Virtual Visionaries Week 10: Engaging Communities

About the Authors

Pianist, scholar, and educator, Dr. Leah Claiborne, promotes diversity in the arts by championing piano music by Black composers in her performances, research, and teaching. Dr. Claiborne received her undergraduate degree from Manhattan School of Music where she received the Josephine C. Whitford graduation award. She received her Masters of Music and Doctorate of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Michigan. Dr. Claiborne currently teaches piano and Music of the African Diaspora at the University of the District of Columbia

Sydnie L. Mosley is an artist-activist and educator who works in communities to organize for gender and racial justice through experiential dance performance with her dance-theater collective Sydnie L. Mosley Dances. She is a Bessie Award-winning performer who danced with Christal Brown’s INSPIRIT, improvises with the skeleton architecture collective, and continues to appear as a guest artist with the Brooklyn Ballet. Among her recognitions and funding, she received a special citation from Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray for using her talents in dance to fuel social change. An advocate for the field, she sits on the Dance/NYC Advisory Committee.

From Leah:

Breaking Points, Breakthroughs

Every person has a breaking point. These are the moments in your life where you make a decision that you will no longer continue to accept the current state of events. One of those breaking points for me came at an unusual time in my academic career, but nonetheless, it became the most pivotal and perfect time for reaching a breaking point, or should I say, breakthrough. 

In 2015, I began the DMA program at the University of Michigan in piano performance and pedagogy. It was also the same year that Freddy Grey was murdered in Baltimore. Baltimore: my family’s pride and joy of a city. Freddy Grey was murdered for being Black in Baltimore. This truly “hit home” for me, and although I was outraged and wanted to join my friends in protests, I had to take a moment of pause to ask myself, “what abilities do I even possess to effect some form of change to address the racial disparities of Black people in America?” My breaking point with toiling with the challenge of how to create impactful change became my breakthrough.  

For me, I knew I had to focus my time and talents on uplifting the next generation of Black youth through a vehicle that was true to me- music. More specifically, piano pedagogy. Through the wonderful support of my advisor, Dr. John Ellis who was Dean of partnerships and the mentorship of Dr. Willis Patterson, founder of Our Own Thing Music Program, I created a community piano program that allowed youth in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to come to the University of Michigan SMTD to study classical piano music for free each week while also learning about the important contributions that African American composers have had in the field of classical music. 

At the time, I felt that I wanted to give whatever talents I possessed to make an impactful change in the community that I currently lived in- and I believe that absolutely happened. Students in this program grew and expressed themselves each week in some of the most powerful ways that solidified my quest for becoming a pedagogue. 

Now looking back, I realize what I actually was doing was creating a space and a world for the next generation that did not exist for me.  

I never grew up having teachers who looked like me, nor did I study music by composers who looked like me. While attending the University of Michigan with all of its wonderful faculty, not a single faculty member for any of my classes was Black, nor were there any other Black students enrolled in the classical piano department during my six years of study at this institution. I desperately needed to allow the next generation to know that there are people who look like you who have done incredible life changing work in this field of classical piano music. I needed these students to know every week that they belonged in this space, at this school, in this community, in this world. Finally, I needed these children to know that whatever rooms they walk in throughout their lives, they have a beautiful voice that deserves to be heard. 

When I think about the word “Visionary” I believe it is a term we all have the ability to possess. For me, a visionary is someone who can see a brighter future and acts in the present as if that future is now. We all must take our talents and gifts and act now because America has passed its breaking point. I believe what we are experiencing right now in this country is the realization that America has reached its breaking point, or dare I say, breakthrough. What an incredibly pivotal and perfect time for all visionaries to act- and we must act now. 

From Sydnie:

Sydnie L. Mosley Dances (SLMDances), the dance-theater collective I founded and run, found our footing in our art-making practice creating community-engaged and accountable works. Our mission — to work in communities to organize for gender and racial justice through experiential dance performance — began to manifest in 2011 when we started developing The Window Sex Project. Born out of my own desire to walk down the street and not feel like I was being “window shopped” like a mannequin or other sexual object on display, I used my dance-making practice to organize amongst young adult women in my Harlem neighborhood to create space to share our stories, celebrate our bodies, and offer one another resources and strategies to assert our humanity and liberation in public space. 

Since developing The Window Sex Project, I have embarked on an ongoing journey of deepening my practice as a community-accountable artist. Here are five points of consideration that I follow when moving from idea to action with any community-engaged art project, along with some resources that have helped me think more deeply about each.

