BWW Feature: THE HUMAN JOURNEY: CREATING THE STORY OF US at The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
Our hearts were in our hands and our ancestors were on our shoulders by the time Eric Liu delivered his closing remarks. The day's words had washed over me like incantations: I felt energized, connected, and profoundly ready. But Liu knew we were about to leave this incubator of ideas, get on the metro, and confront the insidious ways our city asks us to dehumanize each other daily. "What does it mean to reckon with the true meaning of citizen artistry?" he asked. "What if we committed to the radical act of full body listening? What if, in that crowded metro we dared to ask ourselves, 'Do I really hear you, do I really see you, and do I recognize your humanity?'"
Liu, the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, was one among many thought leaders convened to investigate the power and potential of stories to reframe our world view. The 2019 Kennedy Center Arts Summit, The Human Journey: Creating the Story of US, explored, unpacked, layered, and spun questions like "How do more inclusive and diverse stories-stories beyond the dominant narrative-help build a more equitable society?", "How can radical listening foster empathy and 'stitch' together the tears in our social fabric", and "How can we use storytelling as an art, a tool, and a strategy for moving us forward?" The day-9am to 7pm-moved fluently through three parts: INSPIRATION, a morning filled with dynamic conversations, performances, and keynotes with artists and experts, EXPLORATION, deeper dive breakout sessions, and ACTION, performances by exceptional artists and performers including the Kennedy Center's brilliant 2018-2019 Citizen Artist Fellows.
In the words of Dave Isay, president and founder of StoryCorps, "How cool, a morning and an afternoon hanging out and talking about storytelling. I've been around for a long time and I've never heard of that before."
The day began with a heartbeat.
The Uptown Boyz, an indigenous Powwow drum group based in Washington, DC welcomed us to the native lands of the Piscataway Indian Nation with Powwow, an inter-tribal art form."Indigenous Welcome" was on the schedule in bold from 9-9:10am, but the Uptown Boyz's performance spoke in conversation with every question posed and every piece of art created throughout the day.
"For those of you who have lived here your whole lives and have never heard our names spoken out loud, welcome to this new way of understanding the land that you walk on," said a member of the group, before cueing the Uptown Boyz to begin. "The drum," he said, "represents the heartbeat of our mother earth. It's the first thing we all hear as soon as we become conscious."
The invitation was beautifully layered: we were both challenged to engage in a new way of thinking and welcomed into the universality of the human experience. A standing ovation was the only way to convey our thanks.
Welcome remarks by David Rubenstein, Deborah Rutter, and Mario Rossero, (Board Chair, President, and Senior Vice President of Education at the Kennedy Center) grounded us again in place. These three extraordinary leaders and stewards of The Kennedy Center gave us a nuanced understanding of the impetus behind this year's Summit and a glimpse into how previous Summits informed and evolved thinking.
"I hope you didn't eat too much breakfast," Rossero warned. "This morning is intended to fill you up with ideas, with inspiration, and with questions." The morning was all that and more.
Just before the lights dimmed and the program took flight the woman next to me whispered,
"Are you an artist?"
"No, I'm an editor," I replied a little sheepishly.
And I might have been right. Except that, as Eric Liu and Vijay Gupta, violinist and social justice advocate, were about to so eloquently explain, we were here to talk about what it means to be a citizen artist. Liu delivered what felt like an artist's sermon, focusing our attention on the twinning of the two concepts embedded in citizen artistry and rooted in the heart of this Summit: the idea of the artist as citizen, embodied by the past and present Citizen Artist Fellows, but also the idea of the citizen as artist; that every act that a citizen takes, "showing up, recognizing and seeing one another, honoring the land and the space and the place that we walk on, recognizing the ways in which power flows equally and not equally, is itself a work of art."
The force of the ensuing INSPIRATION from artists, arts administrators, thought leaders, and experts gave citizens and artists in the room much to digest before lunch. Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, co-creators of the podcast Ear Hustle brought everyday stories of life inside prison from the edges to the center. Stephanie Foo, former producer at This American Life, gave us a snapshot of her experience with complex PTSD and implored us to reframe the way we view the traumatic experience: "it's not about moving on [from trauma], it's about moving with trauma." Ryan O'Connell, star, creator, and writer of the Netflix series Special explained, with charm and humor, that we don't have to have Cerebral Palsy to relate to his show and how rare and important it is for members of marginalized communities to have agency over the ways their stories are told. Hip Hop legend J.Period, a visionary musical storyteller, and Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling author, engaged explosively with the problematic nature of capital L literature and the poetry inherent in Rap and Hip Hop.
