This year, I was also able to partake in their Annual Convention thanks to a scholarship sponsored by their funding partners: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, California Arts Council and San Francisco Arts Commission. This was the first year the convention was hosted on the West Coast, in San Francisco, from June 16th-18th. Conferences can be both inspirational and overwhelming-- and this one was no exception. There were more than 1,000 participants from all over the US, a myriad of sessions to choose from, opportunities for networking, and powerfully moving keynotes.
The conference opened with Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) based in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson is a lawyer and social justice advocate who has been working to establish The Memorial to Peace and Justice, dedicated to the thousands of African Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950. He spoke of the lack of cultural recognition to this mass atrocity, and what it was like as a child growing up in the South surrounded by the monuments to the Confederacy. The Memorial to Peace and Justice is the most powerful architecture that I have seen. It consists of 800 columns - one for each county where EJI documented racial terror lynchings. When visitors enter the memorial, the ground drops and perception shifts as visitors realize that the columns that appeared to be holding up the structure are actually monuments suspended from above, evoking the lynchings that took place in the public square(see a video about the project here). Beyond the main memorial structure lies a field of identical columns, one for each county where a lynching has been documented. EJI will be inviting each of these counties to retrieve their county's monument and place it back in the county where the terror lynchings took place. This action extends the memorial into every county in Alabama, reaching into public space and public consciousness.
This keynote set the tone of the conference— celebrating the power of the arts to give voice to social issues, and telling a story that will work toward healing the divide.
Another impactful session I attended was, “Learning to tell a Story Better,” with StoryCenter, which focused on digital storytelling. We were shown very moving digital shorts about the HIV+ Transgender community. Again, I was deeply moved. I scribbled down the following tidbit, which seemed to capture the heart of the session, “Making visible what wants to remain invisible, allowing for silences to speak.”
This phrase was reinforced by the final conference keynote, delivered by Rhodessa Jones. Jones directs The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, an award-winning performance workshop committed to incarcerated women’s personal and social transformation, now in it’s 23rd year. She too spoke of the importance of storytelling, “Art saves lives, healing and bridging communities… Art can be the parachute that can catch us all.”
Mosaic mural across from conference center-- apropos!