Emissary Spotlight: #DareToImagine in New York City

October 26/2015


The USDAC’s NYC Field Office and friends were busy during #DareToImagine earlier this month. There were 16 Imagination Station events on the map. Among others, New York City folks hosted:


There were also several events where #DareToImagine activities were folded into larger contexts, such as Cultural Agent Betty Yu’s leading a “letter from the future” exercise at the Laundromat Project; another with Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts-New York as the final session of their citywide forum October 23rd at the Point in the South Bronx (NOCD-NY Co-director Caron Atlas serves as Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts on the USDAC National Cabinet); and another writing exercise at Bluestockings Bookstore, based on the prompt “Dare to Imagine: What if the U.S. wasn’t an occupier of Afghanistan but….”

Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard spoke with Betty and Caron about their #DareToImagine experiences: what happened, how did people respond, what is the impact?

Arlene Goldbard: Congratulations on opening the NYC Field Office! It looks like a lot is happening.

Betty Yu: I was a little nervous after our big Imagining in June and the smaller follow-up in East Harlem whether folks would be up for more, but they were really, really excited about #DareToImagine, so that helped it come together. It’s a really good group of folks in the Field Office. We have seasoned folks, and then we have folks who don’t consider themselves artists but are telling their own stories in creative ways and are  helping others do the same. This idea that everyone has the potential to be artful is really interesting. It’s allowed for a wide net for folks to really get engaged. We got them activated for #DareToImagine, which is really great for laying down the groundwork for future membership and partnerships.

Arlene: What came together specifically for #DareToImagine?

Betty: Folks really wanted to continue the theme of housing rights, gentrification, and the rise of homelessness in New York City, because they all go hand-in-hand. In the last month and a half, Mayor DeBlasio and the NYPD have waged an assault on homeless people. So folks really identified that as a clear thing they really wanted to address. A lot of the subgroups from the different boroughs met. Almost every single group mentioned the increased amount of police surveillance and police violence. So folks wanted to also focus on that.

The two #DareToImagine events that we ended up putting a lot of time into were one in West Harlem, which was with Brotherhood/SisterSol, and the other was in East Harlem with Picture the Homeless.

#DareToImagine with Brotherhood/Sister Sol

Also, I had been talking with Alex from JACK Art Center in Brooklyn because they’re a part of the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network. They are really aware of their own position as a new art center in a highly gentrified area. They really want to be a part of this conversation and not be seen as a gentrifier, which I appreciated a lot. We worked with them in this Afrofuturism teleporter station, because they had a series scheduled, “afroFUTUREqu##r.”

Then we did some more things centered on artists: with Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts-NY and another around a week of anti-war activities around the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan.

Arlene: I saw some of your letters from the future on the #DareToImagine site. They all began, “I though you’d be happy to know,” which I loved as a prompt.

Betty: That worked great. I was happily surprised by NOCD-NY’s and the Laundromat Project’s success of the discussion. People really wanted to continue discussing and we ran out of time. People were very, very thoughtful and obviously had been thinking about this a lot because the New York City—that is the overarching main issue that everyone is dealing with—as artists, as poor people, working-class folks. The idea that all of New York City is just becoming Disneyland.

There was this theme of “people see us as these rich artists,” but whether they were a person of color or not, it was the same: “all of a sudden you get labeled as artist, because you’re clearly looking artsy, you’re coming into a neighborhood…” But in both sessions, people said, “We’re barely getting by.” Most folks are holding down a gazillion freelance jobs and adjuncting or teaching, and barely making ends meet.

One working artist talked about struggling in New York City, holding down multiple jobs and freelancing and still making only $11,000 that year. Other artists acknowledged they are perceived as gentrifiers by long-time residents, and also talked about how they were struggling and need affordable housing too. One artist said, “You know, I need a place to live too. I am very much empathetic with people’s struggle around housing rights and affordable housing.”

So those nuances kept coming up.

Arlene: In that kind of a situation artists can be bridge people, translating in both directions, seeing if there is any potential for movement. And they are often not seen that way, often they’re put in one category or the other.

Betty: Yeah, that’s exactly what multiple people said. They were like, we’re allies, we really want to be seen as not the culprit. We are people who are advocates for these kind of things, but we are also part of causing the problem too.

