Look What York Did! – The Coleman Center for the Arts and Community Development in Rural Alabama

york welcomeThirty years ago, one year before I was born and two years before my family moved to the place I came to call home, the Coleman Center for the Arts (CCA) made its humble beginnings in the west-central Alabama town of York. This rural community lies on the western edge of Alabama’s Black Belt region, which is known for its dark, life-nurturing soil. In this place of rich agricultural fertility, seeds of a different kind were planted in York’s economically distressed and socially divided soul. Three decades later these seeds, nurtured by their deep roots, are now blooming in vibrant colors. While the Coleman Center may be “for the arts,” this “plant” is not for the eyes only; it bears fruit with the potential to sustain and renew the life of this community.

In this paper, I tell the story of CCA and critically examine its mission, strategies, and activities to determine how it has promoted or impeded the process and outcomes of community development. A four-dimensioned analysis of its work is included which asks: how is CCA engaging people in critical thinking and self awareness?; how is it developing creativity and innovativeness?; how is it advancing the continuity of community development initiatives?; and, how is it accomplishing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well-being? To conclude, I offer a recommendation for improving CCA’s work through an analysis of power, critical praxis, community organizing, and solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

The Story of CCA

In 1985, Dorothy Altman Riddick, known simply as Tut, organized a group of York’s citizens to create CCA out of their belief in the power of art and culture to bridge socio-economic divides (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Bertice McPherson, a friend of Tut’s, says “Tut wanted to help the people of York by giving them a place to create art and to study” (Harrison, 2012). CCA began as an agency of the city and housed the city’s only library and art gallery, which it used as sites for adult education classes, children’s summer reading programs, and community art shows (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In 2003, CCA began its first public art projects and launched its artist-in-residence program (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). When Shana Berger and Nathan Purath came to York in May 2005 on a brief visit as participants of this program, CCA was without a director; just two months later Shana and Nathan had permanently moved to York to become CCA’s co-directors (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). “Driven by the idea that art can play an integral role in realizing positive social change,” Shana and Nathan brought new energy and vision to CCA and, in 2008, re-organized it as an independent non-profit entity (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Today, CCA employs three full-time and two part-time staff who oversee the use and maintenance of nine buildings in downtown York, which is a significant amount of real estate in a town of only 2,000 residents (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This small group of people are the catalysts for “a contemporary arts organization that uses art to foster positive social change, answer civic needs, build local pride, and use creativity for community problem solving” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a). In order to pursue its mission of integrating “contemporary art into education, civic life, and community development throughout our region,” CCA has adopted a strategy that employs “an architecture for creating participatory projects [and]… a relational framework through which artists and community members collaborate” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a; Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c). As their mission states, CCA’s programs create contemporary art, which “refers to art made and produced by artists living today… [who] often reflect and comment on modern-day society” (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.). Purath says their definition of art is broad – including anything created with intentionality that inspires meaning, embodies a social value and purpose, or sparks emotional moments of fellowship (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Much of CCA’s work can be further classified as “public art.” Defined in simple terms as any work of art placed on a public site, this kind of art is not defined by its particular form or style but by its collaborative, interactive process, which seeks “out the most imaginative and productive affinity between artist and community” in order to create a “form of collective community expression”  (Association for Public Art, n.d.). Public art – designed through and for dialogue – is an apt pursuit for a contemporary arts organization built on the hope of reconciling a community across its socio-economic and racial divides.

CCA’s works of contemporary, public art are created within four program areas guided by its relational, participatory strategy: education, exhibition, artists-in-residence, and Pop Start. The education program is made up of the city library, an after-school art club, a one-week summer camp, and a youth action council. According to Berger and Purath, the youth action council is a brand new initiative designed to empower a group of 16-20 racially diverse high-school students from both the public and private schools who are given $1000 to design and implement a project which addresses a social issue they care about in their community (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA’s exhibition program operates an art gallery to host the annual Sumter County Fine Arts Council Annual Juried Show, which displays works by local artists (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2014). The gallery also hosts shows for visiting artists-in-residence throughout the year (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Over the past decade under Berger and Purath’s leadership, CCA’s artist-in-residence program has grown and developed significantly. Its goal is to create “socially engaged participatory public art [through] projects and processes [which] employ mutuality, collaboration, and reciprocity among co-participants” in order to “address civic and social needs” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). According to Berger, artists whose work seems to connect with York in a meaningful way are chosen to participate, but are asked not to conceive of their projects before their initial visit (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This initial visit introduces the artists to the community and provides a space to discuss the issues they would like to address (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). After this introductory visit, artists return multiple times to share their ideas, receive feedback, and work with the community to create their project (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

This process has resulted in several collaborative, transformative works of art. One project, “Open House” (appendix A), “transformed a blighted property into a public outdoor theater in downtown York” (Berger, 2013). With all the style of a Transformer robot, this “sculpture” of a house literally opens up into “a public space for performance, celebration, dialogue, fellowship and community” with the physical labor of three to four persons over the course of a few hours (Berger, 2013)! The “Open House” is now used to host a series of community movie nights during the summer  as well as other community events (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This project is only one of many produced through the artist-in-residence program over its eleven-year tenure.

