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ILI reflections: part 1, Jackson, Mississippi

Updated: May 29

The Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) is a year-long intensive leadership program for artists, culture bearers, and arts practitioners. It is a collaboration of Alternate ROOTS, First Peoples Fund, NALAC, PA’I Foundation, Sipp Culture, First Alaskans Institute, and The International Association of Blacks in Dance. These organizations founded ILI based on their experiences with leadership programs that prioritized dominant cultural norms, which conflicted with their commitment to cultural equity. ILI's intercultural approach emphasizes shared experiences, mutual accountability, and the challenge of dominant social norms while honoring diverse histories and traditions. It aims to develop leaders in the arts and culture field who can respond to significant societal changes. As a peer cohort, ILI leaders enhance their personal and professional skills to impact local, national, and global communities, promoting greater awareness, resources, and action in the arts and culture sector.

As a member of the fifth cohort of ILI, I participated in monthly meetings and three cultural intensives alongside twenty four other creatives across the country. My experience in the cohort was challenging and enriching.  It taught me a lot about myself, others, other cultures, and ways of relating across cultural differences.  The following is a written scrapbook of my experience: a collection of quotes, observations, and reflections from ILI cohort 5 from my perspective.

After Cultural Intensive Week in Jackson, Mississippi

“Do what you can with what you have where you are.” Frank Figgers

Carlton Turner’s reflections on the word “resilience”:  “Resilience is a word used to describe folks and claimed by those to mean resourceful.  Also a word used as an excuse by people in power to exert power and divert attention from the problem.  We don’t need to parse the word or find a new word, we have to be honest about who’s using the word and for what purpose.”

“If you don’t have access to power, tell the truth.  That is your power.” Jeffery Darensbourg

“Culture Bearers demystify ‘complex’ subjects that really aren’t that complicated.” Tufara Muhammad

At church on Sunday, the children sang a song with the following lyrics:

What you gonna do when your back's against the wall? How're you gonna smile when it seems all hope is lost? Tell me. What you gonna do when you need a little more grace? How you gone respond when they try to test your faith?  Hang On!

The children’s song made the complex simple.  They spoke Howard Thurman’s wisdom into the room and ignited our imagination about what is possible.

Theologian, Howard Thurman, coined the phrase “backs against the wall” in his theological writing.  The idiom “backs against the wall” became more commonly used after WWI as a metaphor for war, violence, and oppression. There are other theologians that have used the phrase, but Thurman is most known for his writing on this subject and theme.  Howard Thurman was a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a civil rights leader, writer, mystic, and pastor.  In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, he posed the question, “What is the significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall?” Thurman did not shy away from naming the economic, social, or political powers that had advantage over others who do not have such power. Thurman describes the hounds of hell: fear, deception, and hatred. These evil forces “dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited.” Though Thurman addresses external forces of injustice, he emphasizes the inner power and spiritual discipline necessary to overcome them.

When we encounter a complex problem, we must address it with a multiplicity of complex solutions, strategies, and tactics.  Thurman provides tactics- disciplines, methods, techniques for overcoming complex social issues. The collective body he is addressing is “the disinherited,” folks who have in common the experience of oppression and injustice. To this collective, he gives communal tactics: name the evils, diagnose them so well that they cannot overtake you; resist the dominant narrative, hold on tightly to being made in the image of God; do not deceive yourself or others; with the power of the Spirit the disinherited can overcome the evils of the hounds of hell. 

“Becoming architects of public policy.” (Tufara)  

“Shifting the material reality.” (Turner)

Carlton Turner: “The exploitation economy does not leave the land.  You can see it in the policy.”

“The essence of what it means to own your own labor has not come to Mississippi yet.  The policy may have changed and yet the culture, essence, and conditions haven’t changed yet.” Figgers

Artists and cultural workers sustain their livelihood through their craft.  To put it simply, Culture Bearers need increased opportunities to be paid; to exhibit and sell their work. Culture Bearers also need to make connections with other artists and supporters of the arts.  When Culture Bearers are able to meet basic needs- such as housing, food, healthcare, and transportation- they are better able to creatively and positively impact the community.  In my work at QC Family Tree, Culture Bearers come together to share their art and organizing, learn about others’ work, and build strong local networks of holistic support. QC Family Tree supports culture bearers by providing Time and Space to Practice the craft,  Exhibit their art, Increase access to Social Capital and Collaboration, and offers opportunities for Skill Share and Relationship Building.

After visiting Sipp Culture, I am inspired for QCFT culture beares to go deeper.  We have been working with the city to create the city design plan for our corridor.  Because of this work, we have access to stakeholder feedback regarding the assets and needs of the community.  In the next year, I hope to rally the culture bearers around this information and to see what parts of the input and city concepts can be facilitated and designed by the culture bearers within our community.  I’m excited and reinvigorated by this fresh perspective that I received while at Sipp Culture.

Bearing Witness: Seeing and Being Seen ~Helms

People from all across the country gathered in Jackson, MS to learn about the cultural organizing and history there.  The cohort is very diverse- all folks who are doing liberation movement work coming from all sorts of faith, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, geographies, and races.  I am accustomed to being in settings where, as a white person, I am the minority.  Oftentimes, I am in these settings because of intentional choices I have made. I acknowledge that the option to be intentional about when and with whom I am a minority indicates my privilege and power.  Being a minority within the framework of the Cultural Intensive experience is an honor and something I do not take lightly.  I have yet to prove my trustworthiness to the cohort members. I feel heightened sensitivity and awareness of the internalized whiteness within me and how it is projected or expressed in the group.

“The self and the other are in close relation to each other.” Alexis McGrigg

Though we have met on zoom, this was our first in person meeting.  Most of us had never met each other before.  We were not only getting to know one another, we were also engaging in deep interrogation of the systems and norms of racism and oppression and we were all asked to do so from the foundation of our own cultural histories and practice.  The weekend experiences of relationship building, socializing, learning, exploring, and experimenting were so full at times that I felt a surprising amount of overwhelm. I got caught up with feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and fear. I found myself often turning inward and craving additional mental/spiritual/somatic tools for coping and healing so as to continue in the intensive from a place of wellness.  I’m still wrestling with why this came up for me in this way and what I can do to move through these feelings when and if they come up again within a similar context. I do not want to burden others with things I should carry on my own.  I continue to discern what is right to share and what is not.

“Embody the voice of the people who love you and feed you.” ~ C. Leigh McInnis

I found some folks within the cohort that were having similar experiences.  We found our way to each other as we shared inner turmoil related to mid-life crisis, fatigue, the challenge of making friends in such intense parameters, and finding outlets for authentic and appropriate reflection and self expression.  When I thought I might be the only one feeling a certain way,  I felt a sense of relief when folks would say, “I can relate.”  Touchpoints of gracious friendship helped me to recenter and ground myself.

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