Arlene: Is there a story that particularly comes to mind when you think of these #DareToImagine experiences?

Betty: The one story that keeps coming to mind is from the East Harlem activity. We’d worked together before and I was thinking the #DareToImagine event should be in the Picture The Homeless office. Lynn Lewis, the executive director said, “No we’ve got to take over the plaza because that’s ground zero where they’ve been beating on homeless folks and pushing them out.”

It was about 80 percent homeless folks at that event. Folks who had been kicked out returned when they heard music and the film playing and all this laughter, and the NYPD were nowhere to be found because the homeless really fought hard for a safe space from it and finally at the last day got it.

The look on the people’s faces was amazing, that they were actually able to claim the space. There was a speak-out session at the beginning and end. Story after story, it was heartbreaking. This one African American man who is in his late 70s, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, told us, “I need a home, I am a vet, I’m not taken care of.” He pointed to the fact that he had no shoes, just some paper around his feet. It brought tears to my eyes when he said, “Thank you so much for listening to my story and allowing me a platform. I never knew that there was a group like this or a space to tell my story. So that was really powerful to me.

The biggest thing now is building on that momentum. We’re going to have a big visionary kind of planning meeting the first weekend of November.

Arlene: You are doing great work there. I want to thank you on behalf of the USDAC.

Betty: The fact that you all are so open, supportive of how folks organize the Field Offices—I really appreciate that because for me, especially because this is New York City, I know it’d be different if it were Kansas or somewhere else. In New York City there are so many artists collectives, and it’s important to bring those together and have those conversations, but also to be a bridge between the artists’ community and those working on organizing work. And then the artists themselves figuring out how we use culture and the arts to help unleash people’s creativity. And through that, bringing different communities together that often are isolated from each other even though all it’s New York City. So, that’s why it’s exciting, and it’s really resonating with folks.

#DareToImagine with NOCD-NY

Arlene Goldbard: What connects Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts with the USDAC and #DareToImagine?

Caron Atlas: We love the idea of imaginative agency. A lot of what we’re doing is trying to shift the way people think, get out of a reactive mode and be in a proposing mode. Even our name—Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts—instead of complaining about cultural districts being artificial or not really including the people in their neighborhood, we decided to be what it should be: cultural districts that recognize what’s already there and build it up and strengthen it.

Arlene: How did you come to #DareToImagine?

Caron: An artist brought it to us—Ryan Gilliam, who’s part of our working group. She wanted to open up another circle focused on artists to look at some of these policy issues from the experience of artists’ practice, so she started up the NOCD-NY artist’s circle to complement the NOCD-NY core group of organizers, which had been going for about five years. All of us that were part of the Naturally Occurring Cultural District Alliance recommended some artists and one of them was Betty Yu, who’s worked with The Laundromat Project and with Arts and Democracy, which is my group, with Participatory Budgeting and others. She’s leading up the New York Field Office for the USDAC. At the second meeting, Ryan wanted to have artists really lead some kind of creative process and talk about their work and practice, so Betty offered to do #DareToImagine with the group. It was really amazing because such a powerful group of artists engaged in it. Betty and Ryan really led: I’m a cheerleader for it!

It brought people together for these powerful conversations using a cultural methodology. A lot of people are concerned about gentrification and displacement, so that was the theme. It gave people a way to talk about it that wasn’t a complaint session, it was about imagining how it could be different.

We called what we did “speed dating,” a kind short dyad where you share stories. Music was on, we walked around, and when the music stopped you find somebody to talk to. Betty gave us a prompt: one was to tell a story about a time you were displaced, another prompt was to tell a story when you were the displacer, and another one was what are you doing to try and shift it. I’m always amazed how you get so deep in that kind of thing. I found out so much about the people there that I never would know even if I went to hundreds of meetings with them.

I also guest-taught Kathy Engel’s class at NYU and I suggested we do #DareToImagine as a closing for the class. We went around a circle and everyone said what they dared to imagine. It was so hopeful and powerful; people went deep inside themselves with what they dared to imagine. I was inspired to do that because I was really moved when we ended a USDAC Cabinet meeting call and someone said “I #DareToImagine Utopia.” I was almost moved to tears because we don’t let ourselves imagine things like that.

Arlene: Thanks so much, Caron, for being a such a heartfelt and steadfast part of turning that around!