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Dr. Marta Vega's Plenary Remarks,
2012 Imagining America National Conference

Good morning. I'm Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, president and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute as well as second director of El Museo del Barrio, founding director of the Association for Hispanic Arts, and one of the founders of the Roundtable for People of Color and other cultural arts initiatives. I am also a professor and am presently an adjunct in the Department of Arts and Public Policy at New York University, where Randy [Martin] is the chairperson. The title of my presentation is "Inquietudes—on Being Uneasy."

Inquietudes are thoughts and emotions that make you feel uneasy. Generally, we can agree on what we feel good about, but we don't as a rule find agreement on what makes us feel uneasy. I am increasingly feeling uneasy about the use of the words community and community engagement. That started at a conference that my colleague Dr. Sonia Manjon invited me to at California College of the Arts, about community and civic engagement. As I looked around the room, it occurred to me to ask the students, who were mostly European American, their definition of community and civic engagement: "What do you mean by community?" At first I got blank stares. Then I called on individual students and got the following responses: "Oh, community is heart, community is spirit, it is soul"—typical California feel-good statements. Then I asked, "Would you define the community you are referring to?" There was significant avoidance in identifying race, ethnicity, and culture identity.

It became clear to me that some people were using the term community as a substitute for minority groups—communities of color, poor communities, disadvantaged communities, marginalized communities. It was obvious that they didn't see themselves as part of a community. A community was "them—the other." Therefore, part of my presentation was devoted to addressing that we are all part of community. It is through our groups that we identify our place in the world over time. The issue, as this dialogue unfolds around community service and engagement, is to understand which communities are valued and why and which communities are devalued and why! This is a question I posed in the video [screened before this talk].

Another term used to cloud the discussion of valuing community is the desire or strategy of achieving diversity and representation in places where certain groups have been excluded. In a nation that has a population of more than 48 million African descendants, 50 million Latinos, 5.2 million Native/Alaskans, and 17.3 million Asian/Pacific Islanders, the issue of diversifying spaces of white economic and social privilege remain exclusive. The reality is that racial and cultural diversity is the "root" that created this nation; the issue is, when did a particular group impose their dominance and establish an infrastructure of policies, laws, and practices that continue to sustain their imposition?

Therefore, the trend of the seventies, eighties, and nineties was to use diversity as a new discovery; a wow moment of awakening that representation of the "other" was being sought to occupy spaces that were previously exclusive. The race to put a "token" person of color or someone from rural America became the objective while the structure of exclusion and dominance remained and remains. Today, as we look at decision-making spaces in the arts, diversity is somewhat present yet the determining guidelines for distribution of resources remain, privileging the self-appointed dominant group and the vision of culture and art that they value and have imposed. Therefore, the conference provided an opportunity to engage the terms of community engagement, service learning, and other terms that have replaced or coexist with concepts of diversity and token representation.

It's a wonderful thing that community engagement and civic engagement are concepts and initiatives of practice at a higher education level. But they can't be detached from the traditions, cultural values, and core principles of the communities being partnered with. The participation of students in communities they are learning from must be valued and understood as co-learning experiences. It is significant in terms of transforming communities by sharing information and knowledge that all bring for enhancement of both the student and organization/community. It is important that we also honor terminology and the history and work that infused the term. Activism within communities challenging inequity has the weight of fights for freedom, breaking down of segregation, physical abuse, illegal occupation, and destruction of land, placing people in underserved reservations that are still present. It is unacceptable to ignore that history with terminology that places ongoing inequity with practices and actions that do not acknowledge that history and continued inequity. To use the term new activism [the name of a short video that was screened], generated from within the university, a location of privilege, dishonors what happens with activists that are working to dismantle inequity within communities. Institutions that emerged out of the civil rights and other social justice movements are institutions of higher learning that have done the "walk" and have the track record to discuss activism in real terms. How are the contributions of these institutions valued and recognized?