ONE: An Invitation

adrienne maree brown teaches us that “Relationships are everything.” SLMDances only considers art-making in communities that we have a personal stake in, or where we have been explicitly offered an invitation to collaborate. We understand ourselves in relationship to those various communities that we are rooted in; we nurture and remain accountable to them through collaboration. Any community we engage with is involved at every level of process. We believe that mutually beneficial partnerships are the mode to serve and uplift the needs and wants of all those involved. 

To learn more about entering communities with integrity engage with Urban Bush Women’s EBX: Entering, Building and Exiting Community Workshop and Summer Leadership Institute

TWO: Deep Listening

Ebony Noelle Golden introduced me to the idea of deep listening. She says: 

“Deep listening is a whole body process.  It is a type of fact gathering that requires cultural organizers commit to a community’s cultural practices for an extended period of time.  Deep listening requires multiple conversations, community walks, interviews, meditation, and cultural participation without judgment, recommendation, evaluation or expectation.”

As a movement artist, I have developed a physical practice so that I know what it means in my pores and nerve-endings to listen to community with my whole body. When you are a community artist, it is as if you are navigating your collaboration with eyes closed. You don’t move until the community moves you; until you feel their touch, nudge, pull, push. You are in total consideration of their needs and concerns. Based on your participatory listening, what do you know they want and need? Sometimes community will move in a way that you hadn’t planned for or in a way you were not interested in going. You can follow the impulse and see where the work takes you. If it’s not for your leadership and skill set, pass the work onto others who are better equipped to follow community needs/requests and be in dialogue about how/when/why your collaboration with the community needs to transition.

Where do we start getting immersed in community? Try the Community Mapping Workbook by The Laundromat Project.

THREE: Asset Mapping & Resource Sharing

As artists, part of what allows us to create is who is in our networks and the resources we share with one another. This way in which artists often function can model a utopia of mutual care and aid for our communities. Working from a place of abundance, we already have everything we need. 

We understand that money is not the only resource. If you consider what resources you REALLY need, you might come to discover you don’t need money for event space rental, when in fact a collaborator has access to event space and can offer it to you free of charge. 

We understand that those who hold positions of leadership in formal structures (i.e. the Executive Director of an organization) might not be the most important stakeholder or person who holds the most power to get your work done (i.e. the custodian with the keys to let you in the building).

As an art maker, it is also urgent to consider how your skills in your practice lend itself to working on this particular project. As a dancer, I am always asking: How is this work embodied? What tools do I have as a mover that may be essential to this work? How can dances do the things we need them to do? How can my dance practice not just present a problem, but creatively solve a problem?

Mapping your assets and engaging in ongoing processes to exchange resources is essential to meeting the needs of all collaborators. Check out this resource for Asset Mapping by Diane Dorfman. 

FOUR: Collaboration in Project Design and Execution

It is essential to define shared values, objectives, and communication practices when relationship building with community members. This means defining and clearly articulating your own values before entering into conversations with collaborators to see where your values intersect. SLMDances begins all of our work with an articulation of our values: Dreaming, Humanity, Community, Activism, Learning, and Transparency. We have found that naming our values upfront helps us to engage in healthy collaborations more frequently. Shared values often leads to clearly defining shared objectives to fulfill mutual missions. 

Next, no partnership is functional without the definition of roles and clear communication. How do you make decisions? How is everyone involved in the making? How is feedback facilitated? What are your boundaries? One of my favorite rules of thumb is that everyone has a job. There is space for everyone to contribute and in fact, the work will be better when we are working collectively. Defining the processes for working together as a collective are just as important, if not more important, than executing the project itself. 

Take a look at this Interpersonal Communication Rubric to dig deeper into your communication practices. 

FIVE: Sustainability

How have you and your collaborators defined success? What is the life of the project beyond its first iteration? What are your plans for evaluation and assessment? How are you documenting the process throughout? How will you maintain an archive of your documentation? These are just a few questions to consider for the sustainability of your work. 

For SLMDances, the projects we choose to engage in are long term — whether it is responding to sexual harassment in public spaces with The Window Sex Project, or addressing economic justice in the NYC dance field through our work BodyBusiness. We are clear that sustained, responsive creative practice for the socio-political issues we are invested in will strategically move our communities toward a more liberated and just world for us all. 

Want to hear more?

Join Leah, Sydnie, and the EXCEL Team this Thursday, August 6th from 5-6 PM EDT via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

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