In 2013 and 2014, CCA began work on its first economic initiative, Pop Start. York’s downtown has, like many other rural towns, experienced significant decline over several decades. Pop Start plans to “offer rotating business incubation, a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods, a community social space and an opportunity for artists and community members to experiment with the space of a storefront” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a). The hope is to focus economic activity, provide more support for York’s entrepreneurs, and counteract the sense of failure and loss created by empty downtown storefronts (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA recently was awarded a $200,000 place-making grant from ArtPlace America to fund the first 18 months of Pop Start’s operations, which will begin once building renovations are complete (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

CCA operates its programs with support from a variety of national, state, and local organizations. The Andy Warhol Foundation and Alabama Power have been particularly important supporters who have helped attract additional funds (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The National Endowment for the Arts, the Alabama State Art Council, and The Daniel Foundation of Alabama have also supported CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Finally, CCA enjoys the support of many local residents, who have donated several of its buildings and who serve as an integral part of CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Community Development Analysis

Critical Thinking and Self-Awareness

The practice of critical thinking and self-awareness is essential to the work of community development because communities exist within the relational nexus between embodied persons and disembodied societal structures which interact in complex ways to powerfully shape the community’s life. Without critical thinking, a community will fail to see the effects of these structures and, as a result, may ignore significant factors that restrain or enhance its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on the community’s responsibility to, in effect, develop itself. On the other hand, a community without a strong sense of self-awareness may fail to see the potential of its own resources and, as a result, feel powerless in its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on external actors to, in effect, rescue the community.

Critical thinking combined with self-awareness can give “rise to new ways of seeing the world that lead to new ways of being in the world” (Ledwith, 2011, p33). According to community development practitioner Margaret Ledwith (2011), this “critical consciousness” is essential to the process of empowerment, which develops “the theory and practice of equality” necessary in order to communally confront systems of oppression, injustice, and inequality (p32). Because communities are “[arenas] (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place”, self-awareness is necessary for discerning the community’s embodied locality, but it remains incomplete without critical thinking, which unveils the workings of non-locality, i.e. disembodied, social processes impinging upon the community’s life (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012a, p1).

How is this critical consciousness developed? For Ledwith (2011), the process begins with outsiders who “create a learning context for questioning that helps local people to make critical connections between their lives and the structures of society that shape their world” (p33). The necessity of this “learning context for questioning” arises from Jurgen Habermas’ communicative action theory. This theory explains how sites of “free, open, and unlimited communication” in which all voices in the community are heard within public, rational discussions have the potential to build a common ground upon which a community can act to resist the colonization of macro-economic and political forces “that reduces people to the status of things” (Hustedde, 2009, p28). What communicative action theory calls for is, in a word, dialogue: “a deep, challenging and enriching conversation, a mutual process of building shared understanding, meaning, communication and creative action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p10). As outsiders create spaces for dialogue within communities, they nurture an environment from which critical consciousness can emerge to support processes of community development informed by critical thinking and self-awareness.

Is CCA’s work creating space for dialogue and giving rise to critical consciousness in York? According to Berger, CCA’s participatory approach to public art projects creates an unfamiliar space for both the local community who are not trained as artists, and for the artists-in-residence who may feel out of place in rural Alabama (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). This mutual unfamiliarity has a disruptive and equalizing effect, which opens up a neutral, free space for dialogue (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). As artists and local community members share their stories in this space, the community is simultaneously having a conversation with itself – often about tough issues like racial segregation that may not otherwise not be discussed in public (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This dialogue builds York’s self-awareness in powerful ways, but critical consciousness also requires critical thinking. CCA’s work at this time seems to only address local issues and, therefore, fails to analyze how York’s “experiences are linked to the forces of power that are embedded in the structures of society [in order to understand] how these forces reach into communities to impact on personal lives” (Ledwith, 2011, p34). While CCA is opening up space for dialogue that is producing transformative works of public art, their dialogue stops short of critical thinking.

Innovativeness and Creativity

            Apart from a spirit of innovativeness and creativity, community development efforts lose their liveliness. They get stuck in the world “as it is” and fail to inspire the community to action towards the realization of the world “as it should be” (Chambers, 2003, p22). As Westoby and Dowling (2009) wisely note, “the key to community development is… the quality and creativity of people who dream of a better world for their neighborhoods and want to take some form of public, communal, transformational action” (p289). A spirit of creativity and innovativeness gives birth to vision – without which “the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 King James Version). The human capacity for creating – and re-creating – is a profound reflection of humanity’s own creation in the image of the Creator who is the source of life. Creativity is the essence of life – of soul – that connects us to others, to our place, our history (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p14). This “stuff of soul is made by genuinely participating in initiatives emerging from people’s shared suffering and concerns” in a process Westoby and Dowling (2009) call “poetic participation” (p61). Poetic participation is the breeding ground of creativity and openness to new ways of thinking, doing, and being in relation with others. Out of this fertile soul, a community can be re-created.

