An intimate conversational platform founded on the belief that cultural institutions can and should be a catalyst for societal transformation by participating in a world of ideas. Open Spectrum provides a space for community dialogue on the most vital issues facing our community today, engaging participants in active listening, constructive discourse and action planning.
Presented as part of For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative
Bill T. Jones will speak with Hank Willis Thomas, conceptual artist and co-founder of For Freedoms, a political art initiative founded by Thomas and Eric Gottesman. They will discuss the role of the artist, civic participation, and the 50 State Initiative leading up to the midterm elections.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. His work is included in numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. His collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth), and For Freedoms, the first artist-run initiative for art and civic engagement. In 2017, For Freedoms was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform. Thomas is also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship (2018), the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize (2017), the Soros Equality Fellowship (2017), and is a member of the New York City Public Design Commission.
As part of its Open Spectrum series, New York Live Arts is hosting a discussion on creating safety in an age of aggression. Curated by Brian Tate and presented as part of For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative.
The recent deaths of Nia Wilson and Botham Jean, both victims of unprovoked violence, are unalike in some ways: she was killed on a subway platform, felled because of a drifter’s “mental derangement;” he was gunned down in his apartment by a police officer who “made a mistake.” In both instances, officials have characterized their deaths as tragic yet unforeseen, almost spontaneous in nature. But at a time of angry political rhetoric aimed at the vulnerable, and a corresponding spike in bias cases and hate crimes, are such attacks truly random? What routes to self-protection exist for people who are painted as the Other?
Mainstream aggressors are often allowed to skirt the cost of their actions, while those on the margins who act to protect themselves are met with the full weight of the law. What does it mean to America when the use of force by marginalized people is called an ideological threat, while violence that consistently targets people who are different is dismissed as justified, arbitrary, or “not hate-related?” Does the right to bear arms come with a responsibility to defend ourselves – and is physical combat or the use of firearms a sustainable response to the dangers facing us today? How do we create safety in an age of aggression?
Join us for an Open Spectrum conversation on these issues with photojournalist Amr Alfiky, organizer/journalist/ author asha bandele, journalist Kali Holloway, and Loren Miller, Executive Director, Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE). Moderated by artist-activist Shaun Leonardo.
Amr Alfiky: Owning a Gun While Muslim
asha bandele: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Kali Holloway: 6 gun groups that aren’t for white right-wingers
Loren Miller: Center for Anti-Violence Education
Shaun Leonardo: Can an Artist Shift the Gun Debate?
A’Driane Nieves, aka addyeB, multidisciplinary artist
Caits Meissner, poet, artist, cultural worker
Loubna Mrie, writer and photojournalist
Sydney Magruder Washington, professional ballerina, mental health advocate, and singer
Moderated by Dior Vargas, Latina feminist mental health activist
Curated by Brian Tate
The stigma that surrounds our mental and emotional health is astonishing when you consider how many of us are grappling with heightened bouts of anxiety, depression, mania, and fear. Those conditions can spring from an array of factors, including our genetic wiring, which may contain data from historic traumas; the blunt impact of present-day racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, greed, and other forms of inhumanity; and the kinds of sudden, devastating losses that can arrive for anyone at any time.
Then there is the psychological harm that is done for the sake of spectacle. The tearing apart of immigrant families, the criminalization of asylum seekers, the relentless policing of black and brown people, the unsubtle endorsement of White Nationalism, the travel bans and mass deportations, the threats of nuclear war, all meant to rattle the nerves of marginalized communities and people of conscience.
These issues impact artists in a particular way. Artists have a unique ability to challenge society and advance the culture, but those who acknowledge darkness alongside joy can find themselves put at social and professional risk: in an age of aggression, vulnerability is easily mistaken for weakness. But some artists are empowering us to consider our mental and emotional health as parts of our whole selves, and to accept any gloom that may exist there as inseparable from the qualities that also make us luminous and powerful. What new potential comes revealed with that kind of embrace?
Caits Meissner is a New York City-based poet, artist and cultural worker, and the author of the illustrated hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016). The recipient of multiple residencies and fellowships including the BOAAT Writers Retreat and The Pan-African Literary Forum, Caits’ work is published in journals and anthologies including The Literary Review, Narrative, Adroit, Drunken Boat, VIDA Literary Review, The Feminist Wire and The Offing. Caits holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York where she where she was awarded The Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Creative Writing, an Educational Enrichment Award and The Teacher-Writer Award. Caits was an integral team member in developing and implementing programs for organizations such as Tribeca Film Institute, The Bronx Academy of Letters, Urban Arts Partnership, The Facing History School and The Lower Eastside Girls Club. She has facilitated, consulted, and co-created for 15 years across a vast spectrum of communities, with a special focus on imprisoned people, women and youth. At the university level, she has taught at The New School, The City College of New York, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She currently serves as the Program Director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America.
