Baltimore Town Hall Meeting—Facilitated by Nato Thompson and Daniel Tucker, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: THE NATIONAL CAMPAIGN

Baltimore Town Hall Meeting—Facilitated by Nato Thompson and Daniel Tucker, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA: THE NATIONAL CAMPAIGN

“Town Hall” conversations were held in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City in March 2008. Selected organizers, artists, and activists across a broad spectrum of cultural communities discussed five questions pertaining to strategic local and national activist concerns.

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Question #1:
Who is your audience and how does your work mobilize them towards strategic local concerns?

NICK PETR: The Indypendent Reader project (indyreader.org) needs an audience of readers to survive. Our readers have to support us and keep us funded, and so it’s really important that we have a very broad, large audience. The easy audience for us is the people in this room, and the network of activists and politically minded artists in Baltimore. The more difficult audience to get is people living outside of the Charles Street corridor where it’s hard for us to distribute because of a lack of locations that we can rely on. We need an audience of wealthier readers, because they can afford to keep us funded, so we need to appeal to upper middle-class, progressive-thinking people (LAUGHTER) in Baltimore. We’re always thinking about audience; we have to present the work that’s inside these 16 pages in a way that appeals to a large group of people. It’s written by academics, researchers, community organizers, residents and local artists; there has to be variety because it’s the only way that we can really keep people engaged. At the same time, we don’t really know who our audience is because we’re just putting something out there, and it’s really difficult for us to track who’s reading it or what locations are just throwing it out after a week. Our donations are still low, so maybe we’re not actually reaching the audience that we need (LAUGHTER). The question of audience is something we think about a lot and we try to get as many people interested in what we’re doing as possible. But it’s something that’s tough to accurately track.

KATE KHATIB: When we opened Red Emma’s one of the things we wanted to do was make it more high-profile and really try and get it into peoples’ consciousness and into the center of the city. We found that our audience for the work that we do is not just anarchists and radicals and not just the kind of people that usually hang around info shops and projects like this. So we’ve started to bring in a much, much wider audience. One of the things we like to say about Red Emma’s is that it’s kind of like anarchy for grownups. It’s trying to put a different face on the kinds of radical work that we believe in, that we like to support, and that we do in our project, and that’s one thing that I think we’ve been real successful with. One of the biggest events that we organize over the course of the year is the Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair, which draws in thousands of people from all over the mid-Atlantic region. It takes place here, or at least it did last year, and it’s an event where you see people from all different parts of the community coming together to talk about issues and strategize and try and find ways to work productively together. That’s a pretty important part of what we try and do.

MICHAEL BENEVENTO: We’re in a downtown storefront that we wouldn’t normally have access to. There is the usual art-going crowd, but there are also the average passersby. To them we’re this weird storefront that goes out of business and reopens every month. I enjoy that aspect and try to structure and target exhibitions that break down the hesitation of viewers. People who don’t normally come to these types of venues peek in through the door or the window thinking, “Am I supposed to buy something? Should I go in if I’m not able to do that?” It’s not really our intention; it’s more of a space to present ideas or questions, mostly.

REBECCA YENAWINE: In response to mobilizing audiences towards a strategic goal: at the organization that I’m a co-director of, Kids on the Hill, our work around the police department has been particularly powerful and interesting. Just uttering the word police around young people we discovered they had millions of stories to tell about brutality and harassment, so the idea of working with the police was really out of the question. But we’ve grown in the work and we actually got some funding to do something; initially, we only got a little funding to do work on crime prevention, and so it really forced us to kind of sit in the room and think about it and talk about it in a different way. Currently, young people are working on two aspects of the problem: first off, they wanted to reach police officers to see how they could encourage them to be more sensitive to young people and understand youth culture. At the first meeting that we had with police, they realized that police certainly have a lot to learn, but they also have a lot to learn, too. When they heard police officers that work on the beat say, “If you fit the description, I’m sorry, call it racial profiling, but I’m gonna stop you and find out what you’re doing.” So in the process they had to really learn all of the perspectives in order to be able to problem-solve what would be an effective message. I think the first step to mobilizing is seeing all angles on an issue. And for young people, for everybody, I think that involves a lot of self-reflection, seeing where you are as part of a problem. I think that’s part of what we do as artists; we always have to look at ourselves, ask ourselves “what’s my lens on this issue?” as artists who are also activists.