Is the work of CCA nurturing an environment of poetic participation in York that develops its creativity and innovativeness? Emphatically, yes! As Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015) notes, direct community engagement and feedback with artists is part of their work from the beginning of the process to its completion. “All artist projects are characterized by close collaboration with the community,” says the CCA website, which ensures “that artists and participants sustain deep connections to each other and the work” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). CCA is building soulful connections in York across lines of race, socio-economic status, and age (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This diversity is what attracts and motivates many of CCA’s participants according to Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). People do not participate “because they like contemporary art”; it is because they believe in the outcome and want to be connected to other people (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The social space of poetic participation that CCA facilitates is an essential place for York to gather and re-imagine a new, more lively, way of life.

            In addition to infusing community development with soulful life, creativity and innovativeness are also essential for community development efforts to remain vital and relevant. A community that is not exercising its creativity is undermining its ability to adapt in a world that is rapidly changing. This ability to exercise creativity and generate innovative ideas is especially important for a community’s economic system. It is a society’s ability to “generate and tolerate new ideas” and “adapt to continuously changing economic and technological circumstances,” says Cortright (2001), that “are a precondition to sustained economic growth” (p. ii). Shaffer and Summers (1989) also identify “the adaptability of the community to changing conditions both within and outside itself” as a key ingredient to the community’s ability “to maintain, if not improve, its relative economic position” (p2). The best example of a community’s creativity and innovativeness in the economic institution is its entrepreneurs since they are “by definition… responding to change and trying to capture the opportunities embodied in change” (Shaffer and Summers, 1989, p8). The practice of creativity is not only good for human development and wholeness – it’s good for business too.

Is the work of CCA facilitating economic ingenuity through entrepreneurship in York and sustaining its ability to adapt? Again, the answer is yes. With the addition of Pop Start, CCA is intentionally and directly injecting new life into York’s economic institution and creating a space for York’s entrepreneurs to flourish. In addition to Pop Start, CCA has participated in past city planning efforts and were part of a small-town design initiative led by students from Auburn University’s urban planning program. These efforts reveal CCA’s commitment to helping York adapt to a changing economic and political environment.

Continuity of Community Development Initiatives

Community development based on dialogue is a slow process because it requires patient listening. In a complex world characterized by speed and instant gratification, this kind of patient dialogue “requires a resistance to the shallow-ing of practice,” which is obsessed with “quick fixes,” in order to take a more depth-ful approach that does not over-simplify the problems a community faces (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p11). Community development efforts must be designed and maintained for the long haul in order to make any sort of deep, transformative change that takes account of a community’s complexity.

However, these deep, transformative changes are the community development outcomes of a very intentional, sustained community development process. As Phillips and Pittman (2009) discuss at length, community development is both a process and a set of outcomes. However, as Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) note, most people focus on the seen, tangible “life course outcomes” while forgetting the necessity of the community development process which creates an environment for these outcomes to emerge by developing the character, creativity, and innovativeness of the community (p31). Phillips and Pittman (2009) explain this interaction between process and outcomes by saying “the process of community development is social capital/capacity building which leads to social capital which in turn leads to the outcome of community development” (p7). The energetic core of this cycle is social capital. Green and Haines (2012) note the significant features of social capital as “the aspects of social structure (trust, norms, and social networks) that facilitate collective action”, which is “central to building other forms of [community] capital” and therefore essential “in addressing common problems that are not easily resolved by individual actions” (p144, 147). When a community is actively engaging community development processes that produce social capital through improving character, creativity, and innovativeness, it is poised to mobilize its own resources, assets, and ideas, as well as those external to the community, to create the community development outcomes it desires. Therefore, the continuity of community development initiatives and their outcomes is directly related to the strength of social-capital-generating development processes.

Is the work of CCA advancing the continuity of community development initiatives in York? A broad survey of their programs suggests that, while a large part of their work is designed to be impermanent, they are still advancing the continuity of community development initiatives through their participatory, relational approach to creating public works of contemporary art. At the same time, CCA has been able to sustain some programs and community assets over the course of three decades such as the city library and art gallery. They have also been able to convert some of the “impermanent” work produced by their artist-in-residence program into more permanent community assets. This conversion can be most clearly seen in the “Open House” project previously mentioned, which continues to provide a source of “cultural capital” by increasing York’s uniqueness and by serving as a site for community celebrations (Green and Haines, 2012, p267). Another example is the “One Mile Garden” (see Appendix B) project which “includes a central garden for growing, teaching and learning” at CCA’s downtown location, as well as “satellite gardens” throughout the community and a public fruit tree orchard at a public park (Berger, 2009). Because CCA connected its artists-in-residence with a local York resident who was an expert gardener, the project continues today as an important source of “environmental capital” which teaches the community to care for its land (Green and Haines, 2012, p215). These two “impermanent” projects have produced important cultural and environmental assets for the York community and show that CCA and its artists are committed to advancing the continuity of its community development activities.