You can't have a day centered on the art of storytelling without invoking the nonprofit StoryCorps. In 2003, Dave Isay founded StoryCorps, whose mission is "to preserve and share humanity's stories in order to build connections between people and build a more just and compassionate world." StoryCorps interviews usually take place between two people who know and care for each other. A StoryCorps facilitator leads participants through the interview process, and at the end of the 40-minute recording session one recording goes to the participants and one is archived at the Library of Congress for future generations. Isay explained that in a StoryCorps booth, the microphone gives you the power to ask the questions you would never ask. Your ancestors are on your shoulder as you speak; somewhere in your consciousness you know that your great granddaughter may someday listen to this recording at the Library of Congress to hear the story of you. In Isay's words, "It's the opposite of twitter. You bring your best self to the booth."
Near the end of his presentation, Isay shared a series of troubling statistics about contempt across the political divide. 1 in 5 Democrats and Republicans agree with the statement that their political adversaries "lack the traits to be considered fully human." 20% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans think that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died. And 18% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans feel violence would be justified if the opposing party wins the 2020 Presidential election. Scary stuff.
StoryCorps is asking people around the nation with different political views to record an interview with each other in order to break down boundaries and remember our shared humanity in their new One Small Step initiative. If Isay's statistics made you squirm in your seat like they did me, sign up here. In the words of Mr. Rogers, "there isn't anyone you couldn't learn to love once you've heard their story."
The Deeper Dive Breakout Sessions in the afternoon read like the most sought-after classes in a college course catalogue: Expanding the Narrative, The Courageous Pursuit of Radical Listening, and Telling Stories: A Toolkit. Since I'm a sucker for an interactive session, I threw my hat in the ring for Telling Stories: A Toolkit led by Hanna Campbell and Jazlyn Pinckney of The MOTH, Emily Eagen, Sam Livingston, and Tiffany Ortiz of The Lullaby Project, and featuring Citizen Artist Fellow Rulan Tangen.
The MOTH's portion of the session was interactive, as promised, and as personal as you wanted it to be. In a storytelling exercise I looked Vijay Gupta straight in the eye and told him "I used to be a people pleaser, but I'm working on saying what I really mean so that I can better advocate for my needs." His face lit up, two arms went up for a double high five, and he thanked me for sharing. He shared with me his version of the sentence frame "I used to be...Now I'm...", but I have to admit I was too star struck to remember. So much for radical listening.
At the start of The Lullaby Project's workshop, teaching artist Emily Eagen asked us to think about the first time we were sung to and, of course, share out if we were comfortable. A woman two chairs down from me told a vivid story of her father singing a lullaby to her as a child, and then holding him in her arms as he passed while she sang the lullaby back to him. The whole room took a collective breath. Musical memory leaves a mark.
Carnegie Hall's the Lullaby Project pairs pregnant women and new mothers across the country with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies, reaching healthcare settings, homeless shelters, hospitals, high schools, foster care, and correctional facilities. As we listened to a few examples of these musical stories, stories that carried such big wishes for these babies' futures, I felt wishes for my future children bubbling to the surface. All day I had been living in the past, grappling with storytelling and memory, and all at once I felt the force of the power of storytelling to reach its tendrils into the future and animate life into being.
I only wish I could have been in three sessions at once.
The act of listening and receiving is nothing without the dual act of creation. The late afternoon brought performances from incredible artists like Omar Offendum, Jason Reynolds, Lela Aisha Jones, and Justus Harris (among many, many others) to the forefront of the conversation. While receiving the work of these many citizen artists, I reflected. The day was a triumph, from start to finish. From the performers, artists, thought leaders, and experts, to the care and attention of the ushers in The Theatre Lab, to the elaborate breakfast spread, there was art in every detail.
As Eric Liu delivered his closing remarks, he challenged those of us in the audience to act. "Simply receiving is not giving enough," he said. "We must receive and recirculate; remix and transmit. We must remember that the human journey is the story of US: stories that we inherit, that we didn't want to inherit, traumas, triumphs, that we need to make sense of." We must root ourselves in the traditions of empathy, sympathy, and re-humanization embedded in the primal act of storytelling.
I wonder what we will make of this.
The Kennedy Center Arts Summit took place on April 29th, 2019 at the at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. To purchase tickets to future events, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.
Performers, Presenters, and Panelists included: Amy K. Bormet, Carnegie Hall Lullaby Project, Stephanie Foo, Vijay Gupta, Dave Isay, Mic Jordan, J.Period, Eric Liu , The Moth, Ryan O'Connell, Betsy Levy Paluck, Nigel Poor, De Nichols, Jason Reynolds, Julie Shapiro, and Earlonne Woods
All photos by Jati Lindsay
Photo 1 (from l to r): Vijay Gupta and Eric Liu
Photo 2 (from l to r): Rulan Tangen, Donney Rose, Justus Harris, Shaw Pong Liu, and Omar Offendum
Photo 3: Telling Stories: A Toolkit