NICHOLAS WISNIEWSKI: There are many layers of audiences. Ideally, everyone who comes by is a potential audience. But in terms of this project in particular we’re working on in east Baltimore, we have the residents who live in the neighborhood who are our primary audience that we want to engage in a sort of bottom-up planning process about the space. For instance, how could this space be used for the good of all who are living in the area? We’re also marketing or trying to strategize to secure funding for it, so then foundations and other financial institutions become an audience. It’s difficult, and we don’t have a specific campaign, per se, in the way that I think most activist groups who do more traditional forms of action like door-knocking and flyering do. We thought that we would try to do it differently in a way that was a humble presence in the area. We tried to just go there every day and engage people on a person-to-person basis, talk to them about what we’re doing and find out what issues are of concern to people. That’s been our strategy so far for building an audience. A better way of putting it would be participation in the process itself.

GIN FERRARA: I’ll say a little bit about the Who Are You? Youth Media Festival ">www.whoareyoufest.org]. We’ve created this space for young people and students, who are our primary audience. To have them think about a bigger audience of young people in the festival is really interesting, because then they have to start thinking about what do people want to see, what do we want to see, what do we want to show? Initially, it was just this idea of a celebration of youth work, but the young people have started to suggest that since we have 500 people in one space for two hours, plus weeks of CENTERSTAGE theater-goers coming through and looking at the work that maybe this is a really good time to educate the audience a little bit about what’s going on for young people. So, they’re going to actually develop statistics to use for this purpose. They’re going to use the existing statistics but challenge them with other statistics that they’ve developed that are not just how poor kids are or how many of them are dropping out of school, but how many of them are doing good things and what some of those bigger issues connected to the negative statistics that you see a lot in the media are. They’re really hoping to appeal not only to just young people and families as the audience for that, but also the policy-makers and educators, etcetera.

Question #2:
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy affect your art practice? Or another way to look at it is, how do you work to obtain and share resources?

POLLY RHYTHMS: This whole thing about the way the money works is really why we do what we do in Fusion. It emerged out of work that I’ve done for a long time in racial justice and economic justice in the context of how money flows through. Sometimes I don’t know where to begin on this issue because it makes me so mad and angry. We’re a 501c3 and we’re trying to help people to use our 501c3 so they can get access to money—money that is private money, but should really be public money. If you know anything about the history of foundations, they are built from rich peoples’ money, which is protected from taxes, and that money should really be public money. That alone is kind of why we do what we do. Not only do we try to give people access to money, especially grassroots people trying to start stuff, but we also try to share the resources. We bring our people together: every month we have potlucks where we try to get people who are doing similar work to meet each other and collaborate and share resources. I think it’s the only way to organize it, at least that foundation. I think Baltimore’s a very tight assed—excuse my French—foundation community, as far as controlling money. They’re all very incestuous with each other, that’s just the bottom line. We focus on trying to organize ourselves to beat that.

SCOTT BERZOFSKY: There is a real absence in Baltimore of a collector market and a commercial gallery scene. As a result, people who come out of art school or who are artists that are interested in pursuing a career in the commercial art world tend to leave and go somewhere like New York. The people who stay here are motivated by different desires. It’s interesting to see how many people here who are former art students are working in nonprofits or doing something that maybe compensates for the lack of arts funding. That’s what we’ve been doing with this garden project through partnering with Fusion, which has been a great resource. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to ; everybody knows that it’s a lot of work and takes a lot of money to establish a 501c3. What they do by providing fiscal sponsorship for grassroots organizations is really helpful, and we’ve been able to apply for grants and receive funding for the project by partnering with them.

JOHN DUDA: It’s really a challenge to finance things in Baltimore; it’s really quite difficult to see how one could actually go about not just managing to get the foundation grant or private donor that comes through, but to actually come up with concrete ways of thinking about our practices in a way that they become self-financing and self-sustaining in ways so that we’re not dependent on outside sources. That’s really been a challenge with the space 2640. We’re working on trying to bring in money to do this space. We do all sorts of things to raise money: We throw concerts, we rent the space out to people who just want to have a private party, and we say, “OK, great, we can take that money and then we can turn around and throw a benefit for Iraq Veterans Against the War the next week.” It’s a way of getting money not just to do individual things, but trying to get money coming through in such a way that it becomes self-supporting. A lot of what we’re trying to do here comes out of what we did before at Red Emma’s, where we had the model of a worker collective where people are equally in it and each getting a little bit of money out of it. A model where people are able to have a little bit of pocket change, and some people are able to pay most of their rent out of the project, but we’re also able to generate some money that’s extra, that’s on top of that. There is a little surplus accumulation of capital that we’ve got going. Instead of it just going into somebody’s pocket or just dissipating out into various consumer goods we’re able to take that little bit of money that individually would’ve been nothing to us, pool it together, and then throw it towards what we did at this space. When we came into this space, essentially the people who owned the building had abandoned it. They had lost the capacity to deal with half of this gigantic old building, it was trashed, it was a wreck, it needed a lot of work, it needed a lot of time and basic materials like floor varnish. It was necessary to come up with all this basic stuff to get the ball rolling to where it is now: a functional, productive space again. We had that money because we were able to draw on a preexisting collective structure. We were able to take our little bit of solidarity and throw it in somewhere else as a seed. That’s one of the things that I would like to see more in Baltimore—not just figuring out ways to talk to each other, but also figuring out ways to materially support each other. Figuring out ways to support ourselves so that we’re not always scrambling to get money from the outside, but we can actually come up with practices that are self-sustaining, that actually have not only a basis in our passion for social justice but actually have a basis in an economy of solidarity. That’s a huge challenge but I think it’s really necessary. There’s a disastrous attack on the public sphere and an attack on the ways in which we live our lives, and I feel that we really need to be thinking large-scale about how reinvent all of this from the ground up, to make it more just and more equitable.

