, collectively?” Moving from that space of critical thought, I was inspired by the work of Grace Lee Boggs, and her stance that we are the leaders that we’ve been waiting for and that we don’t need anyone to come and save us. It was the idea that we possess the tools within ourselves to take us where we need to be. Her philosophy became such an important framework for us since it was also so deeply aligned with LP values. 

We began having conversations internally about the idea of abundance as a theme. The challenge became a question of how we would conceive of abundance, which is very difficult, especially when you think about all of the structures of oppression that are in place. There is so much conversation and discourse around what we, as people of color, lack and don’t have. So to think of abundance in this day and age felt very radical in-so-far as instead of thinking about all the things we don’t have, or all the work that still needs to be done, we were flipping the narrative. I think it is really interesting to be an artist and struggle with the question of, “what does abundance mean?” I’m excited to see what the Create Change artists produce under this theme.

K: Ladi’ Sasha, how did you experience your conversations about abundance? How did you conceive of it yourself?

LADI’SASHA:  Yes, really everything that Hatuey mentioned. We recently had our first set of two-day intensive organizing sessions with Ebony Noelle Golden, and the artists were struggling coming to terms with breaking down the theme of Abundance. I think the sign of struggle is significant in that it reflects the intentional shift the artists must make in thinking and conceiving of their own work and practice. When as an artist you are constrained to working within a framework of scarcity and lack, it is difficult to initially shift your thinking to one of abundance. 

One thing that I kept from my time as a fellow with The LP was the practice of asset mapping which I was not used to, nor did I understand fully before this time. But connecting the idea of asset mapping² and working within the context of abundance from a community engagement perspective is very important in that both practice with the understanding that the entity, or community in this case, possesses its own unique and individual strengths outside of external assistance. With this in mind, with the theme of abundance, the artist, now more than ever, has to remember that they are not entering a community to bring anything new to the place, but instead must work in rhythm, or in collaboration with the place and people. 

²Destinee Forbes: The asset mapping activity to which Ladi’Sasha refers was part of The Create Change fellowship curriculum design by Petrushka Bazin-Larsen. The Create Change Fellowship is a six-month series of workshops and programs for artists interested in developing or deepening their practice of making socially relevant, socially-engaged art. The fellowship runs from April to October. Ladi’Sasha Jones is a 2013 alum. In addition, Hatuey Ramos-Fermin was a 2012 Create Change Artist-in-Residence.

The task of the artist engaged in community organizing under the framework of abundance must create with what is already existing. The idea of abundance forces us to think of ourselves and of community as possessing all of the tools needed to succeed within us; we have all the assets needed to create change in the world around us. Even to conceive of abundance in relation to the broader LP community, it is amazing to see the collective power of a community that recognizes the individual power of each member which then further empowers the collective. I am excited to see the work that the artists and facilitators will create this year. 

K: Thank you Ladi’Sasha, and thank you, Petrushka and Hatuey for your words. This was wonderful. 

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