by Maribel L. Alvarez, Ph.D.
Conversations about politics and social change are abundant these days. Information, opinions, and predictions are circulating at light-speed. The sheer volume of it can be overwhelming. I frequently encounter friends who express the need to tune-out the news for the sake of regaining some small peace of mind (at least for a while). Along the quantity of reports, the quality of what we hear is also changing; a hard-edged consternation about the future seems to be on the rise. Set on the idea that “change” is an absolute virtue that we need to embrace, at any cost and against anything that previously held any credibility as common sense, the new political leadership in our country feels emboldened to change everything.
Some changes are good, of course. But changes that pull the rug from widely accepted notions of democratic debate, dialogue, empathy, procedure and decorum can be dangerous. Some of us are seriously worried about the velocity and bluster of many current proposals. What will happen if some of the core ideas, institutions, beliefs and habits of civic exchange start to lose their hold on how we act as social beings? What if the upending of these core ways of behaving leads to grand scale human, environmental, political and economic disasters we are not able to reverse?
For those of us who work, invest, love, and play in the realm of culture and produce cultural work, these types of questions and anxieties cut to the heart of why we do what we do. Complex questions deserve (and require) complex answers, however. In times of convulsive change, many of us begin to doubt ourselves and start asking painful questions: what happens when actions in the political arena seem powerful enough to drown work we carry on through cultural expression? In such times, some ask, is working on the cultural front enough? Should cultural work become politicized? Should artists put their artistic goals on hold and work more explicitly on social and political goals? Can cultural work be part of the solution? Or, maybe, “culture” is where the trouble started –when it became “normal” as a cultural habit to denigrate some groups or to fear, overpower and exclude others. The ugly side of culture is normalized prejudice; those traditions of exclusion and group-think that we may wish to think twice before safeguarding.
How we use the words “culture” and “change” can be the first source of confusion in this conversation. As artists, artisans, tradition bearers and creative workers we readily understand that culture is the thick soup that we are always collectively cooking — adding some sweetness here and removing bitterness there. In other words, artists for the most part always think of themselves as working to “change” the world, but this change is not always explicitly “political.” Especially, if by “politics” we mean only elections, legislation, and protests. By dealing in the realm of the imagination, images, stories, symbols and heartfelt sentiments, artists have a great deal to say about “change.” That is, change in how we perceive the world and gauge what is valuable, what stands out as contradiction, what sustains us or challenges us. But propagandists are also in the business of imagination: manufacturing and mobilizing images, symbols, and sentiments to achieve their goals. We should not think of culture, therefore, as a comfy sanctuary; on the contrary, culture is better understood as the messy and contradictory turf where we fight over what matters.
In an effort to help us address as a community these monumental questions, the Southwest Folklife Alliance will produce in 2017 a series of learning exchanges, streamlined fieldschools, and community dialogues throughout Arizona and the Southwest region. Information about these opportunities will be forthcoming.
We are delighted to announce that we will launch this initiative in March with the visit of one of the smartest voices in the culture and social change conversation nationally, Jeff Chang. Jeff’s visit is a partnership with the Tucson Festival of Books and the University of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Jeff Chang has written extensively on culture, politics, the arts, and music. His first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, garnered many honors, including the American Book Award. His book Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press) was released in 2014 to critical acclaim. It was published in paperback in 2016 under the new title, Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America (Picador). His latest book, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race and Resegregation (Picador), was published in 2016 and called by The Washington Post “the smartest book of the year.”
The Utne Reader named Jeff as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Jeff co-founded CultureStr/ke and ColorLines. He has written for The Guardian, Slate, The Nation, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, Foreign Policy, N+1, Mother Jones, Salon, and Buzzfeed, among many others. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i, he is a graduate of ‘Iolani School, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Los Angeles. He serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.
Jeff will participate in a panel on race and segregation at TFOB on Saturday, March 11 and will be interviewed by SFA’s Executive Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez on Sunday, March 12. More information is here. In addition, SFA will host a learning exchange seminar with Jeff at UA Downtown on Friday, March 10; pre-registration for the free seminar is required. Attendance is limited to 40. Registration for the seminar will open in February. To reserve a seat, send a message to Leia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While we at SFA don’t claim to have any grand answers to our many grand dilemmas, our Board, staff, and hundreds of members and volunteers believe that talking to each other about our differences is not a bad place to start imagining a more just world (and better yet if we add some great food to our conversation).
Interviewed by NPR’s Michel Martin last October, Jeff had this to say about the work ahead of us:
MARTIN: Tell me about the title — “We Gon’ Be Alright.” Are we?
CHANG: You know, I think we’re going to (laughter). There’s so many things that are going on that are so despairing, so many reasons to be angry, I think, so many reasons to be pessimistic. And that’s, I think, in part why so many folks have kind of come to this song by Kendrick Lamar, right? “Alright” – the song is called “Alright,” and it’s the blues. It’s the modern blues. It’s – 95 percent of the lyrics are about struggle and really feeling in the struggle, but seemingly out of nowhere he pulls this line – but we gon’ be all right. If you got me, if I got you, if God’s got us, we gon’ be all right. And I think that that’s why it’s been adopted by, you know, so many young folks as their anthem. Despite all of the stuff going on, we have to have each other. We have to have solidarity. We’re going to make it all right.