GIN FERRARA: We’re a nonprofit and we’ve been around for eight years, but I started with a fellowship, and it was scary. We figured out a lot about funding, but we were always running into the same crap, which is this idea that we have to defend ourselves for wanting to get paid for the work we’re doing, to have enough resources to do the work that needs to be done programmatically, rent, snacks—you need to have snacks for young people. It’s insane and it’s maddening the amount of time you spend. I’m in an office position now, but I didn’t start off that way. But I was willing to take on that chore to make sure that all the other stuff could happen. The thing I wanted to talk about briefly is that right now there’s a really interesting movement happening with the youth organizations in Baltimore called the Peer to Peer Enterprise Fund. We’re really sick of getting funding in dribs and drabs from the city or the state, which is structured around “this many youth, this many hours, this much money per youth.” There’s a very small amount of money for the amount of work that has to go into this. When you run a youth-serving organization you have to cover all your bases in a legal way that’s different than working in other aspects. But what’s really interesting is that all of these nonprofits that serve young people are coming together, and what we’re doing is redefining what the funding needs to be. We’re actually creating a fund, and we’re telling the funders what we want the fund to be. We’re getting some private donations, we’re getting endorsement from the CEO of the school system, and we’re meeting with the City Council Budget Committee soon and hopefully we’re going to get a line item for this. So it’s one of those examples of organizing that worked really well. I think everyone had an extremely clear idea of what they wanted, and we’ve been meeting for over a year now to do this. It’s taken a long time to process but it’s pretty exciting. I’m hoping that in getting through this we actually might have created a blueprint for other groups of like-minded projects to work together.

REBECCA YENAWINE: I wasn’t sure how to answer this question without being really angry (LAUGHTER) because the funding situation is so discouraging—we’re in our eleventh year of begging for money. I’ve realized in the last couple of years that funders who are in the position to think strategically about the issues in Baltimore really lack that vision. What’s encouraging about fundees getting together to think about “This is how you should fund us,” is taking back that power, and creating a place where funders actually need to give their money. There is a power in being funded; it doesn’t feel like it, because we’re always so busy just trying to keep the lights on. But I think there is an untapped power in our organizations and in the work that we do. I think the Peer to Peer Enterprise is figuring out something really important that I hope others can use.

Question #3
Describe a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that your practice operates in; that is to say, the event produced a new sense of community that had political potential.

KEVIN JAMES: One event that comes to mind is Sun of Nun. It was organized by the Zero Murder Rate movement in Baltimore. One of the students from the Algebra Project had just been murdered. It might be an ongoing thing and I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but organized a monthly open mic event on the last Friday of the month. After Zack was killed a lot of the high school students came out to it. At the particular event that I went to there were a lot of students who were there from a group home in Baltimore, and they were using hip-hop just to defuse the anger and the drama that would go on at the home. It really was a beautiful thing to see art being used in a very concrete way to express anger, but also in a respectful way that wasn’t about tearing down as much as it was about expressing your own lyrical prowess and funniness. It’s art as a creative channel in the context of a movement to address the violence that’s so commonplace in Baltimore. I felt it was an amazing thing to see that as opposed to “Let’s get some prominent artist out to come and do this event.” “No, we’re going to have the people who are actually living this stuff express themselves and their thoughts on the issue in an artistic way.” It was just great to see, because the open mic scene in Baltimore is segregated: There’s one predominantly white spot and Organic Soul Tuesdays and a bunch of other ones are the black spots. There’s that dynamic going on. A lot of it is college student-y, middle-class-y, for example, “this is my conscious blah-blah-blah on the scene,” and it’s groovy and everybody snaps their fingers and it’s cool. But the actual people in Baltimore who are going through the fucked up situations have a voice, too. The Algebra Project kids were at this open mic event and there are a lot of artists in those groups, too—militant advocates who are going to be doing an event benefit here soon, the Sons of Nat. Basically, it was great to see a truly organic expression of peoples’ situations and peoples’ lives coming out, and I hope to see it again.

