Sunday, March 30, 2014

Interview with Judi Jennings

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………"

Bio:  Judi Jennings is the Executive Director of the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW), a private, independent philanthropy supporting feminist art for social change. Formed in 1985, KFW provides grants and retreat space to feminist social change artists developing new skills and to feminist artists and allies directly engaging with communities to advance justice and equality in Kentucky.

Jennings earned a Ph.D. in British History from the University of Kentucky and continues to research and write on abolitionism and radicalism in the eighteenth-century. She also served as the founding director of the University of Louisville Women’s Center and worked at Appalshop, Inc., a nonprofit multidisciplinary arts and education center in the heart of Appalachia that inspires and supports communities’ to solve their own problems in just and equitable ways.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  The modern feminist movement had its antecedents in the early 20th Century suffrage struggle.  In the 1960’s and 70’s Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others helped redefine the movement to embrace a host of issues of importance to women’s equality.  How would you define or characterize ‘feminism’ today?  What are the key areas that are most in need of attention?  What successes and what failures?

Judi:  As a recovering academic, I greatly appreciate your references to these s-heroes of the modern women’s movement. Feminist writer Sallie Bingham, who established the Kentucky Foundation for Women, is a personal friend of Gloria Steinem. So the foundation has a direct connection and deep debt of gratitude to women leaders of the 1960s and 70s.

As a social justice historian, I will add that today’s women’s movement goes back much further than the suffragists. Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies appeared in 1405, and de Pizan is an early example of a single working mother. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, it is also important to remember women leaders who worked for racial and economic justice. For example, Ella Baker  and Mary Harris (Mother) Jones are big in my pantheon of feminist s-heroes.

For me, feminism today is an essential component of global efforts to further social justice for all people. My definition of feminism includes female, male and transgender folks working to advance political, economic, cultural and social equality, as well as those focusing on gender equality. I believe that women’s rights and human rights are one and the same. Feminist successes include leading and participating in the ever-growing national and international movements for social justice and making gender justice an essential component of global human rights.  Feminist failure is that we have not yet built the unity necessary to achieve justice and equality for all, even in the US.

Barry:  The mission of the Kentucky Foundation for Women is to “promote positive social change by supporting varied feminist expression in the arts.”   What specifically are the needs of ‘feminist artists’ and are those needs different from the needs of artists in general?  What are the key challenges to women arts administrators?

Judi:  The needs of feminist artists are the same as the needs of all artists, and the needs of all artists are the same as the needs of all humans. Human needs and rights include: safety, respect, a living wage, affordable housing, and the right to cultural expression.

Because of structural inequalities, women in general, and women of color and poor women especially, have less access to resources and opportunities to fulfill their basic human needs. KFW focuses on women and girls in Kentucky to address the systemic inequality here. We focus on feminist expression in the arts because it is a powerful force to reveal inequalities and inspire change.

Women arts administrators face the same challenges as all women, such as unequal pay and racial discrimination. The fact that there are lots of women arts administrators can mask the fact that having more women working for unequal wages may not represent progress. There is also racial inequality in the field of arts administration. So the biggest challenge is advancing equity for all arts administrators because that is the best way to make sure women arts administrators are being treated equally.

Barry:  Obviously, not all women artists define their art as linked to social change.  Why have you focused your energy on that sub-set of artists?

Judi:  Sallie Bingham’s vision for the Kentucky Foundation for Women focused on feminist artists working to advance positive social change. The power of art for social change is not always well understood, but I can see it plainly on the local level and in other places like Kentucky that have a rich culture but a poor economy. Kentucky’s culture has been stereotyped and denigrated to excuse the economic exploitation of our people, but culture and community are still strong here. Feminist artists are drawing on Kentucky culture as a pathway to transformative social change. For example, Mitzi Sinnot’s one-woman play Snapshot, explores themes of race, gender and the impact of the Vietnam War on her and her Appalachian family.

Barry:  The NEA essentially got out of the business of direct support for artists back during the culture wars of the 1990’s. They still haven’t moved in that direction.  What would you like to see the agency do to support artists in general and feminist artists for social change in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see the NEA put in staff time and financial resources to make a national case for the power of arts and culture to advance the public good and to demonstrate the important roles artists play in creating a better quality of life for everyone. The NEA could develop and articulate a theory of change about why support for artists is good for the nation. The NEA could help expand the definition of artists to include culture bearers and community-based artmaking and commit to ensuring equal access to artists everywhere of every background, including feminist social change artists. The NEA could demonstrate its belief in the value of art by reinstating funding for individual artists, either directly or through intermediaries.

