2017 Conference Reflections: Indi McCasey

Last year's Conference for Community Arts Education in the Bay Area brought together staff, students, administrators, funders, policymakers, and stakeholders representing over 400 organizations from 40 states, Canada, and South Korea. Each year, the Guild is humbled by the amount of expertise, inspiration, enthusiasm, and joy that our delegates bring to the Conference experience. As a way to highlight those delegate voices, we are sharing a series of 2017 Conference Reflections.

Below, Indi McCasey, a creative educator and community catalyst in Oakland, CA, shares his thoughts on social justice at the Guild Conference and the rumblings of a movement.

As someone born and raised in the Bay Area, having the 2017 Conference for Community Arts Education in San Francisco this year felt like a homecoming. Since attending the 2017 Conference planning meeting at the Mission Cultural Center, I’ve been excited to show off the brilliance of local creative educators, artists, and activists of all ages. At the same time, it seemed like San Francisco could serve as a catalyst for difficult conversations given the hotbed of issues surrounding efforts to continue cultural legacies and sustain creative communities in the face of gentrification and displacement.

When Hasan Davis described himself as a “hope dealer” in the opening plenary and challenged the audience by asking us if our work in community arts is more “hospice or hope?”, I knew that this conference would not shy away from issues of social justice. His bold statement that he became a lawyer in order to better understand the system and that “we need to take control of those environments to do the work of justice” made me think about my own interest in better understanding school systems in order to move the climate and culture of schools to one that centers students and their families rather than criminalizes them. Hasan made me wonder if my work in arts education was trying to simply ease the suffering of those who are most vulnerable, our young people and elders, with fun arts experiences or whether my work supports the use of art and creativity as tools to collaboratively envision a more just future?

This question reverberated again with Robyne Walker Murphy’s session, aptly named Are You Ready to Be Radical?, when she referenced a quote from filmmaker Ava DuVernay: “I believe that art is seeing a world that doesn’t exist yet.” In Robyne’s session she spoke of the importance of “narrative shifting” and we discussed the example of challenging the notion of “at-risk”. While this term is often applied as a euphemism for Black and Brown youth whose families endure socially sanctioned poverty, we wondered if there were also behaviors that affluent, white youth might be “at-risk” of developing that could keep them from growing into self-reflective, compassionate people?

And I saw manifestations of a narrative shift around our work at this year’s conference.

I saw it in the grappling around the language and methodologies of the emerging field of Creative Youth Development.

I saw it in the recognition of Lara Davis’ leadership in the arts and her unwavering commitment to racial justice.

I saw it in the forum between Hasan Davis and James Horton, the first time I had seen James share his wealth of knowledge on the conference stage after years of working magic behind the scenes.

I felt this shift in the day-long Racial Equity Institute at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland. A multi-racial group of 60 community arts practitioners came together and spend time in affinity groups that mirrored the recently formed Guild Networks: the ALANNA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) Network and the White Co-Conspirator Network. Both networks strive to support the leadership of people of color and the building of racial literacy to work collectively towards social change and racial justice within our field. While the facilitators learned a lot in the process, we were also grateful for the opportunity to spend the afternoon using theater, movement, and small group conversations to engage around issues of equity, challenging power dynamics, and white privilege.

I especially felt this movement in the riveting performance at the Saturday morning awards breakfast by emerging artists ages 13-24 from Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, Mosaic in Detroit, and Raw Art Works in Lynn, MA. Like many in the audience, I felt tears in my eyes during the collaborative performance of “All Good People” with the lyric "We can't hold our breath forever when our brothers (and sisters) cannot breathe."

As an ambassador of the Guild, I feel shaken and awakened by all of these moments. They communicate the rumblings of a movement. It’s a movement that resists the fear that permeates our current national conversation, by calling for a future that involves a more collaborative, intergenerational approach to leadership. It’s a movement shaped by those most vulnerable in our society including young people and elders of color, artists and educators, and newcomers to this country. It’s a movement that honors the legacies of those who came before us while also acknowledging their harmful mistakes. I see the potential for the Guild to convene all of us to learn together so that we may be better prepared to listen, to grow, and to hope.

Published: January 08, 2018