At the same time, “Open House”, “One Mile Garden”, and many other artist-in-residence projects embody the social-capital-generating community development process, which is so essential to sustainable community development outcomes. As Purath explains, much of CCA’s work through the artist-in-residence program has been to demonstrate a capacity for change, building a base of trust between artists and the community and within the community, and creating and maintaining an open space to find common ground (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Two poignant examples of how CCA is generating social capital are found in its “To My Dearest and Beloved Family” (see Appendix C) and “De-Weaponizing the Gun” (see Appendix D) projects. In “To My Dearest and Beloved Family,” the visiting artist created an exhibition of military portraits and invited York’s residents to “provide pictures of area service members, veterans or those depicted in uniform,” which produced pictures ranging from a Civil War veteran to a current member of the JROTC (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). This exhibition was displayed publicly at the CCA’s art gallery and represented “deep love, pride, admiration and respect” for the community (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). In the “De-Weaponizing the Gun” project, a visiting artist used a small caliber rifle to create pointillist “drawings” of bullet holes on sheets of metal painted white (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2009). The gun, especially a rifle, is a popular and powerful symbol in York where many residents enjoy hunting and sport shooting. This attention from the local community garnered by this project led to an invitation for the artist to perform a live demonstration of his work at the camp house of a well-known white family, which was attended by black and white residents (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This occurrence may seem insignificant, but in rural communities a camp house serves as a kind of social status symbol and this event was the first time black families had been hosted at this camp house. In both cases, social capital was generated as the community gathered to take part in these works of art.

While not all of CCA’s artist-in-residence projects have become permanent assets for the community, they all help create and strengthen York’s social capital. CCA is committed to the long, patient process of listening and dialogue, which lie at the heart of community development processes. This dialogical process represents a significant effort to advance the continuity of its community development initiatives.

Security in Life Chances and Sustainable, Holistic Well-Being

As important as community development processes are, they are incomplete without subsequent community development outcomes. Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) explain how “improving these life course outcomes enhances security in life chances of community members” (p31). By “security in life chances”, they refer to an adequate, equitable level of access to opportunities that allow community members “to improve [the] quality of their lives” (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b, p31). In addition to improving security in life chances, community development outcomes also contribute to the community’s economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual well-being in the present and future. Phillips and Pittman (2009) show the relationship between these outcomes and economic well-being when they state: “the purpose of community development is to produce assets that may be used to improve the community, and the purpose of economic development is to mobilize these assets to benefit the community” (p11). Westoby and Dowling (2009) connect life course outcomes to a holistic notion of well-being achieved through caring for the ordinary, socio-cultural, economic, political, and ecological spheres of community life. It is clear that community development work should lead to improvements throughout the entirety of the community that can be seen, felt, heard, tasted and touched.

Is the work of CCA increasing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well being for York? Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) five aspects of community care in relation to well-being serve as a helpful lens for evaluating CCA’s contribution towards York’s well-being. When “caring for the ordinary” is considered, CCA’s work excels in “valuing the mundane, the commonplace, and the everyday events that are the social glue connecting ordinary people with one another” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). For Purath, CCA’s community problem solving approach is all about the day-to-day life in York (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). “Caring for the socio-cultural” sphere of community life is also evident in CCA’s work as its programs nurture diverse social relations in a variety of ways (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). Purath describes the outcome of CCA’s work as creating a more kindred spirit (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Closely related to the care of the socio-cultural, he also noted how CCA’s programs are helping to overcome a sense of failure on a psychological or emotional level (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In this way, CCA is contributing towards York’s “power-to” defined as “personal power to achieve our potential” associated with self-esteem and self-belief, which is “vital to releasing the energy for change” (Ledwith, 2011, p146). The work of CCA is clearly contributing to York’s holistic well-being with its care for ordinary and socio-cultural dimensions of life in York.

With the Pop Start creative business incubator, CCA is preparing to launch its first initiative aimed at “caring for the economy” by creating “alternative, local, human-scale, relational economies with social and ecological objectives” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). With one of its purposes of being “a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods,” Pop Start will strengthen economic linkages in the community, which, as Silver and Loxley (2007) note, may not create huge profits but “will improve the economic and social well-being of those otherwise omitted from the benefits of profit-oriented economies” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a; p8). In addition to the Pop Start initiative still in development, Purath explained how CCA contributes to the local economy by purchasing a significant amount of goods and services from local stores with sources of funding external to the community (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). CCA’s “care for the economy” is still in its early stages, but this will soon become an integral aspect of their work with the launch of Pop Start.

When considering Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) final two categories of community care – political and ecological – CCA’s work has made some steps in the right direction. Its Youth Action Council is its only program with explicit political intentions that seek to “[enable] agency, moving from private concern to public action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). Since the program is still in its infancy, its contribution to York’s political well-being remains to be seen. Care for York’s ecology is evidenced by CCA’s “One Mile Garden” project previously described. While this work is important for “changing hearts and minds” on a personal level, it does not contribute towards other aspects of ecological care such as a structural analysis of broad ecological concerns, the creation of alternative institutions, and the mobilization of political confrontations necessary for structural change (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). In its work of caring for York’s political and ecological spheres, there remains much room for CCA to grow.