HUGH POCOCK: I'll mention three events that quickly come to mind and probably will remember one that I excluded tomorrow. One was this show a couple of years ago called Headquarters where a group of artists usurped a conventional museum space and made it into a collective vessel for different organizations to foster communication. I thought that it was a really good outcome. Oh, I also wanted to start off by saying that in Baltimore any event that has two or more people in it is a cultural event (LAUGHTER). It's really hard here to separate cultural event from non-cultural event but I think that what these guys were doing was a cultural event. Secondly, the living wage action at the stadium was, to me, a real cultural event that was really inspiring because it meant victory was possible after so many instances of non-victory. And the third example has to do with my children: I have children and they really define my life at this point. So, we go to a swimming pool in the summer that's in sort of a housing project development called Cold Spring; it's one of the few places in Baltimore where all difference goes away when everyone has the same thing. It's a swimming pool that everyone can go to, as it's pretty affordable. All differences of race and class disappear because people are just in their bathing suits and trying to stay cool in the summer. One night, they showed a movie out on the grass. Everyone's there, and the movie was one of those dog movies where the dog does zany things (LAUGHTER). It was funny and I was laughing even though I hate those kinds of movies. I really do—I've always hated those movies. But it was so welcoming, that sometimes that moment exists and everyone's OK. The ingredients were just that everyone was there just to relax and there were no pretensions. I don't know how you can reproduce that. It didn't have a message, it just happened.

NICK PETR: There are a number of things that come to mind, actually, but I’m going to mention one in particular. It’s an event that didn’t happen, that didn’t have to happen—it was the United Workers (unitedworkers.org) living wages hunger strike. There were a number of events that led up to it, one of which was a retreat with members/workers and some of us allies. During a group meeting, 15 people stepped up to do the hunger strike. That was a weekend that was extremely emotional and really amazing, just for all of us to be in one place, far away from Baltimore, talking about what we could do there to change things. Then we came back to organize this concert that was supposed to kick-off the hunger strike, and had to wait for the governor and the Maryland Stadium Authority to come down with a decision that determined whether or not we had to stop eating. It was just amazing, the number of people from different groups and organizations around Baltimore that came together to organize this thing. The victory was the perfect end to the whole thing—we won. To me that stands out as probably one of the most perfect examples of community.

ASHLEY HUFNAGEL: The United Workers is a multiracial, bilingual human rights organization, so amongst members—who are low-wage workers—there are a lot of cultural differences. When we have events like retreats we also invite allies. There are a lot of cultural differences amongst allies as well. This past summer at our Staying on Track retreat we went to Frostburg, Maryland, which is out of the city in the mountains of Maryland. So all these people are taken out of their normal context and thrown together at Frostburg College spending the weekend together. It was really stressful and tense; it was a very sober kind of weekend, in some sense, because that was when people were committing to doing the Living Wages Hunger Strike. There was this moment where people had already committed to doing the hunger strike in a meeting, but we did a formal event where we were in a circle like this and then the people that committed stepped out in the front, and then they were given bands that showed that they were going to do the strike. It’s things like this that are very formal and orchestrated, and you don’t expect them to work on you the way that they do, because they’re orchestrated, but then they affect you really strongly. One of our leaders said, “I was about to give up. I was about to give up, until this point.” And I realized, “I had no idea Lamont was going to give up.” And it struck me how powerful this event was. After these really intense and very emotional moments we had a talent show (LAUGHTER) and no one knew how it was going to go. We just had a karaoke machine and someone had their Casio keyboard and people came out of the woodwork. I didn’t know Lamont was an emcee and that all these people had these different talents. Some people really couldn’t sing, but it was awesome that they got up there and sang, or did their little shtick, like a fake fall or something fun. (LAUGHTER) It was an amazing experience to have members, allies and all sorts of people coming together. I think building a movement is about building a community as well, but it’s not just getting together and saying, “Wow, it really sucks to be paid poverty wages.” It’s also coming together to build these connections.

