Caron Atlas is the director of Arts & Democracy Project, which cross-pollinates art and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice. She is the co-director of the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York (NOCD-NY), a coalition of artists and organizers that seeks to strengthen the unique creativity of New York City’s neighborhoods.
She participates in the Participatory Budgeting Project in New York, which puts people in charge of a portion of their city’s budget. Atlas has taught at Pratt Institute and New York University. She has also worked with Appalshop, National Voice, American Festival Project, Fractured Atlas, and Animating Democracy, among others. She was a Warren Weaver Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation and has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Chicago.
How did you get into social justice work?
I wasn’t brought up at protest marches, but I think it was part of my DNA to get involved in things, drawing from the values of my parents. I grew up in Oak Park, a suburb outside of Chicago, and when I was a kid I would go into the city a lot on the El. Talk about income inequality! You’re in a suburb and you’re taking the train into the city and you just see the different neighborhoods. I think as a little kid that it had a huge impact on me, knowing that the way I was growing up wasn’t the way everybody was. Another strong influence was living in Appalachia for ten years where I worked at Appalshop and learned how to be a committed and effective ally.
What kind of power do you think art has for social justice?
I think it has so much power on so many different levels, like what it means to be reached deep down inside of you as opposed to just on your intellectual level and how that stays with you. The ability to say that the conventional wisdom is wrong and that nothing is stuck in place and that it can always be changed and you need to have imagination to make that change — that’s a power of art that I think is incredible. And it’s powerful as a community-building tool when we do the Participatory Budgeting visual arts workshops. At a moment of the process when people can feel disempowered because their projects didn’t get chosen, just seeing what those workshops do to say the people are respected. In another example, during a sharing of stories after a performance about gentrification I heard somebody in South Williamsburg say, “I feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood, because of the shifts that had happened there” But going and doing cultural work that says “you’re not a stranger in your own neighborhood, you are the person with the wisdom and the history and the culture that has made this neighborhood” brings a sense of respect to folks that have been pushed to the margin in their own homes. I’ve seen that as a power of art and culture.
Do you think people feel fundamentally disconnected from art?
The art I was talking about — to be really clear — is the art that is always there. So when I was talking about arts and culture I wasn’t talking about the new art galleries of Williamsburg. But I think art’s values can be multiple. So I’m talking about art that has a social justice value system, not just any art, because I think there’s been art that has been used by developers to push people out of neighborhoods. And I do think that a lot of people feel like art has nothing to do with them and that’s something I’m trying to change. I question people who say, “I live in this neighborhood and we don’t have a museum so we don’t have art.” It’s trying to get people to realize that art isn’t just museums, it’s what they do every day when they sing — that everyone has a relationship to art and culture, and, unfortunately, it’s gotten pushed into this institutional framework which is such a narrow framework for what it could be.
What are the benefits of Arts & Democracy Project?
Well, just to go back to that last story [about a woman in the Participatory Budgeting Project making an image of the sun during an art workshop to support a proposal for a playground], and this is what’s powerful for me, and this is why we’re so interested in working with Participatory Budgeting: When the woman made her sun and she was surprised that she had that kind of creativity in her, that’s agency, on an individual level, that’s saying, “I’m somebody, I can create things.” So Participatory Budgeting is saying, “I’m somebody I can stand up for a playground and get it funded.” And in fact she got it funded. And what was funny to me when I saw her later on she came running over to me, saying, “It got funded! It got funded!” And I was like, “that’s so great.” She was so appreciative of the sun, and I was like, “the sun didn’t do it, your idea, your hard work, did.” But it was all together, her ability to stand up, work with her neighbors, say we want something and then share the vision through the artwork. And I think they’re all of one piece. I don’t think art makes change alone and I don’t think social change processes without creativity make change as well as they do with creativity. So that’s the spirit behind Arts & Democracy.
Collaboration is essential to a lot of the work you do. How do you make it work?
I mean there are good practices – taking the time to really come to know and trust each other and maybe work on something small together to learn how to work together before you do the big thing together. So we don’t go from project to project. We work with groups over long periods of time. Like with SEIU [Service Employees International Union], it’s been five years maybe now and the first two years we were really coming to trust each other. I’ll give you one other example of that. We helped form a coalition here in New York, which I co-direct called Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York (NOCD-NY) and it’s with groups that wouldn’t usually sit at a table together from all different neighborhoods, all five boroughs. It started up because we wanted to impact policy and we had an opening to do that. I think some people just wanted us to sit down at our first meeting and come up with our policy recommendations and get them out. There was pressure to do that and we didn’t. Instead, we did this exercise where we all wrote what our utopia would look like for our neighborhoods because we wanted to be really forward-thinking instead of reactive. We had lots of different recommendations that we took a long time talking about before we started narrowing them down because we thought it was really important that everybody’s voice got heard, that we trusted each other, and that it just didn’t become the usual suspects who know policy language who come up with the policy recommendations. And I think it really paid off because we were able to get started over the first few years with no money and people still kept coming to the table. And you know we’re still together and that was part of the reason: because we have the shared values and, now, when we have our policy recommendations, people feel really bought into them.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Raising the money for the work is really hard. We often fall in the gap between arts funders who want to fund artist projects and social justice funders who don’t support cultural organizing. And it’s kind of ironic because as art and social justice becomes more popular the harder it becomes for us to raise money for it. I think we need to see this field as an ecology that includes artist projects and less visible movement building and community-engaged work. We are interested in doing long-term organizing, which may be less visible because a lot of it is working in communities, building trust, building trust with other sectors, creating conditions where arts and culture can be part of something bigger. That’s hard to get funding for. We also very much appreciate the funders that have committed themselves to supporting and learning from this work over time.