Recommendation

The Coleman Center for the Arts is practicing community development work in York, AL, in profound, inspiring ways that are making a real difference in the everyday lives of York’s ordinary citizens. According to Berger, this practice is informed by an asset-based approach, which in general seeks to capitalize on a community’s existing strengths and resources instead of focusing on its lacks (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). The asset-based approach is very popular and has many strengths, but is not without weaknesses. As Green and Haines (2012) note, asset-based approaches use a development model of community organizing which “stress the importance of bringing people together and helping them help themselves” (p245). Ledwith (2011) sharply criticizes this kind of “help you help yourself” approach as fundamentally disempowering because it provides “a smokescreen for the forces of structural inequality by ignoring unequal wealth and power distribution, as well as to ignore heterogeneity and inequity within communities” (p29). In other words, asset-based approaches tend to be too optimistic about the power of local communities to improve their quality of life with local resources and strengths. They can fail to see how entire communities and regions have been excluded and marginalized, which severely limits the potential of the community’s local assets. Sometimes they see the local community through rose-tinted lens and fail to notice the exclusion and marginalization in the community’s midst. In summary, asset-based approaches have a tendency to be naïve about power and its distribution within and beyond a community.

Inasmuch as CCA employs an asset-based approach, it is susceptible to this tendency towards power naïveté. CCA does seem to be aware of many divisions within the community, but it is unclear whether this awareness extends to an understanding of internal and external power relations. The first step to addressing this potential weakness in CCA’s approach is to perform a power/conflict analysis of York and the surrounding region of Sumter County. As conflict theory suggests, “communities are always characterized by conflict, usually arising from inequalities of power and/or wealth along lines of gender, class or ethnicity” (Silver and Loxley, 2007, p9). Even in a place as welcoming and friendly as York there is still plenty of conflict and power struggles, especially when considering its not-too-distant history of explicit forms of systemic discrimination against people of color through the 19th and mid-20th centuries.

Green and Haines (2012) discuss three approaches to community power analysis, which serve as a kind of “audit” of the community’s political capital, defined as “access to decision-making” (p239, 243-4). A reputational approach relies on community informants to identify influential people, whether they hold formal positions or not. A positional approach identifies the key institutions in the community and who occupies positions of power in those institutions. Finally, a decision-making approach examines who or which groups of people tend to “win” on important decisions made throughout the community’s history. None of these approaches are mutually exclusive, so it makes sense to use a combination of all three (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). One major weakness of all three is that power is seen only as decision-making ability, but power “can be expressed through non-decisions as well” (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). Sometimes knowing what did not happen in a community or what was not said at a meeting tells you more about the exercise of power than knowing what did happen or what was said.

However, all three of these community power analyses only reveal power inequalities on a personal or communal level. According to Ledwith (2011), power is always operative on three levels: the personal, cultural/communal, and structural (p145). Since these levels “mutually reinforce prejudice and discrimination,” actions that do not simultaneously address all three levels will be negated (Ledwith, 2011, p145). A process is needed for unveiling power on a structural, societal level. This societal analysis is essential to community development because communities occupy a “contradictory position” in relation to the larger political economy as both necessary for its survival and simultaneously “constrained in what they can achieve in terms of shaping or transforming that economy” (DeFillips and Saegert, 2008, p3). Mtika and Bronkema (2012a) note this societal tension in their definition of community when they explain how extra-local social processes provide a general shape within which local expressions of community are formed. If the general shape provided by these external social processes is degrading to the community’s well-being, the work of community development must engage these extra-local realities so that space is made for a more just, equitable, and life-giving community expression to emerge. The process of identifying the “general shape provided by external social processes”, i.e. a structural power analysis, begins by asking questions to encourage critical thinking.

As previously noted, CCA utilizes a rich, relational, participatory approach to creating public art that is founded on and encourages dialogue. This dialogic environment is the essential foundation for critical thinking practice that empowers community members to ask questions about their lives, which unveil oppressive hegemonic structures affecting them (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b). The key is to deeply listen to the actual experiences of community members, their “little stories”, and to then ask probing questions which problematize these stories and reveal how they are connected to a “bigger story” operating on a structural level (Ledwith, 2011, p72). In order for CCA to encourage the growth of critical consciousness in its work, it must find ways to encourage this kind of critical thinking throughout its programs.