DAVID SLOAN: I want bring up the Algebra Project. Although I can talk about the day-to-day things that I think are very, very important as far as building infrastructure or useful systems for media and for social and civic engagement goes, the single biggest event for me in the last few months was a major rally did in Annapolis. As most Algebra Project rallies have been organized around for some time now, the ostensible goal of the rally was to get funding released from the state that is owed to Baltimore City public schools in order to improve funding. If we evaluate it in those terms it’s difficult to say the rallies are effective at all, because obviously, this money’s been piling up for ten years. But what is very easy for me to say is that meager as it was, it provided possibly the only serious civics lesson that a lot of youth have had in Baltimore recently, although I can’t speak for them, obviously. However, the structure of the event was that people in the Algebra Project had managed to get the CEO of Baltimore City public schools to sign off on a 200 person student field trip to Annapolis for a civil rights history conference, which was designed to get them out of school so they could go yell at the mayor and block traffic and wrap crime scene tape around parts of the state house. What was most interesting to me was that most of the students there were not a part of the Algebra Project specifically; a lot of them seemed pretty ambivalent when they arrived because while they’re out of school and they do feel connected to these social justice and civil rights issues to some degree, at first they didn’t really feel like they were a part of it. But within an hour’s time it was great to see them go from “Hello, where’s the food? When’s the open mic?” and complaining, to singing protest songs with 60-year-old women as police are dragging their friends away as a result of bringing in a fake coffin and a semblance of Zack that we created. It was really strange to see how connected people felt with what in some ways is the most vital and elementary and basic part of the political and democratic process in this country; it was something they had never participated in directly before, it’s something you see in news reels from the Sixties. It wasn’t something they felt had actually happened and it wasn’t something they felt they could be a part of, but seeing them have that recognition for the first time was incredibly moving. Again, that may be fairly meek on the grand political scheme, but I think it’s essential.

JOHN DUDA: I would like to speak about one of my favorite days in Baltimore, which wasn’t a day that was particularly emotionally powerful. It wasn’t really a protest that was going on, it wasn’t fighting injustice, but it was a lot of people coming together. It happened two years ago in the summer, during the first Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair. We were doing it in Mount Vernon, which is ostensibly one of the cultural districts in Baltimore. One of the weird, unnerving things about Baltimore is that once the summer hits there’s almost nobody on the streets—or even less than there are normally—especially where people are privileged enough to have air conditioning. So it’s this weird, empty district. But just by what we were doing and in conjunction with a lot of other groups that had been working on their own projects that summer, all of a sudden for about a week we were actually able to fill this empty space. We had somehow managed to wheedle our way into using this entire building called Center Stage, which is a really large mainstream theater complex in the middle of town. So, we had the book fair going on, which was connected with an info shop gathering that had happened two days before. People from all of the radical bookstore collectives in the country and from Canada were in town for that. We had also connected with the Headquarters exhibit that had been going on at the same time, so not only were people walking back and forth between this theater complex and Red Emma’s bookstore, which was right around the corner, but they were also going over to the Contemporary Museum where there was this amazing exhibit about social justice in Baltimore and listening to talks there. Then they were coming back through the park where the Anarchist Punks were giving out free food all weekend. Camp Baltimore had built this amazing trailer that they were carting around, a mobile social justice kiosk thing that transformed into various configurations—that weekend it was transformed into a sewing laboratory and mobile kitchen. These activists who had come into town from Barcelona and were doing work around building occupations and public sewing and publicly staged shoplifting were doing public sewing interventions in Baltimore and making trouble with the cops Barcelona-style, which was hilarious. (LAUGHTER) Additionally, the collective where I volunteer, Bike Workshop, had just opened up that weekend, so then people were going up there. All this stuff was going on. It was an amazing thing to see in what normally is a boring space where you might see two or three people or you run into the same people all the time. To all of a sudden see this space filled with all these interesting people from Baltimore, all these interesting projects, and all these people from around the country and around the world…all you saw on the streets were these clumps of really fantastic, amazing people working on all this amazing stuff. I thought, “Wow, I really wish every day was like this because it would really be much better.” But then we all went inside on Monday and it was sad.

Question #4
As an engaged artist or organization, how does your practice relate to existing social movements?