Another challenging thing is that when you work in a creative field and you work in the community, there’s a lot of ingenuity because people don’t have resources. And when you move that into the policymaking realm, it can be hard bumping up against the realities of working with the city…There are good things about working with the city and that’s why we do it, but it can be hard to be creative within a capital funding structure or within a structure where you have to have permits.
And then there is the overall challenge of persistent structures of inequity and racism that impact our communities. We have to continually hold ourselves accountable that we are not unwittingly perpetuating these structures through our work.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I would say the stories I’ve been telling you, you see what the power of art is and you see someone become transformed on a personal level and you see what it can do collectively. I mean I was just blown away by the Climate March; art was infused throughout that march. And the fact that the march had a narrative tied to it, that makes me really happy. You have all these social justice groups that are really seeing the power of art. I hope that the relationships developed or strengthened by the march continue. Or with the SEIU work, you see people from the union locals transformed by the art work. In the case of Local 26 [in Minneapolis, MN], the artists are members of their union through their job as museum guards. In other locals we’ve worked with rank-and-file folks who are able to engage the cultural work as a way to bring their full selves to their union organizing. They could contribute who they are to the things they care about. Seeing people engage their creativity to make change, realizing the power of imagining the world differently and then putting that vision into action – that is what makes me happy about the work and that’s why I keep doing it.
How do you see the Arts & Democracy Project spreading in the future?
The good thing is we’re a catalyst. We help create a context where others’ work can bloom. Arts & Democracy is structured as a decentralized network. We can work deeply in the communities where our team is based and then help connect the dots between this and other work. Our criterion for the effectiveness of our work is that it builds the agency and creativity of the people so they can continue the work without us. A lot of the times it will be about getting the word out about things — what’s already happening or catalyzing things that will go on without us. So that’s how it will spread, more and more people will see the power of art and culture. And we don’t just want the creative work to spread, we also want to embed it within systems and institutions. I think with the work of NOCD-NY we can spread the work in part by helping shape policy. We have a set of specific goals and a lot of policy recommendations and that work will spread. Hopefully, some of them will come into place and they’ll affect the way we can do our work, and the health of our communities.
Is there any NOCD-NY policy you can talk about now?
Well, there are all kinds of things, there are things that have to do with process like every city agency having a cultural liaison so all the city agencies can incorporate arts and culture in their work. And it wouldn’t necessarily cost; you could just designate someone as a point person to work with arts and culture. So there are recommendations like that. There are recommendations about the ability of people in neighborhoods to get access to public space or to permits or to be able to work in parks. We are also looking at how we can be an ally around low income and public housing, working with others in the city engaged in these issues. We’re exploring policy around the theme “Culture is Not a Crime” that says, for example, 5Pointz, was actually an amazing cultural resource, not criminal behavior. So how do we name that? That’s an important thing. Or the dancers in the subways — maybe have a dance car, where you chose to go to because you want to see dancers. Or creative street vendors. We want to look at some of the assets in the city that are currently considered criminal behavior and say, “let’s embrace them and figure out a way to do it so it can work for everybody.”
Do you have any final points to make before we wrap up?
We want people to realize that there are powerful cultural assets in every community. It makes me crazy when people say “there’s no art here.” There’s art everywhere and there’s creativity everywhere and we’ve just pushed it into corners and named it things that people don’t see, but it’s there. It’s a powerful resource and it’s underutilized around social change. So, the hope is to make it visible, have people see what’s right there next to them or right there in their own body and to use it. The second point is there are also methodologies for doing this work. It’s naturally occurring, but there are things you can do. The same way you can train yourself to be an organizer, you can train yourself to be a good cultural organizer. Artists don’t always know this, they aren’t necessarily taught it in school, so that’s why we do a lot of capacity building, such as the cultural organizing workshop happening in Brooklyn on Nov 15 (http://www.artsanddemocracy.org/what-we-do/workshops/). There are different methodologies and we need to be clearer about what these methodologies are so people can use them as resources. So one of the things we want to do is get even more rigorous about the way we do our work and the way we work with our colleagues around those things and to continue to try to do it in a systematic way. There are a lot of wonderful art projects out there that are about social change. We’re interested in helping with art projects, but also really thinking about ways to embed arts and culture in organizing and movement building work for the long haul.