Barry:  The issues of equity and racism have gotten substantial play in the past few years with increased funder interest in addressing the inequities.  You’ve written about that issue and argued that “rural” artists and arts organizations are part of the inequity of funding and support too.  What are the specific challenges facing feminist artists of color, and particularly in the rural communities and how do you think those challenges might be best addressed?

Judi:  When you look at structural inequalities of all kinds, including access to philanthropic resources, you can see layers of inequities at play, including, gender, race and geography. Holly Sidford’s report for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shook up the field and startled some by documenting that 2% of arts organizations receive over half of the sector’s total revenue and primarily serve predominantly white and upper income audiences.

Inequities based on geography may be harder to see, depending on where you live, but structural poverty plagues rural areas worldwide.  Rural poverty is often invisible in the US because rural people still do not have equal access to digital communication tools. The Center for Rural Strategies, based in Kentucky, works to build a stronger voice on behalf of rural communities through the innovative use of media and communications. Art of the Rural, a national collaborative organization, is working to articulate the shared realities of rural and urban areas and strengthen the emerging rural art and culture movement.

KFW recently partnered with Art of the Rural to map more than 40 feminist artists in rural areas and small towns in Kentucky working for positive social change.

The Grassroots Women’s Project, for example, is digitally publishing
The Notebook: A Progressive Journal About Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots .   Stories From Da Dirt is a cultural education program based in rural western Kentucky that is bringing to light stories of African American resistance to slavery and female freedom seekers.

The stories of rural women of color are seldom heard in the mainstream media because of the overlapping structural inequalities of race and place. Having access to communication tools to tell your own story is a powerful part of social change. Creating new platforms for a wider array of people’s stories is an essential step in addressing inequalities and creating new pathways for advancing social justice.

Barry:  While Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have paid lip service to support for the arts, the arts remain, as Bill Ivey observed in farewell remarks after leaving the NEA, “the province of the East Wing” (the First Lady’s domain as opposed to the West Wing where policy is made) - the inference being that the “arts” are (only) women’s work (in the most pejorative sense).  Do you think a female President of the United States would really change that reality?  How do we deal with marginalization of the arts?

Judi:  A female President of the US could definitely change current realities.  Look at
Annise Parker, the Mayor of Houston, for example. She recently announced an exciting new cultural plan with substantial funding for the arts.

She is a woman who obviously understands the power of arts and culture. I believe this kind of consciousness is a better determinant in lifting up art and culture than the President’s gender, however. I also believe that transformative change requires local participation as well as a strong national leader.

Arts policy blogger Arlene Goldbard is a leading voice for creative ways to address the marginalization of the arts. I love how she is working with Adam Horowitz to develop the idea of a US Department of Arts and Culture!

I agree with Ken Wilson of the Christensen Fund that a too narrow definition of the arts is a major contributor to marginalization, Wilson argues that,  “One of the challenges is that art tends to be defined as creativity professionalized and separated from daily life. It is important to study the cultural dimension to arts funding which includes how people live with creativity and traditions in their daily life.

Barry:  What would you like to see your fellow philanthropic foundation colleagues do to be more supportive of artists in general, and feminist artists in particular?

Judi:  I would like to see my colleagues take more time to understand how arts and culture philanthropy itself may be perpetuating systemic inequalities that can have negative impacts on people of color and poor people. Inequalities in arts and cultural funding are often attributed to standards of “quality,” but I believe it is really more about power than aesthetics. The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond  compares structural inequalities to a big foot kicking communities in the backside. PISB challenges philanthropists to conduct our own power analysis to see how arts and cultural programs we fund may be part of that big foot. I believe the most important thing we can do as funders is to analyze our own practices and assumptions to be sure we are providing equitable access to all communities.

Barry:  How do you nurture innovation and risk taking by your grantees?

