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Story in Art and Mediation

Chapter 1 -- Art, Race & Dialogue

Alice Lovelace
Atlanta, Georgia

Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace.

Alice Lovelace is an editor of In Motion Magazine, co-editor of the Art Changes section.

Chapter Overview

After years of reading and observing the mass media, my impression is that our nation lacks the moral fortitude to confront the hard social and economic facts about our deeply held racial beliefs and institutionalized social attitudes. Publications like Time magazine illustrate why in White America charges of racism are met with denial or pity. The media interprets displays of cultural pride by non-Whites as a loss of national unity and evidence of reverse racism. In this chapter I will explore the ways that my research relates to the problems in the field, especially around issues of communications across lines of race and culture.

Art, Race and Dialogue

Most Americans learn their history from the textbooks they read and the stories they were told. Lies My Teacher Taught Me, (Loewen, 1995) details how history textbooks allow antiquated ideas and theories to be passed down generation to generation of Americans who seldom seek any education about history after their contact with high school. What we all do not know about each other appears to be capable of hurting us all. I fear the current trend in the United States where popular culture, mass media, and public education textbooks continue to promote antiquated race based assumptions. This nation cannot afford to continue to nourish this destructive trend. Loewen (1995) believes that:

Eurocentrism blinds [history] textbook authors to contributions to Europe.... this theft improvises us, keeps us ignorant of what has caused the world to develop as it has. (p. 60)

All we have is our ability to use language in an effective manner in order to be understood and to come to consensus. To accomplish this, we must begin to shed the historical lies that have allowed us to devalue others based on their style of communications and impression of them as non-contributors to the world (his) story. Loewen (1995) cites the fact that we are taught our history from books that "almost never use the present to illuminate the past [and].... seldom use the past to illuminate the present (p. 3). In this way we are hampered in our ability to "analyze controversial issues in our society" (p. 5) since few Americans take the time or have an interest to learn more about the historical relationships and the contributions of the world's peoples. Consequently, we continue to be mislead by our education. The practice of teaching individual achievement as history is devoid of ideas and context or critical questioning about time, place, and relevant parties.

The shared human tradition anchors our folk songs, poems, narratives, and stories. This ability to communicate through sign and symbol unites us across our differences and speaks to our individual and shared conditions. I believe there is a connection between conflict resolution and the ways social change artists work in community settings. Narratives and stories are the connection. This research is grounded in my work as a community based narrative artist. My learning is focused on issues of communication and identity in an effort to better understand theory and practice that contributes to predicting and analyzing domestic group conflict. I come to conflict resolution with a background in arts activism and a long career as an oral poet teaching creative writing to diverse audiences. The idea that a frank discussion of race can result in conflict is a possibility. Gadlin (1994) offers us a way to view racism in America.

Racism is embedded in relations of domination and oppression or domination and subordination. These relations create and impose a dynamic of their own on all who live within them and who then, themselves reproduce those relations. When intercultural conflict (conflict between members of different races within a racist society) occurs, it cannot be understood by looking only at the cultural differences between the conflicting groups because these differences themselves, in part constitute the very racism of which the conflict is one of many expressions. (p. 39)

Even artists, a group that routinely engages in personal reflection and frank discourse are not immune. Southern Exposure magazine ran a cover story about a solo-performance at the 1996 annual meeting of Alternate ROOTS, Inc., a southeast regional arts service organization. In the article, Arnow (1996) describes the problems caused by the performance titled Son of White Man.

The problem was not that performer Ed Haggard took off his clothes during his one-person show, a section he called 'I'm too white,' and smeared his body with blue paint. It was what he said while he was doing it. He said that if he had more color, he might have a sense of rhythm, a love of nature. He painted his genitals and said if he had more color he might be more virile.... He had performed the show about growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, to good reviews at fringe theater festivals across Canada and around the US. Last summer, when he tried it out at the meeting of grassroots performers and theaters, someone in the audience booed. No one had ever booed before. (p. 28)

This was not the first instance of a story backfiring in a performer's face. The incident that changed the organization actually occurred in 1987. That is when a White female performer took to the stage with a performance that took "the story of Moses and mixed it up with the story of Little Black Sambo" (Arnow, 1996, p. 29). Her performance was met by charges of racism from Atlanta based performers Pearl Cleage and Zeke Burnette.

The response to these incidents was unlike other organizations founded by White progressive activists. ROOTS did not distance itself from the problem, but instead embraced it with a sense of urgency and responsibility. The membership adopted strong language regarding the need to dismantle racism by making structural changes within the organization. They assumed the responsibility to make sure those who joined shared their common mission of social, economic and environmental justice in the South. A process of critical response was developed by dancer Liz Lerman and has been refined into a process to help talk participants through the difficulties of criticism. (1) The words of Margaret Baker, author of the Moses/Black Sambo piece sum up the problem we encounter at times around our stories. "I think what was so emotionally devastating for me was the people I wanted to defend I ended up offending" (Arnow, 1996, p. 30).

In the sixties, there was a saying among civil rights activists that if James Brown ever sang about the revolution organizing for social change would become easier. When Brown recorded I'm Black and I'm Proud it became the anthem for social justice activists and organizers across the country. Music, song, and story continue to play active roles in community-based art for social change.

