Sunday, October 20, 2013

Between the Door and the Street (Part 1)

Last night I came home exhilarated from an afternoon in BedStuy, Brooklyn. I had just come from Between the Door and the Street, a performance art work initiated by Suzanne Lacy, followed by an after party with several friends who participated as performers or attended. 

And then, when I came home a friend sent me this link to an open letter posted on the website of Creative Time, the key sponsoring organization, along with the Brooklyn Museum.

Let me say this: what was exhilarating about yesterday's performance was the emphasis - understood via spectacle - on the conversations of women about the issues that are important to them. It was also the sheer act of women - 350 of them including their male allies + the hundreds of spectators who filled the streets to listen in - occupying public space. As a spectator, I was able to eavesdrop on the magical moments that I know happen all the time when women get together and talk. Usually though, these conversations over coffee, wine or good food (or all three), happen privately behind closed doors, on the stoops when nobody walking by is listening, or under the cloaks of invisibility we sometimes don on ourselves. Yesterday though, these in depth conversations, some lasting more than 2 hours, were broadcast on the stoop, in the daylight, highlighted by bright yellow scarves.

Then I read the letter and uttered an "amen" in agreement. The jist is this: practice what you preach.
The authors, Leina Bocar and two other anonymous participants, question the presenters for lack of payment to the 350+ participants for their time commitment and contributions, and lack of adequate child care options for those same participants. They poignantly and rhetorically write:
...we feel that poor public framing of the unpaid "volunteerism" and time commitments required for Between the Door and the Street create a high barrier to entry. Most of the women participating are non-profit professionals, or women attached to high-visibility non-profits discussing the prompt questions of: “who will take care of the nannies children?” but can the “nanny” bring her own children to this event and participate in an equitable manner, given that she will not be paid, and there will be no childcare?

We think not.
The authors' letter points to the age old belief that feminism is for wealthy white women. In ages of previous feminist movements, it has been the women with leisure time who become activist because they can literally afford to volunteer. Which is why I did not volunteer to be an organizer in the event.

Candace Thompson, representing SLMDances sits on the stoop with Emily May, Founding Executive Director and Debjani Roy, Deputy Director of Hollaback! talking about street harassment.

As a dance artist, most of my professional work is volunteered, with the exception of teaching and most performances. But the bulk of the work -- all of the dreaming, planning, rehearsal, and administrative work to put me in the classroom or on the stage ready to go -- is unpaid. Hours and hours of unpaid of work, and let me tell you if I got paid for the amount of work I do, I would definitely jump up a tax bracket or two. As the letter states:
We believe that assuming and relying on free/unpaid contributions of our time for your project continues to perpetuate a standard of capitalist economy that systematically underpays and disenfranchises us, and devalues our time, our bodies, our energies, our histories and our intellects through tactics such as “professionalization,” “volunteerism” and more. This is a mainstream standard that has never worked for us, and does not serve us now. A culture of “volunteerism” assumes that all participants have the means to volunteer and perpetuates the very real reality of poverty and scarcity for many artists and activists. Compensating us would address, in a small but important way, the material realities and economic oppressions impacting many of our lives.
The request made in the letter is simple - let's not just talk about valuing the needs and concerns of women, but let's actually do it. What the artist and non-profit activist worlds seem to have yet to realize is that when you actually value your people, and invest in them they are happier, MORE PRODUCTIVE human beings. AND, to not truly value your people is as great of, if not greater, an injustice as any of the oppressions we address with our work on any given day. 

I was impressed yesterday with the true diversity of persons who were present to participate in the work, but let's take a moment to think of those who were not and could not be present because volunteering another hour just would not make rent this month.

Autumn Scoggan, and other participants with the arts organization STooPS BedStuy.

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