Yet, the purpose of power analyses, critical thinking, and critical consciousness is not merely to identify inequalities of power; the point is to challenge these inequalities that unjustly oppress and marginalize some for the benefit of others. This purpose calls for the practice of relational power, which is “the capacity to organize people and their institutions around common values and relationships so they can act together as one to bring about the change they desire” (Linthicum, 2003, p82). As Linthicum (2003) rightly notes, the development of relational power begins with dialogue and listening that builds trust within personal relationships, but it does not end there. Relational power “is a process for creating social capital,” says Chambers (2003),  “and keeping it in motion [emphasis added]” (p69). CCA is already very good at creating and sustaining social capital, but it should now put this community asset into motion in ways that challenge and confront internal and external inequalities of power.

While confrontation is often not a popular method for seeking change in rural, Southern towns, the kind of confrontation which encourages community development is a “healthy process that enables humans to resolve pronounced differences of opinion” (Linthicum, 2003, p170). Westoby and Dowling (2009) provide a very wise, “care-ful” approach to conflict which is resolved through dialogue with the hope that “people can listen, learn, and move towards one another, being hospitable towards the ‘other’ and therefore becoming community” (p102-3). However, when this dialogical approach to conflict is ineffective, a more explicit “action” may be called for which “seeks to call a government or business official to accountability” (Linthicum, 2003, p158-9). This kind political, critical praxis work will not be easy and it may create enemies, but it is essential work if sustainable, transformative change is desired.

As this recommendation for critical praxis and relational power concludes, it is vital to note the heart of this work: solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. Westoby and Dowling (2009) emphasize solidarity’s call “for a movement alongside and engaged with the most vulnerable people in places where they live – invisible, unsafe, distant, uncomfortable places” (p212). Solidarity is the practice of radical friendship with and among those who experience oppression and marginalization to the point of identification with and sharing in these sufferings. However, as Oliver (2009) so profoundly notes, “the only way to remain with the poor is if… we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes” (p4-5). Solidarity means discovering your own poverty and need for justice because, in the end, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [since] we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny [so that] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King, 1963). Berger and Purath both came to York as outsiders and have stayed for a decade. Their commitment to York is clear and, in a sense, they are already practicing solidarity just by living and working in this community. Therefore, this recommendation for solidarity is an exhortation to make their commitment even more radical as they identify themselves with and sacrificially love those experiencing suffering in York.

“Look What York Did!”

In my interview with Nathan Purath, he mentioned an occasion that made him especially proud of CCA’s work. A “fan” of CCA on Facebook posted an article about one of CCA’s projects with the accompanying note: “Look what York did!” (Purath, personal interview, Jan. 21, 2015). Purath, along with Berger, are right to be proud. The Coleman Center for the Arts is an outstanding, inspiring organization, which genuinely cares for the people of York and wants to see this community flourish. The Facebook comment mentioned is only one voice in a chorus of supporters within York and beyond who want to see CCA succeed because its success will lead to York’s greater well-being. It was a privilege to learn more about Berger, Purath, and CCA. I submit my analysis of their work knowing that I have barely scratched the surface of all that they do. I offer my recommendations with utmost humility, keenly aware of its shortcomings and limits. Overall, I hope my analysis and recommendations will spur further thought and dialogue as CCA moves forward with its community development work. I am proud to say that CCA is part of my home, even a part of my identity. I am thankful for its work and look forward to learning more and participating with Berger, Purath, and the CCA family in the future.

References

Association for Public Art. (n.d.). What is public art? Retrieved from http://associationforpublicart.org/public-art-gateway/what-is-public-art/

Berger, S. (2009). One Mile Garden, Bob Bingham, Robin Hewlett, and Ally Reeves. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2009/09/one-mile-meal-bob-bingham-robin-hewlett-and-ally-reeves/.

Berger, S. (2013). Open House, Matthew Mazzotta. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2013/06/open-house-matthew-mazzotta/.

Chambers, E. (2008). Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice. New York: Continuum.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-a). About. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/about/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-b). Artist Opportunities. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/artist-opportunities/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-c). People. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/people/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2009). Walton Creel, Demonstration. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2009/08/walton-creel-demonstration/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013a). Pop Up Pop Start. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2013/10/pop-up-pop-start-2/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013b). To My Dearest and Beloved Family. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2013/01/power-of-images/.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2014). SCFAC 2014. Retrieved from http://colemanarts.org/2014/03/scfac-2014/.

Cortright, J. (2001). New Growth Theory, Technology and Learning: A Practitioner’s Guide. Reviews of Economic Development Literature and Practice No. 4, United States Economic Development Administration.

DeFilippis, J. and Saeggert, S. (2008). “Communities Develop: The Question is How?” In James DeFillippis and Susan Saegert (Eds.), The Community Development Reader (1-6). New York: Routledge.

Green, G.P. and Haines. (2012). Asset Building and Community Development, 3rd edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Harrison, Thomas B. (2012). Mobile Museum of Art opens ‘I Am York,’ a 60-year retrospective for Tut Altman Riddick. Retrieved from http://www.al.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2012/07/queen_tut_mobile_museum_of_art.html.

Hustedde, Ronald, J. (2009).  “Seven theories for seven community developers.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (20-37). New York: Routledge.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.

Linthicum, R. (2003). Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012a). “Definition of Community” (unpublished).

