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Alejandro Cohen: Giving Up to Raise Up

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"You cannot build community without giving up ownership of it."  This phrase has been repeating itself in my mind for the past few months. It came to me when seeing messages of unity and solidarity from organizations from across the board at the start of the pandemic. It also kept repeating in my head like a mantra when the cry for change across the nation took place in late May. What it means to me is that, to make a genuine contribution, an organization has to surrender any sense of ownership of the community it strives to serve — and that may also mean ownership of the organization itself. 

In the past four months, we have been confronted with uncomfortable questions, situations and realities that we needed to face. The arts need to be the vehicle for awareness, understanding, comfort, self-expression and the exchange of ideas, but they shouldn't stop there. Artists and art organizations must be hyper-vigilant in making sure their work and mission are not co-opted by those that (even unintentionally) try to return to a sense of "mission accomplished."

Garifuna Collective live on dublab on September 16, 2019. | Flickr/DUBLAB/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Garifuna Collective live on dublab on September 16, 2019. | Flickr/DUBLAB/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There is a before and after this pandemic, and an opportunity to reassess who we are and what our values are.  What is the meaning of community? Who owns that community? And why is there a need to own it?  Can art spark real change when it is presented through for-profit organizations? Or is it ultimately being used as a marketing ploy? Will art continue to be used to gentrify neighborhoods? And will vanity and real economic needs slowly take us back to a place of complacency?

It all keeps taking me back to the idea of ownership of a community. Speaking as director of a nonprofit organization, I know that on paper, the public owns the organization, yet still, I ask myself: Is that enough? What's our role? Is there anything else we can do to make sure the organization is making a true effort to serve? What steps can art nonprofits take to maintain this sense of urgency? A sense that there is no going back. Also, what could private organizations do to be more "public"?

These days, I find myself learning more from my (younger) staff than what I can offer to them. I have more questions than answers. I know the "before" world, where enrichment was all the arts would have to strive for. The "after" is what I'm finding challenging. Yes, enrichment is good, but it is not good enough. 

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DJs play at the Decades Celebration: dublab 20th anniversary & Bedrock 10th anniversary party, September 21, 2019. | Flickr/DUBLAB/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
DJs play at the Decades Celebration: dublab 20th anniversary & Bedrock 10th anniversary party, September 21, 2019. | Flickr/DUBLAB/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Those truly invested in the communities they want to support need to understand that the arts are not vehicles for self-gain or profit.  If private organizations want to truly contribute, I say give it up, play in your community's playground, and not the other way around. The arts are where it all begins and ends and to claim ownership of them will only lead to the mistakes of the past: a cycle where a few find success while the rest of the arts ecosystem is left scrambling. Giving up what was never ours to begin with may be the first step towards a community that belongs to all of us.

Top Image: A band plays at the Decades Celebration: dublab 20th anniversary & Bedrock 10th anniversary party, September 21, 2019. | Flickr/DUBLAB/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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