C. RYAN PATTERSON: Something that’s interesting and ironic about the environmental work that I run into and deal with a lot is how it’s such a cycle, and it’s been such a cycle. I got really excited last year when we took a big initiative to bring some modern ideas about community environmental issues to this really old festival called Flower Mart. We brought all these rain barrels and examples of community gardens to this 90-year-old festival for little old lady garden clubs of blue-blooded families in the city. Some of them said, “Oh, wow, rain barrels. We used to have those in our Victory Gardens,” but others were saying, “Oh, how does this work?” or “You do what with this?” That’s really actually an old idea: things being sustainable for ourselves or taking care of ourselves, and people are just as capable of doing that on the west side of Baltimore or the east side of Baltimore, as much as they’re capable of growing flowers and vegetables in Roland Park. The same is true with planting trees; the city thinks it’s a really brilliant plan to double the tree canopy in 30 years. It’s a big number initiative where community forestry has a huge history going back to the beginning of our country. As soon as we started cutting down trees people were planting new ones. And then when someone like Joseph Beuys is planting trees and calling it art people say, “That’s not art. People have been planting trees forever!” (LAUGHTER) But when people are out there with little kids planting trees someone says, “Some crazy guy called this art before you were calling it community activism.” (LAUGHTER) It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a social worker or both because they really overlap a lot.

POLLY RHYTHMS: Both in Fusion and in the work I do around prison we try to create an antiracist practice. Being a white person I really think it’s important to focus on dismantling racism and white supremacy and how that exists and manifests itself in all kinds of ways in our organizations and in the work we do. We try to really work on that in our organizational models. It’s why we do the work, too. It’s definitely part of it.

SCOTT BERZOFSKY: With this garden project we’re primarily promoting the idea of people reclaiming space and growing their own food. We can associate with movements for food security and environmental justice. It’s a very modest response to the crisis of climate change that Hugh talked about; I mean very modest. More generally, because we’re squatting the land we can identify the project with movements for affordable housing, and eventually we might even try to squat other buildings. Also, even more generally, there’s a national alliance called the Right to the City Alliance that I’m interested in. This concept of the right to the city is emerging in the U.S. as something that a lot of groups in different cities working on a range of issues can identify with. The term “the right to the city” was coined by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre, and essentially it means that people are not only entitled to the right to have access to spaces in the city but also to have the ability to change those spaces in response to their own needs and desires. We’re not only interested in urban agriculture in what we’re doing but also in a bottom-up model of urban planning. In that way we can also relate to other autonomous spaces, like Red Emma’s or 2640, or many others in Baltimore that are basically about people building the spaces that they want to see.

NICHOLAS WISNIEWSKI: I think an interesting take on having a practice that’s culturally and politically involved in terms of a movement is that you tend to associate the idea of movement with a bigger collective thing. But in many ways the practice that I’m interested in is based on a habitual process of the everyday. I think the practice exists not only in temporary moments like an event would, but is something that’s carried out through everyday relationships with people. It’s like, I don’t know what you’d call it, like a subject movement or subjective transformation where the practice doesn’t start and stop when you do an event or only exist in a studio; it’s an everyday practice. It’s a subconscious part of the movement but I think it’s an integral part. There is a limitation of thinking just in terms of events, these short-term interventions that just engage a public for a short period of time. Although amazing things come out and new connections are formed. But it’s the spaces like Red Emma’s or Fusion that I consider an event, and that are really at the crux of any kind of real political or social change.

GIN FERRARA: We’re definitely involved in media reform and youth media, which are both national trends, and which strangely don’t always work well together. Going to media reform conferences and seeing that the young people there don’t really know what everyone else is yelling about is kind of interesting. But it’s good. One of the challenges we have in working with young people is that the structure of their time, their academic life, and the structure of the rest of world means that oftentimes it’s difficult. Kids on the Hill is really good at it and the Baltimore Algebra Project’s really good at it—maybe it’s just my short attention span setting the tone—but it’s hard to sustain being involved in any particular issue for very long. Our workshops are eight weeks long for the middle school students while our high school students are working for an entire academic year—but they tend to break it in half. The most we can do is give them a lot of exposure. We have some amazing instructors like David and others. Everybody’s really good at trying to make connections through this casual network like, “Oh, we’re making a video. Oh, here, why don’t you go interview, you know, John, and find out about stuff about surveillance?” It’s this subtle thing that happens a lot for our students where it’s more about raising awareness than about actually engaging in a particular ongoing thing at any point.