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012b). “Dialogic Pedagogy and Critical Praxis in Community Development” (unpublished).

Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

Phillips, R. and Pittman, R.H. (2009).  “A Framework for Community and Economic Development.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (3-19). New York: Routledge.

Shaffer, R. and Summers, G.F. (1989). “Community Economic Development.” In James A. Christenson and Jerry W. Robinson, Jr. (Eds.), Community Development in Perspective (173-195). Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Silver, J. and Loxley, J. (2007). “Community Economic Development: An Introduction.” In John Loxley, Jim Silver, and Kathleen Sexsmith (Eds.), Doing Community Development (2-13). Winnipeg, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.

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Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: What Romero Says to CCDA and My Vision for Ministry [Part 6]

My vision for ministry has slowly come into focus over the past six or seven years. However, I hold the few pieces of vision I have been able to see very loosely because I want to remain open to God’s call and further clarification. My vision, as I currently see it, is to lead a Christian community development ministry in a rural town somewhere in the southeastern U.S. The notion of Christian community development was developed by John Perkins and focuses on meeting the felt needs of an underdeveloped community through a ministry of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.[1] The vision of Oscar Romero coincides well with my vision of Christian community development, but it also challenges this vision in important ways.

Romero’s vision challenges me to ground myself within an established church tradition that provides a structure of support, authority, and teaching. As was seen throughout his ministry and his pastoral letters, Romero was a man of the church – the Roman Catholic Church. His vision cannot be separated from the Catholic Church’s vision set forth by the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Conference. While he did face criticism and disunity within the church hierarchy, these struggles did not keep him from living out his vision. The idea of submitting to a church tradition creates tension with my congregation-based, Southern Baptist heritage. While I was involved with a United Methodist Church for a few years during college and came to admire the teachings of John Wesley, I was troubled by the UMC hierarchical system. However, in my study of Romero’s life, I have seen how even the most corrupt and resistant hierarchy can be a source of mutual support and encouragement. The key for Romero was in refusing to sacrifice his commitment to the Salvadoran people, especially the poorest among them, in order to protect or appease the hierarchy. Romero’s vision calls me to root myself deeply in a faith tradition that inspires me and complements my vision.

Romero’s vision also deeply challenges my view on suffering. Romero’s context for ministry was full of suffering – murders, kidnappings, and extreme poverty. As a leader of the Easter church, Romero was called to proclaim the hope of resurrection precisely in the most crucified places; he fully expected to suffer in the process. However, he did not simply take on the suffering of others as if the suffering itself was the goal. The suffering Romero expected would come in the form of persecution. Entering into crucified places and exposing the structures of sin would inevitably create a backlash from those who profit from these structures. This distinction between suffering experienced under the oppression of structural sin and the suffering of persecution which comes when those structures are confronted is extremely important, especially when considering how suffering can be said to be “redemptive.” As archbishop, Romero consistently denounced the sins of the Salvadoran government and military which caused extreme suffering. He saw no redemption in the murders, kidnapping, and oppression his people experienced under these structural sins. However, his ministry does reveal how the suffering caused by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be redemptive. Suffering, in this case, may be redemptive but it is not the source or cause of the redemption. The work of redemption is a function of grace, and grace abounds in the very places where suffering due to sin is at its very worst. Suffering can be redemptive only when it opens a person to the redeeming grace of God in the life of a community proclaiming and working towards the hope of full liberation in the reign of God.

Romero never shrank back in the face of suffering. He listened to the people and shared in their sorrow and their grieving. He did not protect himself or attempt to love his people at a distance. Instead, he cherished the solidarity he was able to experience with those under his care. This aspect of Romero’s vision coincides very well with the idea of relocation in the scheme of Christian community development. Perkins describes relocation as “moving into a needy community so that its needs become our own needs.”[2] The goal of relocation is solidarity. As I enter into suffering communities and join in the struggle against the sin at work in those places, I can experience the unity, joy, and hope that come as a result of shared suffering.

Romero called the church to be a sign and instrument of Easter to a specific people at specific time in history. The life of the world and its mass of suffering was not to be overlooked in order to pursue a purely spiritual vocation. Again, this aspect of Romero’s vision coincides well with Perkins’ development model. The ministry of Christian community development begins with the felt needs of a community and partners with the community to meet those needs first. As relationships of trust are established, the deeper, spiritual needs of the community can be addressed.[3] However, Romero’s vision of being the body of Christ in history calls the ministry of Christian community development beyond merely providing solutions to needs – physical or spiritual. Romero’s vision insists on the formation of a faith community centered on the Word of God which operates in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian community development principle of reconciliation, defined as being reconciled to God and others through the love and forgiveness of the gospel across all boundaries,[4] points in this direction but does not go far enough. This reconciliation should not be ad hoc, but should be experienced within a worshiping, practicing faith community.

Romero’s vision of the Easter church calls for the proclamation of a gospel that brings good news for the whole person and the whole society. This gospel proclamation should lead to liberation from oppressive sinful structures and an empowerment for living in a restored, new creation life. Christian community development’s notion of redistribution provides the practical content of the liberating gospel proclamation Romero demands. Perkins describes redistribution as “[sharing] with those in need… a sharing of our skills, technology, and educational resources in a way that empowers people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”[5] While faithfully engaged in this work of redistribution, Romero would remind any Christian community development that the mission of the church is first towards God, and, because God has come to save us, the church should go out and boldly proclaim and embody this message of salvation.

As I conclude, it is vital to remember that Oscar Romero never saw his vision completed. However, this was not a problem for Romero because he knew his vision was God’s vision. God would complete the work; he only needed to be obedient to God. In recent times, a prayer has come to be associated with Oscar Romero, even though it has been shown that he did not author it.[6] In any case, it beautifully captures the humble trust in God’s greater work that Romero lived so faithfully. This prayer provides an appropriate conclusion to a paper on Romero’s vision:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.[7]


[1] John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 30-37.

[2] Perkins, 36.

[3] Perkins, 34.

[4] Perkins, 37.

[5] Perkins, 37.

[6] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 154.

[7] Wright, 153-154.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Ministry as Archbishop [Part 3]

oscar-romero-iconThroughout his short ministry as archbishop of El Salvador, Romero embodied a vision of the church that stood in uncompromising solidarity with those who were suffering the most – the campesinos. He expressed this vision succinctly in one of his homilies when he described the relationship between himself and another bishop who had publicly challenged his pastoral ministry by saying, “in what is substantial we are servants of this church, which does not want to betray either the gospel or the people [emphasis added].”[1] Romero’s allegiance was never divided between the gospel and the people; for Romero, there was no gospel apart from the good news proclaimed to a specific people in need of liberation.

On several occasions as archbishop, Romero refused to betray the suffering people of El Salvador. After the murder of Father Grande along with two church members, he called a meeting of the clergy to vote on a proposal to close the schools for three days and hold a single national Mass at the cathedral as a sign of church unity and protest against the persecution of the church in response to its ministry among the neglected campesinos. The vote passed and Romero followed through with this unprecedented display of protest even in the face of stark opposition from El Salvador’s nuncio, the powerful diplomatic ambassador of the pope who was well connected to the government and the military.[2] A few months later he vetoed the nuncio’s plans for a religious ceremony, which would be attended by government officials who continually refused Romero’s pleas for justice and meaningful dialogue, because it would be “an expression lacking in solidarity with the sufferings of this church and people.”[3] He cited the same concerns for solidarity when he refused the same nuncio’s invitation to a church-government papal “coronation” ceremony in honor John Paul I, which prompted the nuncio to begin working with the cardinal and the president for Romero’s removal.[4] In all of these instances, Romero boldly displayed his unwillingness jeopardize his pastoral relationship with the campesinos, in spite of extreme criticism from the government, the media, and members of the church hierarchy.

In addition to these somewhat private refusals to betray his people, Romero regularly voiced his unflinching solidarity with the suffering, persecuted clergy and campesinos through his weekly homilies, which were broadcast nationally over the radio. As the government and its paramilitary forces continued their practice of kidnapping and murdering anyone they suspected of “communist” activity, Romero shared in the grief of his people by announcing the names of those killed and “disappeared” in his homilies.[5] In addition to this, Romero called in lawyers to investigate every report of human rights abuse and transformed his office into an open house for the people to gather and share their reports of murder and kidnapping, as well to receive advice from Romero over a cup of tea.[6]

Romero’s courageous unmasking of lies and his prophetic denouncement of violence and injustice grew directly from his ministry among the people as their pastor.[7] Even while the conflict raged, Romero’s time was mostly consumed with pastoral work concerning the ministry of catechesis, word, and sacraments in his archdiocese.[8] This pastoral dedication was a consistent feature throughout Romero’s ministry; one that would transform him from a pious, conservative friend of the powerful into an unabashed voice for justice and peace on behalf of the suffering. In order to fulfill his overwhelming desire as a pastor “to be faithful to what God asks,” Romero was willing to adapt his vision of the church in order to become a source of hope to his suffering flock.[9] The conviction with which Romero practiced solidarity with the poor and oppressed is an essential aspect of his vision. With every decision he made as a church leader, he carefully guarded his ability to minister faithfully as a pastor among a suffering people and always let their voices speak louder than his own.


[1] James R. Brockman, S. J., Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 96.

[2] Brockman, Romero, 12-13, 16.

[3] Ibid., 102.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 91,92.

[6] Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, directed by Ann Carrigan and Juliet Weber (2011; Notre Dame, IN: Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, First Run Features, 2011), DVD.

[7] Brian J. Pierce, “Romero, Resistance, and Resurrection,” Living Pulpit 14, no. 2 (April 1, 2005): 15.

[8] Brockman, Romero, 149-150.

[9] Brockman, “The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero,” 312.

Henri Nouwen on Prayer and Action

Prayer and action… can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.

Henri Nowen in Compassion