Judi:  KFW funds mostly individual artists in a state where many people still know each other personally. KFW tells the feminist artists we fund that we believe in them and the power of their work to create change. The artists tell us all the time that this affirmation is as important as the money we give. We believe in the power of small grants, so artists can try out new ideas and take chances. We do not require a work sample for our retreat program, so artists can experiment with new forms and ideas. In the grant program, we accept their definition of risk and innovation in their own context instead of imposing some artificial standard.  Last year, for example, Afrilachian (African American and Appalachian) writer Bianca Spriggs and photographer Angel Clark presented a courageous performance piece and installation honoring 13 women and girls who were lynched in Kentucky in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Barry:  Assess the current level of collaboration and cooperation by and between funders to address the needs of women artists, and what might be done to promote more collaboration and cooperation in address their needs?

Judi:  I believe that grant seekers are connecting the dots between funders more quickly than philanthropies are at this point. A local elected official in Louisville, for example, commissioned an artist in her neighborhood, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, to transform an abandoned apartment building into a symbol of the rebirth of their distressed community.  By doing this work, the artist learned about KFW and subsequently applied for and received a grant for her studio work.

Some national foundations are beginning to be more intentional about reaching out to artists in states like Kentucky. The Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York, for example, identifies nominators across the US to submit names for their Painters and Sculptors Grant Program.  In 2013, talented painter and KFW grantee Gaela Erwin received one of their $25,000 grants.

KFW staff works with independent peer panels to make recommendations about funding decisions to our Board of Directors. We often ask foundations who share our mission, like the Leeway Foundation to recommend artists to participate on our review panels. It takes time, energy and respect for artists and cultural workers in a wide variety of locations and contexts to make collaboration work, but these are encouraging signs of what can be done.

Barry:  Are you satisfied with the level of focus on feminist artists in the burgeoning field of art and social change, and what more needs to be done to insure that women artists are fully seated at the table where art and social change is discussed?

Judi:  Thanks for asking this question because it is an important one, but I would like to widen it to include all practitioners having access to that table. I believe that it is crucially important for artists and cultural workers from all backgrounds to be included in discussions about funding, especially when the subject is social change. However, some funders are not comfortable with those who may be or become grantseekers as part of their discussions. The newly formed Art, Culture and Social Justice Network that I am part of welcomes practitioners as well as funders in their discussions. The Steering Committee includes strong women artists, such as Tufara Waller Muhammad, a cultural organizer for the Highlander Center. The best way to make sure feminist artists are at the table is to work for equal access for all.

Barry:  What role ought feminist artists who are committed to social change play in the overall ‘placemaking’ efforts of the arts?  Are feminist artists seated at those tables?

Judi:  Feminist artists in Kentucky are doing the hard work of placemaking in their communities every day with very little funding or recognition from mainstream power brokers. For example, Arwen Donahue is creating an on-going online journal, which also includes sketches, about her life on a family farm in a small rural community. She is also doing a series of oral history interviews exploring the work of Kentucky’s agrarian writers. Her work is not only placemaking in her home community, but also about making the power of rural art and cultural more visible nationally and globally.

Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, has made great contributions to the field with his thoughtful analysis of placemaking.  An important theme in Beodya’s work is placemaking and the politics of belonging. Kentucky writer bell hooks also writes about belonging: a culture of place, and the theme is explored in Arwen Donohue’s journal. In my experience, much of the current national placemaking efforts are funder-driven and disconnected from many artists and cultural workers at the community level. These funder-led initiatives have their own economic systems and leadership that too often do not often intersect or support the work that feminist social change artists are doing in their communities.

Barry:  Who are the leaders of the movement to support women artists and are they carrying forth that banner effectively?

Judi:  First and foremost, I salute Martha Richards of WomenArts who truly has worked tirelessly in the fields of arts and women’s philanthropy locally and nationally to hold up the importance of supporting women artists. For example, she is the brain behind the idea of SWAN Day (Support Women Artists Now), a day devoted to locally organized celebrations of women’s culture and creativity. There have been more than 1,000 events in 23 countries since Martha invented SWAN Day seven years ago.

Philanthropic siloes have created largely separate fields for funding the arts and funding women.  As far as I know the Kentucky Foundation for Women and our sister fund, the Leeway Foundation led by Denise Brown, are the only two philanthropic organizations in the US entirely focused on funding women and the arts (WomenArts is not yet a grantmaking organization).

