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Fail Better Soon: Cultural Integrity

Fail Better Soon is a series of posts I will write about times I failed. Failure teaches us. Failure makes room for growth and connection.

“We need radical honesty—learning to speak from our root systems about how we feel and what we want. Speak our needs and listen to others’ needs. To say, “I need to hear that you miss me.” “When you’re high all the time it’s hard for me to feel your presence.” “I lied.” “The way you talked to that man made me feel unseen.” “Your jealousy makes me feel like an object and not a partner.” The result of this kind of speech is that our lives begin to align with our longings, and our lives become a building block for authentic community and ultimately a society that is built around true need and real people, not fake news and bullshit norms.” Adrienne Maree Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good

I received a question at the Resident Residence Artist Talk that I wrestled with for over a month afterward. The question was, "What do you think, how do you think about authorship- telling someone's story that is not your own?" Before the artist talk began, I prepared myself for receiving hard questions. I was open to answering...and failing at answering, and had told myself to let folks see me wrestle or let folks see me trying.

I can't remember what I said, exactly. I remember mentioning that this thought has crossed my mind many times. I remember mentioning a CMS book discussion I had attended where similar questions were asked of the author of the book entitled Tobe. I remember that the answer I gave was incomplete and in process. I remember the feeling of being caught red handed. Was the question meant to trap me? I remember a sense of disconnect with the question. "How am I not related to this story? How is this story not my own?" I remember feeling singled out. "The artist over there tells stories of women, as a man. The artist over there tells stories of gun violence, but hasn't been a gun violence victim. "

The questioned gripped me tightly. I waded through those feelings and kept wrestling with the question. Out of the questions came a lot of other questions: What are the spoken and unspoken rules here? What identities are valid here? Is it only racial identity that indicates connection to an issue, culture, or context or is there more? What does it mean if an artist can only tell their own story? What would that mean for the artist who is prophet or people power builder? How could I have done a better job from the outset to portray my connection to the story so that this question would not be asked?

The follow up to the artist talk was positive. Folks were saying kind words. There was a QC Nerve article that quoted me. I felt ok about the things that were written. There was also a podcast published about the event. It, too, was positive. I took my inner wrestling to outside conversations. I talked with Greg, QC Family Tree Staff, other Artist Change Agents, and friends about the questions gripping me. Everyone had positive and affirming things to say to me. The kind words and affirmations did not release the question's grip.

Things may change, but for now I've settled in to a relationship with the question. It goes like this: Dear Question, I know I need to keep you within my eyesight. And I know I need to always be challenging myself. I also know, Question, that you do not know all of my identity or relationships. Question, you made some assumptions about me before you knew me; assumptions about my relationships, context, social status, and connectivity. I think it is fine for you to make those assumptions. But because you assume them does not make them true. I must suss out for myself whether I am working from a place of right relationship and context. And I will continue to do so.

Now that I've had ample time to wrestle, I have come across a set of questions that get at the same issue. If I had to ask this question of myself and other Artist Change Agents, I might ask the following questions: (Resource: Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change)

  • How have you and stakeholders explored or analyzed the relationships of power, privilege, and cultural context within the process of making the work?

  • How do the people affected by the work have agency to intervene in its development and act on their own behalf?

  • What history and relationships do you have with the knowledge, traditions, and practices they are engaged in?

  • If you are not of the community or culture in which the work is rooted, how are you dealing with the questions of privilege?

I'm glad I was asked and I'm glad I wrestled. I'm grateful for this moment of vulnerability and failure (big or small). And I'm hopeful for the ways in which this struggle will help me to be more whole and authentic.

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