JOHN DUDA: A lot of the work that I’ve been doing in Baltimore is precisely about relating to existing social movements and putting those social movements in relation to each other. The projects that I work on are infrastructural projects; we have some ideas about what we’re doing in terms of our internal structure in terms of our goals of realizing our ideals through our practice. But ultimately, the purpose for our project is to give social movements a space to come through, to get information, to throw events and to encounter each other, and even to encounter their own historical past. I think the relation of the question of history is really interesting. There’s been a resurgence of interest in the Black Panther Party, which has been really pretty amazing. Running a bookstore, it’s been almost overwhelming, because with the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Party every two weeks there’s been some new amazing book that was offering a new perspective on what had gone on. Trying to keep up with that and get that back out into social movements that could benefit from learning about that history is good work. MICA hosted the Black Panther Rank and File Exhibition and it was interesting to work with them and get that historical connection made. But sometimes the history goes in really bizarre and weird ways. For example, when we started Red Emma’s, we said, “We really feel strongly about our labor union connections.” The one labor union we really feel that we can identify with and that would identify with us would be the Industrial Workers of the World. So we decided that we were going to be an Industrial Workers of the World shop. At the time there were a couple of old Wobblies floating around town but really nothing going on. When we founded the bookstore there was a place where we were like, “OK, there’s now this one thing that’s connected to the union.” And amazingly out of that there’s now an active Industrial Workers of the World chapter in Baltimore that has very little to do with Red Emma’s, and in fact is not just taking up a historical echo but is actually doing grassroots labor work. They’ve organized a bike shop up in Mount Washington, and they’re working on all sorts of stuff involving evil large multinational coffee corporations that’s probably going to surface in a while. They’re doing a lot of interesting work, and there’s this weird relationship of our own practice to our history that then engages with other people, who are then able to jump into those historical moments that we’ve opened up. It’s really exciting to see that kind of weird temporal and physical networking going on.

Question #5
These conversations come out of a nationwide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?

SCOTT BERZOFSKY: For me, the idea of organizing nationally is really overwhelming, and right now it’s totally dominated by presidential politics. That said, the Right to the City Alliance does seem really promising, and maybe there is a way that we—our garden project or other groups in Baltimore—could have a relationship with that alliance. I wish I had gone to the U.S. Social Forum in the summer because then maybe I would have a better sense of this idea of national organizing. Those kinds of situations can be really productive and inspiring, when groups from different places can converge and share their practices and then bring that knowledge back to their local contexts.

DAVID SLOAN: I often feel that I have no idea how to even approach the question of national organizing. For any practitioner, and for all of the things we’re talking about as far as art and community arts and community organizing and social justice issues, we’re always paying attention to national issues, looking to other models and examples, and developing systems of exchange and dialogue and loose confederations. But as far as actually organizing on the national level—it seems like something that you would need a very different kind of infrastructure for. It’s a dominant politics and it’s difficult to think of how to enter into that. While I have some fear that real, large-scale social problems may require being tackled in that way, and there’s a conduit between what happens on the local level and what happens at that higher level, as someone who works specifically in a lot of community media work I feel the issue is thinking about what cannot work at a national level. In that way, I’m reminded of something I dismissed a number of years ago when I first read about Jürgen Habermas, who has this concept of the public sphere. I dismissed that concept, as maybe a lot of people did, because the essential part of the argument is that the systems of modernity, if allowed to develop properly—like systems of media, the Internet—would actually facilitate the emancipation of the entire human race. I think that’s bullshit. But in working more and more with community and media, I can see ways in which that kind of concept of a public sphere actually can operate on a smaller scale. To go back specifically to some examples that Habermas gives: He’s trying to make this argument about modernity as a whole, but he’s talking about coffee shops and things like that, and these quaint nineteenth-century models of “you sit around and you have your coffee and you have some cigarettes and you have a newspaper and you have a place for discussion.” It’s about this sort of planning and this sort of conviviality that can occur in a local way, through systems of media or systems of planning and events. But these technologies and mediums that are really structured to communicate in a national or international level, that can’t facilitate but we’re so captivated by—as if they’re going to improve our lives—are part of how we’re alienated. I’m trying to find tools for local working, which is something that makes a lot more sense to me, at least right now.

KATE KHATIB: A couple of years ago, when we organized the first Radical Book Fair here in Baltimore, we kicked it off with the first-ever national Info Shop gathering. It was a mini-conference and skill-share and series of discussions, with representatives from almost all of the radical bookstores or collectively run info shops or information-oriented autonomous spaces in the country. It was incredible to sit down with all of these people that in a lot of ways were working in their own cities on a project that mirrored what we were trying to do in Baltimore with Red Emma’s, which had only been around for about a year at the time. It was an incredible experience to actually sit down and talk with other people, to see the struggles that they were dealing with, the ways that they had tried to overcome those struggles or the productive efforts forward that they had made, and even to discuss just the simplest things like, “How do you go about getting accounts with major trade publication suppliers?” Those are little things that we didn’t even think we were going to have to know when we started Red Emma’s, and then they became major sticking points, things that we had to deal with. The opportunity to actually sit down and share all of the experiences that we had gone through and all of the information that we had so painstakingly collected over the previous year, and to be able to pass that on to other people that had new projects or projects that were just getting to that point, was really useful. It’s been something that Red Emma’s has been able to fall back on when we’re in an identity crisis and we’re trying to figure out exactly what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We can look at this network of info shops across the country and in other places in the world—not just in North America, but in Europe and Australia and other places—that we have bonds of friendship and solidarity with. It’s means something that we can say, “This is a part of a national movement. This is something that helps us to define who we are and what we do within this project.” At the same time, one of the things that we found at the Info Shop gathering was that none of our projects would exist if it weren’t for strong local networks. Red Emma’s wouldn’t exist if there weren’t strong communities in Baltimore supporting us every step of the way. It’s what’s made this possible; it’s what makes possible almost all the projects here. You’ve got to have a kind of balance between the two . You have to have a strong local network, a strong community behind the projects you’re doing; but at the same time, there is something valuable in sharing information that’s been gained at the local level in a more national arena or community.