I had a similar conversation with Carol [Bebelle] from Ashé [an African diasporic cultural center in New Orleans]. Ashé is an institution of higher education that has consistently focused on and worked to dismantle inequity at all levels of society. Ashé is an example of an activist institution of higher learning that can train others, as are Appalshop, MoCADA, Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute among so many others that have not been appropriately recognized. In Carol as an instructor, any young person who comes through the doors of Ashé is exposed to an intelligence grounded in actual frontline experiences that generally professors in the universities do not have. It is one thing to build an institution within a community that has been historically placed on the margins and make a sustained positive impact with the community and it's another to document or observe the experience and develop a narrative and methods of practice from the outside. So I continue to wonder why the intelligence and accomplishments of community culturally grounded institutions are not valued in the same way. Yet the significance of these community-based organizations is appropriated and co-opted by higher education to develop a series of programs across the country to train students in the area of community arts and community service. Unfortunately, the direction and focus of the academic thrust still sees community as "the other," encouraging students to go to community without addressing that we are all part of community. We all function as members of a community.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the notion of going to community as if those that have privilege are devoid or not in need of being part of a community. I understand that many of these departments within academic institutions are seen as marginal and are having their own challenges to be accepted. However, it is imperative that these departments understand that their existence is dependent on a stabilized network of community-based organizations that they can partner with as equals. Therefore, there has to be language developed to validate community engagement between academic and community-based organizations that understands the partnership that must exist and the information each brings to the table.

Together, we are here today trying to think through how to move forward, and possibly talk about, movement building to assure justice for all communities in our society. Movement building happens when there is dissatisfaction, when people at the margins insist on equity. When people don't have the right to be engaged in their society as full and equal human beings.

The 2010 census outlines the numerical presence of the wide range of diverse racial and cultural groups that comprise this nation. So why are we still not seen as part of the whole of the cultural life of the nation? How is it that we are not seen as different beautiful threads of diverse colors that are part of the tapestry that make this nation what it is? While at the same time understanding that more threads of the color spectrum will be added to define what we will become as a nation.

We are engaged in social justice and cultural work that is meaningful, that will help transform the inequities that still exist. We have the opportunity to have the discussions and develop action plans and implement them to create that change. The field is still new enough in academia that conversations that are critical, that change the dynamic, can happen. These conversations always happen within our community-based and cultural institutions, because we have been building against the odds. I am very clear that if we don't have cultural arts institutions grounded in community, the infrastructure of the feeling of being in a neighbourhood is lost, and the feeling of being part of a network is lost. If higher education institutions function within their communities, and see themselves as part of community—and that includes NYU [where this talk was taking place]—would they be so willing to gentrify so readily? Wouldn't the opportunity exist to develop different types of partnerships that would be more sensitive to sustaining communities and building in culturally sensitive ways? We see the same destructive pattern with Columbia University, The New School, and other universities and colleges in New York City. And I am sure across the country.

So, at the same time universities are seeking community partnerships, they are destroying communities! Eventually communities will be destroyed to such a degree that the concept of community will be a theoretical concept and not actual. Does the community then become a virtual configuration? These are some of the issues I hope we will consider at this gathering.

I thank Sonia [Manjon], because the conference to which she invited me really made me think about if the young people who are doing this wonderful work always see themselves as going to somewhere and not a part of something. If they didn't feel the need to invest in nurturing and valuing the young activists who are developing within their own communities. Part of the task of thinking this through is how as academics, community members, and members of institutions [do we] develop different perspectives that will lead to different conversations that bring us all to the table, valuing our different intelligences in significant ways. How do we acknowledge community activists and young people working within our cultural institutions, and value them at the same level as the students and professors in academic institutions? Why can't higher ed institutions that are sending students to the various places to learn, invest in those places and bring those young people on scholarship to the universities to be credentialed? Why are the institutions of higher learning with their wealth not financially contracting community-based institutions and community scholars to be integral parts of their students' learning experience?

We're in the process. Randy and Sonia and I have been talking about the notion of a community arts university without walls. The idea is that you can create learning, significant learning, that transforms communities in any location, by engaging institutions on the ground, by engaging people who are about transformation, and by engaging those people who are studying and researching in ways that can impact issues of concern to the groups they are partnering with. So that institutions [of higher education] are broader than their walls, and the institutions on the ground are broader than their walls. So that we can develop linkages that effect change, lasting change. And I will end my comments with this: How is it possible that after fifty years or better since this community cultural movement emerged, this movement of community artists and organizations coming out of the civil rights movement is in crisis? Cultural institutions of meaning that focused on the needs of this country to live up to its democratic principles! This country would not be talking about equity, about the elimination of racism, and the dismantling of discrimination if it had not been for the civil rights movement. So how is it that fifty years after this movement the institutions that were at the forefront are still hurting and still not valued? This is a major concern! It is my hope that we will engage in correcting this.

Thank you.

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