Consider the recent Harvard University project, Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, headed by actor Anna Devere- Smith. Her performances include Fire in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Highlights: Los Angeles, 1992, stories gathered in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riot. Critics claim she has "created a new form of theater-a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie." This quote is from the brochure used to promote the Harvard Institute and attributed to comments made by the MacArthur Foundation when they awarded Devere-Smith a genius fellowship in 1996. Again, the media singles out one person as the "creator" of a process. In reality, Devere-Smith has brought to the attention of the public a time proven process that is commonly used by community activists and narrative artists.

The process of story gathering, whether the story circle or the talking stick, is among the tools used by activists and artists working at the community level. The process of story gathering is widely used to help create community-based art. Building on the ways activists work, artists have given birth to a new approach to deepen the connection between art and social change. This approach represents a natural stage in the development of a social justice artist. Bernice Johnson Reagon (1990) (2), a primary contributor to this approach to art and activism, believes that "socially conscious artists are not born. We are culturally oriented and trained" (pg. 1).

Connection to Conflict Resolution

The tradition of using stories to create community fusion is as old as the human race; indeed the oral tradition is universal. Philosophers and social scientists confirm that the telling and receiving of story addresses a basic human need to put forth our worldview about our individual and shared condition. The spoken word is an integral part of community building among all peoples. The spoken word is central to individual identity as well as group cohesion (Scimecca, 1990 see also Fisher, 1990).

Communication skills are very important to the success of any conflict resolution process. These skills are important for the intervener as well as for the people involved, especially if the process is to yield some measure of success. There are a number of uses assigned to stories in conflict resolution depending on one's orientation. How stories and narratives are viewed and used in conflict resolution depends on which story of mediation one accepts as the guiding principle behind the process. Robert A. Bush and Joseph P. Folger (1994) believe there are four versions of the conflict resolution story as: (a) a problem solving process, (b) a means to seek justice, (c) a possible system of oppression, or (d) a process that has the potential to transform the issues and individuals involved.

Anthropologist Laura Nader (1992) characterizes conflict resolution as a destructive search for the return to harmony in relationships, a form of forced social cohesion through the law. Nader insists that people deserve a system and a story that honors harmony and conflict in balance. For Nader, this includes the need for conflict resolution practitioners to understand that the guiding principles of their work do not begin with them but instead are in most cases borrowed from other cultures and other disciplines. Nader believes it is essential for those in conflict resolution to tell a story that balances conflict and harmony. This is necessary because "the legal problems that need creative new forms of administration of justice are those between people of unequal power" (p. 12). Nader thinks talking about doing something to correct social and political inequality is not adequate to bring about change.

John Burton (1990) explains conflict resolution as a series of benevolent actions. Burton insists that an essential part of beginning the process of healing deeply rooted conflict depends on finding new ways to express old issues while acknowledging and honoring the identity and worldview of marginalized groups. In order to achieve these goals, Burton (1990) and his supporters (3) advise peace advocates to learn more about how practitioners in other disciplines are working on these issues.

Within this challenging mandate, one of our tasks is to identify serious, innovative but less well known approaches that may bear further examination and to bring the insights from these approaches to wider circles so that fruitful dialogue among different perspectives is fostered. (pg. ix.)

Chapter Summary

There are three different stances in the field of conflict resolution around the use of dialogue and stories. The idealist, like Bush and Folger (1994), prefer to use stories as a means to inspire people to embrace change. The materialist, like Nader and Burton, want to demonstrate to the people how their stories are a roadmap to affect change on the issues. Somewhere in-between is the social change artist who views story as part of an internal dialogue that helps us to order our world and theorize about the possibility and potential for change. For if we refuse to resort to violence as a means having our needs met, then we must turn to our stories to make our need for social change known to and understood by others. Nevertheless, in order to justify more talk, our stories need to connect us to others. My interest is in a story-based process of conflict resolution, and the role of the social change artist as compared to the role of the mediator or facilitator. Those who seek new and innovative processes know formal mediation is not the only way to address conflict.

Many who participate in my workshops are disabled, at risk, or alternative to the norm in some way. Nevertheless, they represent a broad spectrum of the American population. Many others are adults with an interest in creativity and a desire to learn from the arts processes that could aid them as they strive for social justice. Along the way, I struggle to understand how to enrich in qualitative ways my vocation of teaching poetry as literacy and empowerment, and my use of personal/political narratives to draw out personal/political stories of others. The goal is to understand a range of uses for story and storytelling in seeking alternative paths to social justice and conflict resolution.

The intended audience for this research includes practitioners in peace studies and mediators who are interested in incorporating the arts into a community based conflict resolution program. Also, artists who are doing social change work and seek additional insight into the connections between how they intuitively practice and the theory that informs their practice. I hope for an audience among emerging artists who have an interest in community-based art for education and/or mobilization for action.

The major questions guiding this research are: (a) How does the telling and hearing of stories contribute to restructuring social, political, and interpersonal relations; and (b) In reporting on racial conflicts, what accounts for the dominance of the official story over the stories of observer/participants?

  • Chapter 2 - Literature Review: Story in an arts context, in American culture, in mediation
  • Chapter 3 - Stories of Tulsa (Needs Assessment)

Published in In Motion Magazine October 7, 2001.

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