HUGH POCOCK: I'm coming from the perspective of an art background, where individual voice has been really very important and an individual identity and the nurturing or enacting of that has been really important. But I'm coming around to this idea of how important is that? And if that's really the way through. The idea of response to climate is very, very collective, and that’s strange for me in a way because it's probably one of the most straight-up, populist issues that I've ever been involved in. Sometimes it seems very Al Gore-ish. At the same time, I'm really taken by the idea that it also means the potential downfall of the petroleum industry (LAUGHTER). That seems really monumental as far as the end of a huge era. It's very hard to organize nationally or globally without individual voice. And one of the places where large-scale organization has its perils is proximity to power, and power is very, very dangerous for us. But acting locally and creating a constellation of local organizations it's about everyone doing what they're good at, in the service of the whole, whether it’s about economics or labor, or food and transportation, or prisons and justice systems. They all resonated around the same issue, which is about equity, the social equity that's so out of balance and has been out of balance for so long. To me now it's about having a planetary impact (LAUGHTER), where we are the force of nature in our inequities. We can't really do it on a level of power; it has to be done in this other way. National organizing or global organizing will almost be an organic result of local action.

NICK PETR: This question is interesting to me because it implies that we have experienced democracy on a national level, and I don’t think that’s happened. (LAUGHTER) But I think the reason that we are all here and we do the things that we do is because we know that the system that governs us, and most of the world, has its weaknesses and that it’s not sustainable. They can’t keep it up forever. So we’re engaged in building an infrastructure, which I think is extremely important. That infrastructure starts locally, but organizing locally is a part of organizing nationally. We can’t even begin to organize nationally until a local consciousness is raised. If you work on raising consciousness locally, when people have an opportunity to respond to national issues they’ll do so in an informed manner. So I don’t really see a whole lot of difference between the two. I think organizing is organizing, and although some things are much easier to organize on a national level immediately, and a lot of other things have to start locally, we can always find connections and build relationships with people in other places, whether it be on the other side of Baltimore or in Philadelphia or Chicago or wherever.

ASHLEY HUFNAGEL: It’s really hard for poor people to participate currently because there are so many ways in which people are disorganized, with the dismantling of public housing, the outsourcing of jobs, you name it. These are ways in which whole communities are just completely disorganized so that they can’t participate. The United Workers organizes locally, but I think that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a good example of a poor peoples’ organization that’s able to have national campaigns. One of the reasons for that is that they have a really strong local base; they’re located in Immokalee, Florida and they have a strong worker-led organization. It’s a very small town, a very tight community, and they’re really able to organize workers and build leaders through that. They’ve also connected with campuses and students and been able to organize students in a way that’s really interesting. The student organization—it’s the Student Farmworkers Alliance—they work in solidarity in this amazing way in which the students are not just the servants of this worker-led organization, but they understand the need for this organization to be led by workers. They set the agenda. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has found a way to insert their message within mass media; they’re very disciplined about everything. They are so disciplined about being on-message constantly and not allowing corporate media to steer them off. It’s about actually getting back to organizing and not just activism. Organizing, forming those tight relationships, and being extremely disciplined. No offense, because I’m involved in The Indypendent Reader, but it’s not just about having these grassroots media projects; it’s also about being extremely savvy about how media works, and not letting your message become twisted. That’s why has been able to be so successful. I didn’t think before seeing it that a grassroots organization like that could be so successful nationally. I thought that things had to be a little bit more local even though we need national campaigns to really start to change things.

For transcripts from Town Hall Meetings in other cities or listen to mp3 versions of them go to :
http://creativetime.org/programs/archive/2008/democracy/townhall.php