Arts & Culture

Poetry Is Not a Luxury to Achieving Racial, Social, and Economic Equity

In her essay, Poetry Is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American writer, poet, radical feminist, lesbian, and civil rights activist, describes an often overlooked yet necessary process in community […]

In her essay, Poetry Is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American writer, poet, radical feminist, lesbian, and civil rights activist, describes an often overlooked yet necessary process in community and equitable development:

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock of experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.

In defining poetry as vital to the human condition, Lorde reminds us that poetry is a step in the formation of ideas, rather than simply the expression of an already formed idea or feeling. Hopes and dreams are transformed into language, becoming coherent knowledge which can then catalyze action.

For the 2015 PolicyLink Equity Summit, we created Equity Speaks, an integration of racial, social and economic equity-focused poets and poetry into the majority of workshops, forums, and plenaries of the summit. Over three days, 25 poets performed three dozen times for the 3,000 activists and practitioners as an integral summit experience to catalyze and accelerate the movement for equity.

By bringing artists into every conversation, PolicyLink lifted up the way equity is being achieved in and by communities across the country, but in a way that was uplifting and enriching in and of itself. As one attendee expressed, “I was able to access my humanness and feelings about the issues at hand—instead of being in a space of hopelessness. I also found great joy in the artistic experiences in the summit, and without joy we can't build a better world!  We have to be in a space of joy in order to progress, [it's] usually the missing link in many social movements—and key ingredient in movements that work.”

As another summit attendee reflected,“[Poetry] was a great way to start something that is deep, complicated, tough. I think that's what I appreciated the most, the poems starting the panels.” Poetry served as both a way of knowing and knowledge itself. The Equity Speaks poets served as both oracles and historians, as storytellers and story bearers, and as equity leaders and constituents.

Equity Speaks 2015 was a production of the Arts, Culture, and Equitable Development Initiative of PolicyLink, created with support from The Kresge Foundation, and in collaboration with Urban Word and our award-winning poet curators Michael Cirelli, Robert Farid Karimi, traci kato-kiriyama, and Quraysh Ali Lansana.

I spoke with poet, theatre artist, and activist/organizer kato-kiriyama about her participation in the summit and helping PolicyLink shape Equity Speaks. Like many others who have committed themselves to equitable development and community development, kato-kiriyama chose to become deeply involved in a specific community. “I grew up going to Little Tokyo with my family and started to get deeply involved as a college intern and then as a staffer in the late 1990s—first at the Japanese American National Museum, then Little Tokyo Service Center. Throughout my development as an artist and community organizer, I've had more opportunities than I can count to work on projects, plays, and performances with organizations including the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and the Aratani Theater, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, Visual Communications, and East West Players. They've all been supportive, in turn, with an art and community free public arts space I co-founded in 1999 called Tuesday Night Project.”

In speaking with kato-kiriyama, I came to see her experiences as echoing my own and others’ paths in community development. In addition to being grounded in community, community organizing, and social justice practice and values, kato-kiriyama considers Little Tokyo her working home, and this offered a context for professional and artistic development. “I always wanted to develop my practice as an artist, but I’m a variety freak in what I do, so I needed a good amount of time and space to explore a few things simultaneously and in distinct sectors, for example, writing, theater, poetry, essays, and also to develop as an arts educator.”

During the summit, kato-kiriyama performed for a workshop that I had organized entitled Driving Equitable Development through Arts and Culture. Her opening performance of “The ABC’s of arts culture place creative community self-determination spacetime work…” (excerpted below), blew me away in its directness (the elegance of economy and meaning are important in what are always time-constrained conference discussions!), urgency (rhythm is scientifically proven to improve motivation!), and exposition (useful insights made memorable!). I invited her as a poet and I can’t thank her enough for showing up as a poet panelist.


In this room

we have

developers, planners, directors, President CEOs,

performers, panelists, participants

Let us speak, past title

and converge on definition

In my best estimation of Hope,

a Community Organizer

is simply

a good storyteller who likes

to bring people together for the next act

a successful Development Manager

is a good writer who is

beholden to a greater vision

a keen Policy Leader

is a conductor who understands

how to follow the vibe

and facilitate the necessary rhythm…”

Kato-kiriyama's explanation of her process included several observations that are of particular relevance to equitable development and community development practitioners. She said that, “Theater and community organizing can inform one another greatly when speaking about creating collaboratively or organizing in community. We must listen, and build trust by doing so. We must open ourselves up and share our stories to engage one another.  Working together as a group to build a show or a movement, we invent as we go and it is vital to be able to trust each other. The process is what is transformative and when applied to organizing, the process is as, or more important than the outcome. In striving for excellence in performance and theatre production, to sustain ourselves as an ensemble or company that builds together over time, the process is as important as that great show we end up with.”

Describing her experience in shaping Equity Speaks for the summit, kato-kiriyama emphasized that despite the short time frame to identify poets who could perform or read poems relevant to 36 different equitable development topics, it was a bold move that moved past the usual debate about how arts and culture can be useful. She recommended that a next step would be to incorporate not just a poem, but the poet into the workshop itself so they could talk about the work they did leading up to the poem. “The poets we brought in are organizers, educators, mental health practitioners. They work with communities as part of their daily and regular practice. They are already in communities addressing social issues, civic engagement, healing, health—many on a very active and direct level. Just as any panelist may want to be seen for the intersectional identities that they carry, these poets were not there just to entertain. They are in the room because they are in the work.”

One attendee expressed a similar perspective when asked to reflect on the role of arts and culture integrated into the summit experience: “It brings home the nuances of the issue, raises the voices of the directly impacted, helps us think about the multiple sensory impacts of the inequality we are addressing, and builds attention and investment in creating solutions.”

Equity Speaks is inspired by the words of Audre Lorde who describes a truth for the community development and equity movement in her words as a feminist, queer, and African-American artist:

For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt—of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead—while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.

For the next PolicyLink summit, we plan to include an artist in every session and to situate them as an integral component of every conversation. We hope you will join us.

(Photo credit: Allen County Public Library, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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