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian photographer, journalist, and writer. She covered the Syrian war as a photojournalist for Reuters from 2012-2014. Currently based in Oakland, California, she is a frequent commentator and researcher on Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs. Her work has been published in major news outlets and publications such as The Nation, Time Magazine, Vice, and New Republic, to name a few. Most recently, she graduated from New York University receiving a MA in Near Eastern Studies. She is currently writing her first book.
A’Driane Nieves is a USAF veteran, artist, activist, and speaker with a heart for serving others and social good. She’s also a mental health advocate living with bipolar disorder, and runs an online platform and mental health support group for women of color called Tessera Collective. She empowers women to transform brokenness in their lives into power and beauty, and works to amplify the voices and experiences of those marked as Other in society. As a writer, she has been honored as a BlogHer Voice of the year and invited to speak at several writers conferences including BlogHer and Mom 2.0. From 2013-2015 she was a contributing editor to Postpartum Progress, the most widely read blog on maternal mental health. She has spoken at the Austin ensemble of Listen to Your Mother, and in 2015, received an Iris Award nomination for Most Thought-Provoking Content. In 2016, A’Driane received two Iris award nominations in the categories of both Influencer of the Year and Most Thought-Provoking Content. As a visual artist, she has exhibited at Saatchi Art’s The Other Art Fair (Brooklyn, NY), Nasty Women Oakland, Rare Device in San Francisco, The Dibden Center for the Arts, and participated in an exhibition & Q&A on social justice at the 2015 Wild Goose Festival. Most recently she was featured alongside Bono as a ONE Campaign activist and volunteer for Glamour Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” issue, where Bono was awarded their first ever “Man of the Year’ award for his work on gender equity and extreme poverty. She believes creating and viewing visual art that addresses difficult topics can serve as a catalyst for personal growth and social change. Her work has been featured on BlogHer, Everyday Feminism, Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Mashable, and MISC Magazine. She lives in California with her robotics loving husband and three boys.
Dior Vargas is a Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist. She is the creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project, a response to the invisibility of people of color in the media representation of mental illness. She is also the editor of The Color of My Mind, a photo essay book based on the photo project. Dior tours the country giving keynotes, hosting workshops, and speaking on panels. Her work and insight have been covered in media outlets such as Forbes, Newsweek, NBC News Latino, and The Guardian. Dior is the recipient of numerous awards including, The White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations. She is also a Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame Inductee. Dior has a B.A. in the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College and has an M.S. in Publishing from Pace University. She is a Master of Public Health Candidate at NYU’s College of Global Public Health. She is a native New Yorker and currently lives in New York City.
Bill T. Jones talks with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of New York’s Public Theater, who has nurtured one game-changing hit after another for the Public, including the award-winning musical Hamilton.
Oskar Eustis has served as the Artistic Director of The Public Theater since 2005. In the last three years, he has produced 2 Tony Award-winning Best Musicals (Fun Home and Hamilton), and back to back winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Hamilton and Sweat. He came to The Public from Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI where he served as Artistic Director from 1994 to 2005. Eustis served as Associate Artistic Director at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum from 1989 to 1994, and prior to that he was with the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, serving as Resident Director and Dramaturg from 1981 to 1986 and Artistic Director from 1986 to1989. Eustis is currently a Professor of Dramatic Writing and Arts and Public Policy at New York University, and has held professorships at UCLA, Middlebury College, and Brown University, where he founded and chaired the Trinity Rep/Brown University Consortium for professional theater training. At The Public, Eustis directed the New York premieres of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion and The Ruby Sunrise; Larry Wright’s The Human Scale; and most recently Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park. He has funded numerous ground-breaking programs at the Public, from Public Works and Public Forum to the EWG. At Trinity Rep, he directed the world premiere of Paula Vogel’s The Long Christmas Ride Home and Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, both recipients of the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Production. While at the Eureka Theatre, he commissioned Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and directed its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. Eustis has also directed the world premieres of plays by Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Emily Mann, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ellen McLaughlin, and Eduardo Machado, among many others.
We have been told that America is in the grip of a national emergency. It is hard to argue with that assessment given the rise in hate crimes, white nationalism, mass shootings, climate degradation, digital surveillance, income inequality, the national debt, and loose talk of nuclear war. Those escalations are coupled with new attacks on marginalized communities and people of conscience, as well as calculated assaults on science, history, journalism, and the judiciary. Strangely, the cry of national emergency is unconcerned with any of those threats. Perhaps the issue is not the treacherous waters we have entered but the steering of the ship.
American leadership has lately veered in two directions: those who turn inward and backward and insist the nation do the same, and those who caution that what’s needed is a steady hand to guide – or return – the country to its tolerant and paternal course. The former is represented by the travel ban, the border wall, the rolling back of environmental protections. The latter is found in the aftermath of tough political campaigns, when urgency is given to reconnecting with disaffected white men over organizing with women of color who have tilted or decided elections.