Denise Brown and I are both active in the Art, Culture and Social Justice Network. As you have given me the opportunity to say throughout this interview, I believe the most effective way to advance equitable funding for women artists is to work for equitable funding for all artists.

Barry:  What are the qualities of leadership that we need more of in our field?  What makes for an effective leader?

Judi:  I had the honor of co-editing a book about the most effective leader I know, Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia.  Helen took part in the YWCA’s desegregation efforts in Georgia in the 1940s; earned a Ph.D in sociology and spoke out against the environmental devastation of Appalachia in the 50’s and 60s; inspired the development of Appalachian studies in the 70s; and worked at the Appalshop arts and education center and the Highlander Research and Education Center in the 80s and 90s. Although now retired, Helen still writes and speaks out for social justice, for example, calling for a moral economy for Appalachia 

Helen sets high standards for effective leadership in all fields and enacts the qualities I think we need more of in our own.  Here are a few: humility; faith in the power of all people to make their lives better given equal opportunities; a strong moral compass; sense of humor; focus on achieving social change rather than recognition. Plus she is a great cook, likes to travel and loves to dance. What more can I say?

Barry:  You’ve talked before about “scale” as being principally governed by local factors and that it ought to be considered and judged on those local considerations.  But in a wider sense, how do we move support for individual artists (all artists) to a much larger support base?  Is such widespread support merely an aggregation of localized efforts, or is it something bigger and more complex?

Judi:  Great question! My theory of social change is that lasting transformational change must begin at the local level and cannot happen top down. I wrote a book on a small committee of men who wanted to abolish the British slave trade in 1784, when very few people agreed. Four of them lived to see Parliament vote to end the trade in 1807

Transformational change from the bottom up is not just about aggregating localized efforts, although that is a very important step. A bigger part of the equation is about building, connecting and transforming at every level of engagement. Margaret Mead, perhaps most famously, never doubted that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens could change the world. To quote Ken Wilson again, the Christensen Fund operates globally but understands that  “you don’t get transformational results without engaging at the community level.” The Seventh Generation Fund operates globally by connecting indigenous people around the world working for local change.

Regional social justice organizations like AppalshopAlternate ROOTS, and the Highlander Research and Education Center play major roles in building transformational connections throughout the South and other parts of the nation and world. The process of connecting localities involves identifying shared structural inequities and finding synergies. For example, demonstrating how building a for-profit prison in Appalachia affected Hawaiian women who were housed there.

Arts and Democracy is a decentralized network that works nationally to build the growing movement linking arts and culture, participatory democracy and social justice. Through their network-building approach, they are connecting community-based creative practice with policymaking and systemic change.

Barry:  What successes (yours or those of others) gives you optimism that there is meaningful understanding and support for the value of artists and the arts in America?

Judi:  I am very optimistic about meaningful change through arts and culture in our country. Here are three great examples:

The Detroit-based Allied Media Projects.  AMP cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative and collaborative world. And they also work in a way that honors community-based and intergenerational work.

MicroFest USA presented by the Network of Ensemble Theatres, a series of four local explorations of the similarities and differences in place-based artmaking advancing social justice in Detroit, Appalachia, New Orleans and Hawaii.

Junebug Theatre’s 50th anniversary of The Free Southern Theatre, designed by John O’Neal, Doris Derby and Gilbert Moses as a cultural and educational extension of the Civil Rights movement in the US South.  Who knew that Roscoe Orman, who plays Gordon on Sesame Street, was one of the courageous actors in the early days of the theatre?

Barry:  Conversely, what worries you most about the continued marginalization of the value of the arts by the American public?

Judi:  I am most worried about the corporatization of more and more aspects of American life. Fueled by consumerism and out and out greed, corporatization seeps forward into government services, higher education, health care and even the nonprofit sector. I am proud to say community-based arts and culture is a major site of resistance to these pernicious corporatizing processes.

Barry:  There are programs out there that are trying to nurture and support young women in their pursuit of an artistic career. The League of American Orchestras newly announced initiative to increase early career women composers through a series of orchestral readings and commissions - in cooperation with Ear Shot and funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Program for Commissioning Women in the Performing Arts being but one specific example.  What other notable projects would you cite as focusing on young women artists, and what is being done to try to provide mentorship of those younger women by the more established women artists in the field?