The demand for a different kind of leadership is found in the edging forward of people whose communities have been painted as the Other. Trailblazers have always existed but too many were considered outliers or the stuff of history. Now they are rising at almost the same time, winning offices, directing institutions, piloting corporations, and excelling in fields that rarely welcomed them. Are they better understood as the harbingers of a movement?
If that movement is meant to change the culture, does the new vanguard of arts leaders have a central role to play? If the goal is a more inclusive and radically made world, are we ready to step up, step aside, or come together as circumstances require? Does democracy grow stronger when the people hit hardest by inequality take hold of the wheel? When those new captains heed the call of Audre Lorde to push further than they have dared, “until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever,” what is the cost to them and to us? What support will they need and are we prepared to give it?
ABOUT THE SPEAKERS
The Rev. Kaji Spellman Douša is Senior Pastor of The Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan “The Park”. In the congregation’s 206 years, she is the first woman called to this role. She is one of very few young woman senior leaders of important historic pulpits in the country. The Park is known as a congregation of fearless activism in New York City.
About her public witness, Kaji says: “I’m realizing that it’s time for the church to repent. We’ve let the name of Jesus get away from us, get misused, twisted and turned into something unrecognizable by the Religious Right. In the meantime, how many generations of people are being harmed by oppressive teachings from church? All because those of us who knew better have been too afraid to stand up, or we’ve been ineffective in spreading a message of liberation. That day is over. There are lives at stake, for God’s sake.”
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and of Yale University, Pastor Kaji is a prolific writer and a celebrated and awarded public speaker. She preaches nearly every Sunday at The Park and is invited as a keynote speaker across the country. Her often fiery media appearances reflect her deep thinking, faithful perspective and quick wit. She is on the editorial board for the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking Writers Group, President of Yale Divinity School alumni board and co-chair of the New Sanctuary Coalition.
Kristina Newman-Scott is the newly appointed President of BRIC, the leading presenter of free cultural programming in Brooklyn, New York and a major incubator and supporter of Brooklyn artists and media-makers. She is the first immigrant and first woman of color to serve in this position and her previous position as the Director of Culture and State Historic Preservation Officer for the State of Connecticut. In June 2018, Americans for the Arts, presented Kristina with the Selina Roberts Ottum Award which recognizes an individual working in arts management who exemplifies extraordinary leadership qualities. Kristina has over 20 years of public sector and not-for-profit experience rooted in arts and culture. She has been a TEDx speaker, visiting curator, guest lecturer, and featured presenter at colleges, universities, organizations and events across the country and internationally. Ms. Newman-Scott was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica where she was a visual artist, creative strategies consultant, and a television and radio producer. She became a U.S. citizen in 2013 and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.
Lisa Lucas is the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, she served as the Publisher of Guernica Magazine and the Director of Education at the Tribeca Film Institute.
Sarinya Srisakul has been serving NYC as a firefighter since 2005. She is the first Asian woman firefighter in the FDNY.
Srisakul is the immediate past president of the United Women Firefighters and served in this title for 6 years. During her tenure, she had overseen the numbers of women firefighters grow from around 30 to 87, with many other milestones achieved such as the first all women staffed tour. She has been a dedicated member of the United Women Firefighters since the beginning of her career and had also held the positions of Secretary, Borough Representative and Vice President.
As a lifelong activist, she is continuing her mission in creating social justice and gender equality through her work with the United Women Firefighters. Through her leadership there is a historic high in the numbers of women firefighters in New York City.
Sayu Bhojwani is the Founder and President of New American Leaders, which works across the country to build the power and potential of first- and second-generation Americans. She served as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs and is the founder of South Asian Youth Action, a community-based organization in Queens. Sayu earned a PhD in Politics and Education from Columbia University, where her research focused on immigrant political participation. Her work to build a more inclusive democracy has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times. Her first book, People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, was published by The New Press in October 2018. An immigrant of Indian descent, she grew up in Belize and now lives in New York City with her husband and child.
Bill T. Jones talks with Claudia Rankine, poet, essayist, playwright, and the editor of several anthologies, and Tracy K. Smith, poet and educator, who is currently serving as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, an office she assumed in 2017.
Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; two plays including Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue; numerous video collaborations, and is the editor of several anthologies including The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. For Citizen, Rankine won the Forward Prize for Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (Citizen was also nominated in the criticism category, making it the first book in the award’s history to be a double nominee), the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award. A finalist for the National Book Award, Citizen also holds the distinction of being the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category. Among her numerous awards and honors, Rankine is the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, United States Artists, and the National Endowment of the Arts. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches at Yale University as the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry.
In 2017, Tracy K. Smith was appointed the 22nd United States Poet Laureate. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015) and three books of poetry, including her most recent Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018). Her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. Duende won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. The Body’s Question was the winner of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers Award in 2004 and a Whiting Award in 2005. In 2014 the Academy of American Poets awarded Smith with the Academy Fellowship, awarded to one poet each year to recognize distinguished poetic achievement. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.