Judi:  Hurray for the Viriginia B. Toulmin Foundation! That is an exciting new program!
Most of the mentoring programs for women artists that I know about are field-based rather than funder-based. This is another good reason why it is important for funders to interact with the field. A few strong discipline-based programs that I know about are:  Women Make Movies,  the International Center for Women Playwrights , and the Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College in Chicago.

Anticipating your next question to some extent, I would like to put in a plug for youth-based programs like The Kentucky Center Governor’s Schools for the Arts.  Although this program is not focused on girls only, I see many young feminists finding their voices, deepening their artistry and embracing their identities as artists and cultural workers through the opportunity to interact with peers who appreciate their talents.
The Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop provides young people in the coalfields with opportunities to tell the stories that matter to them. The Institute focuses on how young people can be engaged in their communities and advance positive social change through place-based mediamaking.

Barry:  Do feminist artists of social change have a role in arts education and what is that role?

Judi:  Yes, definitely. Many artists and cultural bearers who receive grants from KFW’s Art Meets Activism program are doing arts education both inside and outside schools. By this time, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I believe this kind of intergenerational arts interaction is most powerful at the community level. Here are a few examples:

A teacher started an after-school writing program for middle school girls, who write about and discuss such important issues as bullying, anger management, relationships and compassion.

In an Appalachian area of Kentucky, two feminists are conducting monthly Artisan Women Retreats, community gatherings focused on learning more about the craft traditions, like quiltmaking and gourd art, that have long defined the region but are in danger of disappearing with the current generation of elders.

In far western Kentucky, a classically trained teacher at a regional university is bringing together young dancers of all levels of physical ability from rural schools and communities to create public performances that build bridges through dance

Barry:  Assess the current situation in research and data collection as the same relates to women artists and feminist artists.  What kinds of information and data do we need more of, and what advice do you have for the arts research community?

Judi:  There is a huge dearth of demographic information, including race and gender, relating to arts and cultural funding in this country. Moreover, individuals, small organizations and fiscal agents are not included in large-scale data collection. The arts research community could work with local funders and state arts agencies to collect a wider spectrum of information relating to all artists and to grantmaking with awards of less than $10,000. National arts and cultural policymaking efforts are incomplete without this information. How can we even have a meaningful national conversation about equity and appropriate levels of scale without this information?

Barry:  In the earliest days of the modern feminist movement, a percentage of men, (and women too) were put off and threatened by the rhetoric.  One might argue that we’ve come a long way, but it is still a white male dominated society so one might also argue that the progress has been slow and marginal.  What is your take on how far we have come and how far we have to go?

Judi:  Yes, I know feminist rhetoric has sometimes been off putting. Many women of my generation, including me, learned that the hard way. In the 1970s, some of us hurt and alienated our middle class friends who gave up their careers to stay home with their children only to feel devalued by the women’s movement. A hard lesson learned.

But mainly I think feminism is scary now because just saying the word is a call for structural social change, and change is scary. Recognizing feminism means being willing to give up the race, class and gender privilege you may currently enjoy. So it is way easier for bigots like Rush Limbaugh to make fun of feminists than it is to really look at the inequalities that feminists are pointing to. I really believe the backlash to feminism now is a testament to the growth of the national movement for equality for all.

I acknowledge, too, that feminists don’t always make the case for across the board equality for all (especially including underprivileged white men). So some people see us as a special interest group rather than a social justice ally. So we social justice feminists just need to keep on being more explicit that we stand for equality for all people.

Barry:  Who inspires you and why?

Judi:  Helen Matthews Lewis (see above)

Grace Lee Boggs is 98 and still speaking out for justice and equality. A philosopher and civil rights activist, her book The Next American Revolution is a must read for those who believe in the power of art and culture for social change.

Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. Nikky lived and worked in Kentucky for many years before returning home to South Carolina last year. She embodies in her life and every day actions the powerful words she spoke to the nation.

Afrilachian writer and KFW community member Frank X Walker winning the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Poetry for his new book Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.  Frank is the current Poet Laureate of Kentucky and writes powerful poetry memorializing local and national African American heritage.

The 2014 Girls IdeaFestival happening in Louisville this spring. The Louisville Girls Leadership program is made up of high school students from across our community who work together on creative solutions to the challenges faced by young women here. One of the girls recently wrote an op-ed for our newspaper explaining why she is a feminist.

Thank you Judi.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit